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Pentecost and Creation

June 27, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, June 26, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
Psalm 104

Last Sunday we explored the well known story of creation from the first chapter of Genesis. Today we take up another of the Bible’s creation stories.

[read Psalm 104]

The 104th Psalm is one of the most beautiful expressions of the Biblical love for creation.  It is a hymn of praise, through Israel extols God as its creator and celebrates the beauty of the earth as God’s handiwork.

Pull out your pew bibles.  Let’s take another look at this precious text together.  For those of you who like your theology neat and tidy, this is your lucky day. The Psalmist reassures us that God has control over chaos by the way the Psalmist addresses all aspects of creation in an orderly fashion; carefully relating God to each element.  In his book Songs of Tragedy, Hope and Justice, J. David Pleins, who has taught me so much about how to read the Psalms, describes how Psalm 104 can be divided into five sections.

In the first part of the psalm, the psalmist begins by reflecting on the greatness of God, witnessed in the larger elements of creation: the sky, water and clouds (Ps. 104:1-3). Against this backdrop God “established the earth on its foundations; it will never be moved” (Ps. 104:5). The psalmist goes on to speak of the creation of mountains and valleys by the “rebuke” and “thunder” of God (Ps. 104:7).

In the second part of the psalm, beginning with verse 10, God is said to have brought forth wild beasts and birds.  The grasses grow for cattle (Ps. 104:14). On the basis of Genesis 1, which is so similar to this psalm, we undoubtedly expect the creation of humans at this point.  But instead, the psalmist presents us with a litany of those items that bring life and good cheer to the human palate, namely wine, oil and bread (Ps. 104:14-15). Trees, mountains, and crags fill out the landscape (Ps. 104:16-18).

The third section of the psalm, verses 19-23, recounts the function of the moon and sun. Poetically, night becomes a time for the forest animals to roam and for the lion to roar in search of prey, whereas the day is the time for human labor.

In the fourth section of the psalm (Ps. 104:24-30) … the world of nature not only sings to God but also opens us to the God who is our provider and caretaker, the one who gives life and takes it away.  The purpose of all God’s creative acts is the renewal of the world (Ps. 104:30).

[Finally,] the fifth section of the poem, verses 31-35, leaves the speaker in a posture of worship, singing the greatness of God. In the end, the worshiper takes up the chorus of praise that begins in creation but which now carries on in the voices of the worshiping community.

As Pleins concludes, “Our task as worshipers of God is to let creation continue to sing, but this means that worship must be combined with an active concern [to care for the earth,] to renew creation.” This is the theology of the psalm.

Yet, according to the late Reformed theologian Dorothee Soelle, Biblical faith did not arise from the belief that God created the world. It came from the historical experience of liberation.  For our ancestors, the Exodus from Egyptian slavery was the event that revealed the hand of their God.  To experience the God who hears the cry of the oppressed, who enters history in order to lead us into freedom, who gives order and life to our relationships through law and liturgy – this was, this is, the beginning and the shape of Biblical faith.

The belief that the God who liberates us is also the one who created us is, historically speaking, a relatively late development.  The Jewish priests, who wrote the Genesis stories, and most likely this Psalm, were actively interpreting the Exodus story, the story of liberation, and applying it to the creation of the world.  Their idea, which is a profound one, was that we were created to thrive together, live together, and worship together in freedom.

And as creationism makes a comeback in twenty-first century classrooms and in so-called intelligent design theory, we would do well to remember this freedom. Biblically speaking, to have faith in God our Creator does not mean we close our minds to the fascinating and important scientific study of human origins.  The Bible and evolution are not enemies.  Rather, faith in God our Creator means to trust that we were created for the very freedom to which God calls and leads us—freedom that includes intellectual freedom. If, as the writers of the bible intended, the creation stories are an interpretation of the Exodus faith, then we were made to serve God’s historical project of making all people free.

And not only all people, but the land as well!  Listen to the prophet Hosea, detailing the results of our failure to live as God intends:

There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing.
(Hosea 4:1b-3)

According to Soelle, “The biblical memory of liberation includes not just oppressed people, but also oppressed lands and creatures.” Creation mourns, and suffers, from our failure to live as God’s people.

Each year as we enter the season of Pentecost and celebrate the Spirit’s gifts of new life and freedom, and as we celebrate the birth of the church as the community God’s witnesses, it seems that we naturally focus on the renewal of human community.  We baptize and confirm young people as active disciples, and celebrate the completion of God’s redeeming work through Jesus Christ.

But it is imperative that we remember that Jesus redeems not only human beings, but the whole creation, and that the Church’s work includes Earth Care.  Psalm 104 reminds us that the Spirit’s coming has implications, not only for our own lives, but for the life of the whole cosmos.  The Spirit not only brings unity or reconciliation among the followers of Jesus, but brings to birth a whole new heaven and a whole new earth where the former things of exploitation and degradation are no more.  And that same Spirit creates a space for God’s new work of freedom – not only in our midst, but in the expanse of the sky, the crags of the mountains, the dance of the grasses and the snorting of cattle.

Last Sunday we built a beautiful Eden up here in the chancel, full of animals and trees, as we re-told the story of Creation from the first chapter of Genesis. We told the children that we were created to care for one another and all living things. We told them that when we live as God intends, we join with the angels of heaven (portrayed in our great stained glass window) – those “Cherubim and Seraphim who continually do cry Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” – singing God’s praise. (text difficult to make out in this photo)

Today we further understand that we also join the great Song of Creation.

We concluded our service last week by remembering our baptisms; our baptisms, through which God called us and claimed us as God’s own, to be witnesses to God’s love active in the world. The children handed each of us a small blue bead, like a drop of water, which could serve to remind us that we are children of God.

Today we have baptized another young one, Austin James, as a child of the covenant.  Our promise is that we will not only tell him the stories of our faith, and demonstrate to him the way Christians live together and practice their faith, but that we will help him see and recognize the work God is doing ‘out there’ in the world, sustaining, redeeming, and yes even re-creating our world. We need to help Austin see what God is doing in the world, so that he can be a part of it.

And thus, in the words of the Psalmist, “The glory of Yahweh our God may endure forever!”

[For more information and ideas on how we can mobilize ourselves and the White Plains Presbyterian Church to greater care for creation, visit Presbyterians for Earth Care and my blog post from last week. To get connected to others at WPPC with a passion for Earth Care, or have suggestions of we might get involved in a project you are familiar with, contact me at pastorgeary@optonline.net]

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