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God-Like Power – Ocean Sunday

September 6, 2016

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 4, 2016. September 1 was proclaimed as the World Day of Prayer for Creation by the Orthodox Church in 1989, and many other Christian churches have joined since then, with Pope Francis most recently in 2015. It was then extended to be a month-long Season of Creation, ending on October 4 (Feast of St. Francis). This is our third year observing the Season of Creation. On this Sunday particular we worshiped with the oceans of Earth, created by the Wisdom of God. We joined the Psalmists and called the sea to roar with songs of praise. We sang with the seven seas and celebrate the wondrous creatures of the watery deep. With our Creator, we rejoiced with whales, dolphins and other ‘sea creatures.’ With the Spirit, we groaned with animal species and humans that are suffering from our human acts of pollution, destruction and climate change.

 Psalm 104:24-30         Job 38:1-18

Our second scripture reading this morning brings us the voice of God, addressing the aggrieved Job, from out of a whirlwind. I am actually disappointed that we do not have the mighty winds of Hurricane Hermine as a backdrop this morning, as God challenges and awes Job with the power of creation.

[Read Job 38:1-18]

About a year ago I preached my first, ever, sermon on Job. I did so to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking book The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation. McKibben is a writer, environmentalist, United Methodist Sunday School teacher, and the founder of 350.org. With seventy-three pages of elegant prose, Bill describes Job as a frustrated man, up against an orthodoxy he can no longer believe in (the good always triumph, evil is inevitably thwarted), but Job is surrounded by a society that continues to insist that its accumulated “wisdom” on these matters is the only truth. Job is only liberated, finally, from this worn out wisdom by being given a “whirlwind tour” of all creation – with God as the tour guide.

Job, of course, had questions. Don’t we all? Job’s questions were good questions, questions to keep one up at night. But God does not explain to Job why the innocent sometimes suffer or the wicked prosper, why some die too young, why trouble seems to seek some out while others seem immune.

God simply appears in a whirlwind and reminds Job that he, Job, is not God. God is. And with biting sarcasm, which you no doubt heard in our text today, God overthrows the idea that human beings are, or should be, at the center of God’s attention by reminding Job of the immense, beautiful, wild, sometimes frightening and occasionally grotesque creation that is the object of God’s love, a world – God’s world – of which human beings are but a part. Job learns that our doctrines about how God does, or should, work according to our very human ideas of justice and fair play are just that, our doctrines, and don’t begin to touch the wild glory of God-in-Creation. And so, in what Bill McKibben has called the first great piece of modern nature writing (chapters 38-41, but especially 41), the God of life, the God of all life, SPEAKS, and Job is introduced both to a God and a created world he never knew. 

The entire Book of Job is, in fact, an invitation to both humility and a profound joy, a taking to heart of the great mystery that we are but small part of a much larger Creation, a Created World that was made not for us, but for the sheer pleasure of its Creator.

In Psalm 104, we heard that the oceans, the seven seas, were made in wisdom and manifest the glory of God for the pleasure of God. “Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.” Down below, deeper still, than the little ships used for human trade, is Leviathan, the great sea monster, who exists for no other reason than to play – I imagine it as the rubber duckie in God’s vast bathtub – there only for God’s enjoyment.

It is not that God does not care for human beings. God does; but in his encounter with God Job is reminded that we are made of the same stuff, the dust of the ground, as every creature on earth. (We, too, were made solely for God’s pleasure). And so Job learns the humility that is a proper part of our human vocation – to serve not just ourselves but the whole-of-this-world. Job encounters the Creator of the Natural World, and in doing so Job discovers a joy beyond human pleasure.

Well. That was then. This is now. While Job may have been comforted that only God could alter weather and fix the boundaries of the sea (or engineer new species – another fact God claims as an exclusive privilege), this is no longer the case, is it? Today we can do, and have done, all of this and more. We alter the weather, shape the boundaries of the sea, and preside at the origin of new species. Human-caused climate change is rapidly warming the ocean, melting the ice caps, and shifting the boundaries of the sea with rising water. In the New York Times yesterday, Justin Gillis wrote that

For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline.

Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun. The sea has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes.[1]

Warmer oceans mean a warmer atmosphere and more extreme weather. It seems we are now experiencing the legendary 500-year storm every couple of years. The sea not only overwhelms the land, as in Louisiana, but the “new normal” of alternating drought and flood is washing our soil out to sea. As for the creation of new species, GMO plants and animals can be found in every link of our food chain, and dominate our flower shops. We have assumed (or presumed) the powers that were once the exclusive preserve of God. We read the words that God spoke to Job from the whirlwind, and we easily respond “Been there, done that. What else have you got?”

Realizing how little we know and understand about creation was supposed to humble the arrogance and hubris of the being human. The words ‘knowledge,’ ‘know,’ ‘comprehend’ and ‘understand’ are prominent in God’s questions to Job.[2]

But we now know so much about the world that Job could not –Which is not to say that all human progress is negative. We are, after all, a congregation that celebrates, at least once a year, Science Sunday. Scientific endeavor has not only challenged old superstitions and increased human understanding but made our lives unmistakably better. And who would go back? But if the limits of knowledge were for Job an occasion for humility and joy, we now accept them a challenge. We face choices every day of what to do with our God-like power, choices Job couldn’t imagine. And with great power has come awesome new responsibility.

We need new kinds of reminders today of the precarity of our planet and our place upon it if we are to experience God speaking in the natural world.

Many of you know that I love to hike, to be out alone in the wildest places I can find, letting my thinking mind rest and letting my body and breathing lead the way up mountains and back down. Twice this summer, though, I found myself startlingly conscious that I was the guest in a place made for others: first, when I encountered a mother black bear and her cub foraging in Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and the second time in Parc Nationale de Jacques Cartier in Quebec, when I came upon a moose and her calf, grazing beside the trail.

When I first encountered the bears – and I would encounter a dozen during my hikes in Virginia – I was genuinely afraid. I know bears prefer to avoid human contact, a fact which offered surprisingly little comfort. On the contrary, I was acutely conscious of danger. Despite the well-worn trail I was following, this was their home and I was intruding. They were larger, stronger, and faster than me, and while I fantasized climbing a tree, I know they could reach the top of a tree before I could even pull myself up on a branch. I retreated, walking backward, as far as I could, and texted Noelle my location (just in case).  I took a book out of my backpack to try and pass the time, but couldn’t concentrate as every snapped twig and rustled leaf reminded me that there were bears nearby. I texted my sisters, one of whom asked if I had taken any pictures. I said that reaching for my camera was not my first thought.

When I came upon the moose, though, I was prepared. A French-speaking hiker from Korea coming down the path in the other direction had told me “I don’t know how to say. Big. Horse. But not horse.” I understood, and proceeded quietly and carefully. Seeing a moose while hiking was on my bucket-list. And it was majestic, six-and-a-half feet at the shoulder, silent, and obviously powerful. Of course, moose attack more people every year than bears do – especially in early summer when mothers care for their calves, and in the late fall when bulls try to mate. But I did not feel afraid. This cow kept her ears alert, and her eyes on me, always careful to keep herself between me and the calf. For 15 minutes we watched one another, and then I moved on, leaving her be. As I walked on, I gave thanks for the pure grace of our encounter.

This was my whirlwind. In both cases, bear and moose, I was reminded that this world was made for more than me, that any danger I felt was but the other side of a protective love great creatures have for one another. And some of that love rubbed off on me. I felt acutely, gazing into the eyes of the moose, a need to work harder to care for the wild places on our earth and in our oceans so that creatures like these can flourish in peace.

The earth, after all, belongs to God, and everything in it, the oceans and seas and all who live in them. We who exercise power over creation, must love this world with a force more powerful. We who have God-like powers, must nurture God-like LOVE so that we can enjoy peace like a river, joy like a fountain, and share love like an ocean.

[1] NYTimes, Saturday, September 3, 2016

[2] Season of Creation Commentary, online at Let All Creation Praise, by Lisa Schrade.

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