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Sermons

Creation & Catastrophe

July 03, 2011

Bible Reading

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

(Genesis 1:1-2:4)


Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

(Matthew 28:16-20)

Reading from Swedenborg

Our first state after death is like our state in this world, since we are then similarly involved in outward concerns. We have similar faces, voices, and characters; we lead similar moral and civil lives. This is why it still seems to us as though we were in this world, unless we notice things that are out of the ordinary and remember that angels told us we were spirits when we awakened. So the one life carries on into the other, and death is only a passage.

(Heaven and Hell #493)


The general opinion is that non-Christians cannot be saved because they do not have the Bible and therefore do not know the Lord; and without the Lord there is no salvation. We can know, however, that these people, too, are saved simply from the fact that the Lord’s mercy is universal, meaning that it extends to all people. Non-Christians are born just as human as Christians. . . . No one is born for hell. The Lord is love itself, and his love is a desire to save everyone. So he provides that everyone will have a religion, an acknowledgment of the Divine Being through that religion, and an inner life. . . . The Lord’s church extends throughout the whole world. It is universal, and consists of all people who live in the virtue of thoughtfulness according to the principles of their religion.

(Heaven and Hell #318, 328)

Sermon

This week 200,000 people entered the spiritual world in the wake of natural disasters: 130,000 in Burma from the cyclone and another 70,000 in China. My figure may end up being off, but the loss is no less profound for that.

I have been plagued by these events, as I am sure many of you have, whether it was the choked voice of a reporter’s grief and horror at the devastation or the simple picture from Time magazine of the body of a child floating face down in swollen river water, a blue cord tied around her ankle—that blue cord speaking of the lost love of a parent trying unsuccessfully to save a beloved child’s life.

It has plagued me, this incredible loss and devastation, perhaps even more intensely because it is so profoundly juxtaposed against our reality. It is a beautiful spring, my first spring in Maine in a lot of years, and it is a powerful and wondrous testimony to the life that courses through all of us when it bursts forth in the world in the form of apple blossoms and a million shades of green erupting from the brown death of the winter.

But as life erupts around us, there are places in the world where death is the meditation of the day. This pains and confounds me. And yet even in this cruel-seeming contrast I can see the creator’s hand and the reality of faith and spirit that dominate our existence.

Kahlil Gibran says that “pain is the breaking of our shell of understanding.” None of us escapes this life without our shell being cracked now and again. But in this pain, in the universal wails of the mother crying for her dead child, “deep,” as Scripture puts it, “calls out to deep”—and we in our own pain and understanding are challenged by the grief we see in pictures and hear through distant microphones.

In the scripture reading we are reminded of how good God says the creation is—that new abundance comes and is good, a goodness of profound magnitude, that all of creation was good. The deaths in Asia this past week speak to us of what seems an even more fundamental betrayal because it seems to flow from that very goodness of which we all partake. How can the very earth and sky betray us if they are good in God’s sight? And I think that is the heart of the challenge of these extreme days: to lift our sight closer to God’s sight, to see beyond ourselves to the wider vista that is in store. In this, I believe, we must begin to understand one of the fundamental truths about what evil really is: evil always takes the form of the personal, never the impersonal.

There is nothing malevolent or wrong or evil in the blowing of the wind or the shaking of the earth. Wind is just not that powerful. No matter how hard it blows, it may destroy houses and bodies, but it does not shape a person’s character or being. It does not come to do harm or bring joy. The earth does not shake with the intent of destroying buildings or lives. These natural processes exist so that larger processes that we may never see can be worked out, and in some ways we can’t know why they happen.

We cannot know the “why” because we still get a vote as to what the “why” will be. We still get a vote as to whether heaven or hell will become manifest on this earth in the only way that it can be: as a result of what we do and who we are, what we open ourselves toward. Grief and loss can make us bitter to the world and those around us, or it can make us more tender and caring because of the very pain we have experienced. The shaking of the earth and the blowing of the wind that took so many lives this past week cannot do the thing that is most necessary: find the meaning in these events. Only we have the power to do that, and in doing so we bring into the world the very power of night and day.

We see examples of this being played out in China. There are workers right now, this very instant, who are risking their lives by being at the base of damaged hydro dams to rescue the people trapped in the rubble. They escaped this tragedy with their own lives and now dare to put their own lives at risk for others. This is the heavenly act—“no greater love has a person than to lay down his life for his friends”—and that is happening, right now.

At the same time, in Burma, we see a military junta so terrified, so afraid of losing control, that they are allowing people devastated by this storm to die of disease and hunger by not allowing international aid to reach them. I was struck by one interview with Admiral Keating, the head of the U.S. military effort to bring aid to Burma. He mentioned how, in meeting with the generals of the country, he was continuing to try to “sell” the aid of food and water and medicine that would save the lives of the Burmese citizens. The Burmese government’s attitude is an example of the hellish mindset: that at all costs we must not lose control, we must not be open, we must not allow people into our sphere, no matter how much it might cost us and how much it might harm others.

The biblical creation story is so rich, as is Swedenborg’s treatment of it as a map of our own process in this world, that there is too much to say here. So I simply want to note two of the basic truths to which the creation story points.

First, this life, this existence, even on into the next life, is about process. It is about an unfolding of the hope that God has for us and is desperately trying to bring into our lives and the actual life we are living. The experience we are living out is not going to end. It isn’t going to be interrupted as we enter the next life, either. It is only going to be refined and deepened. And so in all of this we come to the very simple and profound truth that there are worse things that can happen to us in life than dying.

As George Dole is fond of saying and I am fond of stealing, the death rate in Bath has hovered around 100 percent for some time. No one here gets out alive. Well, actually, we do—we get out more alive than we have ever been. And so when we see the death of a child, yes, we mourn for the pain of the loss and that little person’s unrealized experiences and brief life, but we also must live out of the knowledge that she will go on to be raised to have exquisite experiences in the spiritual world and to become someone quite beautiful in her own right. Our process in this life is one that goes on into eternity.

This realization empowers us to step into the fullness of the next point: that at the end of every day during the creation of the world God declared that it was good. Many have accused the Christian faith of being otherworld-oriented, of spouting the idea that yes, it may be bad now, but in the sweet by and by everything will be OK, and that we just need to hold on until we get there. And while I do believe that this is true, I also believe that falling back on such a belief is a perversion of the gift of life that God has given us and the real call that God has for us in our lives and our world.

God labels every stage of the creation good, and we have it upon us to accept that reality and be a part of making it manifest. That is what “calling it good” means in the creation story. But how do we call the loss of 200,000 lives good? Even more personally, how do we call the injuries and attacks we have suffered in our own lives good?

By opening to the good that is somewhere contained within them, even if it is nothing more than an opportunity to love more deeply. Tragedies like the ones that have occurred this past week offer us profound opportunities to love and care for the survivors. Evil done to us offers us the opportunity to defeat that evil. Insult offers us the opportunity to bring heaven in so that hell may be defeated.

God’s creation is our creation in microcosm. For us to step more deeply into the realms of our own existence we must be able to look back at the stage before and say, “It is good.” It is a tall order, but one I believe is possible to fulfill if we remember constantly that this flesh-and-bones meat sack, this physical life, is not all there is, and that the grand task is really the task of the gospels—going forth and baptizing all the nations in the fullness of God. There are aid workers out there baptizing every person they meet with the love of God, and there are tin-pot dictators out there using their own fear and arrogance to channel the very depths of the hells. This is a dramatic moment on the world stage, and the suffering is unimaginably huge, but the questions being asked of those aid workers and those dictators are no different from the questions being asked of us, the questions we are commissioned to go out and live answers to.

Prayer

So live in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; live in the fullness of God on every level of being. Live out of love without fear or concern for the next life. Be a channel of heaven! Baptize all the nations. Sanctify and bless the world where you are. Amen.

Rev. Andy Stinson