Sunday, April 28, 2013
TEXT: Revelation 21: 1-6
A mournful Gospel hymn reminds us not to get too attached to this ol’ world:
This world is not my home. I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Science agrees that humanity may be just passing through. Some believe our survival as a species may depend upon our eventual ability to leave this earth to find a habitable planet elsewhere—in a new heaven and on a new earth. I’m guessing we are many centuries away from being able to relocate the human race. In the meantime, climate change or unintended consequences of biogenetics or nuclear holocaust could eradicate our own species and most forms of life.God knows we need to be doing all we can to prevent the death of this dear earth by our own foolish hands. But the truth is that even if we survive our own stupidity, violence, and selfishness, Planet Earth will not last forever. Perhaps earth will be destroyed by a rogue star named Gleise 710, predicted to enter our galaxy in 1.5 billion years.[i] If that doesn’t happen, it’s just a matter of time—a matter of an estimated 7.6 billion years—until our sun will expand to the point that it absorbs the earth.[ii] Maybe you’re not too worried about what might happen billions of years from now in circumstances we cannot prevent. After all, we need to focus on saving our planet from current threats we can address. My point is simply that scientific evidence concurs with the biblical vision that, one way or another, this world will pass away eventually.
Like modern cosmology, the book of Revelation holds out an apocalyptic vision of earth’s destruction. The penultimate chapter in Revelation envisions the ultimate chapter in earth’s history when the heavens, the earth, and the seas will cease to exist (Rev. 21:1,2). Thankfully, the hopeful biblical writer also imagines a NEW heaven and earth.
But let’s not give up on the old heaven and earth too soon. And what I really mean by that is let’s not misunderstand a hope for a new earth as a devaluing of this one. Let’s not actively or passively cooperate in destroying God’s handiwork. Let’s not be careless with one earth because we think God has an easy breezy back up plan. Let’s not forsake our sacred role as stewards of the earth because we think God has spare earths up his or her sleeve. Let’s not overly spiritualize and personalize the Gospel by seeing it, in Brian McLaren’s words, as “an evacuation plan” to a heaven far away, or as “fire insurance” from hell’s torture. The Gospel that Jesus offered is not about escaping from this world but about transforming it by the power of God’s loving spirit. The incarnation of Christ—Divine Love taking on human flesh—is a story of the Sacred permeating this physical plane of existence. The Christ event shows us how to give ourselves for the sake of this world—which God so loved.
This world is my home—and yours. In fact, the “new heaven and earth” are what we’re supposed to be co-creating with God. The “new heaven and earth” are a vision of what might be possible if we treat this planet as “the home of God” (verse 3). This “new heaven and earth” will be visible when God “dwell[s] with [us] as our God” (verse 3). How differently we will live if we truly grasp what it means to make of this earth a home fitting for God. Would we make God feel at home with us by harming what God created? By clear cutting forests? By polluting the air and water? By exploiting other human beings? By killing animals into extinction? By valuing profit over compassion? No. No more than you would welcome an honored guest in your home by serving poison at the meal and piling filth into the guest room. Once we learn how to make room for God in this earth, it will seem that the old earth passes away and we’ll be able to see a new earth because we’ve been able to live in a new way.
Maybe we can read the last book of the Bible most wisely by being grounded in the first. Genesis teaches that we are charged with caring for creation. Genesis teaches that all creation has been declared “good” by God. All creation is sacred. But other scriptures reveal commandments that protect the earth. For instance, the commandment to keep the Sabbath gives needed rest both to humans and to animals used for human labor. The earth is further protected by lesser known biblical instructions, including this odd injunction from Deuteronomy 20:19: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?” (Deut. 20:19). On first glance this verse seems more sympathetic to the trees than the humans. Written from the perspective of a warrior culture, this warning against destroying trees prevents short-term expediency (maybe cutting down the trees for a tactical advantage during a battle or simply displaying wanton rage) from preserving long-term benefits of nature. A new heaven and a new earth are possible if we see this earth as sacred. [iii]
The New Testament likewise declares the things of this physical world to be sacred. From the book of Acts we read today that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The context of that verse is a vision Peter had at a time when uncircumcised Gentiles were becoming part of the Church. Since the first Jesus followers had all been Jews, as was Jesus, the addition of Gentiles complicated their understanding of who and what was considered holy. In Peter’s vision, a sheet descending from heaven held “unclean” animals which Jewish dietary law forbids. Yet in this vision God’s voice directed Peter to eat them. Peter interprets this to mean that all that God has created is “clean.” (By the way, this story is not an argument against vegetarianism, which is a way to care for the earth.) Peter’s dream means that God has made this world clean, so we must not treat it as unholy. The way we treat creation has eternal consequences.
At the Trialogue’s most recent interfaith symposium, I spoke on the topic of Christian eschatology, the branch of theology that teaches about “last things.” I’d been invited to join two other colleagues, an imam and a rabbi, as we offered our respective religion’s eschatological perspective. I’d have preferred a different topic for a general audience who might assume the Bible predicts when the world will end. My “eschatology” emphasizes what is ultimate and what is lasting. The way we ask and answer these eschatological questions forms us psychologically, morally, spiritually. At its essence, Christian eschatology says that we come from God and we return to God. But I didn’t think I could say much in the fifteen minutes allotted me to counter the message of those silly Left Behind books and movies and the idea of a “rapture” concocted in the 19th and 20th century by fusing together a smattering of unrelated scriptures into a countdown for the End of all Time. So I boiled down Christian eschatology to this faith statement: I hold a deep trust that what is ultimate is good and what is lasting is love.
However, I wish I’d added one more thing: Despite the words to a traditional spiritual that says “This world is not my home,” I think this planet is our only home for a long, long time. Or at least we need to treat it as such.
Because the worst Christian eschatology has developed from a greedy and short-sighted justification to despoil our terrestrial home.
Eschatology matters because it affects how we live today. Theology is good only if it produces good ethics. Bad theology has produced and excused an ethic of domination and thoughtlessness and disregard for other creatures and for the next generations of our own species. One prevailing Christian system of thought treats this world as something fearsome or loathsome or maybe just unimportant. If we’re too ready to escape from this planet, we may not be so careful about how we treat it now.
Eschatology that is a spiritualized escape plan from earth came from a people who, maybe understandably, gave up on this planet.
Don’t give up on planet earth. We’re accustomed to using up things and then discarding them. Let’s not do that with our home.
Don’t give up on planet earth. On a spring day like today, earth’s powers of renewal are especially in evidence. Let’s remember they are not inexhaustible.
Don’t give up on planet earth. When violence erupts, we can see how easily this globe could turn into a powder keg. Let’s not allow fear to win out over love.
Don’t give up on planet earth. When relationships with friends and family are strained, we may want to run away. But earth’s people are precious. Let’s know deep in our souls that people are not disposable and relationships can be restored and deepened.
Don’t give up on planet earth. When the intricate systems that hold together our economies, governments, cultures are working against the equally intricate ecological systems, take a stand. The saving of planet earth takes concerted efforts. It’s helpful to limit your individual carbon footprint, but it’s crucial to work with others to create greener laws and policies and encourage other systemic change.
Don’t give up on planet earth. When we see the Church’s track record on environmental stewardship, we may think the church itself is irredeemable. Though faith communities are imperfect, we are ripe for revival at this hinge time in world history. Christians are relearning humanity’s fundamental oneness with creation and thus going deeper with God the Creator, Sustainer, and Uniter of all that is.
If we love God, we will love the home God created for us and we will want God to live among us. And when that happens the old heaven and earth—that have existed as separated realms—will pass away. When God makes a home among us—a new heaven and earth will reintegrate the spiritual and physical.
I’d earlier said how differently we will live if we truly grasp earth’s sacredness. I add we must also grasp the earth’s interconnectedness. These two spiritual truths can change everything. Losing the false notion of our self-containment and appreciating instead the interdependence of bacteria, mountains, elephants, oxygen, orchards, swamps, and parakeets is essential for our spiritual growth and for physical survival.
When we truly “get” that what happens to me happens to you, we will be living in a new heaven and a new earth. Then we will hear “a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God is dwelling with them; they are God’s people, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. . . for the first things have passed away. . . . See, I am making all things new.’”
PRAYER: Saving God, save us from profaning your world with our disconnection and disregard. Guide us to treat this earth as holy, a fitting place for you to dwell. Amen
[iii] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/april-19-2013/religion-and-the-environment/15953/ See Rabbi Dobb’s commentary on this verse in Deuteronomy.