Forest Sunday + John 3:1-16 + October 1, 2017

John 3:1-16

The holy gospel according to John.

Glory to you, O Lord.

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin. 2Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  4Nicodemus said, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Chosen One. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Chosen One be lifted up, 15that whoever trusts in the Chosen One may have eternal life.

16For God loved the world in this way, that God gave the Child, the only begotten one, so that everyone who trusts in that one may not perish but may have eternal life.

The gospel of the Lord.

Praise to you, O Christ.

What a gift it is to be gathered here with you this day, on this very first Sunday in the season of Creation.  I’m Pastor Brooke Petersen, the new interim pastor here at St. Luke’s.  Some of you may know me, and some of us have never met before, but over the next many months, I will be here helping you to ask questions and dream dreams about your future, to dig deeper into what it means for you to be a vibrant congregation in Chicago, and to help you prepare to call a new pastor.  As with any new venture- we are heading down a road as yet untrodden, but we come into this work with so many gifts already- strong relationships among you, committed and active leadership, engaged and incredibly qualified staff, and a God who promises to always be with us.  It is an honor to come accompany you on this journey into the future of St. Luke’s, and I look forward to coming alongside you in your mission and ministry here.  

It seems fitting that as we begin this new thing together, we would also begin a new season in our church year.  The season of creation is a relatively new set of Sundays in the church year.  Falling during our season of Ordinary Time, the season of creation shifts our focus away from just our relationship with God or with one another to the relationship God has with all of creation, and the way that we might see God anew when we look beyond just our human family, into the trees, the land, the wilderness, and the rivers.  And, for many of us, creation has likely been on our minds lately.  With hurricanes decimating huge parts of our country and the islands around us, with news reports about people without power, with hospitals unable to care for the sick and the needy because they have been cut off from supplies, with death tolls rising and people crying out for help, we recognize that a season of creation is not just about how lovely it is to walk in the woods, and get our hands in dirt, but also how powerful the created world is around us, how we are to tend to it, and care for it, and yet how small we are in the face of the power of nature.

This is one of the great tensions when we look beyond ourselves and into the created world- we can feel so powerful, so in control, so big, only in the face of nature to realized we really are so small, vulnerable to the heat and the wind and the water.  But our texts for this day highlight many other tensions that tug at what we might think we know about creation.  We begin in the book of Genesis, in a creation story of our origins, the story that many of us recall hearing when we first were ready to ask the question about how this world came to be.  And in it, we hear about the creation of humanity, out of the dirt of the ground.  It is this story that is all too often mischaracterized as a story about setting humanity as the very top, the pinnacle of creation, the ones who were given the responsibility of naming all of the rest of creation.  It is told as a story of domination, when in our creatureliness we were given the ultimate power over everything else, because we were formed out of the breath of God.

But when we listen a little harder and look a little closer, that is not what this story is about at all.  In fact, it begins when we are made out of the dirt, filled with the breath of God but made from dust, and given one important job, to till and keep the land, or perhaps better translated from the Hebrew, to serve the land out of which this human was formed.  It isn’t a story about bending the land to the will of humanity, about exploiting it, or using it, or developing it, but about serving it, tending to it, keeping it.  That’s how this creation story suggests we began.  In relationship with the earth, as servants and caretakers.

And perhaps it is helpful to pause here, to wonder if perhaps this story,

and this season in general is really meant to heighten our awareness of the plight of the earth, of deforestation, climate change and loss of species at a rate never seen before in our history.  This talk of our responsibility to recall our relationship with the earth, one in which we are made to tend and keep creation around us, because it is made from the same stuff we are, it is bound up in our very lives, whether or not we choose to pay attention or not, perhaps now is the moment to make lists of the things we can do, the changes we ought to make, the way we can stand up for climate justice in the face of many in our government and in our world who will deny that the Earth is in incredible danger if we continue on the path we have started for ourselves.  And, yes, this season of creation is supposed to spur us to action, in fact, today we have Pastor Vance here with us to share with us some of the concrete things we can do to care for the earth and all its creatures.

But, these texts aren’t really about what we can do, and it becomes even more clear when we enter into the story of Nicodemus described in the book of John for this day.  He’s not talking about trees, and he’s not talking about the earth at all, but he is coming to Jesus in the dark of night to tell Jesus that there is no way he is just a regular teacher or preacher, because he is doing something Nicodemus has never seen before, signs that appears to mean that he is from God.  And it is here that we confront another tension, that tricky space between what we think and what we know.  Nicodemus, like many of us, is a man who knows things- he is a scholar and a teacher, the kind of person that you might go to when faced with a problem you simply cannot understand on your own.  He knows the law, knows what it means to live a godly life, knows what the sacred texts say about how we ought to live and be in the world.  But there is a tension between what he knows, what Jesus even calls these earthly things, and what he is beginning to think- that maybe there is something going on here that is beyond what he can see and touch, perhaps Jesus is ushering in a way of being in relationship to each other and to all of creation that isn’t as simple as a law that tells us how we ought to act and what will keep us pure.  

It is here, in the midst of these two texts, read together, that there is another truth speaking to us.  And it isn’t about doing, it isn’t about the checklists we will make about how to help heal the earth, or the things we can change about our lifestyle, as important as those are.  It is not about what we can do, but about who we are.  About who we can be.  Because the mystery that Nicodemus was beginning to uncover was that somehow, we are part of this whole cosmos, this entire creation that God loves, that is God’s beloved.  We, earth people, made from dust, are beloved alongside trees, and shrubs, alongside waves and pebbles, alongside cats and dogs, rabbits and birds.  We are beloved, because that’s simply the way God loves the world.  God loves us and fish, and birds, and forests, not because we are powerful, not because we are knowledgeable, not because we have done anything that warrants this kind of wild, unimaginable love, but because we were created.  We were simply created to be loved.  As a baby knit together in the womb, loved by parents and family, for no other reason than that they have come into being- this is how we have been created.  We are created as God’s beloved creation, like the stars hung in the heavens, and the dirt of the ground, created like the plants in the fields, and the clouds in the sky.

This Creation Season may inspire us to do things, it may inspire us to make changes, and it may inspire us to continue the work of ecological justice that has been a mark of this congregation for a long time.  And it should.  That’s part of what this season is meant to do.  But it is also a season to remind us who we are- that we are made out of the dust, made out of the earth, made to be the ones who serve the world around us.  This is who we were made to be.  And in that making, in that wondrous, mysterious, unbelievable creating, we were simply loved into being.  We were loved because God is extravagant and creative and amazing, because God loves us in our dusty creatureliness, loves us beyond measure, loves us alongside the rest of creation.  And that is what fuels our doing- what fuels our ability to tend to the Earth, to keep it and till it, to serve it as we were created to do, our doing is always centered first in simply being.  In recognizing who and whose we are, beloved creatures, filled with the breath of God, filled with the Spirit of God, loved beyond measure.  Amen, and thanks be to God.

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