The Gospel of Limited Goods

Sep 23, 2018 by

Preacher:  Rev Bob Bond

Readings:           Isaiah 65:17-25   Revelation 21:1-6,22-26

Responsive Psalm:     Psalm 65:1-8

Introduction to the Gospel Reading

What we are going to hear are Jesus’ words, according to Mark, about the end of the present age (the end of history as we know it).

Gospel:     Mark 13:5-8, 17-27, 30-32

Introduction to Romans 8:18-23

Our final reading this morning is our Epistle passage.  In it, Paul reflects on the end of the present age.  He does so with an oh-so-strong focus on not humanity but rather on the rest of creation — a viewpoint that is actually there throughout scripture (Isaiah’s wolf and lamb feeding together, the lion eating straw instead of flesh; Jesus’ darkening of the sun and moon, and stars falling from heaven) – but Paul’s framing is particularly poignant and clear for us in this, our church’s season ‘on Creation’.

Epistle:     Romans 8:18-23

Sermon:  The Gospel of Limited Goods

A first point to pause and ponder, this morning, is how the Church’s talk about New Heaven and New Earth historically has had a devastating effect, because it has led to a deeply seated idea (for fundamentalists at least) that the current creation can get totally screwed up under our watch and it won’t matter, since we are heading toward something better anyway.

A non-critical ‘taking in’ of the Genesis chapter one edict that we humans are “given dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (“Well, that means it is all there for us to do with as we please, right?”), [this] taken together with the promise that when all is said and done we’re getting a new improved version:  it is like a cosmic ‘get out of jail free’ card-for-everything-we-humans-do-to-the-planet.  And that is how the behaviour of the western world essentially goes!

This thinking is, sadly, about as far from the writers’ meanings (the biblical writers’ meanings) as one can get.  My offering, this morning, of how we might gather and best hold the strands of biblical teaching and wisdom in reaction to historical misuse-of-it-all is this:  the Gospel (“Good News”) within biblical talk about the new Creation is pinned to the insistence that there is limit.  There is an end to the ‘old creation’ (the current creation).  The Gospel our age sorely needs to hear is, “Stop thinking-and-living like there are no limits!”

Two commentaries (two stories about limits) to flesh this out for us, and then we’ll do some analysis.

Charles Eisenstein writes, in the forward to Stephen Jenkinson’s recent book, Come of Age [North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2018, xxii]

Among climate activists, human extinction is generally agreed to be the worst-case scenario.  I can think of one far more chilling.  It is that we succeed in replacing ecosystems services with technological services, ushering in a concrete world with algae pools for oxygen, giant carbon sucking machines, bubble cities, food grown in vats, pharmaceutical happy drugs, and hi-res displays of bygone nature scenes for aesthetic relief.  All of this will be accompanied by endlessly rising indicators of wealth and health:  more goods and services, more floor area per capita, rising GDP, longer lifespans, and so on.  It is a world where everything quantifiable expands at the expense of the qualitative; where the domesticated expands at the expense of the wild, where we lunge toward the appearance of wealth to compensate for an unspeakably desolate poverty.

Can we say that we have not proceeded step by step towards such a future?

That is a macro picture befitting today’s broad topic, “New Creation”.  Here is a micro picture, one that I come upon pretty much daily in the hospitals where I work:  Dad, the patient, was pretty healthy and living quite fully up until ten years ago.  Then started what would come to feel like a series of assaults upon his body.  First there was high blood pressure.  Then there was diabetes.  Then a heart attack.  Responding to the heart attack, mom and dad saw wisdom in down-sizing, so they sold the house and bought a condo.  During that stressful transition, dad’s diabetes went hay-wire; but he pushed that fact to the side in order to attend to the new place and make it home; lo and behold, he ended up with gangrene in his right toes and foot, and so lost that leg from the knee down.  Thank goodness the condo has accessible design!  Now, a year later, has come a stroke.  Dad is on a ventilator, in ICU, still unconscious.  The physician caring for him today is repeating the same question the ER doc asked us when Dad first came in:  Do we want a full code response if Dad’s heart stops?  Well of course we want them to do everything!  For God’s sake, what kind of a medical team are they, to ask us this?  We came here for help, to get Dad well!  [Fast-forward two months: finding Dad in a Continuing Complex Care bed, brain injured, tube fed, a lousy bed sore on his behind, his son weekly searching the internet for whatever out-there might make dad better.]

The gift that religion and spirituality offer to the world, no matter what the particular religion or world view(!), is that religion-and-spirituality look for the meanings of things and do not settle until they have the broadest, deepest, most grounded insights they can get.  And these insights, in turn, provide critical commentary (possibly affirmation, possibly criticism and challenge) about what is going on.

From the Judeo-Christian tradition comes not one voice but an array of reflections on the state of the world’s life.  Prophetic voices, in every age, pointing to needful changes because it is clear that things cannot go on as they are: there are behaviours that must stop, relationships that must change; only then can the future open up to the world’s life lived well.  Apocalyptic voices, in every age since the last of the Old Testament writers, agreeing that things cannot go on as they are, but believing that humanity hasn’t got it in us to pull off the necessary changes: so life as we know it shall end in cataclysmic conflagration, and then — God the redeemer, God the creator be counted on! — [then] comes a new world in balance, peace and glory.

I’ll point again to the core “Good News” / oh-so-needed news / the gem of insight, from prophetic and apocalyptic voices (and we heard it from Jesus and Paul, we hear it from the Bible as a whole):  There are limits, there are ‘ends’.

  • The earth (outside of receiving all its energy from the sun, and the occasional meteor strike) is a closed system; there are limited goods; there is not more. The unquestioned stance of western business and politics that economy must forever grow is an ‘emperor has no clothes’ lie!
  • As fewer and fewer people control greater and greater proportions of the world’s wealth, they do so at the expense of all the rest, not to their trickle-down benefit.
  • If we spend 60% of our healthcare budget on the last three months of people’s lives, and if that healthcare budget is a major focus of our spending, then “So much for investment in mental, physical, social well-being before the last three months”.
  • If humanity pulls more and more of the earth’s trapped carbon from underground and burns it / releases it into the atmosphere, then a greenhouse effect increases temperatures and puts more-and-more energy into all the earth’s storms.
  • If humanity clear-cuts the forests, then what lives in those habitats is lost, and the oxygen generated by those habitats isn’t generated.
  • If we fill the oceans with sewage and plastic and spills, then what was there dies.
  • And if we try to outpace the losses and the problems with technological innovation, Charles Eisenstein’s dystopia is, indeed, the sort of life we are asking for.

Christianity indeed has something to say, should Sophia be our guide, should scripture be our grounding.  All prophetic voices welcome!  All apocalyptic voices welcome!  No need to fight about which is right.  Instead, hear the truth they share:  The path we are on cannot be sustained.  One way or another, it will end.  The thing that decides which route is our decision-making relative to the limits that are staring us in the face.

And now, good people, comes the yet-more-demanding part of being challenged to ‘step up’, whether your understanding and stance are prophetic or apocalyptic:  For it is not just a matter of knowing and speaking such truths as these.  It is a matter of integrating them.  In our lives we are called to be the change that Gospel demands.

  • There is a limit to how much carbon each person on the planet can burn, and so – if there is to be an integrity – we must strive to live within that limit (which affects our travel, our living space, our heating-and-cooling, our food choice, our consumption of all other goods … on and on it goes).
  • There is a limit to our wealth. When current anti-poverty groups talk about a livable wage they are worrying about the minimum; when I ponder the economy I worry more about the ethical maximum per capita so that all might share the world’s wealth.
  • There is a limit to our days, so let us have the conversations with our families that give wise advance directives about those last three months of life.
  • There is a limit to our control, which is a way of acknowledging that there is mystery / there is God / we are not God!, so we are wise to occupy humble space instead of arrogant space alongside all the other life and substance of the planet.

Finally, good people, declare glory in the life of the world that shall come to pass (so says Sophia; so says God; so say our Scriptures):  An end to the futility to which the whole of creation has been subjected; instead, creation – groaning in labour pains all along – set free!  In the cosmically-recognizable turning point once humanity finally ‘gets it’, or has been given it, everyone sees and understands that everything Christ taught, lived and promised comes to pass in fullness:  Christ is come in glory.  The home of God is with us, “he will wipe every tear from [our] eyes; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”  All humanity in peace.  The wolf and the lamb feeding together. Gladness and rejoicing for ever.  Oh God, make it so!  Amen.

Prayers of Thanks and Intercession

Creating God, Saving God, we look at the universe with our microscopes, our telescopes, with all the means of observation, inquiry and discovery we can bring to bear, and we see reflections of Your careful ordering and provision everywhere we turn.

We also run up against our puniness.  Alongside every increase in understanding and appreciation come a multitude more questions and unknowns on our part.  There is mystery.  You are mystery, God; but also known to us because You have spoken Your name to Moses, You have revealed Your nature and intentions whenever humanity listens and pays attention, You have come to us in Jesus, in messengers before and after Jesus’ earth-walk, in saints before and since, in prophets before and since.  We thank You that we get to follow in Jesus’ Way, and so to be part of Jesus’ coming upon the earth.

At the same time, we cannot but be clear how imperfectly we do so.  God, the earth indeed groans; too many people are pushed aside and held down instead of being lifted up, healed and set free by our culture’s way of doing its business.  Thank you that this shall end – all the distortions shall be put aside; humanity’s correct place-and-function as stewards and co-creators shall be completed; Your presence in all-that-is will be recognized and honoured; You alone will be worshiped.

God grant us (grant humanity) the recognition of the limits which are there, necessarily there, righteously there, in order for us to live into the new creation (the fullness and balance and peace, the ‘everlasting life’) which is Your ultimate design.  It is a difficult thing for us to do.  We are surrounded by voices saying that we live successfully when we overcome restrictions and limitations.  More money, more possessions, more travel, more power, longer life, more of whatever we imagine we most desire.  God, just as Your people of old learned, in the wilderness, that an omer (the standard container full) of manna was everyone’s need and everyone’s gift (those who gathered less nonetheless found they had an omer, and those who gathered more found they had an omer), bring us – each one – to our own wilderness awakenings, so that we may fully discover, understand and know ourselves as Your people, and we may be glad and satisfied with our single omer because everyone else on the planet also has theirs.

God, we pray concerning the election of municipal governments, which democratic undertaking is in process across our province.  We pray for ethical and constructive leadership to result for our cities and municipalities.  We pray for our province, our nation, and all the nations of the world whose leaders too often seek gain instead of justice, who are prone to lord over instead of serve, who are frequently found far from the humility which ‘knowledge of limitedness’ makes clear.  May Sophia visit and awaken our world’s leaders, O God, not only in governments but in commerce, in industry, in education, in religion, in medicine, in service work, in the military … in every realm of life.

God, we pray for people we know whose lives are stressed by loss, by sickness, by poverty, by underemployment, by alienation, by any of the reasons on account of which we ache for the arrival of your promised New Creation.  We think of Jennifer, Matthew, Brian, Erin and their broader family in their loss.  Names come to each of us of people and families we uphold in the midst of sickness.  In the mystery of Your attention to all people and all creation, O God, comfort and resource those for whom we pray.

Our prayers we sum up in the prayer that Jesus taught for us to pray together:  Our Father, who art in heaven, … .

Commission and Benediction

Take the Light of the world to those who walk in darkness; take the Bread of life to those who experience a famine of the Word, and take the Water of life, even Jesus Christ, to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.  And may your efforts be blessed with the love and grace of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

 

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