cosmos sunday: insights for the season of creation...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, September 24, 2016 - Cosmos Sunday - in the Season of Creation.

Introduction
Back in the early days of my formation as a person of faith I heard a song that touched my heart. It was written by Joni Mitchell in the days right after the Woodstock concert and festival and was soon recorded shortly there- after by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Their version was upbeat and rockin’ – an ode to youth and innocence – but that is not how Joni Mitchell wrote it or played it. Mitchell gave us a more moody meditation on our quest for meaning – part contemplation of our place in the cosmos, part prayer for peace and part lamentation over human hubris – and like many of her compositions, this one continues to add layers of nuance for those with ears to hear. On Cosmos Sunday, I am particularly drawn to two parts of Mitchell’s proclamation:

The opening verse evokes the naivet√© of our yearning to re-enter the Garden of Eden after choosing self over the way of God. Like all people of good will who haven’t wrestled profoundly with the stain of sin, the protagonist thinks he can actually get the Genie back in the bottle all by himself. Linking Woodstock with the biblical story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, verse one goes like this:


I came upon a child of God he was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going and this he told me
I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm, gonna join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to camp out on the land - an' get my soul free
We are stardust, we are golden
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden
 

Two verses later, however, after celebrating the ecstatic promise of Woodstock’s festival of peace, love and music, Mitchell adds something more sobering with the insertion of two simple phrases into the closing chorus: We are stardust and billion year old carbon - we are golden and we’re caught in the devil's bargain. Mitchell is NOT a sentimental romantic. She understands that suffering is real. She knows that in our quest to ease the pain of human existence, good people often make choices that violate our connection to creation. We live like we have become the center of the cosmos rather than sisters and brothers all formed from that same billion year old carbon that science tells us gives shape and form to the moon, the plants, the animals and all of life. 

With a theological sophistication that is unusually profound for artists in popular music, Mitchell tells us that we are caught in the Devil’s bargain: we have exchanged solidarity with creation for arrogance and the illusion of autonomy. We have abandoned living in harmony with God’s grace for the empty promise of being in charge. In the biblical story, Eve and then Adam allow themselves to be enticed by the Devil into eating the one fruit forbidden from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

+  They allow their yearning for more to lure them beyond the sacred rhythm of living as interconnected partners with the rest of life created from the blessings of the Lord. And once they raise their yearning – their pain – their hopes and desires above the order of the garden’s delicate balance, a dangerous and destructive momentum is unleashed that pollutes the air, fouls the water, brings disease and anguish to humanity and advances the tragic logic of war.

+  The Devil’s bargain, in both the Bible and Joni Mitchell’s song, is trading solidarity for arrogance – elevating our longings above living in balance with creation – exchanging the harmony of grace for the dissonance of selfishness.  As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it: original sin is pride and hubris - and Mitchell grasps this truth with poetic and theological clarity.


Well, then can I walk beside you? I have come to lose the smog,
And I feel like I'm a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year, yes and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am, but life is for learning…
By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song and a celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.
We are stardust – billion year old carbon - we are golden - caught in the devil's bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Unlike most contemporary Western people, Joni Mitchell not only honors the linkage between science and religion, she also knows that the Bible begins and ends with a story set in a garden. Genesis tells us of the breach but Revelation tells us of God’s restoration to grace as we live in harmony through the love of Jesus Christ.

What’s more, the biblical texts selected for Cosmos Sunday all sing from this same hymnal:
God has placed an order and impulse to life in every atom of creation – from the stars and planets to our souls as well as the wind, the waters, the mountains and Earth’s animals - we are all formed from the same star dust. Our DNA is connected to the Big Bang, the flora and fauna, our family and our enemies, the earth, the sky and the whole cosmos. Life is interconnected – not wildly independent or arrogantly self-centered – but rooted in collaboration. God’s plan and wisdom, the Lord’s order of creation, is revealed “in mutual, reciprocal interdependence… where no created thing is an island unto itself.” (Season of Creation commentary, p. 218) 

Insights
This is what Christ reveals and it is how God leads us back into the beauty of grace in the garden. So let me suggest one of the blessings that can be claimed from today’s readings: 
The purpose of life is compassion – not power or wealth – it is not about making ourselves happy in isolation. Rather, it is recognizing our relationship to every living thing – animate and inanimate – friend and foe – and sharing love as best we are able. Sometimes our love will be imperfect, right? Sometimes we will be afraid. Or confused. Or angry. Those times have also been built into the ebb and flow of God’s creation and are intended to help us learn to let go of our pride and arrogance. Indeed, Jesus promises to meet us in our failures and reconnect us to God’s original grace so that we might increase love in the cosmos as he did. But here’s the caveat: we must be willing to learn from our mistakes. The mystery of our wisdom tradition is simple: we do not learn from experience – we learn from reflecting on our experience – measuring our insights against Christ’s love and tenderness. 

Bourgeoisie education and culture wants us to believe that we become wise by working hard, advancing only ourselves, winning various prizes and claiming power as individuals. But the way of Jesus and his wisdom – the truth that God has poured into every atom of creation – is relational. The Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit is not a doctrinal truth, but a description of the Divine in relationship with all of creation. That is precisely what the biologists, seismologists, historians and economists of our generation are discovering: “we live in a cosmos where order continues to emerge in complex ways revealing creation’s underlying impulse to life” (p. 215.) And, of course, such is the heart and soul of true spirituality. So consider these Biblical insights with me from today’s readings.

Proverbs 8 speaks of Lady Wisdom – the order of nature in the cosmos and the essence of interdependence and love in all of creation – who was given birth at the beginning of time as the first act of creation and who has shared the formation of life with the Lord for all eternity.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command.

Here is what I find fascinating: First, that God gave birth to Lady Wisdom. Scholars have observed that in this text God becomes Wisdom’s birth mother – expanding our awareness of the Holy Famine beyond outdated notions of God as stern, punishing father – but also telling us something corrective about God’s love for Wisdom – and by implication – all of us. In verse 30 we read, “I was beside God like a master worker, his daily delight, rejoicing before him always.”

Now “master worker” is a medieval Latin translation of the Hebrew word amon which is more frequently translated as “darling – cherished one – intimate or even nursing child and confidant.” (p. 217) Confidant is how the Tanakh – the contemporary Jewish Scriptures – puts this verse and it points towards a tender relationship between “a doting parent and a playful, laughing child who works in close and trusting ways to create an Earth full of life that is a delight to the Lord.” (p. 217) In this my heart takes me to Psalm 131: O Lord, I am not proud, I have no special or haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters or things to hard for me. For I still my soul and make it quiet like a child upon its mother’s breast – this is how my soul is quieted within me – in trust and deep tenderness. A sacred, tender, playful and love-filled compassion is how Lady Wisdom was created and how she experienced life with God from the beginning of time. That’s one important clue about how God calls us to live in creation.

The other is this: at the core of creation is grace. “Grace is a gift. Grace is unconditional love. Grace is about blessing… and blessing is the theological word we have come up with for goodness – a life-giving gift from the Lord” that we neither own nor deserve but cherish for it brings us into the way of love. (Natural Grace, Fox and Sheldrake, p. 55) Matthew Fox wrote that creation is grace: we didn’t do it – it was someone else setting the table for us and leading us to the feast. That is what Lady Wisdom is all about: we were brought into life by God’s grace to share God’s grace. The totality of creation is all about grace – living in harmony and relationship with creation as God intended – and we call this relationship gratitude.

Psalm 148 observes that when we know our place in the realm of grace we call the cosmos – when we honor God by gratitude – our natural response is to shout: Hallelujah! (And what does hallelujah mean? Praise the Lord!) For the only prayer we truly know from the inside out is thank you.

Small wonder then that Jesus tells us in St. John’s gospel that at his core he is bread: he feeds us, he nourishes us, he is within us and in relationship with creation by grace. By grace he gives himself be taken, to be broken, to be blessed and shared with all creation. And in this giving the wisdom of the Lord is revealed not as a blessing reserved or promised to Christians alone: it is for the cosmos. Please listen very carefully to the closing sentence of this passage: “the bread that I will give” – from the Greek word hyper that means for the sake of or on behalf of – “is for the life of the world” – kosmos in Greek – “it is my flesh.” Did you hear that? The living nourishment that Jesus gives for the sake of the cosmos is a life shared in compassion.

Conclusion
Jesus shows us the essence of Lady Wisdom – the cosmos shows us the essence of grace – and the bread which we break in his compassion shows us how we become bread for the world according to the will and plan of God. We are star dust, we are golden, even as we wrestle with the devil’s bargain. And there IS a way back into the garden, but not of our own making. When we allow God to nourish us with grace and learn from our failings how to reach out to others in compassion, then we reconnect with the cause of love poured into every atom of creation. And as we become allies of the very heart of the God, we reclaim the blessing lost in arrogance and advance the cause of Christ in the real world. And this, dear people, is the good news for today: so let those with ears to hear, hear and do likewise.




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