Theology sermons #5— Gen 1:1–2:4; Ps 33; Mt 6:25-33; Col 1:15-20
Ted Grimsrud – Shalom Mennonite Congregation – February 18, 2007
Word association: “Creation”
Many years ago, when I was quite young, I decided to write a very ambitious masters thesis. I thought that one year of seminary had given me enough expertise to produce something definitive. I would bring together the themes of love, creation, and justice into a grand theory about Christian social ethics. I am now embarrassed about my audacity to think that as young and ignorant as I was then, I could write coherently on such big topics! This thesis is definitely not something I would let anyone read now!
My faculty readers were patient with me. However, I did learn later that one of them, John Howard Yoder himself, made one suggestion. In the future the seminary should help students reduce the topics of their theses to a more manageable scale.
However, I do believe that my instincts were pretty good. I wanted to try to bring together a kind of Anabaptist theme – the centrality of Jesus’ love commands – with themes more likely emphasized in Catholic and Reformed contexts – theologies of nature and creation. I still think the problems we see in theology (and in our wider culture) in developing life-giving understandings and practices related to justice stem from the failure to bring love and creation together.
It was interesting that John Yoder’s only sharp question to me during my thesis defense came over my discussion of creation theology. In all of his writings (and I have read with great appreciation most of them), he never really develops a theology of creation or seeks to elaborate in any detail his claim that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.
Mennonite thinkers and Reformed and Catholic thinkers generally seem to agree. We go to Jesus to learn about love; we go to the real world, to creation, to learn about “justice.” Well, even if I bit off way more than I could chew with my thesis, I still believe I was on to something. Jesus and creation go together.
Let me review the basic view of theology I am presenting in my sermons this year. Theology, I am suggesting, has to do with our hierarchy of values – the things we actually shape our lives by, the things we actually believe as shown by our practices. Theological reflection matters because it is how we gain self-awareness about what our values actually are.
I believe we best understand Christian theology as seeing the values embodied by Jesus in his life and teaching as our values. So I am calling what I am doing “theology as if Jesus matters.” So far, I have talked about doctrines concerning God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – all seen in light of Jesus’ life and teaching.
Well, I want to push this approach as far as I can. So when we turn to reflection on the doctrine of creation, reflection on nature, on the world around us, can we understand it through the lenses of Jesus?
Some, many, maybe most, Christians – at least modern, western, educated Christians – have their doubts. Several years ago I presented a paper, “A Pacifist Critique of the Modern Worldview.” A good friend of mine, an older scholar and in every way an impressive Mennonite Christian, took exception. He felt I was too quick to see nature as compatible with pacifism. He quoted the famous lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “In Memorium” about nature being “red in tooth and claw.”
I looked the poem up and discovered that the stanza my friend cited raises precisely the question I am asking. It speaks of, using Tennyson’s word, “man” as nature’s “last work,” “who trusted God was love indeed and love Creation’s final law.” But there seems to be counter evidence: “Nature, red in tooth and claw with ravine, shriek’d against his creed.”
So, does the way of Jesus go with the grain of the universe or not? Is the call to peacemaking that we seek to embrace as followers of Jesus a call to resist creation, to go against the grain? Or is peacemaking actually a quest to seek harmony with the ultimate character of the universe? Does nature indeed “shriek against” the “creed” that love is “Creation’s final law”?
Our four scripture texts for this morning are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to biblical teaching on creation. But they give us a good sense of the terrain. What are some things we can say about creation based on these verses?
Genesis 1 tells us that the universe, the earth, and its hospitality to life come from God. The key refrain throughout the chapter is this: “And God saw that it was good,” point after point. Then, when the sixth day ends: “God saw everything that was made, and indeed, it was very good.” We get the sense of an artist at work, or a writer, or just about any person creating something meaningful.
I haven’t created many things, I have prepared Mexican molé sauce – it’s very elaborate, with dozens of ingredients that in the end blend together into something pretty special. It takes five or six hours to make, but when you taste it (assuming you like that kind of thing), you say, “indeed, it is very good” – then you are ready for a rest!
For God, it seems, the world, the plants and animals, the creation and sustenance of life, is an act of creative love; it’s something beautiful and profoundly meaningful, it expresses something about God’s own self.
Psalm 33 makes a powerful assertion, a foundational definition: the earth is full of the steadfast love of God. One way the psalmist portrays God the creator, seen through nature, is God as lover. This Psalm is actually a great proof text for what I was trying to argue in my MA thesis. We have here all three components. God is creator. God’s creation is full of God’s steadfast love. And this loving creative work leads to genuine justice – the denial of the claims of the warriors and kings to a privileged role in the embodiment of social justice. It is not the rough, coercive, brute-power-enhancing justice of the sword that reflects the grain of the universe seen in God’s creation. It is trust in God’s steadfast love.
In my nonviolence class right now, we are looking at Gandhi’s life and philosophy. Every year I am inspired again to see how relevant to the “real world” the practice of steadfast ahimsa is – ahimsa being the word Gandhi used for loving resistance or nonviolence. It’s amazing that in light of all the great movers and shakers of the 20th century, in the end Gandhi was judged by many “experts” to be the person of the century. I’d say it is not so much that he actually accomplished more than anyone else. But he made it imaginable in this century of total war that humanity still might find another way. He helps make W. H. Auden’s call at the beginning of World War II seem possible: “We must love one another or die.”
Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 remind us that God is the sustainer of life for all creation – God sustains life for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as well as human beings. Jesus then makes his key teaching point: learn from the abundance of life around us that we may trust in God. Learn from the abundance of life around us that we may depend upon God’s care for us as we seek the kingdom and its justice.
Again we have creation, love, and justice linked. God sustains all kinds of life; creation is abundant in God’s love; and Jesus draws this lesson: because of God’s abundant life-giving love, seek justice right now in this world with fearless conviction.
And finally, Colossians one presents Jesus himself as being present in all that is. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, infuses all of creation. In the cosmic Christ, “all things hold together.” Furthermore, through Christ, God works God’s reconciling, healing wonders for “all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”
We can look back to the Genesis creation account – the Spirit of God moves over the waters at the beginning, the Spirit of God is breathed into the dust of the earth to enliven the first human being. Here is where Trinitarian ideas make sense to me. God the creator, the Holy Spirit, Jesus the savior, all join together in the creation and sustenance of life, in the work that brings healing and reconciliation to all things.
This is what the Bible means by justice. Not an eye for an eye. Not an impersonal principle of balancing self-interests. Not holiness and wrath that respond to human brokenness and sin with punishing anger. No, by “justice” the Bible much more has in mind God’s creativity that brought into existence what is – out of love. God’s creativity endlessly and steadfastly brings healing when what is is marred by brokenness. Biblical justice restores relationships; it makes whole that which has been damaged.
In a nutshell, then, we see in these passages a doctrine of creation that places the way of Jesus right at the center from start to finish. The Bible teaches that the way of Jesus indeed goes with the grain of the universe.
But is this belief blind faith? Is it romantic, wishful thinking to believe that creation also witnesses to the way of Jesus? In one discussion, a friend laughed at me as I proposed this way of looking at the world. He invoked Voltaire’s Candide and called me a Panglossian. Only after a little research did I realize what an insult he gave me; Pangloss being a person who lives by baseless optimism.
My friend could be right. I guess I believe, though, in starting with the Bible’s doctrine of creation. Then, we should ask whether we may find around us evidence for a much more optimistic view than reflected in the “red in tooth and claw” assumption.
I recommend the work of Mary Clark, a retired biologist and scholar of peace, who has thought deeply about issues of violence, human nature, and the inter-relatedness of living creatures. She concludes that cooperation more fundamental than selfishness and competition. She will be on campus this week – speaking in the Science Center, Friday at 4pm.
Obviously, given the intense debates swirling around issues of human nature, competition vs. cooperation in the evolutionary processes, and the like, we cannot prove that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.
However, from the perspective of Christian theology, we should be asking some hard questions of those who assume the “red in tooth and claw” hypothesis. Is it merely a coincidence that the emergence of this violent view of the natural world coincided historically with the emergence of what I want to call a profoundly predatory view toward the natural world. We have reduced creation to a source for economic goods – leading to the rape and plunder of forests, oceans, waterways, prairie lands, mountains, and so much worse.
I think projecting our violence onto nature has served an analogous function to the way propaganda attributes bloodthirstiness to our “enemies.” Since our enemies obviously do not value life, we need not value their lives. That is, our portraying them as hopelessly violent serves our desire to rain violence upon them.
Several years ago I read an amazing book, called The Man Who Listened to Horses, by Monty Roberts. His father was a well-known trainer of horses, who himself wrote popular books about his techniques. The father firmly believed in over-powering the horse, teaching through pain who is the boss, breaking the horse’s rebellious spirit. This is the way of nature, he insisted. Tragically, though not surprisingly, Mr. Roberts treated his family, including his son Monty, the same way – spare the rod and spoil the child, nature itself teaches this.
Somehow, Monty intuitively realized that not only should he as a child not be treated with such violence, he strongly suspected that horses be shouldn’t either. So he began to develop revolutionary techniques. And they worked. He terms it “gentling” the horse, not “breaking” it. Sadly, Mr. Roberts rejected his son’s insights – and rejected his son. He died with the relationship broken.
Monty Roberts bases his understanding of how to gentle horses on his perceptions of how horses relate to each other. He has learned how to make a creature to creature connection with them that fosters a relationship, not a dynamic of brute force and domination. He even tried his techniques out on deer and found them to be responsive, too.
Roberts has gone on to apply what he has learned to human relationships with fruitful results. His basic saying on his website could have come straight from Jesus: “Violence is never the answer.” He founded an organization called “Join-Up International” that promotes gentle, more effective alternatives to violence and force in relationships with both horses and human beings.
This is only one story. I find it encouraging, though. I have called this sermon, “This is God’s World: So What?” So, this: when we look for evidence of Jesus’ way in the world around us, we might well be pleasantly surprised by what we find. And, more importantly, we will be challenged to join, with hopefulness, the work of Jesus to make God’s healing love present throughout creation.