This Sermon Approved by Number 37

cattle and calf

(sermon 3/11/18)

Genesis 1:28-31

God blessed the human beings, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good. 


Hannah, if I’ve done the math correctly, was about eight or nine years old when I first met her. She and her younger brother and her mother and father were members of the little southern Ohio church I first pastored. They lived on a farm, and they raised Angus cattle. Being a kid on a farm, you learn at a pretty young age that the livestock aren’t pets, and what their final destiny is going to be, so it isn’t wise to get too attached to any of them. They’re commodities, just identified by the number on the tags attached to their ears. But despite that, some animals do have a personality that makes them stand out from the others, and you do end up having favorites, and that was the case with Hannah this particular year and one of the herd. Well, time moved on, and the realities of raising Angus cattle continued, too. Sometime later that year, Hannah’s mother had made hamburgers for dinner, and Hannah got very upset. When her mother asked her what was wrong, she said “Oh, Mom – don’t tell me it’s Number 37!”

Hannah definitely had a good understanding of where her food came from – how it was produced, where it came from, every step of the process that led to it being on the dinner table. But most of us don’t have that kind of direct connection or understanding. At best, most of us have some vague assumptions about where our food comes from, and how it gets to us, but in most of our cases there are some pretty big gaps in our food awareness. There are a lot of details that we don’t know; and there are other things that we know enough to know that we don’t really want to know. Most of us, I suppose, have seen news stories or documentary films of the terrible conditions endured by calves, and chickens, and other animals in the mass production of our food. And we know that the people who grow, and pick, and process our food are often paid terribly, unsustainably low wages for what’s often backbreaking work. And we also know that these conditions exist in order for us, as consumers, to be able to buy our food at the absolute lowest cost possible – and really, who doesn’t like low prices?

Today’s reading from Genesis reminds us that according to the scriptures, our sacred story that shapes our faith and bonds us into a community, all of creation is God’s, not ours – and that God has instructed us, entrusted us, to care for it, and tend to it; to use it wisely to provide for us, and not to abuse or exploit it. I think it’s a shame that some people read that passage and latch on to those phrases to “subdue” and  to “have dominion over” creation, and mistakenly take it to mean that God told us we can do whatever we want with it – exploit it, trash it, even destroy it, because really, it doesn’t matter – when Jesus comes back he’ll set everything right again. It’s a shame, since this passage actually means the exact opposite of that.

We’ve been created by God in God’s own image, and that includes that part of God that creates, and cares for, and sustains. We discover another part of being created in God’s image just a little while later in Genesis, when we hear the story of Cain and Abel, and we’re told that according to God, yes, we are indeed expected to be our brother’s keeper, just as God is our keeper. Part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we were created to tend and care for one another, and to do whatever is in our power to see that all of God’s people are treated fairly and justly.

So today, when food is the topic in our “Tread Lightly” Lenten series, I invite us all to consider that all of the decisions we make about our food actually come together to become a kind of statement of faith. Those decisions reflect what we believe about having been created in God’s image. They reflect the way we understand our place in creation, and not just being in it, but being part of it.

You heard some things from the youth today about the boycott that the Presbyterian Church endorses in order to get Wendy’s to agree to fair payment to the tomato growers who provide their restaurants with produce, trying to get them to sign on to the same fair-pay agreement signed by most, if not all of their competitors. You heard about the “Meatless Monday” movement, which would result in significant environmental benefit. There’s a movement that I’m sure Number 37 could get behind.

Beyond those things, we can be more mindful in general about buying foods that are locally and sustainably produced, cutting down on fossil fuel use and pollution caused by long-distance transport and environmentally-unfriendly production methods.

We should consider doing all those things, not just because this happened to be a topic on our Lenten calendar, not because they’re trendy, not because they might be considered “politically correct.” We shouldn’t do them just to show everyone that we’re nice, socially conscious, responsible people, although hopefully, we are. The reason we’re talking about this subject during Lent, as we’re engaged in self-reflection as we approach the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, and the reason we should make wise decisions about our food, is because it goes right to the core of what we believe about incarnation. I don’t mean the kind of incarnation of God in Jesus, but, through Jesus, the kind of incarnation of God in us. God dwells within each of us, and because of that, and out of gratitude for it, we’re called to use the thoughtfulness and compassion that God created in us to be God’s agents in creation – to help establish healing, and wholeness, and justice, for creation, and for all people wherever it’s lacking. To be part of that Hebrew concept of tikkun olam; mending or repairing the brokenness in the world. That’s all a part of the charge that God gave us in Genesis.

At one point in the gospels, Jesus tells us we’re the salt of the world, and warns us that salt is useless if it loses its flavor. Frankly, I think the bigger danger isn’t the salt losing its flavor, but rather, that the salt would just stay in the shaker and not seasoning anything, and just feeling proud of itself for being salt. So this Lent, let’s consider how we can be salt outside of the shaker. Let’s consider how making wise and ethical decisions about what food we will or won’t buy can be that salt, seasoning and adding flavor to the world, and to the lives of others.

Thanks be to God.


Compassion Reaches Out

(sermon 7/23/17)

reaching toward you

Luke 7:11-17

[Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. 


They continued along the road, Jesus and the group of people who were following him. Some of them, of course, were with him long-term; others were just tagging along to hear what he said and see what he did while he was passing through their neck of the woods, before they returned to their normal routine after Jesus moved on. The day was hot and the road was dusty and they were tired and thirsty, but it wasn’t so bad because now they could easily see their destination – the walled town called Nain, which was a solid four- or five-hour walk south of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, in the northern part of modern-day Israel and very close to the northern edge of that part of Palestine that we call the West Bank.

As they got closer, they could see the main gateway into the town – small and narrow so it could easily be defended, with stone-walled rooms on either side of the portal meant to house armed men who could take care of any enemy troops trying to enter the town by attacking them from both sides as they tried to get through the narrow opening just a few soldiers at a time. Usually, though, it was much more mundane than that, being just a pinch-point for people trying to get out and others trying to get into the town.

Just inside the main gate would have been a stone-walled courtyard – again, with relatively narrow access points to it could be easily defended. This was the main public gathering place in town. It was the coffee shop where people came to have offsite business meetings and cut deals. It was the magistrate’s court, where the town elders heard and settled legal disputes. It was the park, where young people hung out and laughed and watched each other and did the things young people do; and where old people hung out and read the paper and talked about the good old days and complained about the young people. It was the central gathering place for public celebrations, like weddings, and public mourning, like funerals as we heard in this gospel text was happening on this particular day.

Just as Jesus and his followers got to the main gate, this funeral procession was moving out of the courtyard and was coming through the gate. And just as we pull over or stop to let a funeral procession go by or pass through an intersection, Jesus and his followers and all the other people who were trying to get through the checkpoint and into town moved over to the side of the road to let them by.

While they waited, I imagine they had the same kind of thoughts that run through our own minds when we’re in a similar situation; a combination of respect and compassion, and if we’re being totally honest, maybe also mixed with some minor annoyance that we’re being held up as the procession goes by. And with thoughts running through our heads:  I wonder who it was that died? Did they die from old age, or were they younger; was there maybe some illness or tragic accident? What was their story? Who are they leaving behind; will they be OK? Yes, there but for the grace of God go I, and even at that, I’ll go that way all too soon. So sad. Oh well, the road’s clear now; I can get back on my way. I wonder what I should have for dinner?

But that isn’t what happened on this particular day, at least not completely. This day, as the procession came through, Jesus didn’t just stand quietly and respectfully on the sidelines. He stepped into the procession and into their grief. He learned that this was the only son of a widow, whose well-being, maybe even whose very survival, was threatened by the loss of this last male provider, beyond even the grief that any parent would feel over the loss of a child. And having compassion for her in her suffering, he reached out, raising this man from the dead, bringing life back to not just him, but to his mother too. Put simply, Jesus didn’t just passively watch this situation play out. He didn’t just continue into town after they’d gone by. He didn’t just organize clusters of people to walk around town and pray for the widow’s well-being. He stepped into this most public of tragedies as it unfolded, in the moment, and he concretely did what was in his power to bring physical and emotional and spiritual healing into the lives of these total strangers. He apparently didn’t know and didn’t care about any of the details of the man or his mother. Were they good people? Were they devout Jews? Had they lived the kind of life that people would approve of? Did they deserve this special attention? None of that seemed to be important to Jesus. Apparently, he raised the man from the dead strictly out of compassion and because they were beloved children of God.

We’re supposed to do the same kind of thing, of course – to step in and provide life and love and hope and compassion and healing into people’s lives, even the lies of total strangers – people we know as little about as the man and his mother, and to do it in the same unqualified way that Jesus did.

You think you can’t do this same kind of thing? You think you don’t have the power of life and death and healing? Jesus would disagree. He told his disciples that after he left them, that through the Holy Spirit they would do far greater things than even Jesus himself had accomplished. And by definition, that’s true – I mean, Jesus was just one man, whose earthly ministry only lasted about three years or so; while more than two billion followers have been working for good in the world in Jesus’ name for two thousand years now.

Well sure, you might say, we have the ability to do good things, and to help people, but we don’t actually have the power over life and death; that’s in the realm of miracles…. Really? Collectively, through our voices, through our actions, we have the power to shape our society. We have the ability to push our social policies in one direction or another, toward more ethical action and compassion, or in the opposite direction. When we hear on the news about official government analysis that the proposed changes to our current healthcare insurance system would result in the unnecessary, premature deaths of an additional 23-30 million people over a ten-year period because they’ll be stripped of the healthcare coverage that they currently have – friends, we do very much have the power of life and death, the power of health and healing, in our hands.

In compassion, Jesus reached out, and he calls us to do the same, in our own way, in our own time and place.

Is that hard? Yes, sometimes. Is it something to dread, or to do because we’re trying to earn God’s approval? No, we’re no more able to earn God’s approval than the dead man on that stretcher was. We need to work this way on behalf of others out of gratitude, thankful for the grace that God has filled our lives with. And we can have that kind of gratitude because of the full power and meaning of this gospel text. I know that I’ve said that it’s a good thing to try to experience a story from scripture by imagining it, experiencing it, through the eyes of different people in the story. In this case though, I don’t think we get the full power of the message of God’s compassion, or develop a true sense of gratitude, by seeing this story through the eyes of one of the people standing along the road watching it all play out. We don’t even get the fullness of this story if we see it through the eyes of the widow. We don’t get its full meaning seeing it through the eyes of the people carrying the stretcher. We get it when we see it through the eyes of the one being carried. Through the eyes of the one who Jesus reached out to, and touched, and healed, and gave new life to. Because whoever we are, I think we’re a lot like him.

Thanks be to God.