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Stewards of God's Grace

Sermon - 5/04/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Peter 4:7-11

We are observing Earth Day this morning, even though the actual event was a week ago -- it fit better on our schedule today.  And the text that we're using to reflect upon comes from the 4th chapter of the first letter of Peter.  We've been looking at Peter for the last three or four Sunday's now, and this text is kind of interesting to reflect on in this context.

It begins with a challenge:

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. 8Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 9Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

 

There was a common assumption in the early church that is reflected in this text that Jesus would return and usher in the end of the age.  The Apostle Paul apparently thought that would happen in his own lifetime, or at least in the earliest letters he wrote.  The later letters of Paul seem to reflect a change in that thinking.

And I think we can safely say, now, some 2,000 years later, that such an event is no more likely today than it was back then when these words were written.

And I find it incredibly odd, therefore, that those who argue for absolute inerrancy of scripture explain away such references to the imminent return of Jesus as references to our time, rather than to the time in which it was written.

How can you believe in a literal interpretation of the return of Jesus when such an interpretation necessitates a timetable now 1,900 years past due?

 

Someone left this cartoon on the door of my office this week.  It portrays a man sitting at a table writing on a scroll, a halo over his head (presumably a gospel author), a camel in the distance, a palm tree, and another man looking at the scroll and says "Quit worrying about corroborating your sources -- it's not as if anyone's going to take all this literally."

From that great source of theological wisdom -- the New Yorker.

Progressive Christianity, you see, does not have that problem (it may have other problems, but that's not one of them).  The irony is that those who believe that the end of the world is coming, may help bring out that end by encouraging actions that will hasten the day because they believe such is the will of God.  And such belief, I believe, is totally contrary to sound Biblical teaching on several fronts, and I want to name just two this morning.

First of all, to knowingly and willingly contribute to the destruction of the earth and to believe that such is God's will, is the ultimate hubris denounced in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis.  You remember that story, the inhabitants of earth build this tower to obtain the height of God, and it is destroyed and their language is confused.

When people attempt to play God, terrible consequences are usually the result.  Those who encourage war in the Middle East because they think it will bring about the return of Jesus are perhaps the greatest threat to God's will on earth that exists.

Such is totally contrary to the teaching of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus, the writings Epistles such as this text -- "maintain constant love for one another".  The bumper sticker that perhaps you have seen sums it all up for me:  "When Jesus said 'Love Your Enemies', He Probably Meant Do Not Kill Them".

We must be clear for the sake of our grandchildren's future:  Biblical descriptions of Armageddon and cosmic battles between God and Satan such as portrayed in the Book of Revelation are metaphorical stories of the struggle between good and evil.  They are not predictions of future events, or of God's intent to destroy the earth.  And to read them as such is a terrible distortion of Christian faith, and nothing less than the assassination of the character of a loving God.

I don't know how to say it any stronger than that, so if that didn't get through, let me know J.

Secondly, the idea that the world is coming to an end and therefore we don't have to worry about the environment is directly counter to the Biblical notion that we are stewards of the earth.  God created the earth, the story of Genesis 1 tells us, and at each step along the way God calls it "good".  That God would then will the destruction of this good earth is simply incompatible with every notion we have of the goodness of creation, and the goodness of God.

One of the very encouraging developments, I think, within the environmental movement is the inclusion of evangelical Christianity as many evangelical Christians and groups have joined in the effort, recognizing that this is part of our responsibility as good stewards of the earth, to be concerned about such things as climate change.

Former Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, James Watt, has often been routinely criticized for testifying in Congress that protecting the environment was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus.  And I have been one of those who have cited him a few times as an example of this terrible distortion of Christian teaching.  But it turns out that what actually has been distorted is Secretary Watt's words.  His testimony in Congress in 1981 was:  "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns".  Probably people heard that and didn't know what to make of it.  But he continued, saying:  "Whatever it is, we have to manage -- with skill -- to leave the resources needed for future generations".

So, in fact, Secretary Watt was making the opposite point as what has often been ascribed to him.  And, a vast majority of evangelicals today agree, saying precisely this:  that because we do not know when Christ will return, we must maintain our natural resources and protect the environment for the sake of future generations.  I welcome that kind of perspective.

So whether one believes that the second coming is a literal event that may come far off in the future, or a metaphorical event that describes how the real transforming presence of Christ is available to us today, the end result as far as the environment is concerned is the same.  God desires the preservation, not the destruction, of the earth.

This is another example of what we mean when we say 'Transforming Christianity'.  To eradicate the absurd notion from Christian teaching that the end of the world is imminent, when in fact such is contrary to the image of the goodness of God and the goodness of creation.

So what do we then do with a text like this one in 1 Peter that says "the end of all things is near"?  Seems to be a problem.

One choice, offered by John Dominic Crossan, is to say "Well, the text is wrong, get over it!".  But Crossan wouldn't actually say that about this text.

The other choice, much better, is to understand what the author was saying in the original context.

Turns out the Greek word here for "end" in 'the end is near' is "telos".  And it is a wonderfully rich concept in Greek and Jewish thought.  It means not the end in the sense of dissolution of things, but rather fullness, wholeness, or perfection.  It was a common topic among philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Philo.  But more influential on the author of 1 Peter, undoubtedly, was 'telos' as it was conceived in Jewish apocalyptic thought in which it is presented as the final age, or the culmination of time.  When all things come not to an end, but to their final purpose as intended by God.

And I think that's clearly what the author here has in mind.  Not the end of the world, but the goal of creation.  There's no sense of panic, that urgency that you have to do something now, or a sense of doom.  Like the poster I remember from my college days that mimics these government declarations of what to do in the time of a disaster, and this one says "In case of nuclear attack:  Step 1, place your head between your knees.  Step 2:  kiss your . . . derrière goodbye!".  Probably wasn't that language -- I cleaned it up a little bit for my audience J.

You see, this is not Chicken Little announcing the sky is falling.  To the contrary, this is instruction not of how to live until that time when God's purpose for creation is fulfilled, but rather how to live so that purpose of God for creation is fulfilled.  Maintain constant love for one another.  Be hospitable to one another.  Serve one another with the gift that God has given to you.  Be stewards of God's grace.

So what does that mean in today's context, especially as we think about our responsibilities as stewards of creation? 

Albert Einstein said that "Science without religion is lame.  Religion without science is blind".

The first thing we have to do is pay attention to what science is telling us about the state of this planet.  In the last 50 years, the population of the earth has doubled.  So think about that -- from the beginning of humanity until about 1950, it took that long to get 2.5 billion people on the earth.  Today we have over 6.5 billion people on earth. 

In the last 50 years, the number of cars has increased tenfold.  Half of them are in the driveway (parking lot?) in front of my house J.  The use of fossil fuels has increased 5 times.  The use of fresh water has tripled.

The World Wildlife Fund reports that we are consuming food, fuel, and resources at a rate that is equivalent to 1.2 earths.  The extra 20% coming from burning up the stored, accumulated resources that cannot be replenished, and hence cannot be sustained, and will not be available for future generations.  They say by the year 2025, we will be producing the equivalent of 2 earths.  Clearly not sustainable.

Nearly a half a billion people today live in countries which cannot grow enough food to feed their own people.  Their numbers are steadily increasing as population grows and available cropland either is diminished or used for alternative purposes like for fuel.  That's created an enormous moral dilemma among those of us conscious of trying to use alternative fuels.  My wife was quick to correct me in the first service this morning to say that that not all alternative fuels come from crops -- she drives a bio-diesel vehicle that uses fuel converted from cooking oil and the like.

And so we read about the growing food crisis worldwide.  Ron McKenzie, who worked as an intern for us, now lives in Mexico, and over a year ago he told us that the price of corn had become so high in Mexico that many people cannot afford to buy corn to make their own tortillas.  This is a problem.

There was a study commissioned by the Pentagon in the year 2003 that warns that climate change could result in a significant drop in the human caring capacity of the earth's environment, and potentially destabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints.  Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life.

David Korten spoke here last fall, a full house here in the sanctuary.  He spoke to our Prime Time class, I'm sure those members remember when he was here.  Went to the same school as Carl Isle, they knew him as a kid, and now he has become this famous author.  He writes in his book - The Great Turning:  "How we humans choose to respond to those changing circumstances will determine whether the situation degenerates into persistent wars for the last of earth's bounty, or, brings forth a new era of cooperation based on an ethic of equitable sharing to meet the needs of all."

And Korten lays forth in this book his vision for how that latter is not only possible, but how it is already beginning to take shape.  What I found absolutely fascinating in reading his book is how central theology, and the story of Jesus is to his vision of what he calls "Earth Community", that will replace Empire as the dominant force for how the world is run.

He says that the dominant image of the God of Empire is a distant, divine monarch.  A super-natural being who acts by interceding in human affairs, often violating the laws of nature in the process, who favors one particular group over another, who rules through appointed representatives, demands absolute allegiance, exclusive loyalty, and extracts vengeance no enemies and unbelievers.

And understandably, that results in empires that behave in similar ways and therefore become very oppressive.

The God of Earth Community, on the other hand, is a very intimate God.  Present to us at all times, favors all people, lives within the created order, acts within the laws of nature, reigns in the hearts of people, exhibits love and compassion for all, especially the poor and disenfranchised. 

Korten writes:  "We are quite literally living in a relationship with the spirit we call God in every aspect of every minute of our lives.  For we have no existence apart from this relationship.  We have only the choice to be true to the relationship or to betray it".

A remarkable statement coming from one who is not a theologian, not a Biblical scholar, not a church leader, devoted his life to international economic development to help the poor of third world countries.  And has come to this kind of conclusion, of a different way of how we have to be in the world.  And sounding a theme that some will recognize from Jim Wallis' "God's Politics" that our Monday-morning group has just finished, he says:  "Those who wait for a distant God to intervene miss the point.  We are not here to obey a God jealous of his authority, but to engage with creation as partners in grand adventure.  We are the ones we have been waiting for."

Many, I know, look to current events in the world -- to population growth, to climate change, to peak oil, hurricanes and droughts increasing, food crises, housing crises, market collapse, wars, rumors of wars, and Pat Kilkenny leaving the University of Oregon, you know, all those kinds of disasters, and they understandably despair. 

So hear this message of hope from Korten's conclusion:

"Rather than given into despair in this often frightening time, let us rejoice in the privilege of being alive at a moment of creative opportunity unprecedented in the human experience.  Peace and justice for all, and a  sustainable relationship to the planet are within our reach.  The next step in our own journey is to create societies that support the development of the fullness of our positive human potential as we advance our understanding of how we might best develop that potential and apply it to the service of the whole.  Progressive Christians refer to it as creating God's kingdom on earth.  A world of deeply democratic societies in which all people have the opportunity to carry forward the work of creation through productive and fulfilling lives, and dynamic, creative, and balanced relationships with one another and the living earth."

This is our call.  Transforming the world.  The end, the goal, of all things, that is so near and dear to us, that we will live and act as good stewards of the grace that God gives to us.

 


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