Rev. Michael Livingston
Mark 12:28-34 • October 31, 2021
The universe is alive. Human beings have been looking up and getting hooked on the view for centuries. I get that. I’m not much in support of the wealthy men who are taking what seem like boutique trips into space—at least not while the problems we face on earth are as daunting and intractable as they are and these space cowboys are not contributing what they could and should to saving our democracy and overhauling the structural injustices that exist. Biden is celebrating the just announced agreement coming out of the G20 summit in Rome that will tax corporations who shield their profits in foreign countries. But congress—Democrats—won’t raise the corporate rate from 21% to 28%, still far below the 35% rate from the Obama era that Trump abandoned.
Still, space is inevitably a part of our present and future, its existence is a wonder all its own. The pictures that we’ve seen over the last several decades have given us vivid and color-filled images of what we long thought of as a vast blackness sprinkled with brilliant white stars—a contrast that doesn’t begin to approach what actually exists: breath-taking beauty, elements known and unknown to us in balances that suggest there may have been or could be conditions at least similar to the what sustains our life on earth. NASA is thoroughly engaged in brilliant work to answer questions that may help us understand that big bang, how it all came to be, what’s out there that might help us now and in the future. “Dragonfly” is a mission to a moon of Saturn’s called Titan where a craft will land taking pictures of rivers, mountains, and lakes much like our own on its way down.
What a thing it is to be alive, to wake and draw breath. To live on this speck of earth in a universe of universes so vast it is beyond our comprehension—even while we try to do just that—comprehend. I’m good with the science, let’s learn more and more about the gaseous beginnings of the stuff of the universes, ever expanding, deep and mysterious. None of it diminishes my belief in a creative force, an animating spirit, a love supreme, “God…” says the writer of Ephesians 4:6, “…above all and through all and in all…”. And we are in that, in all of that. We come from it through the miracle of birth: water, chemicals, matter, and we return to it through the miracle of death. Eternity is ours, this fleeting moment of consciousness for any one of us stretched across the centuries through our shared humanity accompanied by the many forms of life that enrich our be-ing together by unfathomable degrees of beauty and wonder. What a design. What a strategic plan. What joy and grace amid shadows that do not diminish the experience in the complex formulas that we have yet to fully unravel.
Thank God. Thank God for all that is. For creation. For up there and here. Thank God and love God, “with all your heart and mind and soul…” We wake up to this, every morning. Every Sunday (and some of us every day and every Wednesday—you know who you are!); I see you—at least I know you’re there and you see us. We breathe, we work, we play, we read and rest and enjoy one another. And it is a joy. All gift. Given.
Love God…And…I want to slip the earth in here, in-between God, neighbor, and self. It’s fair. Our earth is unspeakably beautiful. Pick your spot: For me it might be Yosemite, Half Dome, El Capitan, water falls, like the Ribbon Fall, so magnificent you sacrifice breath for still moments that feel like eternity. Mountains, rivers, oceans, continents, sights and sounds that dare us to think we alone are what’s it all about. And why stretch so much? Joyce Kilmer lays it bare:
“I think that I shall never see; a poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is prest; against the earth’s sweet flowing breast. A tree that looks at God all day; and lifts her leafy arms to pray. A tree that may in summer wear; a nest of Robbins in her hair. Upon whose bosom snow has lain; who intimately lives with rain. Poems are made by fools like me; but only God can make a tree.”
We can’t possibly love others if we don’t love the earth, if this dominion we’ve been given is forfeited for penthouses, fashion, corporations and conglomerates, plastic—that’s oil in a bottle and a slick bag to carry my groceries, destined to live forever while killing life in the ocean. Love God and love the earth. That’s redundant really. I can’t love God, creator, and destroy earth…that’s deadly ironic, nonsensical. We can’t love God and keep multiplying the store of radioactive waste buried underground and above ground with no real plan for how to keep it from incinerating us. (…and litter space with more than 27,000 pieces of space junk traveling 15,700 MPH. I know, it’s a conundrum, exploration requires satellites with expiration dates. Useful and functional, then obsolete and a threat to Space Sations.)
We can’t love God and ignore climate change. We can’t love God and strip the Build Back Better package of its core climate initiatives. We can’t love God and subject the earth to more drilling for oil, more mining for coal, more single use plastic bottles. Love God…And…Love the earth. We have no choice in this. No reasonable choice, no intelligent alternative. There are children among us. You will see the tomorrow we leave. We see you. We love you. So, we love God, and we must love the earth. Love for what is other than us, more than us, beyond us, outside of us, above us, love without the compulsion to manipulate, control, and distort for reasons we know are no longer good for us, for the earth our only home.
Love God…And love the earth…And love our neighbor.
I’m hearing Nat King Cole, “The best thing in life is a thing that’s free.” And we all know what that thing is: Love. Love is the thing. It’s the title track of his 1957 album “Love is the thing”? “What good is money if your heart isn’t right…?” Fortune and fame, they never endure…love is the thing, love is the thing.” We are wasting God’s gift if we aren’t loving one another, serving one another, living for one another. Our world is broken because we have not, we cannot, so far love our neighbor. We don’t recognize one another as neighbors. We inhabit what we take to be different universes—why not use the cosmic term—that’s how vast are the differences we imagine so that we arm ourselves and kill one another. We’re republicans and democrats, Iranians, Russians, and Japanese. We’re Muslims, Jews, Christians. We’re the very wealthy and everybody else. We’re Cis or variously gendered. We’re the western European model for civilization or not up to that standard/wannabees. We’re everything else…before we are human, neighbors on God’s earth. We serve our own needs first…in case there isn’t enough. Scarcity rules, abundance ignored.
“Serve and hate will die unborn. Love—and chains are broken,” wrote Langston Hughes in his poem Alabama Earth spoken over the grave of Booker T. Washington.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that, wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in Strength to Love. “One love. One heart,” sang Bob Marley. I’m hearing Nat again, from the song Nature Boy: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Gregory Porter sings it now.
Love God—And. Love the earth—And. Love my neighbor. “My job is to plant seeds of love, and to keep on planting, even—or especially—when bad weather comes. It’s folly to think I can know the grand plan, how my small action fits into the larger whole. All I can do is check myself, again and again: Do my actions look like love?” Preached Presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry. Oh my. Do my actions look like love? I need to check myself. You need to check yourself. What I just said…what you just did…what we are doing together: Does it look like love? Does it give you that “loving feeling”? The Righteous Brothers. Is it righteous? Are my actions righteous?
It’s Reformation Sunday. Our text says, “…and to love…neighbor as self—this is much more important than sacrifices and burnt offerings.” Luther could have gotten his clue from this text right here. Rich folk buying their way out of trouble, paying for sin, for advantages in a system that consigned the made-poor to the theological basement. This is, for certain, deeply flawed theology, nothing biblical about it at all.
Love God…and love this planet…and love my neighbor…as I love myself. Every one of us is beautiful. Everyone loved by someone. We have our preferences; some folks we must love but may never like. God loves us all. Loving self is where it all begins. Not the vanity of “I’m the greatest.” Muhammad has that one cornered, and that’s alright with me. I’m talking about the quiet confidence of the “I am worthy” that all of us can claim. The “My face is in the image of God” that each of us can say and see reflected in the mirror or the clear surface of still water.
In her book of mystics, Ursula King paraphrases St. Catherine of Genoa from the late 15th century: “My deepest me is God!” It is deeper even than God’s image on each face. You and I are worthy because God is in us, as we are in God. “In each human soul there exists a divine element,” wrote Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century, “…a kind of inner eye capable of glimpsing something of God, for there exists a deep relationship, an affinity between human and divine nature.
God is in me, in us. I am, we are in God. Raise your game. I’ve got to lift my aim. You’ve got to show up in the world, not in your Halloween costume, rather clothed as you are with the light of God. Oh my.
Richard Rohr, whose daily meditation are the source of the last several quotes, wrote in The Universal Christ: The essential work of religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in ourselves and everything else too. Whatever we call it, this ‘image of God’ is absolute and unchanging. There is nothing we can do to increase or decrease it. It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it. It is pure and total gift, given equally to all.
Your gift is yours to use to make the world a better place for you and yours—for all. Love God. And, love the earth. And, love your neighbor as you love yourself. Amen.