Sermon: Many the Gifts of Creation, Same Spirit, One Call

“The Peaceable Kingdom — the Last Supper” by Jan Wall

By Jim Brenneman

Scripture Litany: Psalm 104:24;1Corin.12:4-5; Col.1:15-23

How many are your works O, Lord, Creator of the Universe! In wisdom you have made them all; the whole cosmos is full of your creatures.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

How many are your works O, Lord, Creator of the Universe! In wisdom you have made them all; the whole cosmos is full of your creatures.

Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and inhim all things hold together. . .For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven.

How many are your works O, Lord, Creator of the Universe! In wisdom you have made them all; the whole cosmos is full of your creatures.

I.

Let me begin by saying how grateful I am today in becoming a full-fledged member of the body of Christ incarnated here at FMCSF. I’ll say a bit more about that later in the service. As a body-part of the body of Christ of FMCSF, I come today as a voice – a bit overwhelmed by the Spirit — to share a version of a message I brought to the PSMC a month or so ago, which I was asked by Sheri to offer here this morning.

While preparing for this message and reading the biblical texts of our litany, it dawned on me that I was reading these old familiar body-of-Christ texts that describe the great variety of gifts in the body far too narrowly. While practicing a version of lectio divina, reading and re-reading and meditating on these texts, which I often do as the first step in sermon preparation . . . 

It’s as if I had an out-of-body experience that soared far above this earthly plain and expanded my vision farther and wider than usually happens in having read these texts for so many years; the Spirit sailed me back in time immemorial to the dawn of the universe. I heard the Psalmist cry out, “How many are your works, O, Lord, Creator of the Universe, in wisdom you have made them all; the whole cosmos is full of your creation.”

And then that same Spirit that had me hovering over the primordial pool that would become our Earth mother, swept me back to these texts of St. Paul, reminding me that Paul wrote elsewhere (letter to Col) that Christ, was not only the head of this glorious body, the church, but was the image of the invisible God, the first born of creation, and that all creatures, all things, all of creation visible and invisible was created through him, and will be reconciled by him, whether on earth or heaven.”   

How many are your works O, Lord, Creator of the Universe! In wisdom you have made them all; the whole cosmos is full of your creatures.

Let’s unpack this just a bit more.

II.

By way of reminder, Paul’s notions of linking the body of Christ to a body of believers with many parts with a grand array of gifts is borrowed from Roman/Greek literature of his time, but also, from his Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures and the mystic traditions of his Jewish faith.

The Greek/Roman myths often suggested, on the one hand, that their king or Caesar was the divine head of the body or polis or nation or people, and on the other, their subordinate gods were embodied in nature. In the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (and elsewhere), God is portrayed as having a heavenly body embodied in the“stormy wind,” or “within a great cloud with brightness,” and, God’s voice is as “the thunder,” God’s eyes, lightening  — flashing as “a fire” from his being. . .”  Elsewhere, God is called “Our Rock.” These and other texts are but monotheistic reframing of the Mesopotamian iconography of the stars, sky, heavens, and earth as embodying a myriad of gods. (Footnote #1)

All to say, it was reasonable (for evangelistic and apologetic reasons) for the Apostle Paul to describe Christ in such cosmic terms as the first born of creation, the head of all of creation, visible and invisible. It is also reasonable and exegetically sound to infer as I am doing here that the body metaphor being used here by Apostle Paul need not simply be limited to the church but can be extended to the whole cosmos.

How many are your works O, Lord, Creator of the Universe! In wisdom you have made them all; the whole cosmos is full of your creatures.

When we begin to speak of how many gifts the Spirit has granted us, or what a great variety of gifts have been bestowed upon us as people of God, let us not forget, the gifts of creation and its creatures on every square inch of planet earth, everywhere and all around us. Today scientists have estimated that there are at least 8.7 million species of plants and animals in existence. And with all that knowledge, scientists have only begun to name the many varieties of species, yet God already knows every one of them by name. As Jesus reminds us in his great sermon on the mountain, God knows when one little sparrow of no consequence to the farmer, falls to earth and dies.

Rumi, one of the world’s greatest poets, an Islamic Sufi master, born in the borderlands of Afghanistan, reminds us that creation leads us to the Creator if we only have ears to hear and eyes to see. “Behind the beauty of the moon,” he writes, “is the Moonmaker . . . . feeding our love.”

We named our little refugee cat, Rumi, who came to us as a gift from the Creator to lighten our COVID-exile. You see, behind the beauty of our little cat-friend Rumi, we experience daily the Cat-Maker “feeding our love.” Several weeks ago, Sheri, told of how her beloved cat, Bocci, who served as a weighted blanket of care over her troubled body and soul, a divine gift of comfort in her hour of need.

Truth be told, if more of us listened to God’s embodied natural world, we might see how author Suzy Becker could write a book entitled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned from my Cat.  Rumi, as did Jazz, our dear cat of beloved memory, taught and teaches us many things, as I’m sure Bocci and other cat family members teach and have taught some of you. Things like: 

  • remember to wash behind your ears;
  • don’tr be afraid to take chances because you’ll always land on your feet;
  • don’t always come when you’re called;
  • make yourself vulnerable, but don’t be afraid to bite the hand that feeds you;
  • there’s always time for a nap;
  • ask for attention and
  • find a good lap now and then to curl up in.
  • And, by all means, celebrate Christmas, the dangling ornaments on the tree, the tunnels of Christmas wrapping and the coming to earth of the Christ child who comes to reconcile ALL of creation to God (Col. 1:15-20; Isaiah). And that means God has come to earth for Jazz, Bocci and Rumi’s sake and for Rumi’s big brother, Farley, our beloved family dog, as well.

What I’m trying to say here is that nature or creation is given theological weight in Scripture. And that salvation is not all about us!  From the garden of Eden to Noah to the prophet Joel, God seeks to save all life on earth.

In the flood story, for example, God preserves two of every species, such was God’s concern for maintaining creation’s biodiversity! The prophet Joel had a vision about the end of time in some far-off future, when the beasts would groan in fear, the cattle would low; and flocks of sheep would be dismayed (1:15-16, 18). But then Joel comforts them promising, “Fear not, O beasts of the field, for the pastures will once again be green and fruit and figs will be plentiful” (2:21-22). Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (8:18-23), picks up the theme: “All creation waits with eager longing,” he proclaims, “for the Messiah.” 

God coming to earth, God becoming dust and water and whatever else we animal-like creatures are made of, means that humans (Adamah/Adams) are co-pilgrims with God and nature on this amazing adventure called salvation. We, with all creation, each in our own ways, according to our own limits and knowledge, offer up praise to God. Even the “trees of the field, clap their hands.” And it is right and good that each in our own way and within our own limited awareness longs for God to come again in Christ to save us: “Both human creature and the beast, thou savest, O Lord!” (Job 36:6b)

The formation of one-eighth inch of topsoil takes well over a century to produce and one handful contains more micro-organisms than every human being on earth. (Footnote #2)  Long before any human resided nearby, the great beauty of the Grand Canyon was being formed, literally carved, Michelangelo-like, out of stone by the Colorado River cutting through layers upon layers of rock over countless years.

And that four-leaf clover in the middle of my grandparents Iowa farm where we kids searched and searched to find just one hidden there among a myriad of three-leafers? God sees and is delighted by its unique covertness. And the mourning dove’s plaintive call has sung the blues of the cosmos for God for ages upon ages before us. And the giant Sequoia groves in Northern California standing right there, some for well-over 5000 years, their massive limbs outstretched in praise to God. I believe, with Scripture (Ps. 104), that God found and still finds great thrill in the creation, quite apart from you or me. 

Long embedded in biblical and Jewish tradition is the reminder that we are one creature among the many.  When Job lost sight of his place in the vast universe of God’s creation, overwrought by his own sense of deserved hierarchy, God reminds him in what is the most heart-stirring creation poem in the whole Bible (Job 38-40): God saying, “Oh, Job, do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Can you guide the constellations of Pleiades and Orion across the sky? Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?”   

In the Jewish Talmudic tractate called Sanhedrin, the rabbinic masters tell a story sort of like the one in today’s children’s story. (Foonote #3) Rabbi Eliezer (?) asks: “Humans were created on the eve of the Sabbath – and for what reason?” He answers, “so that in case their heart grows too proud, and they say, ‘We are the best, so Ha Shem, God, should love us the most.” But Ha-Shem, God, say to them: `even the gnat was created before you!’” 

If God so loved gnats before humans even existed, clearly God loves creation deeply, primordially, completely. “God so loved the cosmos!” (John 3:16). God so loved the cosmos that God gave up even God’s own prerogatives as God (Philippians 2) in order to save the whole cosmos. And so must we.  

Sisters and brothers of the sun, moon, stars, and all creatures of our God and Creator King, lift up your voice and sing. Alleluia! Sing of our earth-Maker, who on the seventh day of creation declared for all time, “it is very good.”

Sisters and brothers of creation, if God oversaw billions of years of nature’s hallowed existence long before you and I in any form landed on earth’s shores, it stands to reason, that God must take immense delight in the long slow creative process that has gone on before us. No doubt, God will continue to delight in creation’s unfolding long after any of us are around (depending on whether by our own choices we cease to exist here or not). 

How many are your works O, Lord, Creator of the Universe! In wisdom you have made them all; the whole cosmos is full of your creatures. We human species are one among many you long to save.

III.

Let me conclude with an admonition and a prayer.

Admonition.  Every species matters to God irrespective of its usefulness to humanity. There are clearly some creaturely extinctions that are part of the natural cycle of death and life. However, avoidable creaturely extinctions — those extinctions that are hastened by our will and neglect — ultimately damage the integrity of God’s world. The avoidable loss of any species due to our neglect erases something of God’s self-revelation in creation. The avoidable loss of any species due to our neglect expunges future gifts in Christ’s earthy body still buried and unknown to us in the vast biodiversity of rainforests and the deep blue seas. The avoidable loss of any species due to our neglect silences elements of creation’s worship of God, its Savior.

Whatever one’s theory about the current state of our planetary existence, I believe we have a moral imperative (a “call” to use Apostle Paul’s language) to do anything and everything we can to try to leave this blue-green giftcalled earth in better shape for future generations than when we received her as one of the greatest gifts ever given to us by God.

The gift of this planet earth was a salvation-act eons before “salvation history” (heilsgeschichte) ever began. The earth and its many forms of life and non-life came to us unbidden and undeserved, sheer-gift and grace, filled with a multitude of other gifts, a body with its many parts, each with its own purpose to perform.

Without the earth’s body (to continue the metaphor), none of us, no human would be here to have lived, to have risen to great heights, to have fallen short, to have formed communities of faith, to have been saved. Period. So, it seems to me, it is common decency, if not a moral and evangelistic necessity, to help God save God’s planet and its grand and beautiful biodiversity or to die-to-self trying.

It breaks my heart to say this, but it’s the truth: children and young people today will hardly stop to listen to a sermon about God’s love for them from any one of us who dares not address the single greatest threat to their futures, namely, humanity’s role in climate change and its aftermath. Nearly every survey of children and young people today (Pew, HE), when asked what the most important issues they face in their futures, respond almost unanimously, “the future of the planet.”

In my humble opinion, I think children and young people, in their primordial guts, intuitively sense God’s love for the whole cosmos. Without always knowing it, these young people, some with no religious affiliation or affection, love the earth, why? Rabbi John of Scripture says, “because God so loved first.” Young people rightfully slam the door shut on anyone who does not understand creation’s own special revelation. They rightfully plug their ears to anyone that fails to see in creation the great and awesome variety of gifts given by the same Spirit who hovered over its birth so long ago. They could care less that we call ourselves Christian, Christ-followers, when we fail to proclaim God’s salvation for the whole world; “God so loved” and still loves the cosmos!

End-of-the-world texts in Scripture (apocalyptic scenarios) suggest we may, indeed, be in those very last days given the climate changes we are living through today. It is conceivably possible that the end of the world as we know it, is just around the corner. 

Here let me be frank. Such an end is possible, even if such an outcome does not include you and me or any other human being. God’s been there and enjoyed such a world, countless years before us. Why not again?

As the Garden of Eden story reminds us, God gives us the power of choice in our earth-gardens, as to how the story ends.  And depending on our choice — sadly, God can begin again without us.

Thankfully, as Dr. Kinari Webb reminds us in her life’s work and recent book Guardians of the Trees, as does our Climate Action group, it is also conceivably possible that we can yet change the end of such a sad outcome to our blessing.  It is yet conceivably possible to have a sustainable world once again over which God hovers in love.

However, in fighting for the earth’s survival, our goal should never simply be about sustaining the earth – though that is a very noble goal, indeed. Professor Peter Brown of McGill University puts it this way, “It is quite possible to have a sustainable world, but not a desirable world or a just world.” This is especially so given the fact that almost all negative environmental effects wreak havoc first on the poor, the landless, the refugees, the widows and the orphaned. And create wars and rumors of war over water rights and land ownership.   

Perhaps, then, our goal, our ultimate calling, should be the same as that of our Creator God to help create a flourishing world (biblical shalom) in which all the earth and everything in it and all of heaven are reconciled to God in Christ, first born of Creation. 

How many are your works O, Lord, Creator of the Universe! In wisdom you have made them all; the whole cosmos is full of your creatures.

A prayer

Creator of the Universe, we offer our thanks for the countless gifts of your creation.

Grant us the wisdom to care for the earth and all the inhabitants thereof.

Help us become instruments of a new creation, founded on the covenant of your love.

Help us act now for the good of future generations and all your creatures.
We pray for an end to the waste and desecration of your beloved earth.
Inspire us to enjoy and share generously the variety of gifts of your creation.

Help us recognize the sacredness of every creature as signs of your wondrous love.

May every creature, alive and non-living, abound in well-being and peace.

May every living being, all creatures great and small, including each one of us, experience your great salvation.

We pray this in the name of Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, the one in whom all things hold together, through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to God and to each other, on earth and in the heavens. Amen.

 Footnote #1:

See, Isa. 66:1, Isa. 40:12, Ps 113:61, Ezek 1:4:26-27, etc.

See also, “The Three (typologies) Bodies of God in the Hebrew Bible by Mark S. Smith: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.15699/jbl.1343.2015.2790.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_search_gsv2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3A1cc88c28bfe754aa8803ab726cdb98b5

  1. Human-scale physical body manifest on earth.
  • Gen. 2-3 God as “great king” in his royal garden; somewhat taller version of ordinary human beings (so the ANE)
  • Gen 18:2  Yhwh as one of three men (angels) standing in midst; this god walks, talks, eats, and drinks.
  • Gen 32: “a man wrestled with” Jacob.” “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God”
  • Genesis only book w. naturalistic depictions of God.(as elsewhere in ANE)
  1. Super-human-sized (“liturgical” associated with temple, palace of deity) body manifest on earth that is not physical in Exodus/Isaiah
  • Exod. 24:1-11. “covenant meal on mt,” there “they saw the God of Israel” (v.10); all leaders here see God but are frightened in the doing. Exod 24:10. Under God’s feet . . .
  • Exod. 33-34 Seeing God’s backside (33:23); 34:6-7 God passes before Moses; 
  • Isa. 6 “I saw Yahweh sitting on a throne in Temple (not in heaven). . .” 15’ high about 10X larger than most humans (Cf. ANE).
  1. God’s Cosmic “Mystical Body/Spiritual, heavenly body in Later Prophets
  • Isa. 66:1. Heaven throne, earth footstool.
  • Isa. 40:12 “who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and gauged the heavens a span?” (cf. Ps 113:6)
  • Ezek 1:4. Divine appearance in a “stormy wind,” “a great cloud with brightness,” and “a fire flashing. . . “; Divine body on a divine throne (1:26-27)
  • Depicts Divine appearance ABOVE THE FIRMAMENT.
  • Dan.7
  • Mystical body; context: draws on new Mesopotamian view of the universe and astronomical writings and iconography; gods of the firmament = level of the stars of the sky or the night sky.  DH locates God in heavens (paralleling understanding of the cosmos and deity under way today).

And, the human body as a “Metaphor in Stoic Literature and Early Christian Writers” https://www.jstor.org/stable/24519689

And, “Paul and the Ancient Body Metaphor: Reassessing Parallels.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/26371757

 (1 Corin. 12:12-13,17; 11:23-27; 6:15; Romans 12:4-5; Ephesians 2:16; 4:4,12-16; 5:21-33; Colossians 1:15-20, (cf. Prov. 8); 2:18-19, 3:15

Footnote #2: As told by Peter Wohlleben when picking up a handful of loamy soil in the new documentary based on his book, The Hidden Life of Trees.

Footnote #3: Is God’s Love Big Enough for Everyone? By Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. Flyaway Books, 2020.