Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
October 2, 2011
THE SUN AND THE RAIN AND THE APPLESEED: CREATION SPIRITUALITY AND THE EUCHARISTIC
Texts: Isaiah 25:6-8; Matthew 5:43-48
Our children lead our blessings every Wednesday at our church Fellowship Dinner. Sometimes they will sing the Johnny Appleseed song:
Oh, the Lord’s been good to me
and so I thank the Lord
for giving me the things I need
the sun and the rain and the apple seed.
The Lord’s been good to me
Here is the heart of “Creation Spirituality,” a spirituality based upon the holiness of all things and the giftedness of all things. All life is holy, and all life is a gift. There is also a simplicity about the song and a contentment. To use the words of Wendell Berry: “What we need is here.”1
It is a good song to lead us to the eucharistic table of God on this Worldwide Communion Sunday. “Eucharist” means both good gift and thanks. We come to this table giving thanks to God, Christ and Holy Spirit for all the gifts of life, material and spiritual. And this table is larger than the Christian table; it is the table of the kingdom of God, where people of all colors, tongues and creeds gather, all children of God, children of the sun and the rain and the seeds which replenish the Earth, the wheat that springs from the Earth and the fruit of the vine.
We call ourselves “an Ecumenical community in the Baptist tradition.” “Ecumenical” comes from the New Testament Greek word ecumene, which means “the whole inhabited Earth as the household of God.” What if we lived this way? As if this were the truth? It means for us here our commitment to unity among all Christians, spiritual friendship with all religions and our care of the Earth as a form of the love of God and neighbor.
Ecumenical has been a part of our church’s identity from the beginning. Our first senior minister, George Heaton, connected us to the ecumenical movement of the worldwide church which sought to end the scandal of our dividedness. Carlyle Marney challenged us to a deeper ecumenism that went beyond the boundaries of Christian, Muslim, Jew – a unity based on our common humanity.
The ecumenism we embrace does not erase religious differences and distinctiveness, but is based on mutual respect and desire for mutual understanding. May the sound of the Jewish Shofar, the Christian bell and the Muslim minaret be always heard, and may God make music with all them together.
Some spiritual leaders – Jewish, Christian, Muslim – joined together after 9/11 and declared a unity based on a common verse in all traditions, what we call the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or, as Wendell Berry paraphrased: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do to you.” The famous first-century Rabbi Hillel was approached by a person who said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot and I’ll convert to Judaism.” Hillel stood on one foot and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
This table today is the table of the sun and the rain and the golden rule.
It is the table of the coming reign of God, experienced right now in our midst. This is what theologians mean by eschatological: the future reign of God as experienced here and now. As the hymn writer Bren Wren expresses it: “Live tomorrow’s life today.”
In our Hebrew scripture we see a vision of the banquet table of the kingdom of God where all people are gathered and enjoy a meal of rich food and good wine, meats dripping with fat and marrow, and wines aged to fineness.
The table of the kingdom of God is meant for all and is meant for Earth. “People will come from north and south and east and west and eat at the table in the kingdom of God,” Jesus said. In the New Testament the vision of such a table was often pushed into the future, into the world to come. But Jesus asked us to pray for the kingdom to come “on earth as in heaven.”
Not only is it a table meant for all and filled with the best of foods; it is a table where God has lifted the shroud of death and disgrace. God has swallowed up death, wiped away tears, removed disgrace. Was the prophet speaking to a God’s people vanquished and disgraced by war and conquest? Perhaps so. We’ve seen in history what can happen to a nation humiliated and disgraced. It can, as in Germany, create a seed bed for the rise of Nazism and Hitler. As on a personal level we can live under the shroud of death and disgrace and become the walking dead.
But God is lifting the shroud, swallowing up death, wiping away tears, removing disgrace and creating in our midst a beloved community and a banquet table of the kingdom of God.
Jesus preached the ethic of the kingdom of God in his Sermon on the Mount, and the climax comes with his command to love our enemies. Those thrilling, impossible words.
You’ve heard it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so you may be children of your Abba in heaven.
And why do we do so? Because this is what God is like.
For God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.
Reinhold Niebuhr called this: “the impartial goodness of God beyond good and evil.” God provides the gifts of sun and rain to all. We may say at first, Does God have no standards? No justice? But then we remember there is the good and evil in us all; we are all a mixture of righteous and unrighteous, just and unjust. Suddenly those words are good news. Jesus is re-visioning God for us. Not a God of anger and vengeance, rewarding and punishing, but a God of compassion and mercy, to all people at all times, to us.
Jesus then concluded with these daunting words: “Be perfect as your Abba in heaven is perfect.” Anybody here want to sign up for perfection? Does anyone here not know the shadow side of perfectionism? “Perfectionism is terrible,” wrote the poet Sylvia Plath; “it cannot have children.”
So let’s delve deeper into this saying of Jesus. First of all, the Greek word translated “perfect,” teleios, is better translated complete or whole. Our goal is not perfection but completeness, wholeness.
But Jesus didn’t speak Greek, rather a form of Hebrew called Aramaic. What word did Jesus use? Some scholars say a word that meant the “way of perfection” which meant following the Law of God. In Deuteronomy we hear the oft-repeated command: “Be holy as God is holy.” Is that what Jesus meant?
But take a look at Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke Jesus says, Love your enemies and so become children of God, for God “is kind to the ungrateful and selfish” – which sums us up some days. Then Jesus says, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”
Be like God, and what is God like? Compassionate! The word for “compassion” in the Hebrew comes from the word for womb. Be womb-like as your Father is womb-like. Be like your Motherly Father or Fatherly Mother in heaven. Again, Jesus is revisioning God for us. What is God’s name? Compassion!
So back to Matthew’s word “perfect.” Here is my sense of it as part of the whole paragraph. Love your enemies and so become sons and daughters of God. Be God-like as God is God-like. And what is God like? One who sends the sun and the rain to all, good and evil, just and unjust. Be God-like, which is only possible as God dwells in you. Be holy as God is holy, which is only possible as God’s holiness dwells in you. Be compassionate, which is possible only as God’s compassion becomes your own.
One final move. If we are to be partners with God in creating the banquet table of the kingdom of God on Earth it requires a commitment to justice and to the care of the Earth. And in our day the two are connected. We cannot exploit the natural resources of the Earth without impoverishing some people and finally impoverishing us all. Mountain-top removal first impoverishes Appalachia, but finally impoverishes us all.
So there is a connection between our solar panel dedication today and communion. Our solar panels will reduce our contribution to greenhouse gases by five tons a year. A warmer planet will affect first the poorest of the planet. Those panels signal our commitment to a world less dependent on fossil fuels. It also lessens the temptation of war. Fossil fuels are a finite, non-replenishable resource. Scarcity leads to anxiety, which leads to greed, which leads to war.
There is a connection between the table of the kingdom and care of the Earth. Wendell Berry writes these luminous and challenging words:
To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.2
Not only is the bread and wine of this table a sacrament, but the Earth itself is a sacrament which we are called by God to handle as bread and wine, as the bread and wine of this table.
After the children give the blessing on Wednesday nights, we sing an Argentinian blessing:
God bless to us our bread
and give bread to all those who are hungry
and hunger for justice to those who are fed.
God bless to us our bread.
With the blessing let us all come to this table, children of God, children of the sun and the rain and the appleseed.
Famous twentieth-century theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin wrote:
The day will come when after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.
Today with our solar panels we harness a bit of the energy of the sun. But at this table, Christ’s table, we celebrate something even greater, the harnessing of the energies of love.
1 Wendell Berry, “What we need is here.”
2 Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Earth” in The Art Of the Commonplace (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint Press, 2002), p. 30