Free, empowered creation – 1

The first of 4 posts for chapter 6 of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

The Paradigm of the Lover

If the natural world’s current design is the result of a long history that can be explained by natural laws, how are we to understand the presence and the activity of the Giver of life?

How can this evolving world be understood as God’s good creation?

Prior to knowledge of evolution, the idea of the Creator went hand-in-glove with the model of God as a monarch ruling over his realm. Reflecting the worldview of their day, many  biblical and classic theological texts expressed the world’s relation to God through the metaphor of God as Creator/King.

The old metaphor becomes difficult when the theory of evolution makes clear that the world’s gorgeous design has not been executed by direct divine agency (so to speak, ‘from above’) but is the result of innumerable, infinitesimal adaptations of creatures to their environment (‘from below’).

The old metaphor becomes even more difficult when we realize that the variations on which natural selection works occur randomly. The absence of direct design, the presence of genuine chance, the enormity of suffering and extinction, and the ambling character of life’s emergence over billions of years are hard to reconcile with a simple monarchical idea of the Creator at work.

Building from a theology of the presence of the Creator Spirit (as discussed in chapter 5), the view proposed here holds that God’s creative activity brings into being a universe endowed with the innate capacity to evolve by the operation of its own natural powers, making it a free partner in its own creation.

This position differs from deism; the difference lies in the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God, who continuously empowers and accompanies the evolving world.

This differs also from monarchical theism, where the Creator directly dictates or micro-manages the natural world’s every significant move. Far from compelling the world to develop according to a prescribed plan, the Spirit continually calls it forth to a fresh and unexpected future.

To be imaginative for a moment, it is as if at the Big Bang the Spirit gave the natural world a push, saying, “Go, have an adventure, see what you can become. And I will be with you every step of the way.” (p. 156)

What do we mean when we say, ‘God is love’?

The ancient Christian affirmation – ‘God is Love’ – testifies to the experience of God’s love in the history of Israel, made manifest in Jesus Christ, and in the ongoing gifts of the Spirit in the world, even to our own day.

To develop a theology of God’s action in the world, this history functions as an illuminating starting point and ongoing bedrock for reflection.  For all Christian theology, the gospel is good news. The love of God is a saving, healing, restoring power that benefits human beings:

• Irenaeus (2nd century) – “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

• Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century) – The Creator’s love enhances human autonomy: “What was begun by grace alone, is completed by grace and free choice together…”

• Karl Rahner (20th century) – Radical dependence on God and the genuine freedom of the creature increase to the same degree. The deep union of Jesus’ human nature with divine nature did not make him a robot but constituted him a genuine human being, with the integrity of his own freedom. Rahner reasons that the same dynamic holds true for all human beings.

And now, what about evolution?

Take these insights about God’s loving grace, that run through Christian theology from the 2nd to the 12th to the 20th century, and now extend them to the origin of species:

Christians believe that Jesus’ love, shown in his life, suffering and death, was characteristic of God’s way: compassionate self-giving love for the liberation of others. If this is true of God, we can expect to see God’s power not as controlling but as cruciform love – love that empowers others. Couldn’t it be that since the Spirit’s approach to human beings powerfully invites but never coerces, the best way to understand God’s action in the evolution of the natural world is by analogy with how divine initiative relates to human freedom?

Since gracious divine action reveals the character of God, then the holy Mystery who creates, redeems, and sanctifies the world brims over with the most profound respect for creatures. Divine love unfailingly manifests itself not as coercive ‘power-over’ but as ‘power-with’ that energizes others.

Compassionate, cruciform love brings flourishing to all creatures.  Among humans, a mature loving relationship builds up the strength of personal autonomy in those loved, whether they be on an equal footing, like spouses or friends, or at different stages of life like parents and children, students and teachers. Rather than suppressing the gifts of the other, love brings about their flourishing. In our fractured world love is never perfect, always mixed with other forces. On balance, however, its effect is so life-giving because its unifying bond brings about profound growth toward genuine autonomy.

The last chapter concluded that far from being distant from the divine, the world is the dwelling place of God. This chapter charts a path from the activity of the Spirit, Who is love, to the understanding that the evolving world, operating without compulsion according to its own dynamics, works freely with the incomprehensible God in bringing forth the fullness of its own creation.

Recall how biological evolution occurs over billions of years: life moves in the direction of complexity.

While unpredictable in advance, the sequence of life’s development can be reasonably understood in retrospect as the working out of innate propensities, with which the universe is gifted from the beginning.

This whole process is empowered by the Creator, Whose love freely gifts the natural world with creative agency.

Prophets: True and False

Preached on December 13, 2015

Have we become a nation led by ‘false prophets’?

(In the history of Israel, a prophet was someone who brought the word of God to the people.  A false prophet was someone who told the people what they wanted to hear.)

The day after the San Bernardino shootings, I was driving downtown and thinking about the unending violence in our nation and our world. In my mind I was hearing the cacophony of national voices pretending to be prophetic, shouting out answers in response to terrorism. Then I saw this bumper sticker on the car ahead of me:

bumper sticker

Today, too many of us are thinking only of what we want.
Too few of us are thinking of what our world really needs.

Every Advent we hear the voices of Israel’s prophets.

These prophets were not just foretelling the future, but forth-telling God’s Word.  This morning we’ve heard from John the Baptist (the very picture of a prophet!) and from Isaiah (we just sang that beautiful hymn set to Isaiah’s words):

Surely it is God who saves me; trusting God, I shall not fear.
For the Lord defends and shields me, and his saving help is near.
So rejoice as you draw water from salvation’s living spring;
in the day of your deliverance thank the Lord, his mercies sing…
Zion, lift your voice in singing; for with you has come to dwell,

in your very midst, the great and Holy One of Israel.  (Isaiah 12:2-6)

In the 1st century John the Baptist came with a word of warning:

Israel was living a miserable existence under Roman domination. Israel’s leaders had made an agreement with the Romans, thinking it kept them safe, but John called them ‘a brood of vipers’. Israel’s people were not only crushed by the Romans, but by their own leaders. So as a beginning of a new way of life, John told the people to treat each other fairly.

In the 8th century before Christ, Isaiah came with a word of comfort:

It was a time of extraordinary tension in Jerusalem; the northern kingdom (Israel) had been taken over by the Assyrians while the southern kingdom (Judah) paid heavy taxes to Assyria and wondered when its own time would come. Yet in that time of high anxiety Isaiah told them to rejoice – because the Holy One of Israel lived in their midst.

A true prophet not only has the courage to speak, but is also willing to hear.

And how does a prophet ‘hear’?

To hear anyone – from a neighbor to a spouse to the voice of God – we need to set aside our own perspective (always a partial view of reality) long enough to listen – really listen. So the true prophet steps away from his ‘place’ – whether that place is the Jerusalem of the 8th century BC, or the desert of the 1st century AD, or this extraordinary world of the 21st century.

If we listened – for God’s voice – what then would we hear?

A true prophet is also willing to see. 

And how does a prophet ‘see’?

A prophet does not look for the received wisdom of his own group, but asks for the wisdom of God.

God always sees the whole, not the part. (As Isaiah said, God is the Holy One in our midst). God not only sees comfortable, middle-class Americans wondering if their way of life will survive. God also sees miserable, mostly middle-class refugees running in desperation from their lost homes in Syria. God not only sees hundreds of westerners killed by terrorists, but thousands of Americans killed by guns, and thousands upon thousands of Muslims killed by terrorism.

If we tried to see as God sees, would we see more of the whole picture?

And then – finally – the prophet finds the courage to speak the truth.

(It’s not that prophets aren’t afraid – look what happened to John the Baptist – but what the true prophet hears and sees is so powerful it overcomes his fear.)

So what did John the Baptist ‘hear’ and ‘see’? John saw his people from God’s perspective: the nation’s leaders, sure of their grip on power, full of confidence – and the desperate poor, without power and without hope. To the nation’s leaders John said…. “ You brood of vipers…” To the desperate people John said… “Share what you have….”

And what did Isaiah ‘hear’ and ‘see’? Isaiah saw his people from God’s perspective: even the leaders had lost hope, fearing the Assyrians were coming for them next. So to a people living in fear, Isaiah said:. remember, the Holy One of Israel is right here in your midst.

To have God in our midst can be both a comfort and a warning.

When we are afraid, it is a comfort to know that God is with us.

Indeed, that is the deepest meaning of Christmas – Emmanuel, God is with us. God sees the whole picture, and with Christ in the picture the future is never as bleak as it may look to us.

But when we’re satisfied, it’s not always a comfort to hear what God has to say.

If we are rich, if we are comfortable, what about those who are poor and miserable? Can we learn to see the whole picture? Once again, God sees the whole picture….. and wants us to see it, too.

As always, Scripture always has a Word for us:

This Advent needs to be a time of listening and looking, so in the New Year we will be able to speak out with courage – about what we hear, and what we see.

 Preached at St. Benedict’s Church, Los Osos – December 13, 2015

The Widow’s Mite (Mark 12:38-44)

Preached on November 8, 2015

Widows mite

Risking all
she frees herself
of her last small treasure.
As the coins clatter away
her heart beats with fear and joy.
The widow flings her poverty in the face of power. *

As some of you know, last month Rob and I were on a cruise in the Mediterranean. If you ask Rob what was the best thing about the cruise, he’ll say, “The food!” And it’s true – we both have wonderful memories of the food – Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese – and of course all the meals on board the ship.

Poverty in the face of power:  As I hear this gospel story (and this poem) this morning, I’m remembering one particular dinner on the ship – when a political topic came up, the upcoming presidential election. It was hard for me to hear the whole conversation over the background chatter, but then all of a sudden, I heard a man across the table speak very clearly and firmly:

“I don’t agree with ‘one man, one vote!’ Why should someone who contributes nothing to the economy – someone who doesn’t have a job, or someone whose job doesn’t do much to grow the economy – why should they get the same vote as people who run large businesses, and create many other jobs?”

I continued to eat my sumptuous meal in silence, not willing to argue about politics, or values, over the din.  But I  thought of all the mothers, who don’t get paid but raise our children to be adults who contribute to society. And I thought of all the people, men and women, who get paid minimum salaries to do the jobs without which our homes, businesses, and organizations could not function. Should only those people who contribute substantially to the economy get a voice and a vote?

Make no mistake, this man is not the only member of our society who thinks this way. He just said what he thinks out loud, rather belligerently, after too much wine.

But Jesus thinks differently.

The widow Jesus notices in today’s gospel has received a lot of attention over the centuries. She is always remembered and honored for her radical generosity. And indeed she should be – and not just this unnamed widow, but all the unnamed “little” people, the poor and powerless, not only in the church, but in society.

Study after study shows that the poor (those most stressed by the hard facts of their daily lives) give more of their meager income to the church – and to charity – than the rich. That is, when you look at the percentage rather than the total, the poor are always far, far more generous than the rich.

So who are we, in light of Jesus’ ancient words – and in light of modern surveys – to say some classes of people should have no vote or voice because they contribute so little to the total amount in the money box?

The widow Jesus points to was a very real person, I’m sure, but she is also a symbol. She is a symbol of all the widows, all the children, all the poor, all the minority groups who have no voice, who are considered worthless by the powerful, yet give more of their substance to the body politic (and to the body religious) than the rich.

I remember the night I learned this lesson in a way that permanently changed my thinking about the power of money. I was a newly ordained priest. The rector, my new boss, had asked me to be the clergy representative on a new stewardship committee. (I was too green to realize that he put me on this committee because he himself was afraid to talk to the congregation about money.) I did already know, however, that he was intimidated by certain people in the congregation – who in his mind had great power because they had so much money.

So that fall I dutifully joined the stewardship committee, and the whole committee attended the November vestry meeting.  During that meeting we sat in concentric circles, and the stewardship chairman, who was tabulating the pledges, was sitting right in front of me in the inner circle. Unfortunately or fortunately, I could plainly see the list he was holding in his lap.

It was a list of the pledges that had already come in, and he was telling the vestry, in a very general and anonymous way, how the campaign was going.

But there in his lap was the list – penciled names and amounts, running in a long line down the page. And before I could look away, I saw the paltry amounts pledged by the people who most intimidated the rector – and the much larger amounts pledged by people who were obviously struggling financially.

Since that night I have rarely been afraid of the opinions of powerful people. I try, instead, to listen to their opinions – as fully and deeply, and with as much compassion  – as I listen to those whose lives and struggles pull at my heart strings.

And that brings me back to the widow and her mite.

It seems to me that listening to a gospel story is a lot like listening to a poem. We hear a poem, we even think we understand it, but we usually know we’re missing some (or even all) of the meaning.

And so the church through the centuries has heard the story of the widow’s mite – time and time again. And time and time again, the church has thought it understands Jesus’ meaning. And yet, and yet – time and time again, by our deepest thoughts and our outer actions, in our churches and in our societies – we demonstrate that we don’t get Jesus’ meaning.

How can we change this? Today, I invite you into an action.

It’s a very small action, I admit, but every profound change begins with a small change in our behavior, even a symbolic action. And here’s the action I’m asking for this morning – pick up your pencils.   Yes, pick up your pencils – by writing down these words, by rehearsing these words, we’ll be listening to this widow  –  and to Jesus – again and again.

Perhaps as we listen to this widow, we’ll also begin to change our attitudes about giving, about the poor, about those who don’t seem to matter much in our society.  We may even learn how to fling our own poverty into the face of power.

Risking all she frees herself of her last small treasure.
As the coins clatter away her heart beats with fear and joy.
The widow flings her poverty in the face of power.

* from Streams of Mercy: A Meditative Commentary on the Bible,
by the Rev. Ann Fontaine (AuthorHouse, 2005)

A sermon preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos – November 8, 2015.

Poems for April 16

Carol McPhee re-introduces us to Prayer, by Jorie Graham:

•  In Chapter 6 Johnson will make Aquinas’ concept of primary and secondary causation the hinge that connects her dialogue between the Nicene Creed and The Origin of Species.

After considering several theologies showing God as ’empowering the process’ of the continuing evolution of creation from within, Johnson presents Aquinas’ causation concept as more clearly enabling us to perceive both God’s transcendence and the basic integrity of God’s created entities.

• Aquinas’ thought is a fundamental part of Johnson’s theology. Chapter 5 in Ask the Beasts repeats much of what she said about Aquinas’ concept of God in her 1993 book She Who Is. By reinterpreting Aquinas she follows other theologians, like Karl Rahner, who find that with the medieval culture set aside, there is a basic truth to be found in his writings.

For example, Johnson overlooks the static universe that some have derived from Thomistic thought in her emphasis on the active meaning of esse, on God’s essential relationality and gift of love to creation, and on the concept of participation.

• So what does Aquinas say about causation?

The world is essentially unnecessary. To explain the world, there must be a cause not caused by a preceding one, a Being who causes all other causes, a primary cause. Primary cause is therefore in a class all its own, unique. Nothing caused the primary cause. It’s the beginning of everything and is not dependent on any other cause. At one point Aquinas argues that God is the ‘exemplary cause’ of all things, meaning that in God are all the essences or forms or possibilities of all creation.

Secondary causes are all created entities and are altogether in different class from primary cause. They’ve been set in motion or brought into being by the primary cause. Each has its own integrity, its own essence – a cow is a cow, an oak tree an oak tree, a human a human – its own causative effects, and each participates with the primary cause in the ability to act and to be in themselves causes. Though they are ever dependent on the primary cause for their own being, they act freely.

Johnson skips over some of Aquinas’ other thoughts on causation, the potentiality within each form, for example, or the idea of final cause. But she incorporates them in her discussion of the imbedded natural inclination that sends creatures toward a ‘natural good.’ Altogether, they posit a universe evolving as its created entities freely act and change as they continuously participate in the being of God.

(1)  In the last session we read Prayer, by Jorie Graham, as a metaphor illustrating this concept. In Prayer Jorie Graham tells us she’s watching minnows, each moving as a tiny muscle to make of the whole group a ‘visual current.’ But this visual current is itself propelled by a real current of water, ‘mostly invisible.’ Johnson, explaining Aquinas’s concept of God, tells us that each creature is dependent on the Creator, that the Creator (the primary cause) is its source and principle of being and though each creature is an agent in itself (a secondary cause) it cannot affect the Creator.

Just so, in the poem the visual current, the school of minnows, acts according to its own nature, yet cannot ‘freight or sway by/ minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls.’ The motion of the creator current ‘forces change–/this is freedom’.

Prayer *
by Jorie Graham

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers), a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change—
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself,
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now? Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only
something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go.
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never.

* Prayer (‘minnows’) was written as a turn-of-the-millennium poem for the New York Times Op-Ed page, and was originally dated 12.31.00

Lorienne Schwenk brought Life is Juicy, by Leonard Bernstein:

Life is Juicy *
by Leonard Bernstein

Life begins in the waters-
Not the deep, but the borders of land:
The stagnants that nourish the sterile earth
Like a juicy gland.
Life is the seed of the marriage
of liquid and solid events.
In the coves, in the swamps, in mysterious pools,
Our heartaches commence.
Life is the pulp and the slime,
The marshmallow bellies of frogs,
Their thyroided eyes, their eggjellies caught
On the rotting logs.
Life is the algae, the roe;
The army of maggoty breeds
Devouring the corpse of a very old perch
Adrift in the weeds.
Life is the plasm, the cells,
The fat symbiotics in pairs;
The ankledeep fungoids which darkly provide
The crawfish with lairs.
Life is the scaly and scummy,
The poisonous green without breath;
The marinal maze whose only solution
Is ultimate death.
For Death is the crisp and the clean,
The fine oxidation, the rust,
The spermless, the painless, the classic, the lean,
The dry, dry dust.

Life is Juicy was written in a cottage on the mucky shore of Lake Mah-kee-nak, Stockbridge, MA, 2 July 1947

  A poem many of us learned in childhood, with words and images that point to the sacred within and around the world we live in: 

God’s Grandeur *
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

To hear this magnificent poem read aloud,
go to



Art for April 16

B1979'28, 6/13/02, 11:12 PM,  8C, 7266x12000 (774+0), 150%, Repro 1.8,  1/20 s, R82.2, G46.4, B53.1
The Icebergs
by Frederic Edwin Church, 1861
click on the picture to enlarge it to full screen

Bob Pelfrey writes,

Frederick Edwin Church’s painting The Icebergs (above) illustrates several points about the intimate – almost structural – relationship between art and science (and in terms of the still widely held ‘natural theology’ approach in theology) at the time of Darwin’s publication of Origin.

Briefly, scientists of the time not only depended on artists – as they had since Leonardo’s time – for illustrations of any kind of visual phenomena; scientists often were artists themselves, especially in fields related to biology and geology. Until Darwin’s time, only hand-drawn images of any kind had existed.

As noted in our discussion this morning, Church was highly regarded and appreciated by geologists as a ‘scientific’ colleague. In the next two generations, photography would (first slowly, then with incredible speed) change this… to the point that today virtually all scientific ‘images’ are in some form of digital/photographic format.

Art, in this sense, is now marginal to science as such. Not so in Darwin’s time.


Bob also writes re: Darwin’s ‘transgressiveness’:

The Icebergs also shows the deep public expectation (including many scientists, as Elizabeth Johnson points out) that the more ‘scientific’ a painting of Nature was, the more it should reflect God’s implicit Truth (order/design), Goodness (morality/meaning) and Beauty (sublimity).

This is the area where Darwin, with absolutely no malice, was ‘transgressive’ to the world-picture of his day.  Instead of ‘God’ explaining order/meaning/sublimity…’chance’ and ‘natural selection’ were sufficient causes.  This was a very distressing and dis-crediting jolt to the traditional paradigm, a paradigm that goes back in the Christian tradition to the book of Genesis.

‘Transgressiveness, however, is not necessarily a negative term.  If the affront, shall we say, is ‘processed’ (as in American racists who ‘saw the light’ and changed their attitudes due to Martin Luther King’s work and preaching), ‘transgressiveness’ can alter one’s worldview, morality, mindset, etc. in a positive and even transformative way.

Which is what Elizabeth Johnson is trying to do with “Darwin” vis a vis Christianity.

Aquinas, or some fun with Latin


Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

In our time we struggle to reconcile the relationship between science and religion; in the middle ages the conflict was between theology and philosophy. While many medieval thinkers concluded that the two types of knowledge were in direct opposition to each other, the master theologian Thomas Aquinas asserted that “both kinds of knowledge ultimately come from God” – and are thus not only compatible, but can work in collaboration.

Aquinas reasoned that

• God is not a ‘being’ or even a ‘Being’; God simply is.

• The infinitely transcendent God is also present in and to this material world.

• Through God’s infinite, life-giving love, all creatures participate in the life of God.

This is where Aquinas’ Latin can help us:

Ens (a noun) means entity, something that has existence. If we think of God as ens, we limit God to a particular something, a being; but God is not one Being among many beings.

Esse (a verb) means to be. When we think of God as Esse, we image God as Verb: God is to-be. (The infinitive form emphasizes God’s infinite divine aliveness – in time as well as space.)

Participatus (the Latin root of participate) means to have a share in a larger whole, or to possess something of the nature of a person, thing, or quality. Aquinas wrote, “All beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation.”

For Aquinas, God is everywhere and is in all things:

• “God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works… as to ignite is the proper effect of fire.”

• “God fills every place; not, indeed, like a body, for a body excludes the co-presence of another body. When God is in a place, others are not thereby excluded from it.” The divine presence spills over beyond the interior of creatures, filling everything; hence, while “God is in all things…it can also be said that all things are in God.

God as Trinity

• The first Christians experienced God as Father/Creator, Jesus/Redeemer, and indwelling Holy Spirit.

• Reasoning from these varied experiences of God, Christian theologians as early as the 3rd century were imaging God as Trinity – that is, as a community of three ‘persons’ united in love.

• In the 13th century Aquinas saw the trinitarian God, whose very character is Love, as the active wellspring of all life.

• Aquinas taught that the life and love of God is communicated to the world not just through its original creation, but through God’s ongoing invitation to participate in divine community.


• Contemporary theology calls this model of the God-world relationship panentheism, from the Greek pan (all), en (in) and theos (God): all-in-God.

• Panentheism sees the created world as indwelt by God’s Spirit while also encompassed by divine presence; that is, the God who dwells within the world also transcends it at every point.

• Within the world, the creating Spirit is present to all creatures, bringing them into existence; and all creatures, in their daily being and doing, continuously participate in the life of the One who is sheer, exuberant aliveness. (Already in the first century, St. Paul was thinking of this mutual indwelling when he said that in God “we live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28.)

• Observing the marvelous diversity of creatures in the world, Aquinas concluded that their very differences express the divine goodness: “For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided.” Contemporary theologian Denis Edwards (author of The God of Evolution: A Trinitarian Theology) follows Aquinas when he notes that “no one creature, not even the human, can image God by itself. Only the diversity of life – huge soaring trees, the community of ants, the flashing colors of the parrot, the beauty of a wildflower along with the human – can give expression to the radical diversity and otherness of the triune God.”

• Thus Aquinas’ idea of participation is still a major influence on contemporary Christian thinking: the natural world exists because it participates in the Esse of God: the whole world exists due to a continuous act of love on the part of the Creator Spirit – indwelling the creation, sustaining its life, and cherishing its ‘entangled bank’.

The world as God’s dwelling place

• Seeing the world of beasts, birds, plants, and fish with the eyes of faith leads us to conclude that the natural world is not merely ‘natural’ (that is, of lesser spiritual significance than the ‘supernatural’). Rather, the natural world bears the mark of the sacred, because it is imbued with a spiritual presence. In its own way, the whole cosmos is a sacrament and a revelation.

• The insight that plant and animal species exist by participation in the life-giving power of God allows nature’s sacramental character to emerge.

• Christian sacramental theology has always pointed to simple material things – bread, wine, water – which, graced by the Spirit of God, can be bearers of divine grace.

• Such ordinary things are able to communicate divine grace because the whole physical world itself – not just things (enses) used in worship – is permeated with the presence (Esse) of God.


God’s Dwelling Place


We have reached the middle of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (chapter 5, ‘The Dwelling Place of God’). Johnson begins by asking us:

What would ‘a Christian theology of evolution’ look like?

To describe how a Creator works with – and within – this universe, Johnson turns first to the Dominican priest and theologian, Herbert McCabe.  Born in 1926, McCabe studied chemistry and philosophy before he was ordained a Dominican priest; from then on he studied, taught and wrote about the works of Thomas Aquinas until his death in 2001.

McCabe gives us a helpful image of a Creator who “makes all things and keeps them in existence from moment to moment, not like a sculptor who makes a statue and leaves it alone, but… like a singer who keeps her song in existence at all times.” (God, Christ, and Us, p. 103)

Johnson reminds us that classic theology spoke of creation in three senses:

• Original creation – In the beginning, the God of life creates the universe, and all its life forms. All living species receive life as a gift from their Creator, and exist in utter reliance on that gift. Without this gift of life, all things would sink back into nothingness.

Continuing creation – As the universe moves through time, the ever-creating God continues to sustains all things. Since the ever-creating God is present always and everywhere, the world of life is itself the dwelling place of God.

• New creation – Source of endless possibilities, the ever-creating God will continue to draw the world into an unimaginable future. Christians view this future through the lens of Christ’s promise: in the end, the Creation will not be abandoned, but transformed into new communion with God.

The world as the dwelling place of God:

The dominant image of God in our culture is still the all-powerful, distant super-being who started the world, rules it from on high, and occasionally intervenes in the world’s life.

This image of God will not be helpful to us as we work to build a Christian theology which is in dialogue with modern science.

To develop an image of a God who works in an evolving world, we must come to see God as immanent as well as transcendent; we must image a God who not only embraces the world but dwells within it, sustaining it in every moment of its being and becoming.

This would be a God who, in Herbert McCabe’s words, “makes all things and keeps them in existence from moment to moment, not like a sculptor who makes a statue and leaves it alone, but… like a singer who keeps her song in existence at all times.”






On the Way to the Kingdom

Preached on September 20, 2015

Jesus with child
Mark 9:30-37

Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee.
He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them,
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him,
and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
But the disciples did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.   Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they were silent,
for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

So he sat down, called the twelve, and said to them,
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms,
he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus with child smallJesus and his disciples are walking through Galilee; they are moving quietly through the countryside, because he needs time to teach his disciples the Way.   (I don’t mean the way to Jerusalem – they knew that way – but the Way of discipleship.)  Jesus wants to build a community which understands and lives the Way of the kingdom – but the disciples aren’t a community yet, and they’re having trouble understanding what he means.

He’s already told them that to follow his Way they must deny themselves – deny their own ambitions, let go of their hopes for success, let go of their need to be important. But on the road to Capernaum, they haven’t been talking about how to let go of their egos, but arguing about who was most important – about who would be greatest in Jesus’ coming kingdom! They just didn’t get it.  But do we get it?

Jesus with child smallAt the end of the day, when they entered the house for the night, Jesus tried another way to get through to them. Seeing a little child in the corner of the room, he took it in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me… “  (Notice that Jesus didn’t just point to a child to teach a lesson; he picked up the child and held him in his arms. This child is not just an object lesson; this child is loved.)

So what is it about children that Jesus wants us to understand?

• Children have no influence, no power over others.

• Children have earned nothing; everything they own has been given to them.

• Children have everything to learn and (we think) nothing to teach us.

• Children cannot help others (we think) but need help from adults….

But children actually have many gifts to give us – and in this prayer from the service of Baptism (BCP p. 308) we will ask God to give those gifts to the newly baptized:

Give them an inquiring and discerning heart;
the courage to will and to persevere,
a spirit to know and to love you,
and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

The gifts of joy and wonder… the gift of an inquiring and discerning heart… the gift of courage… the gift of perseverance… these are the qualities children share with us.

(And, yes – children can be egotists, too… There’s nothing like a two-year-old for saying “me, me, me” and “that’s mine!” Sometimes the only power a child has is to make noise…. and sometimes the noise is loud enough to get what she wants.)

I’m thinking back to my lunches with college students in Oberlin…. From 12 to 20 students came in the kitchen door every Monday, made sandwiches on the kitchen counter, grabbed a drink, and then moved on to the living room where they ate, talked, and debated interesting questions….

These were young people from every denomination, and others from no religious background at all…. They were coming to church on Sundays for the liturgy, the music, the sacraments, the preaching….

They were coming to lunch on Mondays for the food, and the friendship, and the pleasure of being in a home… But they were also curious about Christianity, and wanted to know what I believed as an Episcopalian…

I was always the last one to make my sandwich, and then I would come into the living room, and join the conversation. There they would be, crammed onto the sofas, perched in the chairs…. I usually ended up sitting on the piano bench, or the floor.

But there was a sophomore girl who always sat in ‘her’ chair – a big, plush wing chair by the fireplace. Others soon learned she would make snide remarks if they sat in ‘her’ chair – so they learned to leave the chair empty for her. She always made a noise loud enough to get what she wanted!

Jesus with child smallA ‘tradition’ soon developed at these lunches – someone would ask me a ‘hard question” as soon as I took a bite of my sandwich. There was no way to talk with a mouth full of ham and cheese! And that turned out to be a good thing.

The very first time I was asked a ‘hard question’ I was asked,

“Why do Episcopalians baptize children?”

I looked around the group that day, and I saw students who were Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran … all of them baptized as babies, all familiar with churches at home where babies were baptized.

And I saw students who were Baptist, Evangelical … all baptized after making a personal decision, all familiar with the baptisms of people who had wrestled personally with their faith decision.

And then there were the students who were seekers … curious about Christianity and never baptized.

What should I say to them? What would you say to them? Thank God my mouth was full! (To chew slowly and carefully before you open your mouth is a good thing.)

Everyone is a child before God.

• Baptism is a decision – a choice to follow the way of Jesus.

• The decision needs to be personal, but it is also a community decision.

• Baptism is always a covenant between God, one person, and the community

In the spiritual life, we never learn anything on our own – the Spirit of God works in our hearts, and the same Spirit of God guides us through the Christian community.

Jesus with child smallNow the girl who needed to have ‘her’ chair left Oberlin for her junior year abroad. When she returned to school the next fall, she came back to Monday lunch and went straight to ‘her’ chair – and there was a freshman sitting in it.

“That’s my chair!” she said to the unsuspecting freshman, expecting him to move immediately. The whole group fell silent, and then some began murmuring gently, “Let him sit there…” The poor freshman didn’t know what to do, and simply froze in the chair – and the girl who wanted her chair actually left in a huff, slamming the door behind her.

She returned a few Mondays later, still pouting a little, but finally willing to sit in a new place. But she let the group know that she wasn’t very happy about it.

That would be the end of the story – except years later, Rob and I met her at St. Andrew’s, Saratoga, in our own diocese. She was now in her early thirties, eager to learn, willing to share, and a full member of the community. She had grown up, and the church had helped her grow.

Jesus with child smallThe Spirit in the Baptizing Community teaches us the Way of Jesus.  The Way of Jesus is the way of letting go of ego…. It’s the way of being vulnerable… The way of sharing our lives with others … The Way of putting others ahead of ourselves ….

And how do we learn the Way?

As individuals, we must follow the way of the child:

Keeping the child’s inquiring and discerning heart;
developing the child’s gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works,
and holding onto the child’s courage to will and to persevere…

And as a community, we must teach each other the Way of Jesus.

And that’s why we, the Baptizing Community, are asked to respond today.

At the baptism of babies and children, we will be asked:
Will you, by your prayers and witness.
help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?

At the baptism of young people and adults, we will be asked,
Will you do all in your power
to support these persons in their life in Christ?

And we will answer:  We will, with God’s help.

Preached at the baptisms of Samantha Jean Hascall and Everett James McMaines,
at St. Benedict’s Church, Los Osos, on September 20, 2015.

Reading the Mystery

Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – June 28, 2015

Jesus healing hands

Today’s lessons raised questions at our Wednesday evening Bible study:

  • Why is there pain and death?
  • What do we do to deserve pain and death?
  • How can we end our suffering?
  • Can we be healed?

And each lesson seemed to give us a different message.

The Wisdom of Solomon said

God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For God created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.  For righteousness is immortal. God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.  (Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24)

Wisdom told us that God wants to give us eternal life, but that will depend on our righteousness – that is, living without sin.

The Psalm said

I will exalt you, O LORD, because you have lifted me up and have not let my enemies triumph over me.  O LORD my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. While I felt secure, I said, “I shall never be disturbed. You, LORD, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.”  Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear…. (Psalm 30)

The psalmist gives thanks because he has been healed.  But he believes his illness was a sign that God had turned away from him – and only his desperate pleading made God change his mind.

But the Gospel said

Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue, came and, when he saw Jesus, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” And Jesus went with him.

A large crowd followed Jesus and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years…. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from Jairus’ house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to him, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. And when they came to Jairus’ house, Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about… (Mark 5:21-43)

The Gospel told us that Jesus healed people with God’s loving compassion, regardless of their circumstances, and regardless of their petty sins.

To the woman, Jesus said: “Your faith has made you well; go in peace…”

To the girl’s father Jesus said: “Do not fear, only believe…”

And to the child Jesus said, “Little girl, arise…”

This Gospel challenges our old ideas about suffering and death:

Did the woman suffer for 12 years because God had turned away from her?

Did the child almost die because she sinned, or because her parents sinned?

Then why would Jesus reach out compassion and give healing to them both?

If you want to understand Mark’s Jesus, you must wrestle with the healing stories.

Today we ask how questions:  How did Jesus heal?’ and  ‘How can we pray for healing?’

Imagine the questions that Jesus’ disciples, and the crowds, had about healing! But their questions focused on why:

Why did Jesus heal the woman, who was clearly a sinner and breaking the law as well?  (As long as she continued to bleed, she was required to withdraw from other people.)

Why did Jesus heal the little girl, who was probably suffering God’s punishment for some lack of righteousness?  (The law said her parents should take her to the priest, make confession, and ask for God’s mercy.)

Think of the Gospel as a mystery.

When we read an ordinary mystery, we know we’ll find the answer to our questions when we get to the end.  But unlike reading a mystery (where you don’t know the ending until you get to the last page), and unlike Jesus’ disciples (who didn’t know the end of the story), we can read the end of the story first.  When we see the Gospel through its ending, we begin to understand.

And how is this story going to end? Jesus the healer died on the cross and rose again. So after the resurrection, here are the questions Mark’s first readers asked:

If Jesus died on the cross, did God reject him because of sin?

If Jesus suffered in great pain, did God inflict that pain upon him?

If Jesus died despite the prayers of his disciples, what does that say about our prayers for ourselves and those we love?

And, in light of the Gospel’s ending, here are more questions we have to ask: 

If Jesus endured great suffering, shouldn’t we expect to endure it, too?

What if suffering and death is a part of life on earth, and not always our fault?

Clues to the Gospel mystery

One clue to the Gospel mystery is found in the psalm:

In the midst of his illness, the psalmist turned to God; and the relationship – always open on God’s side –  was restored. (Psalm 30:2) 

Other clues to the mystery are found in Mark’s Gospel:

The isolated woman who came to Jesus for help was turning to God through Jesus – and she was healed. (Mark 5:28)

The desperate father who came to Jesus for help was turning to God through Jesus – and a family was healed. (Mark 5:23)

The Gospel tells us that God’s face is always turned towards us.

Always read the Scriptures through Jesus:

In the Gospel, ‘righteousness’ doesn’t depend on our doing everything right.

The Gospel says our ‘righteousness’ comes from turning our face to God.

And in Jesus we see that God’s face is always turned towards us.

The message of Mark’s whole Gospel is this:

Jesus lives! Despite his suffering and death, His Spirit is alive!

And what does that say to us about God’s healing love for us?

Sometimes an old hymn says it best:

O Love of God, how strong and true, eternal and yet ever new;
uncomprehended and unbought, beyond all knowledge and all thought.

O wide-embracing, wondrous Love, we read thee in the sky above;
we read thee in the earth below, in seas that swell and streams that flow.

We read thee best in him who came to bear for us the cross of shame;
sent by the Father from on high, our life to live, our death to die.

We read thy power to bless and save e’en in the darkness of the grave;
still more in resurrection light we read the fullness of thy might. 

Hymnal #445 (Horatio Bonar, 1808-1889)

Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – June 28, 2015

We are not God

Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cambria – June 21, 2015

Jesus stills the storm

(1) The news this week reminds us that we are surrounded by storms: 

There was sudden and shocking news – last Wednesday night, at the same time we at St. Paul’s were meeting in our own Bible study, a white gunman shot 9 black people in a Bible study at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The ongoing violence, and the ongoing racism, of our culture is a challenge to our nation: it is time to work together to heal our society.  In today’s Prayers of the People, we will begin to respond to the news from Charleston.

And then there was some ongoing news – of climate change, of environmental degradation, of the extinction of hundreds of species every year.  And so on Thursday, Pope Francis issued a challenge to the world: it is time to work together to heal our planet.  In today’s homily, we will begin to respond to the news from Pope Francis.

(2) In response to this week’s news, what do today’s SCRIPTURES say?

From the Gospel (Mark 4:35-41):

Jesus is in Galilee, teaching his disciples and the crowds who follow him. After a long day, he and his disciples get into a boat to go to the other side of the lake.

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

At our Bible study Wednesday night, here’s what we heard: In their panic, they called out to Jesus.  And Jesus responded by asking them, “Where is your faith?”

If we eliminate this passage because it violates the laws of nature,
we miss its real point: God is in the boat with us, in the middle of the storm.

At the time Mark’s Gospel was written, people had no trouble believing that God was active in the natural world – but their challenge (and ours) is to see God working in Jesus.

• Mark’s message: Trust in Jesus, trust in God.

From the first lesson (Job 38:1-11):

Job and his friends have been arguing about why he has suffered so much. For endless hours, Job’s friends have said that God is punishing him for his sins, and they counsel him to repent. But Job cannot figure out what his sin is. Finally, he calls out to God in his distress. And then God answers Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you shall declare to me: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements– surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

At our Bible study, here’s what we heard: In his despair, Job cried out to God.
And God responded by saying: “You think you understand… but you don’t.”

God tells Job, “You don’t understand because you are not God.”

• Job answers God, and his answer is very short: “I had heard of you before, but now I see you…” (Job 42:1-5)

• Job’s message:  We may never get answers to our deepest questions, but to know God moves us all to awe; we begin to get a glimmer of the mysterious love that has created us and still dwells among us.

Some notes on the book of Job:

• This is the longest passage on the natural world in the entire Bible.  The book of Job tells us that God not only created this natural world – with all its storms and all its beauty – but God is still present and active in this world.

With help from modern science, we may understand a lot more about the world than Job did, but still – we are not God.

(3) In response to this week’s news, what does the POPE say? *

This week Pope Francis released a papal encyclical, a message sent directly to the world’s Catholics – but really meant for everyone on earth. In his letter Francis tells us how God cares for suffering people in our world, but also for the suffering of the world itself.

The message begins, “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”.  Pope Francis, who took his name from St. Francis (the patron saint of far more than the birds of the air and beasts of the field) begins his encyclical with a quote from St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun:

In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us… This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.

The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail.”

We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. *

Then Francis addresses those who still think that God has appointed human beings to be masters of the whole world:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis … suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour, and with the earth itself.

According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.

This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). [In]… our situation today…sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, in the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and in attacks on nature. (Paragraph 66)

We may be aware of our sins against other people; we have been taught to confess, and to ask for forgiveness.

But most of us are not aware of our sins against the world we live in, or our sins against other species. In fact, most people on earth still think human beings are in charge of the planet.

But again and again the Pope says, “We are not God.”

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us….

The Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature… This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible… We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.

The biblical texts are to be read in their context… recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, plowing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.

Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. (Paragraph 67)

(4) In response to this week’s news, what does today’s LITURGY say?

We are blessed by the riches of the Book of Common Prayer – but other traditions can also give us new words, give us expanded visions of God and God’s world, and can help us learn how to care for the world God has given us.

And so our Eucharistic prayer this morning comes from New Zealand, and it was written with the understanding that comes from today’s scriptures: God is in the boat with us, in the midst of the storms that shake our world. And, if God is present in and through the material world – then God cares about the whole material world – its atmosphere, its resources, its species, everything – not just the human species.

Whenever we sing the Sanctus, we are remembering the prophet Isaiah’s vision. Worshiping in the great Temple of Jerusalem, Isaiah saw the glory of God: the curtain covering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred room in the Temple, was lifted – and Isaiah saw God’s throne, surrounded by angels and clouds of incense. And Isaiah cried out:

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Isaiah 6:1f – BCP p. 362

But today, when we say the Sanctus,
we will be borrowing words from the New Zealand Prayer Book:

Holy, holy, holy:
God of mercy, giver of life;
earth and sea and sky
and all that lives,
declare your presence and your glory.
NZPB p. 469

Repeat those words now yourself –
notice the curtain covering the Holy of Holies is opened once again,
but we are not seeing God contained in a room in a temple, even a great Temple.
Now we are seeing God’s glory present in the whole world:
earth and sea and sky and all that lives declare your presence and your glory.

(5) And in response to this week’s news, what will we say?

As we come to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer today, we will ask God to

Empower our celebration with your Holy Spirit,
feed us with your life,
fire us with your love,
and confront us with your justice,
and make us one with every creature on earth…
NZPB p. 470

How can we dare to pray that prayer together?  Dare we believe that God is in our world, this material world, and calling us to heal it?  Dare we believe that we have the strength to take on this call?

This is my prayer for us today – that God will empower our celebration, feed us with Christ’s life, fire us with the Spirit’s love, confront us with the call to justice, and make us one with every creature on earth crying for healing, for justice, and for love.  Amen.

Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cambria – June 28, 2015

*  Read the Pope’s Encyclical at