Matthew 6:25-34 and Revelation 8:1-13

This is a sermon I gave for Iglesia Congregacional Unida on April 18, 2010 (Integrity of creation Sunday in the United Church of Christ) with the text of Matthew 6:25-34 and Revelation 8:1-13.

In the passage we read today, Jesus is teaching about two kinds of people. The terms used by Matthew are “pagans” and the followers of Jesus. We will not use the term “pagan” literally because it originally designated those who lived in the countryside and had folk customs tied to the land by which they made sense of life.  We will set aside that word and update the idea to today, to underline the difference between two groups that live life in different ways.

According to Jesus there are those who live by manipulation and try to control everything.  But he requires and invites and asks his followers to live a life of trust in God, a life of hope, a life that does not put oneself in the center

He says there are those who are exploiters, who when they see something immediately think of ways to take advantage of it, no matter how beautiful it may be, who see a chance of self- elevation or enrichment. But Jesus asks his followers to see themselves, not as exploiters but as stewards who have the responsibility for what surrounds them, to care for creation in a responsible way, to be accountable to a creator.

The other group thinks of eating, drinking and dressing, in how to serve their own interests, while Jesus invites his followers to know that God knows our needs and has made the world in such a way that there is enough for all.  That is, trust that the creator has not put us in a no-win situation. 

The other group asks, “Are not things worth more than humans? Are not wealth and hoarding and greed better than worrying about those who suffer because I am living in luxury?” Jesus invites followers to ask, “Is not life more than food, and the human being more than clothing?”

This difference between two attitudes has huge consequences for our life, personally and collectively, and for the world – the entire planet.

The book of Revelation was written nearly 2000 years ago, when followers of Jesus were being persecuted.  The book has had many interpretations applied to it. Some people have “found” proof that the world will end on a given date.  These predictions continue to be made and when they do not come true, “There must be some clue that was missed, something we did not understand.”   It is seen as a manual for determining the date of the end of the world.   

But the Bible does not teach that the world will end.  It teaches that the world will be transformed. But because God has entrusted the world to our hands, creation is in our care.  We are in part responsible for deciding whether we will take part in destruction or transformation

This book has also been interpreted to see how the events described fit events in history, again with the idea of extracting arcane secrets so as to say “I know more than others.”

It has been used in many ways, but each generation has to look and try to understand the principles that the writer is conveying, so as to comprehend in a new way perhaps, something that had not been previously seen, because other generations had lived in a context different from the present.

In our situation today, the passage we have read has particular significance, because of the situation we have created by our insatiable desire for more and more, a situation that harms the earth, our neighbors, and even ourselves personally.

Revelation 8 speaks of four disasters that befall the earth, presented as four trumpet blasts by four angels (messengers).  I want us to look at each of these disasters to see what they may say to use today.

The first angel’s trumpet announces effects from the sky that burn 1/3 of the plants, 1/3 of the trees, and all the grass.  We know that our desire for a luxurious life of ease for some has caused us to use more and more energy – oil, coal, gas – which is irreplaceable and will run out.  But meanwhile, its use since the beginning of the last century especially, has brought about global warming.

Before we even knew of that, there was already acid rain from the burning of coal, rain that killed trees instead of giving them life. This was not a natural effect, but a result of human activity in the world.

“The green grass was destroyed.” How strange.  Look at this nation as an example.  When Europeans arrived here, the continent was covered with vast forests and huge prairies of grassland. But the grasslands have largely disappeared because we as humans said “We know how to do things better than God.”   

So human beings took corn, a beneficial plant for the cultures of this continent. Most indigenour groups used corn.  In Nicaragua people say, “We are children of corn. We cannot live without it.”

But that good thing was taken and planted in huge monocultures.  Why? Because corn can be used to make many extracts that can be sold for much more than the simple corn.  Corn syrup is but one product, and it is added to nearly every processed food.  It is said that the epidemic of obesity in this country is due in large part to huge cheap supplies of corn syrup.  

How was the corn syrup made?  The land was worked intensively, with chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen, and herbicides, not waiting for the land to produce corn naturally as it should but with so many artificial inputs that are also a waste of resources so as to make a acre of land produce much more than before.   

What grows does not have the same nutritional value.  It is artificial, because we as humans do not understand all of what goes into corn.  We think we know because we believe in our intelligence, and experts tell us “We know what corn needs in order to grow.”  But the corn that grows is not the same as natural corn.

Subsidies are paid to corn growers because the price of the corn is lower than the cost of the inputs.  We see this corn exported to other countries, especially Mexico. The corn growers there cannot compete with the low subsidized price, so they leave the land and seek work in the cities. Failing that, they come to this country with no other choice, a huge migration caused in part by that same plant, but it is no longer really the same plant because the human race has decided it knows better than God how to grow these things.  

And in the vast cornfields, the grass that was there before has been lost.  There is even so much excess corn that it is fed to cattle.  Cattle don’t eat corn.  They eat grass. When they are forced to eat corn, they get sick and have to be treated constantly with antibiotics. The manure they produce is not natural. It is full of toxins. And what can we do with all that manure that is concentrated in industrial animal feeding operations where thousands of animals are packed together? It creates an enormous pollution problem.  

There are some “grass farmers” who are working for change, people who know that animals and grass were meant to coexist, that cattle, pigs, chickens and grass are part of a natural order, helping each other.  The cow eats grass.  Manure is produced, and flies lay their eggs on it.  The chickens come and eat the fly larvae.  Pigs root through the manure, turning it and mixing it onto the soil.  New grass grows. 

The cows eat the grass, and the cycle begins again, as the creator designed it, instead of putting each animal in a building and forcing it to eat unnatural food, filling it with hormones and antibiotics so that it will grow fast.  That is not natural, but we have done it because we think we are smarter than God. And the result is described in Revelation: the grass is lost, the trees, a third of what God has created. In Genesis the creator said to the people, “I have given you every green plant of the field as food, for you and the animals.”  But we have not listened.

Then we see in Revelation that the second angel blows the trumpet and a third of the sea is turned to blood.  A third of the creatures in the sea died.

From the Midwestern fields pumped with nitrogen, from the feedlots filled with manure, pollution streams into the rivers and goes downstream.  Where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico there is a dead zone where fish and other sea creatures cannot live.  The nitrogen-rich water promotes the growth of algae that consumes all the oxygen.  No fish can live there.  If we continue, perhaps we can manage to make one third of the sea unlivable.

We also see other areas of the world where coral reefs are being destroyed.  Pollution and global warming are killing the tiny creatures that build the coral reefs.  They are not being replaced, and the rich ecosystem they support is being lost. Places such as Australia no longer have the same great reefs that once existed.  They are being lost because of the decisions we humans make.

Revelation 8:10-11 says that at the blast from the third messenger, one third o the springs and streams are made bitter.  And people die from the bitter water.

In recent days the news was full of the tragic mine disaster in West Virginia.  Constant reference was made to the “accident”. There was no accident. There were results of decisions made by the directors of Massey.

To extract maximum profits, the safety regulations were avoided.  Federal inspectors fined Massey for multiple violations.  Last year Massey paid $13 million in fines.  At the same time, the CEO of Massey received $17 million in salary and benefits.  The fines for them are just the cost of doing business. They make their profits.  Why change things?

But there’s more.  Massey does not just dig mineshafts. It also does mountaintop removal. Can you imagine taking the top off a mountain?  What do you do with it?  That’s easy – you put it in the valley below. All of the toxic substances that were dug up go into the valley and into the river, and the people of Kentucky, of West Virginia, and the other states live with great illness.  “The waters turned bitter, and many people died.”

As a society, we are willing to pay the price of cancers, birth deformities, and chronic illnesses so that we have enough coal to sustain our lifestyles. It is a human decision – not an accident. We live with the  consequences of our decisions. 

There are many who read Revelation and say that God will come someday to punish evildoers.  That does not seem to me to be the case.  It seems to me that it speaks of the results of our actions and decisions that we make about our duty to the creation that God has entrusted to us.  

Will we be exploiters or stewards?  Will we manipulate or will we live out God’s dream? Will we think only of our own good, or will we ask what God desires? Will we decide that our lifestyles are more important than human beings or creation, or will we agree with god that life is greater than possessions?

Revelation 8:12 tells of how the sun and moon and starts lose a third of their light. The volcanic eruption in Iceland has shown us what happens when there are too many particles in the air. The planes cannot even fly in Europe. 

What if we continue to pollute? What if we go on with out nuclear madness and create a nuclear winter?  Will we actually bring life to an end?

The passage ends with a great eagle that cries from the sky a warning of woe for the inhabitants of earth when the final three trumpets will be blown. There is worse to come?

Does it have to be?  Like Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”, we can ask the spirit “Are these the things that must be, or the things that may be?”  Will we decide there is nothing we can do, or will we ask what can be done to avert the destruction?  

People millennia ago did not think they were very powerful.  How could so few affect the course of nature? Yet in some areas they did.  In what is today Iraq, they deforested the hills and allowed erosion to run rampant.  Rains in the area brought a great flood, which is documented by archaeology. The stories of Noah and other heroes rose in various cultures out of this experience.  The floods came from human decisions.

And even when there is a natural disaster beyond our causing, many times it is worse because of what we have done.  The earthquake in Haiti, and before that in China, and in the 1980’s in Mexico City, killed thousands of people.  The buildings were cheaply made and did not hold up. Builders cut corners and made profits.  People died.

In Chile there were a fraction of the victims.  Knowing that earthquakes are inevitable, they did not allow greed to reign.  We have more power than we think we do.

A few weeks ago we each received compact fluorescent bulbs for our homes, four for each family, to reduce our energy use.  A small step, yes, but a step.  The group that sponsored the exchange is Interfaith Power and Light. 

This group is presenting a program next Wednesday, a concert featuring music about the creation.  Their mission is to enliven congregation to see how we can do more about this huge problem of the environment. Thankfully there is movement in faith communities.  As we move forward, we can know that the future does not have to be a downward spiral to destruction.  It can be a transformation  The creator invites us to be co-creators with the promise that in the future there can indeed be power and light, when we take our rightful place as responsible stewards of creation.  .

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One Response to “Matthew 6:25-34 and Revelation 8:1-13”

  1. Karen Cobb Says:

    Daniel, thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking blog. I have missed the sensitive and systematic way you connect scripture, community, and global spirituality. ICU is very fortunate as are the youth to have you as a powerful advocate and ally. It is not lost on me that ICU also refers to the state of our planet. I’m glad we are in the hands of the Great Physician. Transformation, not destruction. I like it. I have resisted taking my kids to see “2012” because I don’t buy all this apocalyptic stuff. But, I do chuckle when I see the apocalyptic date suggested by the film: December 21, 2012. I turn fifty that day! I trust I will be celebrating some sort of transformation that day. . . Peace and grace to you this beautiful, moist Monday, Karen

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