Sermon for the Synod Assembly 2023
John 1:1-5, 14, 16-18
St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Mahtomedi

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Living God, Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. AMEN.

How good to be here. Many have longed for this day when we from across the synod could gather again in person. Back in March 2020, I thought this day would come much sooner. At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought we could probably have a synod-wide celebration at Reformation Day that fall and give thanks that we had endured a most unusual time. Boy was I wrong!

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for church life and tonight we remember all that our congregations have done to navigate these past three years. Thank you for your careful attention to keeping one another safe. Thank you for your profound openness to the cries of the world for justice – especially in our own communities and among people of color. Thank you for your amazing creativity and sheer tenacity.

As we gather, we remember and we pray for those who died during the long years of the pandemic, especially too many who died in isolation and for the grief that lingers among us. Always we give thanks for God’s mercy and care, and tonight we do so in a big way with joyful songs of praise.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things came into being through (the Word)….” (John 1:1,3) Many of you have heard this text on a Christmas morning or on the Sunday after Christmas. Often, at Christmas, our first thought is of Bethlehem and the birth of a baby named Jesus. How deeply we connect with that story of the Incarnation all wrapped up in swaddling cloths and celebrated with candles and carols.

Even at two or three, I already knew that Jesus was once a little baby just like me. It would take years before I began to understand that in this Jesus, we meet the Living God, face-to-face. These opening verses of John’s Gospel help our imagination grow wider so that it is filled with wonder as we confess that long before the manger, the one we call Christ was there at the very beginning of all that is; present in the time before time.

It’s helpful to be reminded that Christmas is also a celebration of the gift of creation. Next December, when you decorate your home or your sanctuary, consider how the stars and the seas, the living creatures, trees and rocks of this earth might adorn your celebration. Not just as a winter landscape added to the tableau, but as a central recognition of God’s coming to the whole creation in Jesus Christ.

We also hear echoes of this intrinsic connection between Christ and the earth in the Proper Preface many congregations use in the communion liturgy during this Easter Season. “(with) all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all their creatures … we praise your name and join the unending hymn …”

Years ago, my first call as a pastor was in a town in northern Michigan right on the shores of Lake Huron. One Easter, I joined friends from the Congregational Church at a sunrise service down at the harbor. In the midst of the lessons and prayers, just as the sun rose above the eastern horizon across Thunder Bay, a dog got loose from his owners and in exuberance jumped into the chilly water. There was a mad scramble to help him out but from then on, I understood that Easter, too, is a celebration of the gift of a redeemed creation — not only for humans — but for creatures of every sort; large, shaggy dogs included.

Now, you may wonder why I am speaking of Christmas and Easter when we gather in mid-May. None of us would think of divorcing the great festivals of the church year from our understanding of God’s love for us, God’s life among us, and God’s redemption of all that has been broken or distorted or ruined by our human choices, by greed, or by violence. And yet we sometimes relegate concern for the creation, worries about the future of the planet, or advocacy to address climate crisis as a side concern for those, who are particularly zealous about the environment.

Friends, God is zealous about the environment; protective of all that has been made; full of concern for every last thing that has been called into being – galaxies and glaciers, sun flares and sun flowers, rusty patched bumble bees and the aurora borealis. Tonight, we rejoice that God has intervened to draw all of creation back into right relationship with God. There is no earthly – nor celestial – limit to how far God’s redemption goes through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word through whom all things were made in the very beginning.

A few months ago, as I was reading a collection of sermons by biblical scholar Ellen Davis, I was struck by a reference in which she quoted Karl Barth.[1]

Now Karl Barth is probably the last of the great dogmatic theologians, the likes of which we no longer have in the church. His writings dominated European theology in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. The last thing anyone would say of Karl Barth was that he was “trendy”.

But in her writing, Davis pointed back to a claim Barth made in his 13-volume Church Dogmatics. In one of the books on the Doctrine of Creation, Barth describes the joy that awaits us as Christians when we will join the great heavenly banquet. He writes of the experience that awaits each one of us when we will “take (our) place … in the company of publicans, in the company of beasts and plants and stones, accepting solidarity with them, being present simply as they are, as creatures of God.”[2]

You see, our assignment is to accept our place as creatures of God; creatures of God, who wills that the whole cosmos reverberate with God’s glory and grace.

What, then, is our role as creatures in the face of climate crisis? It is not to sit back and do nothing, shrugging with indifference, because we think Christ will do it all. Neither is our role one of being overwhelmed because the challenges are so grave. Our role is to get in line and follow Christ’s own journey of reconciliation and solidarity with the whole creation; naming, protecting, teaching, changing our own habits of consumption, and foreswearing the assumption that the earth exists for us to use up.

Tomorrow, at the assembly, Dr. Barbara Rossing will address us with reasons to be hopeful even in the face of climate change. And where there is common fear there is also common hope through Christ Jesus, who came into the world so that our human past does not define our human – nor our global – future.

The great lesson of the Incarnation – of the Word who became flesh and lived among us — is that God is not far removed from our lives or our worries. For a down-to-earth God – the kind of God we have in Jesus Christ — what happens down on earth matters not just a little, but as a wholesome sign of a brand-new relationship with the Living God.

Tonight, we rejoice as creatures for our place in God’s great miracle and mystery, unfolding still before us. Alleluia, Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed. Thanks be to God. AMEN.

Bishop Patricia Lull

[1] Ellen Davis, Preaching the Luminous Word, William Eerdmans Publishing Company; Grand Rapids, Michigan (2016), page 303.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol.III-3, T & T Clark, Edinburgh (1960), page 242.