“Divine Presence”

Click here to hear the full service

Click here to hear the sermon only

Good morning! Happy Eastertide! Happy Earth Day! There are so many things to be thankful for this morning. Some of us are nearing the end of another academic year, some of us are finishing degrees, and some of us are just happy that life appears to be returning to Boston – trees are sprouting new leaves, flowers are in bloom, and you can hear birds singing in the early morning hours. I’m happy for all of these reasons. Happy for my students that they have succeeded academically through another semester, happy for those who finally see a light at the end of the tunnel that is accomplishing a graduate or undergraduate degree, happy that we have a constant reminder that new life and growth is possible. Plus, we’ve entered into the 50 days of Eastertide, a time when we rejoice in the reality of resurrection – of finding hope when there appears to be no hope left.

Today’s gospel tells us the familiar story of Christ appearing to the disciples after his resurrection. The disciples were frightened, having just lost their teacher and friend via state execution, probably wondering if the same fate would await them as his followers. Even though Jesus indicated that he would return, the disciples did not think it was a possibility. They didn’t believe the prophecies that Jesus proclaimed during his life which prepared the way for his return. So, when he appeared before them in a locked room, they of course were unsure how to process the information in front of them. But after Jesus appears to them, they tell Thomas, who happened to be away that evening. Thomas, like the others, cannot believe that Jesus could be back. He knows that Jesus died and for the others to claim that he was alive again does not make any sense. Jesus still appears to Thomas, who insists on physically touching the wounds of Christ to fully accept that he had, in fact, returned to life after death. Jesus appears and acquiesces to Thomas’ need for physical confirmation, but cautions that those who have faith in the reality of the divine presence of Christ in the world after his death are especially blessed. Should we criticize Thomas for his insistence on getting to see what the other disciples also saw the week previous? I don’t think so – Thomas is trying to wrap his head around an impossible possibility. The only thing that will change his mind is the assurance of divine presence.

This past Monday was Earth Day. Maybe you were extra aware of this because of local initiatives to remind you to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Or maybe you celebrated Arbor Day this past Friday by planting a tree. Here at the chapel, we hosted over 20 BU students and staff to make their own tiny terrariums to help green their desks, dorm rooms, or apartments. Earth Day is our yearly reminder to be more in tune with the state of our home. It’s like a state of the union for the planet. A time when we can choose to tune in and analyze the ways we’ve contributed to healing the Earth and in what ways we could be doing better. I recognize that not everyone has the same frame of mind when it comes to the importance of Earth Day – I am particularly attuned as someone who studies and analyzes environmental problems and the ways in which our Christian faith can guide our care and concern for the Earth.

At the beginning of this month, I attended an eco-symposium which brought together scholars and activists in the field of ecological justice and environmental sustainability to think about the ways that we can collaborate with one another to create change and the roles that faith can play in making that change. It was a great opportunity to meet people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to share the ways that they are incorporating concern for the Earth into teaching, preaching, and civic engagement at both local and global scales. One of the presenters was the Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies here at BU, Dr. Adil Najam. Dr. Najam co-authored the Third and Fourth Assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the guiding document for scientists and other environmental policy advocates on the issues of climate change. Dr. Najam made an excellent point in his presentation to us. If you were to look at the Earth as an outsider like you would assess a country, based on overall economics, health, and sustainability, our planet would not seem like a very good place to live. In fact, Dr. Najam referred to the Earth as “Third World planet.” A large portion of our population is impoverished, many face illnesses and even death on a daily basis, and the overall health and sustainability of our planet is poor and decreasing each day. Dr. Najam called our present time an “Age of Adaptation” in which we must address several failures that have led us to our current status – failure of wisdom about scientific consensus, failure to negotiate the necessary responses and responsibility for contributions to climate change, failure of vulnerability between those who are affected and those who cause problems, and a failure of morality in not fully understanding the ethical implications of the complex environmental, political, social, and economic factors at play.[1] He advocated that there needs to be massive overhauls in how we understand our relationships to one another as neighbors living on the same planet, and also how we view our relationship with the Earth.

My belief in the centrality of Christian faith to guide our ethical decisions based in nature is primarily centered in a God-infused understanding of the world held in tension with a notion of God as wholly other and beyond human comprehension. The paradoxical nature of the assertion that God is both fully immanent, that is, present to us through the world around us, while at the same time transcendent, or separate and completely other. My claim to this understanding of the divine develops out of my Lutheran heritage that continuously asks followers of Christ to hold contrasting ideas together about divine relationships with humanity and the world. Luther’s own use of the idea of “finitium capax infiniti” or the finite bearing the infinite, amplifies this paradoxical nature. In particular, he uses this concept in discussing the nature of the Lord’s Supper, asserting that the original elements of bread and wine maintain their qualities while the divine is intermingled with them. Lutheran theologians and ethicists embrace a paradoxical way of approaching the world to guide the pursuit of self-understanding and seeking knowledge about the divine, and then ultimately, the ways in which we can employ such knowledge in our world.

Recently, the presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote an article for Living Lutheran, the monthly magazine of the ELCA. The title of the article was “All Created Things” in which Bishop Eaton discussed the importance of maintaining our connections with the world and environments around us. She started by quoting Luther who wrote, “God’s entire divine nature is wholly and entirely in all creatures, more deeply, more inwardly, more present than the creature is to itself.” The idea that all creatures are deeply infused with the presence of the divine is something carried through Luther’s theological claims. God is the undergirding force of all life on Earth – the alpha and omega, beginning and end, an intimate part of life on Earth. Reflecting on this divine presence, Bishop Eaton cautions “…setting ourselves apart from the creation is also physically and spiritually deadly for humans…Physical alienation has spiritual consequences.”[2] The more we disconnect ourselves from the world around us, the less contact we have with the divine. The less we see the ways that our actions affect others, both human and otherkind, the less we see ourselves as a part of the divinely-infused creation. We are incomplete if we deny our relationship with the Earth because that relationship is just as essential as every other relationship we hold dear to us.

It is often difficult to remember that we are a part of the creation. We are so caught up in our daily existence of going to work or school, attending this meeting or that event, caring for our family members, paying bills, making sure we’re keeping up with current trends, or even just spending hours staring at screens all day. We lose touch with the fact that we are a part of the natural world; that our actions have consequences, that we depend on the Earth’s systems for our continued existence. We all want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, safe and healthy foods to eat. We want these things ensured for future generations as well. But many times we do not act that way. We pretend that our individual behaviors are not contributing to environmental degradation. We choose convenience over sustainability. We want to protect other species of animals, like polar bears floating on untethered glaciers, but not if it’s going to create more work for us. Or we simply don’t know how to respond – it’s easier to push images of deadly wildfires, droughts, or flooding off into the corners of our minds if we are not directly impacted by them. We can’t see climate change as it happens. It’s hard to be fully conscious of long-term changes in sea levels and loss of biodiversity when we have so much else to be concerned about in our immediate future. We may love the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the calm of sitting next to the Charles River or the top of a mountain, but we find it hard to keep the divine nature infused in each and every bit of the world around us in mind on a daily basis.

For many of us today, just connecting with our human neighbors seems difficult let alone connecting with the rest of creation. We have found new and inventive ways of separating ourselves from one another – not only by physical location or physical barriers, but also through mindsets that automatically close us off from hearing information that could lead to greater understanding and appreciation of our neighbors. If all creatures are filled with the divine presence that is more intimate to them than they could ever know themselves, then all humans also possess this same quality. We encounter difficulties in seeing others as bearers of divine presence repeatedly through racism, xenophobia, and bigotry – the most recent example of which just took place yesterday at Chabad Synagogue of Poway on the final day of Passover and six months after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Or we can recall the attacks on Catholic churches in Sri Lanka last Sunday during Easter services…or the devastating mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand last month. We continue to face the racism and xenophobia of those seeking asylum in the US, with thousands of children still separated from their families in detention centers around the country. Issues like these will continue to increase as climate change leads to massive migrations of people who will be climate refugees – unable to live in their current home countries because of drought, flooding, famine, or other conditions that will make life unbearable. Our world is in crisis in more ways than one and we must find new ways to respond.

The other day, a friend of mine posted about Fred Rogers. You might be familiar with Mr. Rogers from his PBS show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Many of us grew up with him welcoming us into his home as one of his neighbors, taking us on adventures to learn how crayons are made or explaining that it’s okay to feel our emotions, and how to use our imaginations to take a small yellow and red trolley to a Neighborhood of Make Believe with a King and Queen, talking tigers, owls, and cats. Mr. Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister. While his show wasn’t overly religious, it exuded the central principles of Christianity in secular ways. Mr. Rogers was all about instilling messages of love and kindness in children while also helping them navigate the world around them. The quote that my friend posted an excerpt of what Mr. Rogers said he would want his last broadcasted message to be. He stated:

Well, I would want [those] who were listening somehow to know that they had unique value, that there isn’t anybody in the whole world exactly like them and that there never has been and there never will be. And that they are loved by the Person who created them, in a unique way. If they could know that and really know it and have that behind their eyes on their neighbor and realize, ‘My neighbor has unique value too; there’s never been anybody in the whole world like my neighbor, and that there never will be.’ If they could value that person – if they could love that person – in ways that we know the Eternal loves us, then I would be grateful.[3]

Mr. Rogers reminds us that we should value the uniqueness of each individual, including ourselves, because of our connections to the divine. While he may not use the language of divine presence, his words point to an divine presence that makes each person unique and valuable. Recognition of the unique value of other people is obviously needed in our world today. We can also expand Mr. Rogers’ valuation of human uniqueness to our non-human neighbors as well.

What we need and desire is connection. Our relationships are the things that bind us together as a community. Our selves, our communities, our Earth are built upon the divine presence that undergirds us all. As many of you sitting in the congregation know, I completed my dissertation this year in ecological ethics. Obviously, I couldn’t let an opportunity like this go by without sharing a quote from it with you that I think is particularly apt to the message of locating divine presence in all things:

To stand in the sight of the Earth requires us to acknowledge we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves that is a complex web of interactions. Observing the self as a part of this complex web, with the potential to create and destroy on small and grand scales, brings into question what the human role should be in light of the world. If we are truly a part of God’s creation – not just stewards, but intimately connected with the Earth through our very being – then we must acknowledge that our relationship with the Earth requires the same sort of consideration our other close relationships ask of us. To care. To love. To protect. To seek justice.[4]

We have the capacity for the care and ingenuity needed to address the daunting global environmental problems that we and others will face. We may not have Christ standing before us to prove divine presence in the world, but we do have each other AND the world which can remind us of God’s grace and love. If we are able to recognize the Divine presence in each being – human or not – then we can begin to take responsibility for one another. In our local contexts, whether it is our neighborhood, town, or ecosystem, we have the tools already present to us that can help us develop new ways of being in the world. We can expand our care for one another out of the love that Christ showed to us by recognizing the divine nature infused in each and every thing around us. We can respect the uniqueness of each person, each plant, each animal and what it offers to our Earth community that keeps us bound together in an interconnected web of creation.

Amen.

– Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Adil Najam, “Age of Adaptation,” Presentation at Boston Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education, April 5, 2019.

[2] Elizabeth Eaton, “All Created Things,” Living Lutheran, March 29, 2019, Accessed April 1, 2019: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/03/all-created-things/.

[3] Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 161.

[4] Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, God, Self Humanity Earth: Christian Ecological Ethics in Local Contexts, PhD Dissertation, Boston University, 2019, 271.

Leave a Reply