Living in the Body of God

Sermon by Dirk Beckford Wassink

I would invite you to consider with me three stories today. One of them is mine, connected with how faith and work connect for me. Two other stories will hopefully help introduce and illustrate a faith framework that has challenged and grown how I think about my work in the area of building salvage and building materials reuse/recycling. Perhaps these stories and ideas will be useful to you as you consider your own work and calling in the world.

Story 1: Go with me to a time in the distant past, about 250 million years ago, the end of what paleontologists call the Permian era – before the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. (For those with younger children familiar with the Land before Time, this is the Land before the Land before time .) To journey this far into the past is a stretch for most of us. In order to make the journey, we need to rely on scientific study of fossils and rocks that may be hard to understand. We may have to depend on assumptions that we’d struggle to agree with. It stretches our minds to think of how this story may connect with the creation story in Genesis. But let us continue. Let us see how we may learn something from it. It is a story about the physical history of our planet that is being told in increasing detail by the scientific community today.

At the end of the Permian era, the earth is full of amazing creatures, most of them very different from today’s plants and animals. According to studies of fossil records, this time of 250 million years ago precedes even the dinosaurs, but also birds, mammals, and humans. It precedes deciduous trees and flowering plants and grasses.

In the sea are corals, sponges, brachiopods (abundant clam-like shell creatures), stromatolites (tower structures built by bacteria), nautilus, and the large predators of the ocean are ammonoids (think of squid that live in a shell).

On land there were small reptiles such as the Paliguana, that ate insects and ran quickly on its long back legs, its long tail stretching behind. There was the dimetrodon, a large lizard-like animal with a huge sail stretching up from its back. (Place plastic dimetrodon on table. This one might be made from oil of decaying plants from that time!) These animals wandered through the local vegetation, which would have been mostly ferns and conifer trees.

250 million years ago the earth was changing, and something happened abruptly, that caused the largest extinction ever, even more devastating than the later extinction that killed the dinosaurs. Three quarters of all land animal species and 90-95% of all marine animal species disappeared from the face of the earth. This is a story of devastation on a global scale.

What caused this extinction? Further, why does this story of a long ago catastrophe have any use for us today, especially in church? The causes of the Permian extinction are the focus of intense and growing scientific interest today. Why? One big reason is that precisely this time period appears to have been one of the warmest in the history of life on our planet. Today, most climatologists project that our earth could warm by 2 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century. As humanity grapples with understanding just what could happen with increasing temperatures and how to prevent it or respond to it, scientists have been looking backward in history to see how the earth has behaved with higher temperatures in the past. To get to temperatures as high as those predicted in the coming years, scientists have had to go far back indeed, all the way to the end of the Permian age, a time which coincides with the greatest mass extinction ever. This story could be something like a prophecy, a warning, a jeremiad.

Story 2: I was sitting in one of my first engineering classes at Calvin College, learning about material properties. Professor Bosscher, teacher of this class, and one of the forces behind the very first city recycling program to start in the country, described his vision of the future of our consumer society. One day, he believed, we would be mining materials from landfills, all that material we’d been throwing away for so long. He connected faith with engineering through the notion that stewardship of earth’s resources was essentially the mission given by God to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. As present day people making decisions about material resources, he argued, stewardship was also part of our call as people of faith in the engineering profession. This was as close to spiritual inspiration as I got in my engineering education, and it was the foundation of my first vision of a career: teaching engineering at a liberal arts college.

Ten years later, as I was finishing up a doctorate in mechanical engineering, following my plan to become an engineering professor, I became increasingly apprehensive about my plan. Over these many years of study, I came to understand engineering as being the study of HOW to solve problems. The solution was typically technical, and in my discipline of mechanical engineering, it usually involved engines, mechanisms, complex vibrations and energy flows. Missing from all this was WHY we were solving a particular problem, and WHY a technical solution was the best. “If you’re a hammer, the world looks like a nail.” If you’re an engineer, maybe the whole world looks like a machine. I wanted something more living than a machine. I hoped to understand more about the why along with the how.

I remembered the vision laid out years earlier in that first engineering class, and realized I needed to change direction, to find a way to integrate my calling as a steward of earth’s resources with my work. I took a job at a company that engineered manufacturing processes for recycled materials. I loved it. It was simpler work than I had been doing in school, but recycling felt more connected to the stewardship idea.

When Alicia got a job in Seattle ten years ago, we moved here and it was a starting over point for me. After knocking on lots of (closed) doors related to engineering, I accidently ran across Second Use Building Materials. I needed a job, and they had a “Help Wanted” sign out, so I applied. From the very first day, the work of keeping building materials out of the landfill piece by piece connected for me, very deeply, in a very visceral way. The work did not pay much, and it was quite physically demanding, but it felt good, as if in some way for the first time I felt I was contributing to some sort of solution. The simplicity of the work was part of it. It felt transparent. The scale of it was small, and humbling compared to the large amount of waste, but it was something, and something meaningful.

In order to sustain meaningful work, it helps to have a vision or framework within which to grow, some kind of hope to reach for. What kind of faith framework shapes how I think about my work now? As I was beginning that process of integrating my work and values, I came across a book with the title: The Body of God: An Ecological Theology by Sallie McFague. She was a professor for many years at Vanderbilt Divinity School (where Sarah Klaasen now studies). I was intrigued by the title. Over time, the ideas put forward by McFague in this book have had a significant influence on my thinking.

McFague acknowledges stewardship as a typical point of departure for Christians as we think about nature. God commissions Adam and Eve to rule over other creatures (Gen 1:26 “let them rule over the fish of the sea and birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.) Jesus extends the idea of stewardship in parables of stewards – stewards of talents and stewards of vineyards.

While this concept of stewardship has many useful features, McFague argues that the stewardship concept by itself can no longer serve Christians to develop a complete theological framework for understanding our relationship with the environment of the earth. Why? One problem with the stewardship concept is that stewards are often understood and portrayed as central actors, usually men, having dominion (albeit a temporary one) over some designated set of resources. However, in light of the ways human stewardship has given way to dominion so often, exploiting resources for the benefit of a few in the here and now, causing pollution, depletion, and increasingly the danger of a climate headed in a threatening direction, it seems wise to consider shortcomings of the stewardship framework. As it appears that the future of life on our planet (even the fairly near future) depends greatly on humans not assuming they are the central actors in creation, subjecting the earth to their own dominion, McFague suggests we should look for additional theological models or frameworks to help us.

McFague puts forward a vision of the universe as an organism created and dwelt in by God. The universe, as the physical place where God dwells, could be thought of as the body of God. This vision of an organism, vulnerable to changes and full of interrelated beings could be helpful to us as we think about ways to be faithful to God as the natural environment is increasingly threatened by human activities. Essential to the functioning of any organism is it body. The body is very important. For insight about the body of this organism called the universe, McFague turns to what she calls the “common creation story.” She describes this as the patchwork of understandings developed from various branches of science about the physical unfolding of the universe — from a big bang, consolidation of planets around suns, and the unfolding of life on our own earth, from bacteria to plants and animals of amazing diversity over billions of years. How can we tie together the insights of cosmologists, quantum physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists, paleontologists, archeologists and so on, alongside a spiritual understanding of God and the world to generate a faith framework that is relevant to how we live on earth here and now?

For one thing, from the perspective of the common creation story, we are not the center of the universe. Humans are at the recent end of a long history of evolution of life. The earth was filled with creatures for many millions of years before humans ever came on the scene. There are many, many other animals and other creatures sharing the planet with us right now.

Second, we humans have the unique ability in the world of creatures to reflect on our existence and this amazing unfolding of history. Perhaps this uniqueness of humans in creation can suggest to us a vocation, a role for ourselves in creation. If we frame our understanding of the earth and all creation organically, envisioning creation as in some sense the body of God, the way that God is present in the world, then our vision changes. We are part of the body, but so are the other animals, and the rocks and distant galaxies. We are humbled and awed by the immensity of God’s world. But if this is God’s body, then our bodies must be very important, and the bodily life of all creatures must be important. And God must care deeply about the bodily well being of all of creation.

I am remembering Sue and Wes’s presentation from last week about abiding in Christ as branches abide in the vine, and that connects well for me with this image of being part of the body of God.

The passage in Romans read just a few moments ago seems to connect well with the notion of creation as a body that suffers as a whole and waits in hope:

“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration… in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Envision God experiencing creation, the pain and suffering all through it (like childbirth!), and creation, the body of God, waiting anxiously for suffering and strife to end. This hope depends somehow on the revealing of God’s children, the humans. What will we choose? Will we insist on continuing to pursue narrow and short term interests at the risk of shortening the viability of physical life on earth by millions of years? Will we consider and care for those members of the body who are suffering or vulnerable now? Will we plan and act for the wellbeing of the world in future generations? Will we listen for God’s call in the midst of all this?

How does the idea of all the earth being part of the body of God help me think about my work? It confirms my own motivation for diverting waste from landfills and trying to find further productive use of materials. The environment, all the resources of the earth are part of the body Tending to the overall health of the environment is caring for God’s body, and in some sense for myself as part of that body.

It also weaves in and out of how I envision the business of Second Use now that I am a manager and co-owner. In addition to considering how the business can generate sales, pay employees and produce profits, we need to attend to the “greater whole.” Our business should involve input from, and provide benefit to, not only owners, but also the workers who do the hard labor of recovering, transporting and selling reusable materials, also to the customers and suppliers, also the local community, also the wellbeing of the planet. If possible, the collaboration of these various stakeholders, as well as the benefits generated, should lead to growth over the long term. Growth of employees as people. Growth of community. Long term benefit to the environment. In short, if our business is to have value or is to be sustainable, it must advance in some particular way the well being of God’s body, of all of us together. It is a huge challenge to try to hold a vision of the whole body amidst the details of day to day work. It’s hard to think about the wellbeing of the whole planet when just keeping the business going seems to be enough of a challenge. But to stay connected with this notion inspires and provides energy for our work. Working for the “greater whole” forms a hope that can sustain our efforts through the challenges. It is a vision that shapes my co-workers as well, even though most of them do not share a specifically Christian faith.

Story 3: Terra Preta, and the Amazon “wilderness”

Have you ever heard about Terra Preta? It is an amazing kind of soil discovered recently by archeologists working in the Amazon rain forest. Rainforest soil is supposed to be very poor because all that vegetation is supposed to use it up, and the constant rains are supposed to wash the rest away. Terra Preta defies expectation by being extremely fertile and extremely stable. What is so amazing about this soil, is that it appears to be created by humans. A close look at Terra Preta shows that it contains charcoal and pottery. The pottery is painted. Dates on this pottery appear to range from 1000-8000 years old. Terra preta exists not in just one small area. Terra Preta appears to be quite widespread in the Amazon basin. It is beginning to turn around the notion held for many years that Amazon is the last great wilderness in the world. It is beginning to look a lot more like the Amazon rainforest is the most amazing garden ever tended by humans. We have not seen them or their contribution because of the amazing diversity of creatures sustained in the Amazon rainforest habitat. Their mostly invisible legacy has contributed to the health of the entire world, all the way to today, thousands of years later. Can we shape our lives around a vision like that?

The Permian creatures like the dimetrodon, the people of the Amazon of 5000 years ago, and we can all be seen as part of the same fabric, the beloved body of God. The Permian extinction is the body’s prophecy of a dangerous future. The gift of terra preta is a sign of bodily hope. We are all, and have always been, vulnerable, fragile and wonderful. We all have something to contribute, to the great glory and pleasure of God our creator, and to the long life of the earth, the body of God. May we humbly seek this way together, and may God grant us wisdom.