Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon: Solar Living

Today's sermon was a compilation of things I had been thinking about and blogging about this past week. We celebrated Evolution Sunday a week late. The hymns were traditional Jesus hymns: Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me, Just a Closer Walk With Thee, and How Can I Keep from Singing, which was a nice contrast to the seriousness of the message.

I borrowed a call to worship from Christ Community Church:

We are moved to awe and wonder at the grandeur, the poetry, the richness of natural beauty; it fills us with joy and thanksgiving.
And then all that has divided us will merge and compassion will be wedded to power
Softness and wonder will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
Both women and men will be strong

And then no person will be subject to another’s will
All will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
All will share equally in Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
All will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
All will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again

And I had to include as one of the readings this great poem by Pat Boran, "Song of the Fish People" from New and Selected Poems (Cambridge: Salt Publishing), 2005.

Give us legs and arms
to run and fight and kill,
then give us other skills
to plant and farm.

Give us warm blood
to feel the variations
of temperature, the patience
to untangle bad from good

while the known world spins,
and give us the desire
to create, and the fire
to destroy. And take the fins.

But leave us always tears
that we may not forget
the salty depths
of our formative years.

The Gospel reading was a teaching from Jesus:

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing?

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6:25-34

And now the sermon:

Solar Living
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
Evolution Sunday
February 22, 2009

Today we celebrate Evolution Sunday. We might wonder why? We don’t have Gravity Sunday or Boyle’s Law Sunday. Why should the Theory of Evolution receive a special Holy Day?

One reason for highlighting Evolution in church is because Evolution, more than any other scientific theory, is seen in some quarters of the church as a threat to the church’s authority.

Two developments have challenged the authority of the church more than any other. They are the Theory of Evolution and Higher Criticism of the Bible. The modern fundamentalist movement that began at the end of the 19th century and that has been reinvigorated in our time was a response to these two intellectual developments.

Higher criticism of the Bible analyzes the Bible as a human product. Using the methods of historical and literary criticism, higher criticism shows us that the Bible was written over time by human beings in their particular setting. Rather than the Bible being a word from God, perfect in every way, to us, we see it as a work of human beings reflecting about God and themselves.

The authority of the Bible and the authority of the church’s beliefs that are based on a pre-critical reading of the Bible are therefore challenged.

The Theory of Evolution challenged the pre-critical understanding of the Bible’s story. The biblical narrative of creation, human fall into sin, the story of redemption in Christ, and future hope in the holy city is no longer seen by many of us as a literal account of what happened or what will happen. It is a narrative of an ancient people trying to understand their place in the whole thing.

The Evolutionary Story, that some call our Great Story, has no Garden of Eden or original sin. Human beings emerged over time as have all other organisms in a process of adaptation. This does not mean the biblical story does not have value. Far from it. But it is seen in a different way than the way our pre-scientific ancestors saw it.

The implications of higher criticism and evolution are immense for the Christian faith. Pandora’s box has been opened and the forbidden fruit eaten as the microscope and the telescope have opened to us new vistas of insight never before imagined.

The fundamentalist reaction has been an effort to close Pandora’s box and put Eve’s fruit back on the tree. But it is too late. The game is up.

So what now? What is the path for those of us with our minds immersed firmly in science and yet with our hearts longing for the comfort of faith? We desire that Feeling of Absolute Dependence, of which the19th century, theologian, Friedrich Schliermacher wrote.

The hymns I chose are hymns of my childhood that are warm, comforting, and easy to sing. It is not easy to find a hymn that celebrates the glory of natural selection. The challenge for hymn writers, liturgists, and preachers is to find the language and the music to reclaim the warmth in a universe that we might think is cold.

How might we celebrate our evolutionary story in a way that captures the heart as well as the mind? There are many ways. We can tap into the deep wells of the various mystical traditions, creation spirituality, process philosophy, non-realist philosophy, and many others. I say go for the smorgasbord.

Before we do that, we need to acknowledge what I think is the elephant in the living room. Otherwise we will be engaged in nothing but head games. We are coming to the end of an age. Our reliance on fossil fuels or non-renewable resources has reached its peak. We have processed our fossil fuels through an economic philosophy of unlimited growth. It is unsustainable. It was always unsustainable but now we are beginning to feel its effects. These current economic tremors are just the beginning. Trying to sustain human life on non-renewable sources of energy is like living on our savings or on credit. At some point, the bill is due and we will have to pay our way.

For human beings to survive, we will need to live on renewable sources of energy for our food, shelter, and other necessities. We have to give back what we take. At this point, we are not even close. However, we have a dream. We have a dream of a sustainable future in which the energy of the sun, the wind, the ocean tides, and other renewable energy sources will be harnessed for a good life. These are gifts that Earth, Sun, and Moon provide for free.

None of us here will realize this future. Our descendants might. Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams in their book, View from the Center of the Universe tell us and I quote:
"...our descendants could have many billions of years to live together--if we can just get through the next few decades without disaster. This is the challenge of the human species today: it is as though we are on a great migration across a huge and treacherous mountain range. To get through these mountains we must gain control of human impacts on the earth and develop a sustainable relationship with our planet." (p. 240)
The image of migration is also a biblical image. In the book of Exodus the Hebrew children escaped from bondage in Egypt, crossed the sea, and entered the wilderness. They wandered there for forty years. They were told they would not get to the Promised Land, but their descendants would. Moses got a glimpse from the mountain. He didn’t enter either.

This is a powerful narrative. It is embedded in our psyches. It is a narrative that we might need to reclaim at this time in history. We too are breaking free from an enslaving unjust system of fossil fuel dependence. Yet, we have not found a way to replace it. We will be wandering without the comforts of Egypt. This wandering will be a preparation. We are preparing not for our future, but our children’s future.

What they had to learn in the Wilderness was how to live on a daily sustenance. They had to learn to adapt to change. No one likes change. That is why coming to terms with change is spoken of in mythic proportions in our religious traditions. We are blinded and deluded into thinking that what is impermanent is permanent.

We will always be able to drive cars and build bigger and bigger houses and fly around in jet airplanes. We are entitled to it. No, we are not. It is ending. Change is coming. These next 20 years will be nothing like the last 20. The next time you are on the computer you might find a website by a man named Chris Martenson. It is called Crash Course. Google “crash course” and watch the video series regarding his research on our economy and our future. Remember, I never insist, I only invite. I invite you to check it out and think about it. He is the one who said that the next 20 years will be nothing like the last 20. Change is coming.

This is where we can learn from evolution. Organisms that survive and reproduce are not necessarily the smartest nor are they the strongest. Those who survive are those most able to adapt to changes in their environment.

Evolution and our great spiritual traditions tell us the same thing: change is inevitable; go with the flow. Do not be attached to any former version of yourself. Embrace life in all of its complexity and ambiguity each new day.

I have been reading philosopher Don Cupitt. He is called a radical theologian. His latest book, Above Us Only Sky: The Religion of Ordinary Life, is in our library. Cupitt uses a term I like, solar living.

This is what he writes about it:
…the task of religion is to give us the courage and strength to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to life. Only we create the world, and only we can redeem it. By solar love of life we can inject meaning and value into life for everyone.... living is, or tries, to be, purely affirmative. It is also purely expressive. That is, we are not labouring to purify our souls so as to be ready for the Day of Judgment, and we do not spend our lives in forging a unified self to be a kind of monumental achievement. No, there is no Soul or Real Self, because everything that we are is flickering, shifting and ambiguous. The only way in which we can get ourselves together and become ourselves is in and by our self-expression, through which we put out, or present, images of ourselves. But as soon as I have expressed myself time moves on, and my expressed self must be abandoned without regret, because of course solar living requires us always to move on and never to become 'attached' to any version of ourselves. Solar living lives by dying all the time, as it continually leaves selfhood behind. That is how it conquers the fear of death, by making a full acceptance of death into part of the way we live. pp. 61-63
We are participating in the great stream of life that began 14 billion years ago, at least as far as we know. This stream of life will continue billions of years into the future. We are part of it, now.

This is life. The chaotic transition is life. The dream, the kingdom, the promised land of sustainability may not come in our lifetimes. We here today won't see that promised land where our descendants sustain themselves on renewable sources of energy. We might glimpse it now. We must prepare for it now, but we won't get there.

Our trek will be a chaotic wilderness trek. Our economies will fall; our standards of living (which for Americans were unjust and unsustainable to begin with) will fall. The age of petroleum will be seen by future historians as a strange blip that brought with it amazing knowledge and the ability to see into the deepest corners of space. It also brought the near destruction of the planet.

We must begin this trek, bravely, with a commitment to life, with a willingness to let go of our attachments, with an attitude of solar living, to create and re-create ourselves anew each day.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to see this loss (and grieve it we must) as a necessary precondition for a sustainable future for our descendants on this beautiful and fragile home.

As Don Cupitt writes,
Life is us, life is all this, now. p. 116
But we are far from alone. Our ancestors are with us, in our DNA, in our stories. Our descendants are with us urging us on, calling us out, to life…to life.


Our prayer of dedication and gratitude was written by Joanna Macy from her book, World As Love, World As Self (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2007), p. 201-2

You live inside us, beings of the future.
In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here.
In our rage for the burning forests, the poisoned fields,
the oil-drowned seals,
you are here.
You beat in our hearts through late-night meetings.
You accompany us to clear-cuts and toxic dumps
and the halls of the lawmakers.
It is you who drive our dogged labors to save what is left.

O you, who will walk this Earth when we are gone,
stir us awake.
Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world.
Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat.
Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick.
Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims,
that we may honor the life that links us.

You have as yet no faces we can see, no names we can say.
But we need only hold you in our mind, and you teach us
You attune us to measures of time where healing can happen,
where soil and souls can mend.
You reveal courage within us we had not suspected,
love we had not owned.
O you who come after, help us remember: we are your
Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.


  1. Your sermon brought me to the edge of tears, today, John. The story of Moses is one of the most powerful messages of the Bible for me. That message, as you said, is one that tells us we must often act without knowing the end, without seeing the reward, and that we will likely not feel much gratitude along the way. But we must act, none the less.

    Thanks for reinforcing that message with such a feeling of hope.

  2. Thanks Snad.

    I was wondering how it came across. Thank you for that.

  3. Have you ever been told that you will
    "bust Hay-ll wide open" for believing in evolution?