Monday, March 26, 2007

The Heavenly Call of God

The Heavenly Call of God
by Paul Bresnahan
Philippians 3:12-14

The heavenly call of God reminds me to lift my eyes unto the hills from when cometh my help (Psalm 121) and to consider the heavens that have been fashioned by the fingers of God (Psalm 8).

As an urban dweller near Boston, I cannot help but notice when I lift up my eyes to heaven the frequent heat inversions we suffer from in the summertime and the mild winters we've had in recent years. This year we've only had a few inches of snow -- and in spite of the fact that we've had a few significant cold snaps, the overall picture seems to be that there really is a warming trend. Enter Al Gore's Oscar-winning movie An Inconvenient Truth and I find myself struggling indeed with the "upward call of God."

This is God's world. For good or ill, God gave us dominion over that world. And now many of us are concerned about the account we must someday give of the stewardship of what God has put into our hands. That day is coming sooner rather than later. What can any one of us do -- other than just throwing up our hands and running around like Chicken Little literally alarmed that the sky is falling? We've stared down the darkness before, as empires come and empires go. Now we face an even more daunting task -- the salvation of the very planet we live on.

Let's begin with Paul by recognizing that we must "press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." We've got to be in it for the long haul.


Warnings abound about global warming. This country sidestepped any serious consideration of the Kyoto Protocols in 2000, when other industrialized nations around the world began to bite the bullet over reining in CO2 emissions. It is ironic that the prophets of our own time are scientists and meteorologists, who have documented some disquieting trends that include the disappearance or dissipation of glaciers in the Alps and the Himalayas, the melting of the permafrost in the Canadian Northwest Territories, the breakup of the ice sheets at the poles, and the threat to polar bear habitat. The list goes on.

Without becoming alarmist, many are indeed trying to take a sober look at the realities of this "inconvenient truth." Al Gore's Oscar-winning movie by that title has brought renewed and sustained attention to environmental concerns we share as those given "dominion" over the created order.

Very recently, James Hansen, a NASA scientist of some repute and one of the earliest prophets of global warming, reiterated his concern that funding for climate research has been slashed and that the entire process of research and reporting has been hopelessly politicized (like almost everything else these days). In the New Zealand Herald Mr. Hansen is quoted as saying: "In my more than three decades in government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it has now."

It is a disturbing fact, if it is true. I for one find the evidence disturbing and feel that there is much to be learned from an honest and open evaluation of the truth. That is the missing piece in the ongoing debate, it seems to me.


There is in the readings this week a theme of looking toward what lies ahead rather than what lies behind us. It is a biblical way of saying that there is simply no use in crying over spilled milk. It is not a bad way to live. In our political life, we always seem to be having hearings so that we can assign blame. There is an old axiom that states that "blame is always a cover-up." In other words, as we seek to find someone to blame for our woes we take attention off our responsibility for our own lives.

The scripture seems to ask us to focus on forgetting what lies behind and pressing on to what lies ahead. In our lesson from Isaiah today we read: "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing." God seems to be saying that something new is about to happen, and if we have our eyes too firmly fixed on the past we'll miss the miracle of what is yet to spring forth from God's creative and redemptive work.

The Psalmist recognizes God's way with us. Indeed, we doubt and wonder -- but ultimately it is the confidence of faith that opens us up to that which is possible. It is therefore reassuring that we have words like these from today's Psalm, which remind us about God's Grace that is always leading us toward redemption: "Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy."

St. Paul similarly asks us to answer readily "the heavenly call of God." He makes it clear that life when it is lived well recognizes that there is a "long haul" dimension to the struggles we face. The way he puts it is in those familiar and ringing words of scripture: "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." Those stirring words open the human heart to God's urging us on to something new.

Even in the Gospel, Jesus reminds Judas not to prevent Mary's extravagant and devoted loving care for her Lord. When Judas complains about how much could have been provided for the poor our of Mary's extravagance, Jesus reminds all who were gathered, and all who really care about the poor, that efforts to help the poor will always be available to us. And did Judas really care about the poor? Does the political system in which we live really care about the poor? What do you think?

There is always the present moment. There is always what is possible to do right in this living moment. This is the moment where God's Grace is to be found. Now is the moment to respond to the heavenly call of God. Forget what lies behind us. Let's move on to what lies ahead.


Several years ago I went to a lake in northern Ontario where I used to go as a child. Something was terribly wrong up there in the beauty of that pristine lakeside forest -- the forest was denuded of the broadleaf maple trees that used to provide such lovely and abundant shade on a hot summer's day. Now those leaves were just a fraction of the size that I remembered them being. I asked my friends what happened. "Acid rain!" was the answer.

In one short lifetime a dramatic change had taken place in such a noticeable way. Similarly, the effects of global warming seem to have left their mark in so many places. Last fall our church hosted a singing group from St. Petersburg, Russia, and when I asked them about their weather at that time of year, they said that there was a time when snow would be falling by late November -- but no more, not since global warming. Nowadays winter comes later, is less severe, and does not last as long. The evidence is mounting that "this fragile earth, our island home" is suffering from many environmental abuses.

In so many ways, we as an electorate seem to have become much more passive than we used to be. We seem to have abdicated our responsibility to hold our elected officials responsible for those public policies which affect the lives we live. As the old Boston politicians used to say: "The only thing that apathy guarantees is that someone worse than you will govern."

That makes sense, doesn't it? It is not enough just to vote -- it behooves us to get involved, to get our hands right into the thick of things and to hold everyone's feet to the fire, including ourselves.

This planet is the only one we'll ever have. Environmental degradation is simply not acceptable. The Gulf coast hurricanes Katrina and Rita remind us that there is a grinding reality to poverty, neglect, inadequate health care, substandard education and housing for far too many of our own people. The reality is that our response to these storms has been anemic at best, and downright intentionally neglectful at worst. In other words, the connection between environment and public policy toward the poor are related. We are pouring money down the drain of some rather questionable international "diplomatic" policies, while we ignore and pull back from our commitments to our own vital interests domestically and environmentally.

In the very beginning God gave us dominion over the created order. That doesn't mean that we have the right to be irresponsible over what God has given into our care. It means that we are being called to be good stewards of all that has been given to us.

We have received a heavenly call. We may not all agree on how best to respond toward that call, but I suspect that we could strain and press ahead with more vigor and creativity than we have in the recent past. This is not just the responsibility of our elected leaders. It is the responsibility of good and sound citizenship. Many of us could use a course in Civics 101 these days.

No doubt many will be tempted to say: "What can I do against such insurmountable and complex problems?" What we can do is forget what lies behind and press on toward what lies ahead. Watch for it -- God is about to do something new again. True enough, there may be tears of sorrow this night, but joy will come in the morning.

When Jesus comes into our midst we will no doubt want to lavish him with expensive ointment and rejoice that he lives. My dear friends, Jesus is living today in the poor who cry out to us for help from those areas of this world where there are dangerous droughts and famine, where warfare and civil unrest make mere survival precarious. Jesus is living today in the very forests we love, and the glaciers that inspire such awe among us. God's glory is visible in the created order that we have been called to tend to with all the zeal of a mother caring for her child. Jesus is living among the vulnerable in our cities and in the lowlands of the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf coast. We could lavish Jesus right now with the ointment of the healing touch of human love and generosity.

Many of our denominations are seeking to respond to the multitude of human needs by responding to the Millennium Development Goals as articulated by the United Nations. That in and of itself is a modest but hopeful beginning.

Yes, we have dominion over all the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the myriads of creatures and the very planet we all share. I am persuaded that there is a way to preserve what we have been given in a sustainable and responsible kind of way. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus has made us his own. Therefore we press on toward that upward call of God. The prize for which we strive after is this: the heavenly call of God.

The greatest joy we will ever know is the Joy of sharing abundantly the generous love of God which we know in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. We don't have to look far to see that Person. That person is the multitude of men, women, and children in this world who seek the ointment of our generosity. That person is revealed to us in the beauty of this glorious planet. Now can you hear the Heavenly Call of God?

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