by Daniel Harrell
It’s been a hot and stormy week. Hottest year on record so far, they say. Seems like they’re saying that every year now. Thunderously wet. We all know about the trend toward extremes as the new normal. Local meteorologist Paul Douglas, politically conservative and Jesus-loving, stood right here in May and reiterated the multiple strands of evidence—CO2 levels at a 3 million year high, sea levels rising, rains falling harder, growing seasons longer, crazy weather everywhere. As creatures created in God’s image, we possess cosmic sway according to Romans 8. Science shows how carbon burned by us into the air leads to a warmer atmosphere that holds more moisture and wreaks havoc with jet streams. Cold pushes south and weather fronts stall helping fuel blizzards in April and last summer’s three-in-a-row /once-in-500-year hurricanes. Jesus and the prophets all warned of environmental catastrophe as harbingers of apocalyptic doom: we reap what we sow. The gospel forecast of new creation provides the only real hope we have left.
“Creation groans” under the weight of that hope, and must submit to futility and frustration as it waits. Tension is tight between now and then, between old and new. As redeemed children of God, we’re still only human and not yet who we are. Saved by grace we still need grace. Harvests abound yet hunger is rampant. Technology designed to improve life easier brings immense challenges. We live longer but fear getting old. Weapons proliferate for the sake of peace. We love and care and serve and forgive, but we also hurt and harm and resent and envy. Jesus rose from the dead but still bears his scars. Resurrection has started but it’s not yet completed. True for the creatures true for creation. We hope for what we do not see, the apostle Paul writes. No matter how bad it gets, or how hard or even how good, nothing compares to the glory to come.
This majestic eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans fulfills many of the sermon requests I received from you for this month (especially the request for a sermon from Romans 8), so I’m preaching the whole chapter. Sin and grace, love and the Holy Spirit, creation care, prayer and hope were all on the list. Romans 8 led off with “no condemnation for those are in Christ Jesus,” and asserts how the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and of death. Paul goes on to assert how creation itself will be set free too. Being a Bible scholar and theology geek, Paul piles on the rhetoric, trying to make sense of the multiple tensions between sin and law and flesh and spirit and life and death. It’s as complicated as weather forecasting, and as worrisome too.
Yet the deep breath of the Holy Spirit in us brings peace to our worries and assures our true identity as God’s children. And still there’s tension here too. Deep faith is childlike but that doesn’t mean easy. Resurrection demands crucifixion, and not just for Jesus. Crosses are borne and shared by us all; our souls forged most intensely and meaningfully by suffering. It’s just how it works.
Yet as creatures with low thresholds for pain, we do not like crosses. Give me a workaround, a quick fix salvation, symptom relief rather than fundamental change. True for the creatures true for creation. One of our bee colonies out back out back lost its queen, devastating since hives are fully dependent on their lone queen for survival. The normal life in the hive turns chaotic, the original routine is drastically altered. The workers’ reflexes activate certain changes in their body in order to try to save the doomed colony. The little buzzers work fast to fix things by taking on the queen’s job themselves, a futile task they’re not built to do. Worker bees (which are all female, of course) starts laying eggs, but their eggs are not fertilized and all hatch as drones, useless male bees who just sit on the comb all day doing nothing. You can’t make a queen from a drone. The hive remains doomed.
The analogy for the futility of quick-fix salvation might be obvious were it not for the fact that queens don’t just disappear. Deeply devoted to their daughters, queens never just get up and buzz off. Queens only die when they’re killed, whether by pesticides or the proliferation of parasites, or in our case human anxiety and carelessness. That’s right, we so-called beekeepers crushed her flat without realizing it. Most likely, we got a little frantic in our hive management—all those bees flying around and threatening to sting, who can see a single queen bee among the tens of thousands of insects swarming in your face? We could have been patient. Had we calmed down we might have two flourishing hives and more honey this fall. If only we’d breathed that deep breath.
Breathing has been the big theme in these recent weeks, both Sara and Jeff have preached respiration as inspiration. We need breath to survive, the fresh air of the Spirit. Last Sunday I spoke of how deep breaths calm our anxieties and fill us with life and peace. The apostle Paul added that a deep breath of the Spirit is also fatal: “By the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body,” meaning not only our queen-crushing failures but also our pride and successes we think matter so much. Christianity has long taught how our hearts curve in on our selves and prove shadowed and murky as to motive. Our best intentions are tinged by self-interest. Our good deeds can be so self-serving. I installed solar panels on my roof last summer for the sake of the earth, but they sit at such an angle no one can see them from the street and take note of my environmental superiority. This is why I have to tell you about it.
Paul indicts human pride and human sin as the deadly cause and effect of so much evil, physically and metaphysically, spewing its toxic emissions all over creation. A warming earth and a warring earth, repeating patterns of oppression and violence throughout history that kill and displace millions. Every relational break and breach of faith, every lie and infidelity and murder and theft. Viruses may not be our fault, but their proliferation is due in part to woefully deficient health care endemic to impoverished countries whose poverty has its own roots in social strife and injustice. Earth may be home to millions of species, but only one dominates. Human cleverness, inventiveness and activities have modified almost every part of our planet and are the drivers of every global problem we face. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God said to Adam as he got kicked out of Eden. We need a climate change of heart.
Though redeemed children of God, we’re not yet who we are. Saved by grace we still need grace. Resurrection has started it’s just not yet completed. Creation groans in the meantime, waiting with eager longing, Paul writes, like mother in labor eager for her child to be born. Her new baby born takes breath and finds life, but also brings life and joy to everything and everyone around, and even more so if the delivery was hard. The hope is for all creation, subjected to futility and frustration, will also be set free from bondage and decay, Paul writes, “born again,” so to speak, “into the glorious freedom of God’s children.” No matter how bad it gets, it’s nothing compared to the good that will be. Instead of the eventual decimation of a chaotic universe spun out of control; a burned out earth drifting in frozen silence until fried up a billion years hence by an expanding, engorging sun; Scripture envisions a bigger and better bang, a glorious new creation, a completion of heaven and earth by God. The dust to which all living things return when they die is the same dust out of which new life rises. Ours is not a throwaway planet anymore than our flesh is a mere jar of clay carelessly tossed in the ground. We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, a future glory that breaks back into our present, lessening the tension and diminishing the shadow. Instead of a world set to roll by a disinterested deity, our world is being pulled toward its true destiny by a God who so loves the world he sent Jesus to save it by suffering for it.
How this all comes about in the end, God only knows. Freedom from death and decay will mean a new kind of physics and a different biology, and the Bible does go on talk about new kinds of bodies and a universe lit up by God’s glory. Our faith aspires to realities beyond comprehension, larger than the temporal concerns over security and reputation and success and failure that otherwise dominate our thoughts. From birth, we are wired with a capacity to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves to greater purposes. In the midst of ordinary day-to-day living, we do find ourselves nagged by that sense that this cannot be all there is to life. Jesus said only by losing your self can you find your real self. Psychologists draw an analogy from the bees. They call it making “the hive switch.”
A beehive survives because its whole is so much greater than any individual member. The same is true for a church. Paul talks about the “redemption of our bodies,” but actually uses the singular noun body. This leads some scholars to wonder whether Paul has the whole hive in mind, what he calls the body of Christ, our together as church. A church survives because its whole is so much greater than any individual member. It depends on the sweet honey of humility and patience, kindness and meekness, gratitude and forgiveness and love. Such virtues are not the products of good genes or evolutionary luck. Nature may predispose us toward belief and transcendence, but it can’t make us do right. Our best and most beautiful virtues are not grounded in nature. They must surpass nature.
Spiritual practices help: prayer and silence and Scripture and community and submission and obedience and worship. I got a sermon request wanting to improve on these practices: on how to submit, how to worship, how to read the Bible, how to pray—and the request came from a person I know has done these things well her whole life.
But as Paul reminds us here, “we do not know what we ought to pray for,” either that or we do know but just don’t want to pray for it. The Holy Spirit helps us—knowing our hearts far better than we know ourselves, knowing what we need despite what we ask. Such prayer is deep breath, sighs too deep for words, in accord with the perfect and good will of God, which you might remember from Romans 12 means sacrifice. Theologian Paul Tillich taught how sacrifice and suffering scours away a floor inside ourselves, to expose that deeper level, and then the floor gets scoured some more and another deeper level is revealed. Finally, we get down to the core wounds, the core loves, our real faith, the fruit not of our effort, but the yield of our yielding to Jesus. A hive switch.
A big problem in beehives is mite infestation. The most pernicious is a little devil called the varroa, a tiny red parasite with horns that climbs on a bee’s back and sucks out its life. Only takes a few to ruin everything. Treating for mites means first testing for mites, which you do by putting a cup full of bees in a jar and then dousing them with powdered sugar, turning them upside down and shaking them vigorously, spilling the mites into bowl and then counting to see how bad things are.
The varroa devils don’t like letting loose. And the bees aren’t especially cooperative either. I sent off to the University of Minnesota Bee Lab for a Mite Test Kit, which comes complete with powdered sugar, a bowl and this little cup you’re supposed to fill with 300 bees. No problem. Just open your hive and get a cupful of bees. Does the University not know that bees can fly? That they get angry and sting? The first time I tried this I got stung six times on my face—resulting in gross and swollen facial disfigurement—and this the day before I was scheduled to speak to our preschool about the safety of beehives. I rescheduled.
Last Tuesday I drove up to the University Bee Lab for help. They were offering a workshop on mite checks. Treating for mites is important not just for your hive, but for the health of all hives because bees travel. The instructor readied her sugar and bowl and jar for her bees, and then pulled out her own little cup. “Watch this,” I said to guy beside me, “this is gonna be crazy.” So we watched as she pulled from her hive a frame full of bees, but instead of trying to scoop a cupful of bees by running her cup up, she calmly and patiently ran her cup lightly down against the frame and the 300 bees simply flopped over and fell right inside, surrendering their souls to the only thing that can save them. Salvation sometimes requires we go against our nature. We have to yield to the will of the Lord.
I told the guy next to me they should print this trick on the mite check instructions. He said they did. Oh. Just like the Bible I guess. It only works if you open it and read it. Prayer only has a prayer if we pray.
The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. She searches our heart and knows our mind and prays prayers that God hears. As new creations in Christ already, we can surpass nature in those moments when we do love our neighbors, when we do forgive those who wrong us, when we do care for the earth and the poor and the refugee and the widow and orphan, when we speak truth and make peace and do right and worship the Lord as living sacrifices to God. And when we fail because of our weakness, we will repent and bear witness to the climate change in our souls, to the deep breath of the Spirit and the resurrection of our bodies and all things made new in Christ, born again yet again until that day when we are fully revealed as we hope, made new and alive in a creation finally set free.