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Sky Sunday
Season of Creation, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 16, 2018

Psalm 19; Philippians 2:3-13; Mark 15:33-39

‘And ask the sky …’

Paul writes: “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling … It is God at work in you that creates the desire to do God’s will” (Philippians 2:12-13). The good news: cooperation with God. The good news: gift and task. The good news: grace perfects nature (Thomas Aquinas). There is a promise built into nature, including human nature – salvation, wholeness and wellness, continues, each and every day, as we turn from meanness and acknowledge goodness, as we exercise moral virtues and spiritual gifts. 

If grace perfects nature, as C.S. Lewis writes, it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity God intended … In other words, while evil shrivels into meanness, goodness expands. I picture the wide skies – the full-colour spectrum of light and air. “The sky proclaims the glory of God,/ and the firmament announces the work of God’s hands” (Psalm 19:1). There is a (rainbow) promise built into nature, woven into the very fabric of nature, including human nature. Grace does not destroy but perfects nature. God be with you …

This may be the most important thing to affirm during this or any Season of Creation. We are heirs to a biblical and creedal tradition that celebrates the inherent goodness – beauty and trustworthiness – of the cosmos. That means we can trust our senses, our hearts and minds, our God-given desires for intimacy and communion, justice and community. 

Contrary to Reformed pessimism/passivism (expressed in many popular hymns and spirituals), we are not completely depraved or wretched. And contrary to Gnostic escapism (expressed more broadly still), we are not destined for disembodied life – becoming human entails embodiment, incarnation, inter-carnation, albeit in more and more mysterious modes. The “supernatural” is not “otherworldly” as often claimed, but has to do with love – nature working with grace.

Is there another way to say this? Perhaps. The sky – the precious atmosphere as viewed from below – is heaven. Heaven is the sky perceived with faith, hope and love.

In relation to our gospel from Mark 15, there are two ways we might proceed. Firstly, by way of close reading of Mark. Secondly, by way of a song by R.E.M.

“When noon came, darkness fell on the whole countryside and lasted until about three in the afternoon. At three, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?’which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:33-34).

The context is the passion of Jesus. As one commentator notes: “… the mockery [Jesus] undergoes is ultimately … mockery of God … There is, then, a chilling threat of divine response and judgment in the darkness that comes down upon the whole earth at the sixth hour … Almost certainly in view are words of the prophet Amos (8:9-10): ‘That day – it is the Sovereign YHWH who speaks – I will make the sun set at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into funerals and all your happy songs into dirges … It will be a day of mourning, as for a dead child – all of this on that bitter day.’”

Mocking God’s Beloved, rejecting love (intimacy and communion, justice and community), is unnatural. We are thus pulled away from the world, away from ourselves …

“The pervasive darkness recalls the primeval darkness out of which the Creator summoned light and life (Genesis 1:3-5). We stand at a turning point. Is God, faced with the rejection and mockery of his [Beloved], allowing creation to go into reverse, sliding back into chaos and destruction? Or are we here at the painful birth of a new age, a new creation?” (Brendan Byrne).

At the moment of Jesus’ death, we then read, the sanctuary/temple curtain was torn apart, and this tearing corresponds to the tearing apart of the heavens/skies at the beginning of the story immediately following his baptism in the Jordan … The tearing signals a divine response to the faithful love of Jesus – including his association/solidarity with sinful humankind.

In the first instance the tearing of the heavens/skies was followed by Abba God’s assurance (1:11), an assurance of love repeated for the benefit of three privileged disciples at the transfiguration (9:7b). In the final instance of tearing (15:38), there is no accompanying divine voice acknowledging Jesus as “Beloved”. In startling paradox the acknowledgement (“Clearly, this was God’s Own!”) comes from the opposite direction entirely: from the human lips of the centurion who has supervised the execution.

Love/faith/hope makes a new house of prayer for all (Jews and Gentiles, oppressed and oppressors, beneath an open sky). In spite of mockery, fear and alienation – in the very midst of it – revelation …

In 1986, about the time that scientists identified holes in the ozone layer, R.E.M. recorded a song about the sky called “Fall On Me”. I have always loved this song for holding together environmental and spiritual concerns – the “problem” of technological alienation, real-estate greed, pollution. The “progress”, real or delusional – with reference to the Leaning Tower of Pisa (Galileo Galilei dropping feathers and lead weights to test the laws of gravity) and the Tower of Babel – human inquiry/ingenuity as well as human arrogance/entitlement. The “promise” to keep it whole – not to fall for dualism, speciesism, pie-in-the-sky religion.

According to band members, the subject of the song was initially acid rain, which occurs when the burning of fossil fuels releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, causing rain to be acidic.

“Buy the sky and sell the sky” alludes to a speech given by Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American tribes, in 1854. In reply to Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and the ceding of the Washington State territories, Chief Seattle laments/asks: “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?” 

This “asking” is crucial. At the beginning of the song, it’s “tell the sky”, as if the singer could tell nature what to do. By the end, it’s “ask the sky” – a more respectful, even worshipful disposition. We can ask respectful questions, difficult questions … in the process of working out our salvation – singing, trembling, confessing, celebrating … 

Does Jesus himself not ask, the darkness already falling, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” May we ourselves not answer, in company with the centurion, “Clearly, this was God’s Own!” Amen. 

R.E.M. – Fall On Me

There’s a problem, feathers, iron
Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys
Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air

Buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky
Don’t fall on me (what is it up in the air for?)
Fall on me (if it’s there for long)
Fall on me (it’s over, it’s over me)

There’s the progress, we have found
A way to talk around the problem
Building towered foresight
Isn’t anything at all

Buy the sky and sell the sky and bleed the sky and tell the sky
Don’t fall on me (what is it up in the air for?)
Fall on me (if it’s there for long)
Fall on me (it’s over, it’s over me)
Don’t fall on me

Well, I could keep it above
But then it wouldn’t be sky anymore
So if I send it to you, you’ve got to promise to keep it whole

Buy the sky and sell the sky and lift your arms up to the sky
And ask the sky and ask the sky
Don’t fall on me …

(Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe, 1986).