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Return to the Earth – Land Sunday

September 14, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 14, 2014

 

Psalm 139:7-12         Genesis 3:14-19; 4:8-16

Today is the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation, and today we worship with the land. Therefore:

     We invite the countryside to worship with us,

         the wildflowers and mushrooms, swirling grasses and goldenrods.

     We invite the farmlands to sing with us,

         wheat fields, orchards and vineyards; hayfields, gardens and wetlands.

     We join with all the fauna of the fields in praising God:

         horses, sheep, and cattle; grass snakes and grasshoppers, eagles and crows.

     We invite the ground to stir deep below:

         life-giving microbes restoring the soil, beetles and worms preparing our food.

     We celebrate the song of the soil itself:

         the substance out of which all life, plant, animal, human, is created

          and to which we owes our survival. [1]

“Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy,” declares the psalmist. “Let the fields exult and everything in them.” (Psalm 96:12).

Ah, if only they could!

Biblical scholar Ellen Davis notes that “more than sixteen centuries ago, St. Basil cited as an already long-established fact the “ruthless cruelty” of humans that prevented “the voice of the earth” from rising to God in song.”[2] Instead, the sound of creation is an anemic chorus, all because human beings have transgressed our proper place on earth.

God created human beings as kin with all creation, made of the same stuff, the same soil, as the animals and plants. God put the first human beings in the garden and charged them to farm it and keep it, to serve it and preserve it.[3] Yet they acted as though there were no limits, they took what should not be taken, they ate without regard for where their food came from, transgressing limits set by God and nature, and then denied they had done it. Therefore the land that had been a blessing for human beings instead bears a curse. It does not yield what it used to, but instead shows the marks of a land degraded, all thorns and thistles. And human beings must toil to receive what was once so abundant. In anger, the farmer Cain kills his brother, the shepherd Abel, and from the ground Abel’s blood cries out to God. Cain is cursed to live as an alien from the land, wandering on the earth, a fate that he says is more than he can bear. “Today you have driven me from the soil, and I will be hidden from your face.”

Can we see the face of God in the soil of the earth?

It is not easy. Human beings have today transformed between one-third and one-half of the earth’s surface, reducing total primary plant life (what the earth’s natural systems would annually sustain) by more than 40% by eating it up, cutting it down and paving it under. We have destroyed four-fifths of the world’s natural ecosystems, taking what we wanted and neglecting or destroying the rest. In just the last century, the transformation of the land has been the primary cause of species extinction, both plant and animal. We mock our Creator who called us forth from the soil and charged us with serving and preserving the earth.[4]

Though we have a divine commission to farm and keep the land, 97% of us have no practical experience of agriculture, and so do not realize how “unacceptably destructive to the environment” and unsustainable modern agriculture is. Instead of serving the needs of the earth and learning from the land, today we have industrialized our food supply, introducing machines, fossil fuels, chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers (which contaminate our water supply), and placing the control of production and marketing in the hands of large agribusiness corporations. We depend upon the cultivation of massive, genetically-modified monocultures, making crops more vulnerable to pests and diseases, all the while depleting and accelerating the erosion of our most valuable resource, topsoil. [5]

“We take the soil for granted because it is there, it is everywhere,” said Dr. Wangari Maathai. [6] Yet in Iowa alone, a recent report called Losing Ground reports that farms lose nearly 100 tons of precious topsoil per acre per year, 97% of it preventable through simple conservation methods.[7] Half the soil we have lost has been lost in the last 150 years.[8]

“We think that diamonds are very important,” added Dr. Maathai, “gold is very important, minerals are very important, we call them precious minerals, but they are all forms of the soil. But that part of these minerals that is on top, like it is the skin of the earth, that is the most precious of the commons.”

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None of this can be sustained; we know this. In order to survive, we will have to change its basic approach to the production of food and learn to be stewards of our soil. In the meantime, “All creation is waiting eagerly … groaning in labor … for the Children of God to appear and return to the ground, to take up again our first vocation to care for the earth.

Did you notice that phrase in our reading today? In chapter three, God’s response to Adam and Eve’s transgression, by far the most attention is given to the land. With human beings alienated from God and from one another, the earth is the first to suffer, “cursed is the ground because of you,” says God. But then God says,

By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread

until you return to the earth [adamah],

for out of it you were taken;

you are dust,

and to dust you will return.

We usually associate these words, our return to the earth, with our graveside services. On Thursday morning, George P——- and I buried the remains of his beloved wife Beth in The Shepherd’s Fold, our memorial garden. We had committed her life to God’s keeping several months ago, but were only now ready bury her body. George knelt down and gently placed the urn containing her ashes into the ground. He kissed his own hand and placed it on the box as we recited, “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister Beth and we commit her body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” And we each took handful after handful of the cool, brown dirt and filled the hole until what remained of Beth’s body was blanketed in soil and buried in the earth. It was a powerful reminder of our origin and destiny in the soil, and of our connection to the earth throughout life. We are reminded of this as well each Ash Wednesday when I touch your forehead with the burnt remains of the previous years palm branches and urge you to humility in your mortality.

But there is something else going on in this passage from Genesis. The words “until you return to the earth” have less to do with mortality than they do with changing our direction and being reconciled with the earth. The word “return” here carries the meaning of repentance, as when God says “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” (Joel 2: 12) Here God says

By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread

until you return to the earth [adamah],

for out of it you were taken;

you are dust,

and to dust you will return.

Because we tend to think of The Fall and Original Sin as something that began with Adam and Eve and was passed inevitably down to us, we miss that right here, right at the moment of fall, God is providing a way back – a way for us to return to the earth. Caring for the earth is not only our vocation; it is also a means of our reconciliation – with God, and one another, and all creation.

In the next generation, after Adam and Eve, Cain invents gratitude. God had not commanded the building of an altar or the offering of first fruits from the harvest, but Cain the farmer does so, and Abel follows suit.[9] Only with Cain’s anger, jealousy and violence does sin enter the world – the word “sin” is used here for the first time – to prowl around, always waiting to destroy or degrade even our best efforts at reconciliation. Returning to the earth becomes systematically harder with each generation.

But this promise of reconciliation continues, through the prophets and in Paul’s words where he writes,

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God: for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit; groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8:19-24a)

It is in our hope, in creation’s hope, that God meets us and saves us. The actions our congregation is taking to support the People’s Climate March, the cultivation of our community garden, the sponsorship of our CSA where we actually get to meet the farmers who grow our food) are actions taken in hope. None of them are definitive; they are acts of hope through which we begin to return to the earth. And we are promised that God meets us, God wants us to return, and God saves us, even during the worst times – times that would threaten hope that we can do anything – and God hopes in us in return.

So this morning as we think about our ravaged land, I invite you to consider as well how we are living out our hope amidst uncertainty, challenge and fear. How hope is not about what has already been accomplished or proven, but rather hope is about having trust to stand up, to cultivate new ways of being, and to insist upon the well-being for the earth and all its people. So this morning, let us put our hope in the earth, let us put our hope in the speaking of truth to power, let us put out hope in one another, and let us put our hope in God.

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© 2014, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

White Plains Presbyterian Church

[1] This litany is adapted from the Season of Creation: http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/season-of-creation

[2] Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. (Cambridge, 2009). P. 54

[3] See my sermon from last week: http://revgeary.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/why-are-we-here-forest-sunday/

[4] Cited in Ellen Davis, p. 54.

[5] Theodore Hiebert, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel. (Fortess Press, 1996). p. 148.

[6] In Dirt: The Movie. Directed by Bill Beneson et al. (2009).

[7] http://www.ewg.org/losingground/

[8] http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/soil-erosion-and-degradation

[9] I thank my colleague in the Greenfaith Fellow Program, Patricia Tull, for this insight. I commend her book Inhabiting Eden: Christians, The Bible, and The Ecological Crisis (WJK, 2011) for a similar working out of this passage.

My Son Gives Me A Sermon

September 9, 2014

 

lorax-scenery-splash

Last Saturday evening  I found myself still writing my sermon for Sunday morning. This would be the first sermon in our first ever observation of the Season of Creation at the White Plains Presbyterian Church. The Season of Creation is a new, and still optional, season in the church year, usually celebrated on the four Sundays prior to the Feast of St. Francis (October4). While the first half of the traditional liturgical year follows the story of Jesus from Advent through Easter, and the second half of the year explores life in the Spirit from Pentecost through Ordinary time, there is no season which intentionally explores our experience of God our Creator or God’s presence in creation. I am grateful for this new season, for the resources connected to it, and for the work of David Rhoads to promote its observance in the United States.

Anyway, around nine o’clock last Saturday evening we were well past my son’s bedtime: I was still writing and he was begging me to stop and put him to bed. But I was afraid that if I did so I would fall asleep without finishing the sermon.

So he asked me, “What are you writing?”

I told him that the theme was Forest Sunday and that I was describing how much I love to hike in the woods. I was then exploring the second creation story in Genesis, the one in which God creates a forest-garden filled with beautiful trees and fruit trees, and that the first vocation human beings were given was to care for the forest. And then I apologized for not being finished, suggesting that perhaps I should have done myself a favor and preached on The Lorax instead.

He said, “I’ll be right back.”

A short while later he returned and said, “I wrote you a sermon. Now let’s go to bed.”

It was printed on a spare piece of cardboard, and on a piece of lined paper torn from a notebook. Here is what he wrote:

I Like to hike.

My best companions are trees.

Now trees are very important.

As they say in The Lorax:

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”

lorax

I like that saying because WE are like the Lorax:

WE speak for the trees.

We decide if the trees get chopped down or live.

In The Lorax, when the last tree was cut down

all the animals go away.

If too manny trees get cut down

the same thing will happen.

That is why we need to be their voice:

if the trees get cut down …

extinction can occur.

So that is why I like the Lorax.

I thanked him, and kissed him, and I stopped writing and took him to bed. But with this inspirational act it really took me no time at all to finish my own sermon later that night. You can find it here: “Why are we here? – Forest Sunday.” But the urgency of getting this vocational question right was put succinctly by the Lorax:

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Our Davy Crockett Adventure: Day 3

September 8, 2014

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Day 3: King of the Wild Frontier – Climbing Clingman’s Dome       (August 5)

Today was our first full day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Over a breakfast of dry cereal we decided that we would spend our day exploring the park as widely as possible. Our first stop was to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to get expert advice, a schedule of ranger talks, and new gear. August donned his ranger outfit over his camouflage shorts outfit. Perceptive readers of this blog will note that this makes three days in a row in the same outfit. So what! It’s all in the true spirit of camping!

August was already sporting 15 or so Junior Ranger badges on his hat when we arrived, which caught the attention of all the staff, particularly those in the gift shop. After August bought a walking stick (with his own money), the shop keeper wanted to take this picture of him. Apparently they have been trying to persuade higher-ups at Easter National that they should carry the uniform (shorts, shirt, vest, hat and backpack) in the store and thought this picture would help.

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After a tour of the mountain ecology museum, we attended two ranger talks. The first, led by Ranger Julianne, was about animal scat (or animal poop). It was very engaging and tactile – at one point she disected bear scat she had found just the day before. August promptly whipped out his animal scat I.D. card from his backpack to compare what he was looking at with the pictures he held. His hand was up for every question. Every question! I could not resist the photo below as he resembled Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, waving her hand in the air just in case the instructor did not see her.

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The second talk involved a hike to Cataract Falls, during which August made fast friends with guide and was dependably at his side, ready to answer every question. This was primarily about tree identification, something August and I are trying to get better at.

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Again, when we reached the falls August whipped out his Pond Ecology I.D. card and set to work. He must have spent 40 minutes examining lichen, mosses, insects, and water animals in just the position you see him here. I love him so much!

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There are two ways to earn a Junior Ranger badge at Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Kids may purchase and complete a Jr. Ranger book from the gift shop, including a single ranger talk, or they may attend three ranger programs and, with the signatures of the rangers, receive their badge. We chose the latter as the best way to learn about the park.

With two ranger programs complete, we opened our lunch kits and snacked our way over the mountain toward the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. This took us through Newfound Gap, passing from Tennessee to North Carolina. Of the nearly ten million visitors to Great Smoky Mountain National Park (the most visited park by far – the second most visited is Grand Canyon at 4.5 million per year), only a small percentage make their way over the mountain.

At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center we had plenty of time to spend in the Mountain Farm Museum and experience demonstrations of blacksmithing, hearth cooking, gardening, and weaving before attending our next ranger program. The museum is a replica 19th century village, all of which is authentic and some of which has been relocated from Cade’s Cove. The ranger talk we attended was called “Lost and Gone Forever”: the story of how the passenger pigeon became extinct and what lessons we can learn from its passing. While August brought a lot to this program, he deepened this understanding of the connection between human caused climate change and species extinction.  At the end of this program, August was sworn in as a Junior Ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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On our way back over the mountains, we detoured up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest elevation in the park and the highest point on the Appalachian Trail (more on that tomorrow). Upon arrival, August and I made a meal out of that salami we had purchased at Katz’s Deli in Manhattan. Actually, we made sandwiches all along the two mile march from the parking lot to the peak. Along the way we passed irresistible climbing rocks. Really … irresistible. We each scrambled over and up these glacier formations and ventured into the woods beyond, but August was mostly enamored with jumping. I think this is my favorite photo from our vacation: “Boy in Flight!”

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Though they are not seen in this photo, these rocks were crawling with children – a much needed “peer experience” three days into our trip. As the only adult who was also climbing the rocks, I took lots of cool pictures of cool kids and emailed them to parents. I honestly think we could have spent all day here, but we still had the mile long hike to the top ahead of us.

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Before heading out on this trip, August and I began reading books about the Appalachian Trail. As a result, we were familiar with Clingman’sDome, and were duly awed by standing here. To cite wikipedia:

At an elevation of 6,643 feet (2,025 m), it is the highest mountain in the Smokies, the highest point in the state of Tennessee, and the highest point along the 2,174-mile (3,499 km)Appalachian Trail. East of the Mississippi River, only Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet or 2,037 metres) and Mount Craig(6,647 feet or 2,026 metres), both in the Black Mountains, are higher.

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The dead trees in the distance, unmistakable in every direction, are the result of the hemlock wooly adelgid, a non-native insect that may well destroy all the hemlock trees in the park. The majesty, or what John Muir would call the glory, of these mountains simply took our breath away.

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For August and I, this was also our opportunity to take our first conscious steps on the Appalachian Trail and the beginning of our plans to someday section hike the trail together. While books about the trail will be a significant part of the rest of our trip, I need to mention here that this was the day August “disappeared” into books in general. August had brought with him “Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan. Each trip by car was a chance to “get back to the story.” Much as I would have liked to travel to the tunes of the Grateful Dead, Levon Helm or even the Carters, we travelled in silence as I watched the road and the trees and he read ancient greek myths.

Though arriving back to our campsite well after dark, we enjoyed a roaring campfire, roasted vegetables and hot soups, as well as “space ice cream: for desert, thanks to our stop at Economy Candy in Greenwich Village. Exhausted but thoroughly full, we acknowledged a good day, and went to sleep.

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Recommended Reading: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson. August and I began this book before our trip and laughed out loud through the chapter on bear attacks. (Yes, we did). After that the book quickly moved on to even more mature topics, and I finished it alone. Nevertheless, stories from Bryson’s and Katz’s travels were a constant companion on our Davy Crockett Adventure. See our TRIP INDEX for more of our Davy Crockett Adventure.

Why Are We Here? – Forest Sunday

September 7, 2014

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in the Season of Creation (Forest Sunday), September 7, 2014.

Genesis 2:4b-22                Acts 17: 22-28

Many of you know I like to walk. One of the things I love about living here in White Plains is how easy it is to walk almost everywhere I need to go. I like walking after committee meetings because it clears my head and allows me to review the work we have just done and to finish with my thoughts before I get home to my family. I love to walk to the stores, and restaurants, and cafes in town because I get to see people, to say “hi” to strangers, and to get a bit of exercise. For me, walking matches the pace of a good conversation, and I have walked with many of you during times of discernment. I also find it to be the pace at which I pray, and I often pray while I walk. Long walks are great ways to ponder large questions.

I have this walking hat that has a turtle on it. I wear it to remind myself that the point of walking everywhere is to move slowly so I can experience life at a human pace, rather than as a race.

Another reason I love living here is that we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, tucked between the Hudson River Valley and the Long Island Sound, and there are amazing places to walk and hike in nature just a short drive away. Taking a long walk in the woods is my favorite way to spend a Sabbath day.

Over the last two years I have been exploring the nearly 200 County Parks, wildlife sanctuaries, nature preserves, hiking trails, greenways and pathways in Westchester. I spend my Sabbaths scrambling over rocks and under a canopy of trees, following rippling rivers and resting by secluded lakes. Temperature changes rapidly as I change altitude, or move in and out of woods, or encounter hidden streams. It is a joy just to be outdoors. I usually walk alone, but not really. Forests are, of course, more than trees. They are habitats and ecosystems. I share these days with a diversity of birds, mice, snakes, spiders, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, lots of deer, as well as the occasional fox and ever-elusive coyote. I carry a camera because there is always so much beauty: sweeping vistas of the river, migrating monarch butterflies, multicolored fungi, or the ghostly shadow of a rotting cedar all but returned to the soil. I come home tired, but always renewed, and often inspired.

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Back in July I was tracing the path of the Old Croton Aqueduct that carried drinking water to New York City until 1955. In Westchester alone this is a 26-mile trail snaking through forests and sneaking through suburbs. Parts are dirt path and parts are paved for bikes. Somewhere south of Dobbs Ferry I found the words you see projected up on the wall painted on the asphalt beneath a crack through which green grass was pushing sunward: “Why am I here?” Or more inclusively, “Why are we here?” Or more generally, “What is the purpose and place of human beings in the world?

I had nine more miles to ponder these things before reaching the Bronx.

HUMAN NATURE AND VOCATION

The creation story we have read today was written to answer just this question. Of the two creation stories told in Genesis, this is the older. It embodies the questions and concerns of the hill farmers who were our first ancestors in faith, and it embodies their deepest values. It is also contains the Bible’s oldest ideas about trees.[1]

The story begins by imagining a world devoid of everything important to those subsistence farmers who asked the question of human meaning and purpose.

  • Absent are the pasture plants or “plants of the field” for the Israelites flocks of sheep and goats;
  • Absent are “herbs of the field,” grain and barley, the staples of the Israelite diet.
  • Absent are the rains to water these plants,
  • and absent is a farmer to cultivate them.

“And then God formed a man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…and God planted a garden…and there he put the man he had formed.”

This is interesting because when the human beings are first mentioned in this story they are not thought of as primarily related either to God or other human beings but “in their intimate relationship with their environment.”

I need to pause to make sure you heard that. Human beings are first thought of in terms of their intimate relationship to their environment. And that environment is: a garden. And God put the man “in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Our first vocation, our first purpose is as farmer, farmer of the glorious garden God has created. This is not what we are usually taught.

Generations of Presbyterians, including some of you, were raised on the Westminster Confession of Faith that opens with the question, “What is the chief end (or purpose) of human life?” And the answer, memorized is confirmation class, is “The purpose of human life is to love God and enjoy God forever.” When Jesus is asked which commandment is greatest of all he provides the more inclusive “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But here, in our oldest creation story, we find that our relationship with and responsibility to the earth comes first, that from the earth we receive both our human nature and our human vocation.

And what do we learn about human nature? In the words of Old Testament scholar Theodore Hiebert,

“Human nature and ‘plant nature,’ so to speak are closely connected because they both originate from the Earth’s fertile soil. God makes the first human (in Hebrew, adam, or Adam) from the topsoil of the arable land (adamah), and God grows the first plants from the same arable land. In the next episode … when the animals are created, they, too, are made from the same fertile soil that gave birth to plants and humans. [In this story], all of life shares a common origin in, and thus a common identity with, the earth’s fertile soil.”

This is the first thing we need to know about ourselves. We are kin to all creation. We are born of the same soil.

But what do we learn about human vocation? Our purpose? The reason we are here? Well, according to Genesis

“the first mission God gives humans is to care for the world’s plants: God put the first humans in the garden ‘to farm it and to take care of it’ (or as we read this morning, ‘to till it and keep it’). Thus the original and most fundamental human work is to care for the world’s plants.”

I can unpack that a little more.[2] I have learned from biblical scholar Ellen Davis that the Hebrew word we translate as to farm or to till is not an agricultural word at all but a common word usually translated as to work, in the sense of “working for someone … as a servant, slave or worshipper.” Now, if we are thinking agriculture we might imagine ourselves in February turning over the soil, working the ground into furrows for planting. But that is not exactly what it says here. Imagine instead what it would mean for humans to work for the soil, to work for the earth, in the sense of meeting its needs first. Perhaps that is why the other common meaning of this word is to serve, as in to serve the earth first. Now, that is closer to what this story says about human vocation: to work for the earth.

This is made clearer by looking at the second word we have translated as to keep, in the sense of keeping a flock, a family member, or a household. It means to care for over time, to nurture and preserve for the future; thus our terms housekeeping or caretaking. But this word may also mean to observe, in the sense of paying attention to and learning from. Scientists observe the workings of the world, ethicist observe moral guidelines, lawyers observe the dictates of justice and farmers observe the rhythms of nature. Moses uses this word both ways, instructing the Israelites to “keep God’s statutes and commandments” which includes “observing the Sabbath.”

Why are we here? According to this story, “The Lord God took the human and set him in the garden to work it and serve it, to preserve it and observe it.” For me, this means that a commitment to earth-care is not an add-on to the spiritual life, but the basis for the spiritual life. It grounds, literally, everything else.

Once humanity has been placed in the garden, we might expect God next to make all those other things that were absent, all those things that were essential to the ancient Israelites: the pasture plants and grains and rains that defined their precarious life. But we would be wrong. Instead, God makes trees; in fact God makes a veritable forest. “In the fertile land, God grew every tree, those with a beautiful appearance and those with delicious fruit, and also the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good an evil.”[3] Most scholars believe these trees stand in for all plant life, but it is interesting nevertheless that the forest is the archetype for the garden rather than what we usually think of as a cultivated, subsistence garden.

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Now the Bible knows that this forest has instrumental value; it produces delicious fruit to eat. The Israelites also knew that forests are good for nuts and timber and fuel, though they did not yet know paper. Today, however, we know that “Life as we know it is impossible without forests.” This is why the destruction of the worlds great old growth forests is cause for alarm: they are the lungs of our plant and they house the greatest diversity of animal life, and the destruction these ancient forests contributes to climate change. Part of serving and preserving the earth is respecting our limits … “you shall not eat from certain trees…”

But the Bible also knows that the forest has spiritual value, something completely apart from meeting our physical needs. Trees are beautiful in appearance, with a majesty, integrity and value all their own; and, if we observe them, they can help us understand our place in this world.

In her poem “Foolishness? No, It’s Not.” Mary Oliver put it this way.

Sometimes I spend all day trying to count the leaves on a single tree. To do this I have to climb branch by branch and write down the numbers in a little book. So I suppose, from their point of view, it’s reasonable that my friends say: what foolishness! She’s got her head in the clouds again.

But it’s not.  Of course I have to give up, but by then I’m half crazy with the wonder of it – the abundance of the leaves, the quietness of the branches, the hopelessness of my effort.  And I am in that delicious and important place, roaring with laughter, full of earth-praise.[4]

John Muir has been described as “the most celebrated celebrator of nature in America” and as the “Father of our National Parks.” He described the great forests of earth as Nature’s Temple.[5]

Today is Forest Sunday, a day when we remember that the first garden we were called to till and keep was filled with trees, and our purpose was to care for this forest. Like the forest, we are made from the same soil, but unlike the forest God has placed us here to ensure its well-being. Faithfulness to God begins with our upholding God’s first command to us. What would it mean for us today to remember our first vocation and to work for the forests? How might we work for the forests in worship, in our work and school lives, and within our families? How might we work for the forests in public policy and in international treaties?

As we take communion this day, we remember we are made of the same stuff as every creature on the earth, and that the bread and the vine which produced this sacrament, grew from the soil, the rich soil from which God shaped us and to which God appointed us. And this table is an open table, a place where all are welcome to taste and see that our God is good. In our sharing, may we remember our first vocation and renew our ancient commitment to work for the forests.

 

[1] This and much that follows is drawn heavily from Ted Hiebert, “Forest Sunday” in Norman Habel, et al, Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. (Fortress, 2011). See also Hiebert, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel. (Fortress Press, 1996).

[2] The following exegesis is drawn from Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[3] Translation by Theodore Hiebert.

[4] Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings. (Penguin Books, 2012).

[5] Meditations of John Muir: Nature’s Temple. Compiled and edited by Chris Highland. (Wilderness Press, 2001).

A Very Beautiful Sabbath Day

September 4, 2014

lasdon

What a glorious day!

I began my sabbath late last evening. A friend had lent me a copy of Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid of the Hudson, an award winning graphic novel by Mark Siegel. The story weaves together sea myths and legends of the Hudson River to tell a story of desire and obsession that lingers long after the telling. It is a story of the place I now consider home. I read it straight through before bed, dreaming, I think, even before I fell asleep.

I would love to know what others have thought of this story.

My sabbath day proper began with getting up early to prepare for a long day of hiking, and dropping August off at school on the way. Yesterday was his first day of school, and his assessment that first afternoon was simply “Best. Class. Ever!” He was enthusiastic to go back this morning.

I am nearing my goal of hiking all of the Westchester 100 by the end of this October, but I have to make tracks to do so. I began today at Muscoot Farm in Somers. Those familiar with the farm and nature center may not know that there are more than six miles of hauntingly quiet trails behind the farm. The dew was still on the grass when I set out, but the colors were brilliant.

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I hiked for almost two hours, and then moved on to Lasdon Park, Arboretum and Veteran’s Memorial, also in Somers. This immediately went to the top of my list of parks to bring August and a few of his friends back to. Apart from the several miles of hiking trails there are the

* Chinese Friendship Garden (complete with ornate pavilion);

* Trail of Honor (memorializing each war with unique sculpture);

* Monarch Meadow (with interpretive signs);

* Lilac Garden;

* Veteran’s Museum;

* Memorial Garden; and

* Historic Tree Walk.

The latter tells the story of our nation on a series of story boards, from the origins of American botany in Philadelphia to the revolutionary war and on through two centuries of American history. At each point the story is marked by a different tree: an offshoot of the tree planted by George Washington at Mt. Vernon in 1786; a growth from the tree in the field at Antietam; a tree grown from the one shading the burial place of Clara Barton; and a “moon tree” grown from a seed carried to space by astronaut Stuart Roosa in 1971. (You would think I would remember each tree type, but I have already forgotten. The whole story/list will be online later this year).

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Lasdon Park also has a unique grove of American Chestnut trees which were thought, not long ago, to be extinct as a result of the accidental introduction of a deadly fungus on this continent. It is now a site of research by the American Chestnut Foundation, seeking to understand and restore hardy chestnuts in North America.

The Muscoot River runs south past the Arboretum, and two trails accompany the river on each side as it wanders down toward Angel Fly Brook and the Muscoot Reservoir. Each is about a mile long, and make a nice loop. On a hot day like today, the temperature drop upon entering the shade of the river walk was considerable.

On my way to the next park, Baxter Tract in North Salem, I stopped at a deli for a giant BLT, something I have not indulged in years. Baxter Tract in unlike anything else I have hiked in Westchester. It is not forest, park, or sanctuary, but a series of open fields clearly used by neighbors with horses. Almost seven miles of paths are cut in the meadows, at the center of which is a lovely lake (below). Walking through the woods with just a bit of trail visible up ahead is one thing, as is stumbling through a forest searching for the next blaze. But walking through fields where one can see three-quarters of a mile ahead is another thing altogether. I am not used to seeing the vastness of where I am. It was overwhelming.

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As I said, this was an ambitious day of hiking. My final stop was the Franklin-Fels Nature Sanctuary in North Salem. I just had time to make the large two-mile outer loop before racing home to get August at school. Yet here I met rabbits, snakes, spiders of all sizes, squirrels, mice, and two large somethings that eluded my sight. The trails were not a highlight of my hiking year, but a good reminder that large tracts of greening-former-farmland exist all over our county, often tucked in between and behind developments. And not at all easy to find.

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This would have been a full enough day, but it was not over. Hiking was followed by two hours on the playground with August (and with other parents), an Oktoberfest dinner with friends at Dunne’s Irish Pub, and an outdoor jazz concert at White Plains City Center. This was the final night of the summer concert series as well as part of ArtsWestchester’s 2014 Jazz Fest. A little Harry Potter before bed, and this day was full and complete.

A glorious day!

May you experience sabbath for yourself sometime this week. Shalom.

 

Do Not Be Overcome

September 1, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 31, 2014.

Romans 12: 9-21

Many of us, upon hearing these moving words written by the apostle Paul, find ourselves nodding, yes, yes “let love be genuine, be patient in suffering, return no one evil for evil, extend hospitality to strangers, live peaceably with all, reach out and offer sustenance even and especially to your enemies.” But by the end of these paragraphs I think we also begin to feel the distance between who we would like to be as followers of Christ and who we really are. Am I right?

I mean we hear the words “let love be genuine” but we can think of times in our lives when we’ve faked it – perhaps because we didn’t want to hurt another person or because we really wanted to be liked by a group of people – and we stopped being genuine. We stopped being ourselves. We stopped short of saying what we really thought and all kinds of nonsense started flowing from our lips. Whether we’re a junior higher dissing our best friend in order to be “in with the in crowd” or whether we are kissing up to our boss by agreeing with everything she’s saying about a co-worker or whether we’re dating someone and not sure what we want and then finding ourselves saying things we don’t really mean because we don’t want the relationship to end and we’re afraid if we say we’re confused that it will… Let love be genuine? Yeah. We see the gap between what we’re striving for and how often we find ourselves being anything but genuine in our love.

Be patient in suffering. Well most of us like to think of ourselves that way, don’t we? I mean I like to think I’m pretty patient in suffering, but the reality is when I threw my back out a while back, I was really hurting. And I was short-tempered with myself, with my family, I wanted to be done with the pain and up and doing things I was used to doing. Of course my episode was nothing compared to many of us that live with chronic, even debilitating pain. It’s one thing to be patient when you’re talking a four day flu. It’s another with chronic illness that makes ordinary tasks excruciating and it’s coupled with the need to explain whether you can do something or can’t do something and why to just about everybody until you feel like you might bite someone. And still people don’t get it! They don’t have accessible ramps, they don’t understand you can’t help with certain routine tasks, you have to explain all over again, and again until it seems that you are your illness, you are your infirmity, the you who you were has been colonized by sickness.

And some of us aren’t suffering from illness. We’re suffering from loneliness or from our own self-hatred. Some of us get so impatient with ourselves we think there’s no way out. Some of us wish it would all end. Some of us try to hasten that end.   Be patient in suffering? Well, hmmm.

Return no one evil for evil. Gosh we like to think we do that, but then, well, people do really horrible things – whether it’s bomb the twin towers or cheat in a marriage or treat us as if we’re less than others because of our background – and then, and then, our very dignity seems to cry out “respond! You must respond! You must strike back!” And sometimes we do.

Extend hospitality to strangers – sure we’re a welcoming church and we’ll go the extra mile for someone in need. But what exactly is our obligation, we wonder? What does it mean to be hospitable? Isn’t polite enough? We’re friendly, but we think of how much more we could offer – if we weren’t so frightened of becoming vulnerable, of being taken advantage of, of being intruded upon. We wonder, how much is enough? We retreat from the risk but also from the incredible holy encounter with another that is only possible when we become vulnerable to and with each other.

As far as it is up to us, live peaceably with all. That part’s OK, we know how to not cause waves, right? But oh wait, that’s not what this means – living peaceably means treating our enemies, those who would do us harm, with compassion – if they’re hungry, feeding them. But to be honest we’d rather give them just enough rope to, well you know. Why should we make ourselves a target for either more pain or humiliation at the hands of our enemies? How will our enemies respect us if we don’t put up a show of force in the warzone, or spell out a threat in the workplace that communicates loudly and clearly “don’t mess with me?”

If you’re anything like me, by the time I get to this short pause in this chapter of Romans, this beautiful, lyrical collection of statements about what it means to be a Christian, I am both inspired and discouraged in equal measure, simultaneously. Oh God, I pray, I want to be this way, but I can’t seem to do it. I just can’t. I’m suffering so much, I’m overwhelmed by things on all sides, can’t you just make it all happen? Can’t you take this burden from me? I just can’t do this. I’ve tried, but really I can’t.

despair

And just then come the best words of all: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. This is not the same sentence as earlier, “do not repay anyone evil for evil” it is a different sentence. It is not an instruction, it is an exhortation – a word of encouragement. Do not be overcome by evil, Paul writes. And if we are honest, really honest with ourselves, we get overcome by evil.

We are overcome by the small, nasty, painful ways that people hurt us intentionally or unintentionally; we are overcome by the weight of an economy that seems to make some rich while the rest of us can’t get jobs or ensure our family’s security; we are overcome with the sense of betrayal by people we trusted – parents, spouses, friends – people we gave our hearts and our love to – who ate our hearts, gobbled them up, and looked hungrily for more. We are overcome when we look at our world, at its unrelenting viciousness, at the ferocity of hatred, whether cloaked in religious garb in the Islamic State as it rampages across Iraq or whether it is cloaked in a white police officer’s uniform as he guns down Michael Brown, yet another the long, long line of unarmed African American boys and men in our country who have been killed by police or by citizens protected by stand your ground laws. We are overcome at the inhumanity of leaving this poor young man’s body in the street for hours, in a street where children and grandchildren and grandparents and parents live, near by where his family waits and waits as he never returns. We are overcome. WE are angry. We are horrified. We are confused. We are sobbing for some kind of release from this evil that comes at us from every side. We are overcome.

And through our anger at our world, at our selves, at the system, at our neighbors, at our bodies, at the grief, the loss, the mistakes and calculations and failures…

Do not be overcome, says Paul – voice gentle, like the kind friend that won’t depart from our side as we process the bancruptcy, like the prayer minister who sits with us through the worst hours of our spouse’s surgery, like the daughter who removes the scotch bottle from our hand and takes our hand in hers. Do not be overcome, says Paul. Do not be overcome by evil, dear one, but overcome evil with good.

There is a way forward for us. When we are overcome, beset from every side. When we feel that the night can’t get any darker and our fear can’t get any wilder, and our anger keeps growing, and the pain won’t stop – there is a way forward – we can overcome evil with good. We can overcome evil with good.

This is not a hallmark card. It’s not a saccharine saying. It doesn’t work well as a bumper sticker. But it is a life preserver thrown to all of us, drowning in the sea of despair and human suffering, of uncertainty and fearfulness. Because when we refuse to respond to evil with evil, when we dare to care for our enemy, when we risk helping a stranger, making ourselves vulnerable, when we keep focused on the what is good in the midst of terrible suffering, not pretending the suffering isn’t there, or saying the suffering itself is somehow redemptive, but being able to see the light and the shadows, being able to see both and to keep holding on to the good, when we are genuine, authentic with one another, extending an offering to another, we find that we begin to see the world differently. We find that we are able to forgive more freely. We find that we are able to either repair or release relationships where we’ve hurt or been hurt, without recrimination. We find creative ways to give life and love to others, and even to ourselves.

The good news of this passage is that this passage is not about perfectly aligning ourselves with a set of standards and whether we measure up or (as most of us will) fall flat. This passage is about showing us a way out – a way out from being overwhelmed, overcome by evil of all kinds. It is an invitation to a new way of living – not a test about whether we’re getting it all right. Paul’s reminding the community of practices that, when we take them up, have the power to release us from the small, strained vision of our world and set us free, free for life. Free for love.

Once upon a time a man was walking down the street and he fell into a hole and down into a tunnel below. It was dark and there was no ladder. He was stuck and called and called as loud as he could to passers by. One passer by said he’d like to help but she was too busy. Another passer by dropped a self-help book down into the hole. And then suddenly a third passer by leapt into the hole and stood and looked at the man. What are you doing?! Asked the man frantically to the guy who had just jumped into the hole? Now we’re both down here in the dark!   Yes, he said, but I’ve been in this hole before and I know the way out.

This letter from Paul is like the guy who jumps down into the hole with us; it shows us the way out. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

 

Sabbath Day – A Long Walk

August 28, 2014

 

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I got up early today to take a long walk. What a beautiful day it turned out to be – warm sun with pleasant breezes and gorgeous nature all around – green, blue, purple, red, white and yellow. It was good to be alive and outside to enjoy it all.

TeatownKitchawanTrailMap_BW_2010 copyI began in the Kitchawan Preserve, 208 acres of flora and fauna on the south shore of the New Croton Reservoir. I had passed this way a few months ago while hiking the North County Trailway and noted the serenity and seclusion of the park. After several miles of field, forest and shoreline I passed onto DEP property and the Teatown-Kitchwan Trailway (TKT). This is a 6.5 mile trail connecting Kitchawan Preserve, John E. Hand Park at Bald Mountain, and Teatown Lake Reservation.  I took the yellow trail detour up Bald Mountain Summit, and made circles around Teatown Lake as well, making the most of the parks through which I was passing. Teatown has a relatively new Wildflower Park below the nature center. I had not run into a soul so far on this hike, but then encountered a group of about 20 from the Westchester Trails Association out for hike to the distant parts of the preserve. I met them twice going around the lake.

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Having explored the nature preserve I hopped onto the green blazed path of the Briarcliff-Peekskill Trailway, a 13.1 mile footpath through forest and wetland. the first 2.6 miles are south of Teatown, but the remaining 10.5 miles were my next project. I lost the blazes at one point and had to walk along a paved road before rejoining the trail. This took me through Croton Gorge Park and over the aqueduct, reentering the woods on the far side of Route 129. Past Colabaugh Pond (Cortland) the trail passes through the BM Sportsman Center. Listening to the gunshots near and far, I simply pretended I was in the Civil War, trying to find a safe way through and hoping not to be shot. At the far side of the center I entered Blue Mountain Reservation in Peekskill, and over Mt. Spitzenberg. Blue Mountain is our second largest nature preserve in Westchester at 1,538 acres. (Ward Pound Ridge is the largest at 4700 acres).

bptrailway

 

I had not intended more than a couple of miles here, but my feet hurt, I was distracted, and so I got lost. I don’t know how far I ended up walking here but I came out on the far side of the park. My ride home had also evaporated so I needed to hike another several miles through downtown Peekskill and down to the train station so that I could catch a train home.

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What joy it was to step out of the woods and see the Hudson River. Having been turned around in the woods, I had both a sense of orientation and home when I saw the water. A quick train ride to Tarrytown took me along the river and within a quick car ride of home. Despite having lopped off a few miles of the BPT, but adding in a bunch of wrong turns, extra loops and the summit climb on Bald Mountain as well as the extra miles through Peekskill to the train station, I easily did 20 miles today.

And I feel like it.

Because of the early start this morning the dew had not yet burned off the first field I passed through and I ended up hiking with wet feet – thus the several new blisters I have tonight.

Yet this was a rich, full day which will send me to bed tired and return me refreshed for the work of tomorrow.

Happy Sabbath.

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