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Watershed Discipleship – River Sunday

September 24, 2017

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation – River Sunday – September 24, 2017

Ezekiel 47:1-12

On Wednesday afternoon August and I went canoeing on the Bronx River. We were down by Concrete Plant Park, in the Bronx, a reclamation project carried out by the NYC Parks and Rec Department to turn a former industrial site on the banks of the river into a welcoming community park. Today, under the shadow of the abandoned structures for moving, grinding and mixing stone are bike trails and benches, chessboards, an urban garden used by school children as well as an experimental food-way to attract pollinators and provide an opportunity for neighbors to forage everything from kitchen herbs to tea. The Bronx River Alliance, which for the last ten years has dedicated itself to protecting, improving and restoring our local watershed, was holding a free river paddle.

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However, when we arrived, Katie Lamboy, the community educator for the Alliance, told us she had actually just closed down the paddle. It was too windy, and she had to rescue too many people who were being blown down the river. But, since we had come all the way from Westchester, and August and I are experienced paddlers, she agreed to let us out by ourselves – provided we promise to call for help if we needed it.

We had a good workout, good conversation, good father-son time, as we navigated the Bronx River, the river that defines the natural community in which we live – and with our understanding of watershed discipleship, it is the river through which and around which God speaks to us.

Watershed discipleship means learning from – being students of – the natural community in which God has placed us, place being the operative word. We do not exist in abstract time and space, but in particular places, rich in history and need, different from all other places but through which we are connected to all others. Before fossil fuels, coal and oil, trains and cars, our rivers were our primary highways. Regional watersheds, the places where rainwater gathers and flows toward a common destination – are earth’s natural communities, and the Bronx River is ours. Ecosystems, early economies, even Eden itself, were defined by the rivers that run though them.[1]

Rivers run through our scripture as well, as Pastor Lynn has pointed out and beautifully rendered on our church’s Lenten banners, and rivers were particularly important to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel received his first vision of God beside a river, although it was not his river. It was not the river he called home. And in that fact we learn much that we need to know about the prophet and his message. Ezekiel had been a priest serving in the Temple in Jerusalem when the Babylonian Empire besieged his city. In the year 598, when the city’s defenses finally collapsed and Jerusalem was captured, the priest Ezekiel, along with nearly 10,000 of ancient Israel’s elite, was carried into exile and re-settled along the Chebar river – nearly 1500 miles from home. It was there, beside that river, ten years later, that Ezekiel received his vision of the final destruction and desecration of God’s Temple in God’s city. And it devastated him.

In this vision, Ezekiel felt himself transported back 1,500 miles to Jerusalem in order to witness first hand the city’s destruction. In this dream-state he sees the ‘Glory of God’ rise up above the temple, borne on the wings of cherubim and seraphim, angels riding on wheels within wheels, wheels capable of carrying God’s Glory off in any direction. The book of Ezekiel is made up almost entirely of such visions, all of which carry an unrelenting message: “Our home is lost. It was a mistake for us to put our trust in force of arms, military alliances, or believe in our own national greatness. In doing so we ignored the message of the prophets before us: messages that spoke of justice and peace, the distribution of resources with primary concern for the poor, the widow and the immigrant. Look back and you will see that before the end, God had abandoned our nation’s militarized borders, Jerusalem’s fortified walls, even our religious temple itself. God no longer even wanted to be there. In fact, God went into exile long before we did.” Whew. Reading Ezekiel is emotionally draining, its message one of unrelieved doom and gloom, imagery with very little relief.[2]

But there is a reason for that. He was trying to help God’s people to see what they did not want to see.

Gene Peterson has called Ezekiel our Bible’s “master of dealing with catastrophe.”

Catastrophe strikes [he writes,] and a person’s world falls apart. People respond variously, but two of the more common responses are denial and despair. Denial refuses to acknowledge the catastrophe. It shuts its eyes tight or looks the other way; it manages to act as if everything is going to be just fine; it takes refuge in distractions and lies and fantasies. Despair is paralyzed by the catastrophe and accepts it as the end of the world. It is unwilling to do anything, concluding that life for all intents and purposes is over. Despair listlessly closes its eyes to a world in which all the color is drained out, a world gone dead.[3]

Caught between those in denial and those who despair, Ezekiel sees; he sees the catastrophe, describes it in detail, offers it to others to see, insisting that God is still at work, even within the catastrophe. That is perhaps why I have been drawn to this prophet again and again over the last couple of months. In the midst of war and rumors of war (and an industry of war and the desire –on the part of some- for the next war); in the midst of fire, earthquake, wind and rain; Houston, Barbuda, Immokalee, Mexico City, Puerto Rico; in the midst of ongoing genocide in Myanmar (about which there is amazing silence among political leaders); in the midst of name calling between nuclear powers made more dangerous as US bombers flew off N. Korea’s coast just yesterday; in the midst of climate change, which has been famously described as a slow motion catastrophe; yes, in the midst of this I am find myself turning to the relentless and suffering voice of the Prophet Ezekiel to hear a word of hard won hope. Peterson, again:

Ezekiel found himself living among a people of God who (in ways astoundingly similar to us) stubbornly refused to see what was right in front of their eyes (the denial crowd). There were also some who were unwilling to see anything other than what was right before their eyes (the despair crowd).[4]

Ezekiel saw all this, but he also saw God.

While God’s call came to Ezekiel beside a river not his own, it ends with visions of dry bones coming back to life and of a natural world restored to health and fertility. But only those who can see clearly the death taking place all around them will see the possibility of new life also taking place. Yes, his final vision (which we read today) includes a homecoming, a restored Temple in Jerusalem, but it is a new kind of temple. Having once seen, Ezekiel cannot forget his initial vision of a God not bound by the temple but free to travel beyond the temple, borne by wheeled angels to the four compass points of the natural world, capable of being be revealed in all places as the God of those places too. He never forgets that the River Chebar in Babylon also serves God purpose.[5] And so in his vision of the New Jerusalem, a restored City of God, there flows an Eden-like river that nourishes and sustains the whole earth, bearing God’s presence and promise to all people. It is the restoration of the River of Life, first mentioned in Genesis, whose water flows East from Eden (Gen. 2: 10). “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” the psalmist sings. (Ps. 46: 4). And so in our reading today, Ezekiel envisions this wondrous river flowing out from the new temple – ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep – bringing life to all it touches. Stagnant water becomes fresh, providing habitat for fish, birds, and people, and watering the fruit trees on each side of the river (Ezekiel 47).[6] Even the Dead Sea, the Salt Sea, is purified to bring forth life again. This is no parochial temple, but a place where the worship of God flows out to restore all creation, where justice rolls down like a mighty river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Which brings us back to the need to listen to God in the particular places and watersheds God has placed us. This was one reason for my trip with August to paddle on the Bronx River. It was about connecting with our watershed. But there was another reason as well. I wanted to make a connection between our local water protectors and those I had met in Costa Rica this summer.

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Beatrice and Pastor Jeff beside the Rio Torres

During the last week that our travel seminar was together, we met a woman named Beatrice. Beatrice lives with her family beside the Torres River, in the capitol city of San Jose. Beatrice is the founder of a community organization called Amigos del Rio Torres, Friends of the River Torres. Rio Torres is almost exactly the same length and breadth of our Bronx River, meandering through as many different communities, and I immediately felt compassion for it. You see, unlike the Bronx River, which has received nearly 100 years of protection, improvement and restoration, the state of the Rio Torres is deplorable.

Not only are fecal matter and trash found in the river, but also toxic substances such as mercury and oil. It’s hard to imagine any living organism surviving in the rushing water, but believe it or not, people still bathe in the river. Untreated runoff from businesses and homes and untreated sewage are two of the leading causes of pollution.[7]

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Street and housing built right up to the Rio Torres. Notice the white discharge pipe in the greens.

Ten years ago Beatrice began organizing her community to care for the river. First, she organized them to clean up a public park beside the river, the park in which children, hers and others, met to play. Neighbors formed work groups to clean up the park, establish nature paths for walking, fixed up ball fields for team sports. With the community now present in the park and getting to know one another, they appealed to the government to step up its responsibility for the river; including water treatment plants all along the river. Community members reached out to local businesses, coffee houses and art galleries, asking them to come out and pitch in on community workdays, drag trash out of the river and work to keep it out in the fist place. With cleanup underway, businesses began to see the benefits of a clean and healthy river as well. One restaurant even built outdoor seating for the river-that-will-be. Older residents began sharing memories of playing beside the river as children, and began to teach the history of the river, telling stories about the coffee plantations that both depended on and used to pollute the river, beginning its long decline. Beatrice is proud of what has been accomplished in just ten years especially when I told her how long it took to clean up the Bronx. And she was thrilled that the presence of our group and the commitment of the Biblical University in Latin America to Watershed Discipleship promised to bring more churches into efforts for clean water and healthy neighborhoods.

One thing Amigos del Rio Torres is always looking for new ways to increase community interest in and commitment to the river. I mentioned the regular paddle trips organized by the Bronx River Alliance here, that bring children and adults right out onto and into the river. She was quite excited about the idea and could easily imagine how to make it happen. On Thursday morning I sent her photos of August and I on the river for inspiration.

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August and I on the Bronx River – making connections

We often think of our communion table as the place where we come together with sisters and brothers around the world. But this Sunday, perhaps we might think of the rivers as a place of meeting, as a source of nourishment, as a point of connection as they carry life around the planet. By the rivers of Babylon our ancestors laid down and wept for their home and for their nation. In these uncertain times, we lay down by the rivers to weep, yes, but also to remember our connection, our power, and the hope of new life flowing, knitting us together in common struggle and hope.

Sermon Hymn: My Life Flows On (in endless praise)

 

[1] See Ched Myers, “A Watershed Moment,” in Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice, May 2014, as well as Ched Myers et. al. Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice (Cascade Books, 2016).

[2] Daniel Berrigan, Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust (Orbis, 1997).

[3] Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress, 2003.)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and the Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 18.

[6] Barbara Rossing in The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. Edited by Norman Habel, David Rhoads and H. Paul Santmire. (Fortress Press, 2011).

[7] http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/09/26/rio-torres-festival-aims-to-help-clean-up-one-of-san-joses-most-polluted-rivers

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Sabbath Day – Housekeeping

September 24, 2017

Sabbath Day – My Weekly Reflection on What Really Matters
Thursday, September 21, 2017

Is there an autumn equivalent to the expression spring cleaning? If there is, it is what I did today. Today I:

  • Took out the recycling and the trash
  • Did all the dishes
  • Cleaned the stove
  • Washed the refrigerator door
  • Put the kitchen rug over the balcony railing and beat it
  • Cleaned the vacuum cleaner filter and then vacuumed all the carpets
  • Swept the floors
  • Steam mopped the kitchen floor
  • Did the same to the bathroom floor
  • Scrubbed the toilet
  • And the shower
  • Bought and put on a new slow close toilet seat
  • Washed ALL the towels and put them away
  • Have all the laundry in the house washed and put away
  • Bought a new curtain and rod for our bedroom and put them up
  • Cleaned the reptile cages
  • Bought meal worms and crickets for the reptiles so they could make a mess again
  • Helped my son clean his room
  • Swept and washed our third floor balcony
  • Made a pot of coffee and sat with a cup on the balcony with a very satisfied feeling

There is really nothing exciting here, but having everything done at once. What satisfaction!

I grew up with the expression “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I liked having my bedroom both straightened up AND clean. I took great satisfaction not only in putting things away, but in knowing how to put things away. My family would joke about OCD, but OCD has nothing to do with good organization and combatting clutter. Good organization simplifies much of life so that we have breathing space to deal with the really complex stuff. 

When we moved into our new apartment a couple of years ago I drew up a plan for every well deigned shelf in our (unheard of) four large storage closets. (No other building in White Plains had anything near the storage or design). We have the media shelf, the electronics shelf, the camping gear shelf, the genealogy (family heirlooms) shelf, the gift-giving/party shelf, the tools shelf, the art supplies shelf, etc. And we strive to limit our possessions to what will fit on the respective shelves. When we moved, we unloaded a lot of what we did not need. In the past few weeks, we have brought order to those shelves again.

What is the autumn equivalent of spring cleaning? 

It helps that the congregation I serve holds an annual fall tag sale where some of what we discard can (hopefully) find a new home.

Much housekeeping got done on this day because August had a friend over. And much more work (in the job-related-work sense) got done that nigh because August went away on a sleepover. 

Happy Sabbath,

Jeff

Sabbath Day – Goat/Walking

September 18, 2017

For Thursday, September 14

Goats and walking seem to have been themes running through this Sabbath Day, my first in some time. I began my day by walking my son to school.

Walking August to school is a real gift. I have walked him to school ever since his very first day at the Setauket Presbyterian Church Preschool. When we moved to White Plains, we chose his elementary school primarily so I could keep walking with him. For one year only, after we moved to our co-op apartment, August took the bus, but even then I walked him to the bus stop each day. Now he is in sixth grade and his school is just a block and a half from our apartment.

All last year he talked about how much he was looking forward to being able to walk himself to school this year – how he would no longer need a parent to drop him off or pick him up. Noelle and I, of course, walked him to school on the first day this year. But the next morning, as I was enjoying my morning coffee and he was getting ready to leave, he said, “Are you ready to go dad?” I admit I was turning backflips inside. He has continued ask me everyday to go with him. I know I am now walking at his invitation, so I will not miss a day as long as it lasts.

I spent the rest of the morning writing out the sermon I had preached from notes the previous Sunday. Limited time, parent responsibilities, and no small amount of anxiety for my mother and grandmother in Naples, Florida as Irma bore down on them meant that I was unable to write out the sermon last week. The sermon contained stories about my recent trip to Central America, and in posting it I spent time looking through my pictures from the trip. Here is a sheep and a goat I met at an ecological park in Guatemala. Later that evening I met a man in the street, walking his goat, who offered me milk. 

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I then spent a few hours with Jim Corbett’s Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living – A Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom, which is his eco-spiritual memoir. Jim inspired so many people who inspire me, yet I have never read this book. It’s about partnership between humans and wild places, which seemed fitting as I prepared for Wilderness Sunday, the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation. The book had come up at a funeral, of all places, last week and I quickly ordered copies for myself and my new conversation partner. Chapter three is all about animal husbandry, and I read to August from the book when he got home from school, all about goat evolution, vision, appetite, hardiness, and how milking a goat is different form milking a cow. I found myself wishing I had taken up the offer in Guatemala for goat milk.

I even slipped a line from Jim’s book into my next sermon: “No way of living can be right that is part of a livelihood system that destroys rather than supports life.”

My imagination now somewhere in the Sonoran desert with Jim Corbett, I greeted August after school and took him to Greenburgh Nature Center where he volunteers taking care of the large animals and his adopted goat. We talking animatedly all the way out there about Jim’s claim that a person with a goat and the ability to forage could survive indefinitely in the wild, so August let me come in a say ‘hi’ to his goat Linden and Henrietta the turkey.  We then took a good walk around the Center grounds before going home.

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All in all, a very peaceful and reflective Sabbath day. 

Wishing one for all of you, Jeff

La Tierra No Se Vende – Wilderness Sunday

September 17, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation – Wilderness Sunday – September 17, 2017

1 Kings 21:1-29

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I saw a lot of street graffiti during my mission trip to Central America last month. For example, spray painted in fifteen inch black letters on the wall across the street from my first hotel room in downtown Guatemala City were the words La tierra no se vende, the land is not for sale. This phrase became something of a theme for our church delegation, whose purpose was to learn about the four principal extractive industries of logging, large-scale agribusiness, chemical mining and new hydroelectric projects that are intimately linked to conflict, poverty and corruption, as well as human rights and environmental abuses.

Two hours outside Guatemala City, in the central highlands just north of the rural community of San Jose del Golfo, I encountered these words again, La tierra no se vende, the land is not for sale. This time they were scrawled above an image of the Bishop Juan Gerardi, the great defender of human rights and indigenous communities in Guatemala. This time the words had a very specific meaning – the bishop’s image was one of many decorating a simple wooden platform erected beside a deeply rutted dirt road just outside the entrance to the El Tambor Gold Mine. The mine is run by a U.S. company with headquarters in Nevada. Each Sunday a priest offers mass from this platform to the hundreds of poor women and men who have blockaded the mine’s entrance twenty-four hours a day for the last five and a half-years. They have done so to protect their land, their water, their air and their lives from extractive industry. As a result, they have faced harassment from police and military, criminalization and arrest (on what were later proven to be false charges), slander, contempt, and attempts to buy them off with bribes.

Beside the image of Bishop Gerardi were also written prophetic words he spoke just before he was viciously murdered in 1998, two days after releasing Guatemala’s first human rights report that exposed the military and governmental involvement in the country’s genocide: “The construction of the kingdom of God entails risks, and only those who have the strength to confront those risks can be its builders.”

The words the land is not for sale, here on a rural stretch of dirt road, referred to the wild, uncultivated land that had served as the community’s essential watershed, wild land taken over for the chemical extraction of gold for jewelry, investment, and industry. What is left behind when the process is finished is a barren wasteland, as opposed to wild-land, the soil washed away, and large chemical leach pits full of acids, cyanide and other chemicals that can leak into groundwater. Here’s stunning fact I learned: The chemical processes used by the gold and silver mines we visited use as much water in one hour as a typical family in Guatemala uses in 20 years. That’s right. Take that in. The chemical mines use as much water in one hour as a typical family uses in 20 years. And it was the same story everywhere we went: in the city of Jalapa, in the community of San Rafael las Flores, in the town of Mataquescuintla, in the village of Casillas, in Nueva Santa Rosa. People insisting, at great risk to themselves, the land is not for sale.[1]

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Our delegation with members of the peaceful resistance on the public road in front of the El Tambor Mine

There is a basic principle enshrined in international law that local communities, especially indigenous communities, must be consulted about the use of their land. But time after time, when it comes to the profits of large multinational, transnational companies, this right is trampled on. Especially when the land belongs to poor or indigenous communities. Most of the time these mines are opened before the local community even knows what is happening. In other cases, when communities have been allowed to vote on whether they wish to open their land to mining, they have voted, in every case, with a resounding NO, with majorities between 98% and 99%. Yet the companies proceed anyway.

This is not new, of course. The settlement, colonization or expropriation of other people’s land is a practice as old as the ancient empires of that we meet in our scripture, and countering these practices is as old as the prophets. The prophets Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah declared time and again to their own kings that “neglect of divine law concerning land distribution by those who coveted and coercively seized the inherited fields and houses of others was the occasion of God’s judgment against Israel.” To give but one example, here’s Micah 2:2

They covet fields and seize them;
houses, and take them away;

They oppress householders and house,
people and their inheritance.[2]

Now, let’s take a look at our scripture reading this morning about Ahab and Jezebel, and Naboth and Elijah. How many of you had heard this story before? Not everyone, I see! Ahab, King of Israel, wants to annex the vineyard of Naboth, his neighbor – to incorporate it into the royal property. Ahab offers what seems to us to be a fair deal – he’ll compensate Naboth with similar land someplace else, or its fair-market price. But Naboth refuses. A dejected Ahab complains to his wife, Jezebel. Jezebel is not an Israelite and so doesn’t understand why Ahab is upset. Where she comes from, kings simply take what they want. So she sets out, through deception and murder, to acquire the property for her royal husband. Then, with Naboth out of the way, just as Ahab is about to take possession of what is not rightfully his, the prophet Elijah announces God’s judgment. And it is harsh.

So, there are a few things to note quickly about this story.[3]

  • First, Naboth is not a subsistence farmer, he is a vineyard keeper. Vineyards take years and years to cultivate and grow before they are productive. They are the product of great care and create fruit of very particular taste and flavor through a combination of unique soil and water. This, it is not as easy as Ahab seems to suggest, for Naboth to simply ‘start over’ someplace else. This land represents generations of care and stewardship of the soil and the vines. But Ahab isn’t interested in a vineyard; he wants to tear it down and plant for himself an annual vegetable garden.
  • Second, Ahab does not do this deed himself, nor does he seem to want to know or care how it is done. We won’t say more about that today, but in the end we should note that it is Ahab who reaps the benefit and Ahab who bears the blame.
  • Third, the tactics used to acquire the land are tactics we still see today. The whole ‘taking’ of Naboth’s vineyard perverts the legal process, using the laws and courts and public spaces and public officials, as well as outright lies and the buying off witnesses. What we see, though, is not the rule of law but the use of law to harm people rather than help people.
  • Finally, and we can only scratch the surface of this story this morning, we could have a rich conversation about repentance and judgment, about the fact that Ahab’s actions are said to have caused Israel, the state or people as a whole, to sin. About how the effects of sin are passed down through generations. About the way the King identifies the prophet as ‘his enemy.’ And so much more.

But most important, for our subject today, is to see how Ahab and Naboth represent different perspectives on the land.

At first Ahab tries to buy it, and cannot understand why Naboth will not sell. He tries to be fair. But Naboth responds, “God forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”

Naboth also uses the Hebrew word nahalah, which is often translated “portion,” “possession,” or “inheritance,” all of which denote some form of property ownership. But this is precisely the connotation this word undermines: nahalah represents land given as a gift or trust, hearkening back in the original distribution of land to the twelve tribes. “Tribal ancestral lands” is a better translation, and this carries an implicit judgment upon King Ahab, whose offer represents a betrayal of the traditional system of land tenure established by [God at Sinai] which a [just] king is supposed to uphold.[4]

Sacred land might not be going too far, for it captures the difference between Naboth and Ahab. Naboth sees the land as an inalienable gift in which are rooted a divine way of life. Ahab is thinking of land as a commodity, a thing easily converted from one use into another, or convertible into cash. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, journalist Naomi Klein calls this kind of attitude extractivism.

Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue.  Extractivism is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own – turning living complex ecosystems into ‘natural resources,’ mountains into ‘overburden’ (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers). It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons or reservations. In an extractivist economy, the interconnections among these various objectified components of life are ignored; the consequences of severing them are of no concern.[5]

As I travelled in Central America I pondered how tempting it is to identify with Elijah, the prophet who speaks truth to power, who calls out the injustice of merchants and monarchs who take, settle and dispossess the poor for their own short term profit. I pondered the desire of our group to accompany the vital resistance movements fighting back against the industries that are wrecking their communities. And we must. But in this story, I have more in common with Ahab than with anyone else. As one author put it in an essay on Naboth that I carried with me throughout Guatemala: “The legacy of dispossession for the sake of economic profit remains one of the defining features of our history right up until the present time.” It was a sobering experience to realize that I, we, all of us are complicit with the Ahabs of our world (whether truly ignorant or conveniently turning a blind eye, as Ahab did), in the displacement and disruption of local and indigenous communities through ‘official duplicity and murder.’[6]

We know about this in general through our engagement with issues of divestment from fossil fuels. We as a congregation decided two years ago that we couldn’t profit from an industry whose only business plan involves significant harm to the earth with disproportionate consequences for the poorest people. Our congregation divested itself from oil, coal and gas, and urged our denomination to do the same. To date, the denomination has not divested. But another overture is coming to the next General Assembly in 2018 and this church and the Hudson River Presbytery are supporting it.

I was thinking about these things during my trip. After some discussion, while our PC(USA) delegation was in Guatemala meeting with communities affected but extractive mineral mining, we emailed our denominational office of Mission Responsibility through Investment to ask if the PC(USA) holds stock in the very gold or silver mines which the communities we were working with were working against. And the answer was, yes. Our Board of Pensions holds stock in some of the very companies that are pillaging Guatemalan communities without consulting with the populations, stealing the water which the communities depend upon for drinking and farming, and employing private security companies to be sure they get what they want. And as a shareholder, the PC(USA) Board of Pensions profits from this investment. And, in turn, all PC(USA) ministers and staff covered by the Board of Pensions for health care, life insurance, retirement – all of us are beneficiaries at the grave expense of these indigenous communities and the earth itself. That was a hard pill to swallow.

The church, through these investments, has made clergy and staff covered by the Board of Pensions, complicit in harm. But “no way of living can be right that is part of a livelihood system that destroys rather than supports life.”[7] In light of this, the delegation in which I participated is exploring numerous alternatives but has asked me to draft an overture to next year’s General Assembly, asking the Presbyterian Church to divest itself from these mining companies and so lend the moral weight of Christ’s church to the struggle for human rights and for the earth itself. Simply put, we must say no to profiting from harm.

But we are called not only to evaluate personal and collective actions in terms of how they impact of neighbors, here and around the world, but also to pursue concrete relationships with affected communities. I mentioned two weeks ago that we have an invitation to return to Guatemala with a mission trip of youth and others to work with local and indigenous communities reforesting the countryside. Because this kind of work and these kinds of relationships change us, transform us, and we learn in new ways what it means to love God and neighbor. We discuss the brokenness of our world, often in great detail, here in worship each week because worshipping together keeps all that we do and dare grounded in God’s love and delight with the created world and God’s unbounded mercy and care for creation. We have the privilege of seeking together a way to live that honors God and God’s creation in our very complex world. For, as we are about to sing, as a prayer:

We, created in your image, would a true reflection be
of your justice, grace and mercy and the truth that makes us free.[8]

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The back of my head, in conversation with members of the La Puya Peaceful Resistance

 

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20150116004657/http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/4742-the-peaceful-anti-mining-resistance-at-qla-puyaq-celebrates-two-years-of-struggle

[2] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and The Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 124

[3] The Rev. Leslie Vogel presented man of these points in a daily devotion she led for our travel seminar and the staff of CEDEPCA, the Protestant Center for Education and Transformation in Guatemala.

[4] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and The Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 124

[5] Naomi Klein, “Beyond Extractivism: Confronting the Climate Denier Within” in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014). p. 169.

[6] Matthew Humphrey, “A Pipeline Runs through Naboth’s Vineyard: From Abstraction to Action in Cascadia,” in Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice edited by Ched Myers. (Cascade, 2016).

[7] Jim Corbett, Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living, A Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom. (Viking, 1991).

[8] “God, You Spin the Whirling Planets,” sung in honor of the Cassini Spacecraft that concluded its twenty-year mission around Saturn earlier this week. The phrases in italics are from the conclusion of my colleague Rebecca Todd Peter’s book Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World (Fortress Press, 2014), in which she offers solidarity as a new model for how people of faith in the first world can live with integrity in the midst of global injustice and shape a more just future.

Reclaiming Land and Life – Land Sunday

September 14, 2017

habel

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation – Land Sunday, September 10, 2017

Exodus 3:1-6a         Genesis 10: 8 or 12-19a

“Surely, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place!
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. (Gen 28: 16)

When Jacob rises from his dream he looks around to see where he is. Last night this was ordinary desert, sand and rocks, nothing special. But Jacob sees more deeply now. This is the place where heaven touches earth and earth reaches toward heaven. This is the place where prayers ascend and angel-messengers descend, where the sordid record of Jacob’s life turns out to be the very subject under discussion in heaven. This ordinary place is the place where Jacob meets his God, and is changed.

But what impresses me about Jacob is that he does not mount his donkey after breakfast and quickly continue his flight from Esau. He lingers and marks the place as a special place. He names the place: Beth-El, the house of God. He erects an altar so that he can return another time. He pledges himself to God and takes his first tentative steps into the life God has set out for him. It is not just any place, though I suppose it could have been. But not now, not after his dream. Now it is in and through this particular place that Jacob finds his whole world transfigured. There will always be a part of Jacob’s heart that still lies with his head on the rock, dreaming of his ladder. But it is the new way he can see the world from that rock that will allow him to piece together his life, to pursue the hard work of reconciliation with his brother Esau, to bury his father, and to father his sons.

This story, and the speech of Jacob, has always seemed to me to be a challenge to know where I am, to look more deeply at the place I choose to lay my head, and it seems to me now to be an invitation to situate myself somewhere, to make a commitment to some place and some people through which I can know God in a way I could not know God anywhere else, and which can transfigure my world. A place I can turn to and return to in order to nurture my faith, to challenge it and be reminded that I have been called.

There is a truism in the environmental movement, which we have shared here in worship before:

We won’t save places we don’t love;
We can’t love places we don’t know.
We don’t know places we haven’t learned.

In our scripture, God is always revealed as the God of particular places. That God may be encountered in all places does not change the fact that God is revealed in and through particular places, and hallows them. It is from them that we learn who God is. I think of Moses, in our first reading today, encountering God on the side of a mountain in a bush that burned but was not consumed. I think of Elijah in his cave, Elisha by the river’s edge, the psalmist by the rivers of Babylon, even Ezekiel in his vision of the very foundation and corners of the earth itself.

I wish to share another story this morning from my time in Central America. I was part of a delegation of the Presbyterian Church learning about “Peacemaking, Climate Justice, and Faith.” But I want you to hear this story as a story about place, as a story about learning and knowing and loving and saving a particular place. A story that can teach us about resiliency and hard work and hope.

While the first week of our delegation’s trip was spent in Guatemala, the second week was spent in Costa Rica. We spent several days learning about the country, its rich history, its decision to disband the military in 1948 and what that decision made possible, and we learned about Costa Rica’s very public commitment to caring for the environment and, as an agricultural country, to sustainability. And then we looked more closely at the pineapple industry. (sigh) Costa Rica is the largest exporter of pineapples in the world. Now, I admit, before this trip I had no idea how pineapples grew. I think I vaguely thought they grew on trees, like coconuts and bananas. Instead, they grow up from the ground in a plant that looks just like the spikey crown on the top of the fruit. We took a day to travel through the rainforest and, on the far side, to visit a pineapple plantation run by Del Monte, near the small town of Milano.

Milano began as a land invasion a number of years ago, a tried and true way for displaced poor people in Costa Rica to start again. An absentee landlord living in another country owned the uncultivated land they settled on. In time, again in tried and true form, through occupation and settlement of the land and an application process, the residents acquired title to this land. They built homes, schools, and churches. And they made a life.

Nearby, the U.S. based, processed food giant, Del Monte, purchased a field for growing pineapples. We visited this field (and the infrastructure that supports it), and that is where I saw pineapples growing for the first time. But I learned that the pineapple plant, the way God made it, grows only a single fruit. Del Monte, with a combination of hormones and fertilizer, can make each plant grow three fruits before it is exhausted. After that, the “hijos,” the children – the small new growth of the plant – is cut off and turned upside-down on the base. There, its root exposed to the sun, it is sprayed with new chemicals and planted again. The discarded bases are then buried or burned, and the process begins all over again. There are a few issues here, obviously. We learned that the chemical toxins – fertilizers, hormones, pesticides, insecticides, anti-fungal sprays, and phosphorous – all seep into the groundwater and affect the nearby communities, like Milano. This is not only a by-product of their use, but of the outright dumping of unused product on the ground or directly into the river. The day-laborers who spray the plants often have competitions to see who can spray the fastest, and workers are fined if they return with “leftovers.” So they are dumped. Unused or outdated chemicals are dumped the same way, while the facilities available for the workers to wash these sprays off their own bodies, the equipment, and the tractors, also feeds into the groundwater. After local authorities recently documented this illegal practice, the workers now dump the chemicals directly onto the public road, the dirt road, that runs through the plantation and, thus, now legally disposing it into the same ground, groundwater, and river.

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Pineapple ‘hijos’ ready for spraying

After Del Monte moved in, residents in nearby Milano began to complain of burning skin when they washed, and developed fungal infections on their bodies. They also witnessed a rise in miscarriages among not only the humans but the cattle as well who share the same toxic drinking water. Further, the burning of the discarded and used up plants drew a new kind of black fly to the community, whose name in Spanish means “bloodsucker.” The flies attack the cattle and children, and have introduced a new wasting cow disease.

Since we were talking about deforestation last Sunday, I should also mention that Del Monte illegally expanded their field by cutting down and cutting into the forest that bordered their property, removing trees all the way down the river itself, exacerbating a number of these problems. They did this overnight, by cover of darkness, and buried the trees in the ground. When confronted with the disappearance of the forest they shrugged their shoulders and said, “What forest? This was uncultivated land.”

Back in Milano, our group met Xinia Briceño, the President of the Rural Aqueduct Association. The Aqueduct Association is the local body, in every community, with the legal responsibility for caring for local water. Xinia moved to Milano twelve years. She was pregnant at the time, and when she drank the water for the first time she says she just “knew something was wrong.” She knew she was “drinking chemicals.” Xinia attended a meeting of the Rural Aqueduct Association and asked how she could get voice at the meeting. She was told she needed legal title to her land. So, she left and did just that. When the process was finished she returned for the next meeting of the Association. She presented her papers, and spoke about the problems with drinking water, reported complaints about wash water, documented health problems, and exposed corporate practices. She had never done anything like this before, but this was her home, she had a child inside her, miscarriage were a common side affect of the toxins. She was elected president at that very meeting and began a campaign to protect her watershed and her community. She began to learn, and know and so love and try to save the water of the place she now called home, the particular place God had placed her.

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Our delegation with members of the Rural Aqueduct Association. I am kneeling beside Xinia.

Xinia is clear that her environmental and peacemaking journey began with as concern for herself and her child, but has become a deep commitment to the well being of all. Water is life and it connects us all. She is now vice-president of the National Association of Rural Aqueducts (part of Costa Rica’s federal government), and as a watershed activist she is part of an effort funded by the World Council of Churches called the National Front of Sectors Affected by Pineapple Expansion. Pineapples are a major industry in Costa Rica, and they are often touted as environmentally sustainable (posters said as much at the airport), but their expansion is a huge and destructive problem in Costa Rica. Many companies operate around and outside the law, and there is a growing social movement to call them to account.[1] Xinia’s story demonstrates for me what strength, resiliency, hard work, and hope look like when God has called us to learn, know, love and save particular places, and what can happen when people find their ecological voice and begin to work together.

But I cannot leave this story without sharing one more item. For those of us with Biblically shaped imaginations, it is surely significant – and noted by the residents of Milano – that Del Monte named their pineapple plantation, or finca in Spanish, the Finca Babilonia Del Monte, the Babylon Plantation, and the river that runs through it is the Rio Destierro, the River of Exile.

“By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered the land we call home.

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land (or land of exile).

Xinia and her community, like so many people we spent time with in Central America, are leading the way of return to air and land and water that too many of us live in forced exile from. And in doing so, they are leading us to pay attention to and encountering the God who dwells in particular places. This is God’s song.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Our minds, this week, and this morning, are very much on particular places. Last Sunday we witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Harvey; the flooding a loss of live (over 1200 at this point) in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh; the fires raging in the northwest of this country, so hot they have jumped the Columbia River gorge; we have heard of the earthquake in Mexico that shook all of Central America (including Costa Rica and Guatemala); seen images of the genocide unfolding in Myanmar while Aung San Suu Kyi remains silent; and this morning, as we worship, Hurricane Irma, which has already brought destruction to the Caribbean and Florida Keys, will make landfall on the Florida peninsula, passing over people and places we know and love.

In my own anxiety this week – my mom and grandmother live in Naples – I have found it helpful to meditate on Psalm 139 and its conviction that God can be found in all places, that there is no place (or time, or circumstance) that God is not. The Psalm asks, “How can I get away from you? Or where can run from you?” These are questions Jacob might have asked. And it affirms, “If I go (fill in the blank) you are there.” Last Monday, as I was preparing to preach on Land Sunday in the Season of Creation, I read an adaption of the Psalm written from the perspective of the Land itself. It was written for children, and is a little simple, but it has stuck with me, and each day I have prayed for particular places I find it hard to see or understand how God may be present and be made known. I offer it to you this morning. Afterward I will make ample time for us to pray together for particular places – I invite you to name them aloud, saying “If I (fill in the blank), you are there.” Psalm 139, spoken by the Land God created.

I am land. In the very beginning, Creator took some stardust and formed me. I was shaped into beautiful high mountains and dry deserts; magnificent beaches and rocky canyons; fertile farmlands and soggy wetlands.

I was made with care and love and, when I was formed, Creator smiled and said, “This land is beautiful, this land is good!”

Creator brought us (indicate others and then yourself) together to care for one another. God intended for us to live in peace and harmony. You would care for me and in return I would care for you. But human- kind forgot. They took from me and forgot to give back. They destroyed and forgot to heal. They forgot to care. Today I am hurting badly.

(Pause momentarily and invite people to think about the hurt the land feels.)

But even though I am sad and hurting I know that Creator is still with me. If you are very quiet and still and listen very carefully, you can hear me sing a song to Creator (put your finger to your lips and make a shushing sound). Can you hear the words? (Pause.) Listen to the song.

Creator God you are always with me.

Your love holds me tight.
When my forests are ripped away, you are there, When my beauty is covered with rubbish, you are there.
If my earth is dug up,
with no thought to my earth friends who live there. I cry;
but even there your love will find me.
If I say, “Surely smoke from the factories shall cover me
and stop the sun from shining through,”
even the choking smoke is not too dark for you; you find me underneath the buildings, and the roads, and the factories and your love gives me hope.

And there is hope, for Creator moves through me and whispers words of encouragement. Slowly, slowly things are changing. All over the world, people are working with Creator to bring healing. Gradually you are remembering to live in peace with me. You are remembering to care. Children plant trees and teach the grownups about recycling. Teenagers pick up rubbish and raise money to save forests. Brave grownups work to stop factories from covering me with choking smoke. Scientists are learning how to clean up the chemicals that have poisoned my earth. Whenever this happens, Creator moves to bring healing.

And then I am glad.[2]

What followed was a moving and healing time of prayer that we certainly needed. We concluded our time of prayer by singing a new hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, written in the wake of Harvey, Nepal, Bangladesh and India.  

[1] Information on the problem (https://www.efe.com/efe/english/technology/thousands-of-acres-ecosystems-wiped-out-by-pineapple-growing-in-costa-rica/50000267-3200661) and recent social protests (https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Costa-Rica-Activists-Protest-Disputed-Pineapple-Crop-Expansion-20170515-0014.html)

[2] © 2017 Woodlake Press. Resources for the Season of Creation, Year A.

Reforestation as Redemption – Forest Sunday

September 3, 2017

 habel

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in the Season of Creation (Forest Sunday), September 3, 2017.

Isaiah 55:6-14         Isaiah 14:3-8

It was about eight o’clock in the evening when our tour bus, climbing a twisting highway in the Guatemalan Highlands, came to a dead stop. The sun had gone down an hour earlier, and all we could see ahead was a line of brake lights leading up to the next switchback around the mountain. As we speculated among ourselves as to the reason we were all stopped, cars ahead of us began to shut off their lights. We were going to be here a while, and they knew it. When our driver, Don Roberto, shut off our engine, we lost our air conditioning. The temperature was only in the mid-80s, but without air the humidity quickly crept in until we were all sweating profusely. A little more than an hour later we began to hear engines firing up ahead of us, and soon enough we were on our way. About half a mile past where we had stopped we discovered the cause of our delay: part of the mountain had slid down over the highway, covering it with mud and rock, and we had been waiting for crews with heavy machinery to clear the way. The road, now slick with mud and narrowed by the debris, allowed for only a single lane of traffic. Trucks were lined up to carry it all away. No one appears to have been swept off the road when it happened, thank God. An hour and half after we squeezed through the narrow lane, we were home.

Mudslides are common in Guatemala, and take hundreds of lives every year. Torrential rains, heavier and wetter every year due to climate change, drag rain-sodden and degraded hillsides down over roads and villages. Frequent earthquakes and hurricanes intensify the problem. The Caribbean and North American tectonic plates meet in Guatemala’s central highland region, which throws up steep and pointed mountains like so many sharks’ teeth – and is home to 37 volcanoes (four of which are active). It may be the most mountainous place I have ever visited, and for a hiker, one of the most beautiful. As I flew into the country it appeared that almost every surface was being farmed or used for pasture, and every hillside terraced. Coffee, vegetables and bananas are grown everywhere for export. I took a hike one day and took about an hour to descend once side of Pino Dulce, the mountain I was on. Across the valley was another mountain, terraced from top to bottom with coffee, farmers climbing up and down, and I tried to imagine walking up and down the mountain every day to first grow and then harvest the beans. Trust me, I drank my next cup of coffee slowly.

All of this, the land and the mountains, was once blanketed with lush, dense forest, which is why George Lucas chose Guatemala’s Tikal National Park for filming the jungle moon of Yavin 4 in the original Star Wars movie. But the country is also experiencing the most rapid deforestation rates in the world, with a consequent loss of biodiversity. Corporate production of sugar, palm oil and beef are the main culprits, pushing poor and indigenous people off their land and cutting down the trees. “Guatemala has had a long and tumultuous history of corporate interests trumping community claims to land, which has resulted in a horrifying track record for human rights and environmental stewardship.” [1] 17 percent of Guatemala’s forest has been lost in the fifteen-year period between 1990 and 2005 alone. Displaced communities then move deeper into the forest and cut down trees themselves (though on a smaller scale) to re-build subsistence farms in a vicious downward spiral.[2]

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Ann Hallum, co-founder of the International Alliance for Reforestation, a nonprofit organization working with villagers protect themselves from mudslides, explains, “Trees are cut for firewood and to make room for the crops, and without realizing it … they’ve taken away their protection. Where it used to be rainforest becomes an open space for the mud to come right on through.” More than 373 square kilometers of trees are destroyed each year in Guatemala. Without the protection of trees, the soil is eroded and simply gives way, destroying lives and the means for living.[3]

* * * * * * *

My friends, it is good to be back with you in worship. I have been away from you for four whole weeks, and apart from a Sabbatical in 2008, that is the longest I have ever been away from a congregation I call home. While I have missed you, I have had a rich, rewarding and inspiring time apart. My first and last weeks were vacation time with my family. We spent them together in Florida with my mother and grandmother, both of whom are doing just fine. The middle two weeks, however, were part of my continuing education. I was a participant in a travel/study seminar called “Peacemaking, Climate Justice, and Faith,” organized by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and the Presbyterian Environmental Ministries Office.

50th_anniversary-1

Our delegation on behalf of the denomination was made up of ten Presbyterians from across the country and one national staff-person. Our purpose was to learn about the ways natural resource extraction is intimately linked to conflict, poverty, corruption, as well as environmental and human rights abuses, in Central America. In Guatemala, our first stop, Presbyterian mission co-workers introduced us to indigenous communities who are resisting the Canadian and U.S. owned chemical mining companies that are poisoning the local watersheds, and in Costa Rica, our Presbyterian mission co-worker there introduced us to community groups who are fighting industrial pineapple growers and the corrupt government officials who turn a blind eye to their toxic practices.

We met with and listened to a former Minister of Culture and University professor, a city mayor, village council members, local citizen organizations, investigative journalists, human rights advocates, and lawyers (one of whom spent three years in the hospital after an attempt to assassinate him failed). We met with peaceful resistors from indigenous communities – women, men, and children who have been threatened, beaten, gassed, arrested, and even shot for defending their a land and protecting their water; we met courageous politicians who have resisted generous bribes, grassroots community organizers, church leaders, a Roman Catholic bishop, the head of the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala, as well as hundreds of very brave farmers, indigenous organizations, and students (most of whom were women). In many cases we were told that we were the first U.S. church delegation to visit their community. It was difficult, truly, to see with my own eyes and to hear directly from these people the devastating effects extractive industry has on their communities. But I was also inspired by the strength and courage and faith of the people I met. For me, the trip was about moving many things I knew with my head down into my heart. I have not come back the same, and I want to thank you for the opportunity.

When Presbyterian News Service interviewed me for their story about our delegation, I chose to describe the impact of meeting a father who was my age, Don Adolfo Fernando. In 2013, the head of security for one of the mining companies in Guatemala referred to peaceful protesters as terrorists and gave an order to shoot with intent to kill. Don Adolfo’s son, Luis Fernando, was shot in the face that day. Luis was hospitalized and has since gone through seven surgeries for facial reconstruction. In January of this year, 2017, he was finally able to breathe through his nose for the first time in over three years. There was sadness in Don Adolfo’s face as he talked about his son and that day, and the last three years, recognizing that he had no choice but to continue doing this work of resistance for the good of his community.[4]

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Luis Fernando, in a resistance campaign poster

According to Global Witness, an international NGO that reports on extractive industry, those who defend the earth and protect water, like the people our delegation met with, face an ever growing epidemic of violence worldwide.

“In 2016, at least two hundred land and environmental defenders were murdered, the deadliest year on record. Not only is this trend spreading – killings were dispersed across 24 countries, compared to 16 [countries] in 2015. With many killings unreported, and even less investigated, it is likely that the true number is actually far higher.”[5]

In other words, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and does not even count the harassment, death threats, and physical injury that fall short of death. “The tide of violence is driven by an intensifying fight for land and natural resources, as mining, logging, hydro-electric and agricultural companies trample on people and the environment in pursuit of profit.” The liturgical Season of Creation invites us this year to discover divinity in the very places these industries threaten, the forests, land, wild places, and rivers of creation. Unsurprisingly, we will find that our scripture has quite a bit to say to us about these topics.

Biblical scholar Ched Myers has written that “forest preservation is a life and death struggle between communities who are reliant upon the forests and who value them spiritually, and the powerful interests who pillage old growth forests for economic and political gain, destroying treasured commonwealth. This is, it turns out, one of the oldest struggles in human history.”

The prophet Zechariah, for example, cries out for the trees that were being destroyed by the greed of ancient empires that cut down ancient forests in order to clear land for export crops like olives, displacing people and enriching royal families who traded these goods for extravagant silks, gold, and other opulent displays of luxury. Sound familiar?

Open your doors, O Lebanon, so that fire may devour your cedars!
Wail, O Cypress, for the cedar has fallen, for the glorious trees are ruined!
Wail, oaks of Bashan, for the thick forest has been felled! (Zech. 11:1-3)

The prophet Jeremiah was forever warning Israel that the nearby forests were in danger:

The destroyers, with all their weapons,
will cut down your choicest cedars
and cast them into the fire. (Jer. 22:6)

And the prophet Isaiah talks about what it looks like when all creation is restored – the prophet doesn’t just talk about people, and just relationships among them, but he also describes what justice looks like for all of creation – including the trees. Isaiah imagines a restored creation taunting the fallen empires of the earth:

When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon:
How the oppressor has ceased!
   How his insolence has ceased! 
[For] The Lord has broken the staff of the wicked,
   the scepter of rulers, 
that struck down the peoples in wrath
   with unceasing blows,
that ruled the nations in anger
   with unrelenting persecution. 
The whole earth is at rest and quiet;
   they break forth into singing. 
The cypresses exult over you,
   the cedars of Lebanon, saying,
‘Since you were laid low,
   no one comes to cut us down.’ (Is. 14:3-8)

“What a remarkable image” writes Ched Myers, “trees taking up the chant of praise for the downfall of kings who clear-cut them! It is an extraordinary hymn to environmental justice.” And Isaiah’s full vision of redemption include reforestation.[6]

The corporations who have, over the last 150 years, slashed forests throughout Guatemala to produce coffee and bananas, have not been held accountable for reforesting; for repairing the damage they have created and which the poorest Guatemalans experience as loss of livelihood and lives on a regular basis.

But ordinary people are reforesting; they are doing what they can do, even as they work to continue their subsistence farming.[7] On our final day in Guatemala our delegation visited Alianza Internacional Reforestation, or the International Alliance for Reforestation. There I met Don Miguel Lopez, a man a few inches shorter than me who told us that the name of his country, Guatemala, comes from a Nahuatl word that means, “land of trees.” The Alliance roots its work in the vision of Isaiah 55 (which Pastor Lynn read today) of “trees clapping their hands in joy.” The Alliance’s vision is to work “tree-by-tree, day-by-day, person by person, collaborating for a better world.”

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Standing in a demonstration garden of mixed use trees and plants, Doña Florinda, an indigenous woman and community educator who grows trees for her village, explained to us how the program works. Local communities maintain nurseries to grow trees. From September to May they grow trees from seeds. “Nine-months,” she points out, making sure we understand that the care required to grow a tree is analogous to human birth. Volunteer groups, from churches like ours, come down each June to plant the trees, but that, she points out, is the easy part. Organizations that plant trees often experience a loss of between fifteen to forty percent. The Alliance for Reforestation sees almost 95% success, because they focus on growing trees, not just planting them.

But growing and planting are only the first two of seven parts of the Alliance’s work. There are other parts of their program: scholarships for students to go to school, so that students can become leaders in their communities; the use and marketing of the medicinal properties of plants (I used the aloe lip balm Doña Florinda’s community makes), and the promotion of food security through harvesting fruits and nuts from the forest. But really important was the installation of new kinds of home stoves. Two million people die every year, globally, from cooking fire smoke. The Alliance uses mission groups from churches like ours to build new smokeless stoves that use a fraction of fire wood to not only cook food but heat homes efficiently. The Alliance makes a five-year commitment to each participating community to maintain and hand over sustainable practices. Next week Doña Florinda will be at the United Nations to receive the Annual Equator Prize, which is awarded biennially to recognize outstanding indigenous and local community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.[8]

In this Season of creation we are reminded that the well-being of people and the well-being of the planet are intertwined. On our part, we are invited to keep the vision of Isaiah before us — of the whole earth at rest and quiet which comes to be when we refuse to exploit people or the earth, but instead learn to touch the earth lightly. For us in North America, that means we need to look at what our government and what U.S. corporations enable in other parts of the world. And where those policies or practices harm people or the earth, we must hold our leaders accountable and do our part to stop their devastation. And it also means doing what we can in our own community. While the indigenous people of Chimeltanango, Guatemala are reforesting their mountainside, this past month our congregation was installing solar panels on our church’s roof. My first stop when we pulled into White Plains, was not to our apartment. Rather August, Noelle and I went first to the church so that we could see with our own eyes the completed installation of our solar array.

This month has allowed me to see much with my own eyes. And what I have seen is ordinary people standing up against the odds, doing everything they can, putting their bodies on the line for not only their future but the future of the land and our common life. As we prepare to come to the communion table, we remember sisters and brothers gathering in the north and south, the east and west, around a table that is set with hope, with love, and with justice; who come as we do to find strength for the journey. So as we come, we know, we do not come alone. We come with companions on the way to that vision of an earth at rest and peace.

 

[1] https://www.greenbiz.com/article/experiment-net-zero-deforestation-guatemala

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/journalismcompetition/deforestation-guatemala

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/americas/02/10/cnnheroes.hallum.guatemala.mudslides/index.html

[4] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/travel-study-seminar-takes-presbyterians-guatemala-costa-rica/

[5] https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/defenders-earth/

[6] Ched Myers, “The Cedar has fallen!” The Prophetic Word vs. Imperial Clear-Cutting.” https://chedmyers.org/system/files/The%20Cedar%20Has%20Fallen%2C%20The%20Prophetic%20Word%20vs.%20Imperial%20%20Clearcutting.pdf

[7] Some business are embracing community management as well, though there are important critiques of the potential for greenwashing. https://www.greenbiz.com/article/experiment-net-zero-deforestation-guatemala

[8] http://www.equatorinitiative.org

Parables of Hunger: The Landowner

July 30, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, July 30, 2017

 Exodus 16: 2-15         Matthew 20: 1-16

This is our third and final week looking at the Parables of Hunger, a designation I have made up to bring together several parables about food and eating. Most of the people Jesus told his parables to were literally hungry, so it is significant that the parables point not only to getting or receiving the food we need to survive today, but also for tomorrow. Further we noted that when Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven can be compared to: a merchant, a woman, a rich man or a servant; to leaven, treasure, a business ledger of farmworker wages” it’s not clear whether the comparison is intended to show similarity or difference. It is good for us to remember that the word parable literally means “things thrown together.”

And Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” Jesus’ parables are always complex stories that first tickled and then engaged the crowd’s questions, doubts, and hopes. We need only look at one character in the story to see how complex these characters and their actions really are; the landowner.

productos-agricolas-mexico

Image: Tomatoes being harvested in Mexico in 2016. Workers may once
have owned these very field before NAFTA. Some companies, like Wendy’s,
have moved their tomato production to Mexico rather than work to ensure
wages, protections, and a slavery-free supply chain. See ciw-online.org

Is the landowner really that good? In Jesus day, the Roman Imperial system impoverished local farmers who were often forced to sell their land to pay their debts. The landowner in our parable would have been part of the (new) rich elite among the overwhelmingly poor. In the hands of these new landowners, fields of grain that had formerly fed the people were often converted into vineyards for the production of wine, a luxury selling for top dollar and often exported. Like my friend’s father who was forced to sell his family farm in Mexico a few years after the passage of NAFTA, many of the day laborers in this parable would have found themselves hired to work land they once owned themselves.

Is the landowner really generous? By paying everyone equally, he has certainly assured that each person seeking work would be able to eat that day. But “the usual daily wage” was by no means generous – it was a subsistence payment. And since employment depended on laborers gathering in marketplace before sunrise each day in hopes of being chosen for work, there is no assurance that they will eat tomorrow.

Further, as Alyce McKenzie points out, the vineyard owner believes that he is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him.

This reflects the Roman’s idea of private ownership, contradicting the Torah’s insistence that God is the owner of the land. The Torah’s vision was that one’s blessings were given to one to share with the dispossessed in the community, not as a platform to exploit them.[1]

In fact, the landowners very act of generosity seem calculated to provoke the grumbling of those hired early in the morning against the latecomers, a classic tactic of pitting workers against one another in the age-old practice of divide and conquer.

Is this how God acts toward God’s people? Is this how God provides for us? Is the landowner really the image for God in this parable? If so, to Jesus’ hearers who understood how real landowners operated, that would have been quite a claim.

Now we often use models from human relationships to think about God. The Psalter tells us “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13), and God in Isaiah says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). Yet in this parable we are teased into working out just how God’s justice, generosity and grace are UNLIKE human models we know. “God is nothing like an arbitrary landlord who pays meager wages, participates in keeping the poor divided and disadvantaged, and who distributes grace in ways to provoke resentment.”[2]

But clearly, Matthew intends us to see the landowner in a favorable light. So, let’s try to read the parable with him. God has work for everyone to do, and those of us who have worked faithfully for a long time should not resent the latecomers. Jesus’ parable had a word of challenge and a word of comfort; challenge for those who have been laboring long and hard, assurance and welcome for those newly arrived.

It was probably quite hard for his audience, mostly poor, to imagine a generous landowner. Jesus obviously understood this, too, as a poor man himself. In the previous chapter he had just told them that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Even this generous landowner, so long as he holds the assumptions of private property with which he may do as he pleases, the sufficiency of a day’s wage to meet the needs of hungry people, and an understanding of how his actions can pit the poor against one another in a downward spiral, even this well-intentioned, generous landowner is still far from the kingdom of heaven. In fact, Jesus tells this parable to a crowd of peasants after a rich young man, who Jesus says “is not far from the kingdom,” goes away sad because he cannot give up his possessions and the assumptions that go with them.

So we see that the landowner is both like and unlike God in the parable. And so we might also ask, where else is God in that parable? After all, God need not be contained within one character alone! That’s what makes parables fun, puzzling, and provocative. Parables also invite us to see look for God working in our own world in unexpected ways. Several years ago, I shared a 20th century parable about workers in the vineyard. Some of you may remember it; for others, it will be new. But either way, listen for God’s word to you.

Back in the late 1990s WINK News in southwest Florida decided to do an undercover investigative report on the conditions under which farmworkers then labored, the sub-poverty wages they receive and the workers’ struggle to dialogue with their employers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was not yet an internationally recognized powerhouse that had legally binding agreements with 14 corporations and a Presidential medal winning Fair Food Program establishing and protecting tens of thousands of farmworkers rights in seven states that is now being exported to transform conditions at the base of supply chains in other industries around the world!

No. At that time, it was a community-based worker’s group, which most people had not heard of. But this group of farmworkers who had organized themselves had publicly called for talks between growers and workers to address abuses in the fields and sub poverty wages. The Coalition knew that the farmworkers were earning well below minimum wage–annually somewhere around $7,500. But growers claimed the workers earned $16,000. Enter WINK News. The TV reporters’ plan was to go into the fields, pick tomatoes, look at what average workers harvested and report on their earnings while taping the experience.

So a TV reporter and a producer disguised themselves as workers and joined the crowd of farmworkers waiting to negotiate a day’s labor and be taken in buses to the fields just before dawn. They did just that and their broadcast vindicated the farmworkers’ claims, underscoring the need for growers to negotiate with workers. At the close of the broadcast, the reporters explained there was one more story to tell. As they waited for the buses that morning, two farmworkers approached them. One man quietly asked, “Do you have any money?” Fearing they were panhandling, the newscasters said, “No.” At which point the worker pulled out his wallet that contained only three dollars. “Here,” he said with a brief nod, and handed all three dollars to the newscasters. Then he walked away.

Generosity awakens us to our common humanity in one another. Perhaps this was the point of Jesus parable, to open our eyes to justice and generosity whenever and wherever it occurs – in landowners, in farmworkers. At its base, we are reminded in giving and receiving that all of us are part of God’s family, that all of us our valuable, that we need each other to survive; that God created us for each other. And so, we hear Matthew’s message again: we all have work to do. Thanks be to God. 

Hymn: Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples

 

[1] Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today. WJK Press, 2007. p. 76.

[2] David Mosser. The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching. WJK Press, 2007.