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A Cosmic Perspective – Cosmos Sunday

September 30, 2019

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday in the Season of Creation – Cosmos Sunday, September 29, 2019

Proverbs 8:22-31         Colossians 1:15-20         Psalm 8 (focus text)

The cosmos was discovered only yesterday. For 1 million years it was clear to everyone that there were no other places than the earth. Then in the last 10th of a percent of the lifetime of our species, in the incident between Aristarchus and ourselves, we reluctantly noticed that we were not the center and purpose of the universe, but rather live on a tiny and fragile world lost in immensity and eternity, drifting in a great cosmic ocean dotted here and there with 100 billion galaxies and 1 billion trillion stars. We have bravely tested the waters and have found the ocean to our liking, resonant with our nature. Something in us recognizes the cosmos as home. We are made of stellar ash. Our origin and evolution have been tied to distant cosmic events. The exploration of the cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos[i]

We have three fantastic and provocative passages today. The first scripture reading is the passage that kicked off our summer sermon series on listening to the Word of God in the Word of Earth. It is the tale of Woman Wisdom, the companion of God (or aspect of God) through whom all creation was made and who seeks to be known. It is Woman Wisdom who speaks:

[Proverbs 8:22-31, NRSV]

Of course, this figure of Woman Wisdom through whom the world was made has a rich life within Hebrew thought and early Christian thought. The author of the Gospel of John picks up this image of God’s Wisdom/God’s word taking of flesh, becoming earth, and incarnate eventually in Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word/Wisdom, and the Word/Wisdom was with God, and the Word/Wisdom was God. S/He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through them, and without them not one thing came into being. What has come into being in them was life… And the Word/Wisdom became flesh and lived among us… (John 1)

The same idea is picked up and amplified by the author of the Letter to the Colossians. In a hymn that is already old, speaking of Jesus as the Christ, the author writes

[Colossians, Inclusive Version]

Thanks be to God for this which is God’s Holy word, and to God’s name let there always be praise.

With these ancient Wisdom stories in mind, I want to focus this morning on a passage from the Psalter. Psalm 8 is beloved to many of us. Listen for the Word of God.

[Psalm 8, NRSV]

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

So back when my wife and I were still dating, we took a trip to Chicago and, with my family, we visited the Henry Crown Space Center at the Museum of Science and Industry. They have there on display the training capsule that was used for the Apollo 11 mission, for the moon landing. Beside the capsule is scaffold that you can climb up and standing at the top of the scaffold you can look inside, that tiny little room that held three men on this momentous journey. Noelle was down at the bottom of the scaffold; I was standing at the top with my mom peering in. And Noelle said, “Ah. I remember this so vividly. I remember watching this on television and how moving it was. And how it changed the way we think of things. I remember running outside to look at the sky and looking up at the moon. It was exhilarating.” And then she asked me, “Do you remember that as well? Do you have that same memory? Do you remember that feeling? Was it as deeply moving for you? Where were you?” And my mom, standing beside me, quietly laughed. She placed her hands on her belly and said, ”Where was he? He was in here. He wouldn’t come out for another three months.”

The moon landing was fifty years ago this past July 20, 1969, and I don’t think we marked the anniversary in worship so we will do so now. That also means that I am turn fifty, on Tuesday in fact, and that’s all I want to say about that!

time-100-influential-photos-william-anders-nasa-earthrise-62

It was actually the Apollo 8 mission six months earlier that took that famous photo known as Earthrise, planet earth from the perspective of the sky, the whole beautiful planet, a photo that re-shaped how we think of where we live. Earth was given the name ‘the blue marble’, right? Because our earth is 70% water, two-thirds of the earth’s surface is blue, the Pacific Ocean alone spans nearly an entire side of the planet.[ii]

An we saw ourselves, all of us, having something in common: this one and only place to live, common home. And it gave birth to new concerns.

So with the passing of Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter earlier this week, I’ve had songs running through my head. The Dead have a song from this perspective, looking out upon the blue marble.

Picture a bright blue ball
Just spinning, spinning free
Dizzy with eternity
Paint it with a skin of sky
Brush in some clouds and sea
Call it home for you and me.

A peaceful place or so it looks from space
A closer look reveals the human race
Full of hope, full of grace, is the human face
But afraid, we may lay our home to waste.[iii]

“A celebrated photograph taken in 1990 from just beyond Neptune’s orbit by the Voyager 1 spacecraft shows just how underwhelming earth looks from deep space: a pale blue dot, as the American astrophysicist Carl Sagan called it. And that’s generous. Without the help of a caption, he might not even know it’s there.”[iv] Here is Sagan, in a 1994 speech, describing the significance (insignificance) of the dot.

20140801_PIA00452can you spot the pale blue dot in the ring of neptune? that’s us

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994)[v]

In the film Earthrise: The Story of the Photo that Changed the World, Frank Borman, one of the Apollo 8 astronauts who took the blue marble photo, said that “What they should’ve sent [to the moon] is poets because I’m not sure we capture in its entirety the grandeur of what we had seen.”[vi]

The poet who composed Psalm 8 understood this grandeur. “O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” The poet ‘reflects upon the nature of God and the nature of humankind.’ She composes the psalm ‘under the overpowering inspiration of a magnificent moonlit sky glow with sparkling stars.’ For they awaken in her “deep-souled feelings of adoration.”[vii]

This is before cell phones, before television and light pollution. Just a vast open sky filled with stars. “At one time or another every one of us has looked up at the night sky and wondered: what does it all mean? How does it all work? And, what is my place in the universe?”[viii]

The vast sky and contemplation of the universe can also awaken feelings of insignificance. Of smallness. And humility. “What is humankind, that God is mindful of us? The question arises from this humbled and humbling place. It is a very human place. What is humankind that God is attentive to us, mindful of us. (And I remind you that last week I said being attended to, paid attention, is what it means biblically to be blessed.)

Not that humankind are the unique recipients of God’s love – that would not be biblical. The earth, all creation, the heavens and the earth, are the recipients of God’s love. But we human beings are created to be responsible. The poet’s assertion that we are created just a little lower than the angels, just a little lower than ‘divine beings’, refers back to Genesis 2 where you will remember that the serpent tempted Eve by saying. “God knows that as soon as you eat of [the tree of knowledge of good and evil], your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” All that is withheld is immortality. Herein lies our being ‘a little lower than…’, we are subject to the inevitability of death.[ix]

But with the knowledge of good and evil to exercise, we are but a little lower than the divine. And we are responsible to serve and preserve this earth that is our home.

Feelings of insignificance and smallness, evoked by the cosmos. This is what Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, call “the cosmic perspective” He says, “If you look up in the sky and feel small it is because you started with an ego that was too big.” But the cosmic perspective also invites us to see that we are part of the universe, our ingredients are traceable across the universe.”[x]

In his recent book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, he writes, “The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. It’s more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing and living responsibly our place in the universe.”[xi]

That, after all, is what the Hebrew poets who personified Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8 were getting at: a cosmic perspective, wisdom woven into the fabric of this world, there for us to find and learn from. And it is what the author of the Letter to the Colossians sees when he sees Jesus: the Wisdom of the universe companioning us through this life. And salvation in Colossians is not just for us, it is not just for humankind; it is not just for the earth. The author of Colossians sees a Cosmic Christ bringing salvation, bringing reconciliation, to all that there is.[xii]

You may have noticed if you are following along in your bible that there is a strange bit of Psalm 8 that seems to have a period put of place. Beginning in the second half of verse 1 we read,

You have set you glory above the heaven. (period)
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, (comma)
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

That period there, and the ambiguity in the Hebrew text, has troubled scholars for a long time. How is God setting a bulwark against God’s foes out of the mouths of babes and infants? Many scholars like to move the period, so that it says

You have set your glory above the heavens,
out of the mouths of babes and infants.

As if the voices and babble of children, little children, give glory to God by doing what they do, learning to speak, and babble and talk and communicate. Yearning toward coherent speech. But the period seems well placed, or so I have thought all week. For it can be out the mouths of babes and infants that a bulwark against those who would wreak destruction on God’s good purposes in this cosmos can be erected.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, (comma)
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

I do not need to tell the stories, only recount the names

  • Sixteen year old Greta Thunberg, calling us this past week to act responsibly as human beings to care for the earth; or
  • David Hogg and Emma Gonzales, also high school students, calling us to account for allowing the epidemic of gun violence and school shootings to continue unabated;
  • Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe water activist, speaking at the United Nations, reminding us that ‘water is life,’ and calling us to care for the only water we have for our future; and we cannot forget
  • Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, calling us to protect women and girls from violence and to prioritize the education of young girls – the single most effective approach to securing a sustainable future.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants, God can speak to us what we need to hear. To thwart the destruction meted out by those opposed to God’s good creation.[xiii]

I mentioned earlier the passing of Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter who passed away on Monday.[xiv] Hunter wrote another song for the band called “Standing on the Moon.” It imagines this perspective on earth, looking down from a distance where he can’t even see the conflicts, the corruption and struggle that characterize human life so far, just that blue marble. And he includes a nod to the Apollo 11 flight.

Standing on the moon
I see the battle rage below
Standing on the moon
I see the soldiers come and go
There’s a metal flag beside me
Someone planted long ago
Old glory standing stiffly
Crimson, white and indigo, indigo

But at the very end of the song, after surveying it all, he write and he sings

Standing on the moon
With nothing else to do
[I have] A lovely view of heaven
But I’d rather be with you.[xv]

Our human place is here with one another, learning to live and act responsibility, to live lightly, caring for this created world that we are given as our one and only home, caring for one another. Because remember, there is not just a cosmos and universe out there, there is a cosmos and a universe within every person here, depths to wonder at, depths to care for, depths to astound and awe us, as we attend to the very large (the cosmos) and that very deep (our neighbors) sitting around us and the depths within us. Carl Sagan said, “The exploration of the cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery.” How right he was.

Let us who have words to sing God’s praise do so. Our second hymn this morning is a paraphrase of Psalm 8. Let us sing the majesty of God, our Creator’s name.

 

[i] Carl Sagan, Cosmos. w/ new forward by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. (Random House, Later Pnt Ed, 1983/2013). p. 337

[ii] Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. (Norton, 2017). I’ve plucked sentences and images from this book and inserted them throughout the sermon. I was already using Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech when I came upon Neil’s use of it at the end of his book. I decided to use his quote here as an introduction to guide readers to the relevant section of People in a Hurry. The citation begins on page 181.

[iii] “Throwing Stones,” by Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow. To be clear, this song was not written by Robert Hunter, though it fits this part of the sermon well. The Annotated Lyrics Online: http://artsites.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/throwing.html

[iv] Tyson, Astrophysics. p. 180ff.

[v] Online at: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=682 . The speech is set to moving video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO5FwsblpT8

[vi] Earthrise on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsShNeDvccc

[vii] These images come from Nahum M. Sarna, On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel. (Schocken, 1993). p. 50-67.

[viii] Another passage from Tyson, Astrophysics, p. 12.

[ix] Sarna, p. 64.

[x] The statement about ego was made in an interview with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4pCl0MWNa0&fbclid=IwAR30J_w8qnH6BBErBN3WX7eKmR7BpnY-6bvvuW9EcK4YGDtV8OM5-6ybDm8&app=desktop .

[xi] Tyson, p. 205. The italicized words are my own.

[xii] The most recent work to explore the implications of the Cosmic Christ is Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. (Convergent, 2019). See also Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance. (HarperOne, 1988).

[xiii] Physicist Alan Lightman notes, “To make a revolution in thought often requires a young person, one not yet in the vice of inherited knowledge and views of the world. Darwin was twenty-eight when he conceived the theory of natural selection. Picasso was twenty-six with he invented cubism. A rebellious nature might also be helpful. Alan Lightman, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. (Vintage, 2018). p. 114.

[xiv] https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/09/24/us/ap-us-obit-robert-hunter.html

[xv] http://artsites.ucsc.edu/GDead/agdl/sotm.html

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When the Storms Come and the Water Rises – Storm Sunday

September 18, 2019

rainonwindow_1_

A Sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 15, 2019

We have two scripture readings on Storm Sunday. The first is Psalm 29, an absolutely marvelous poem depicting the glory of God as experienced in a storm. It envisions the heavenly host gathered together around God, chanting “Glory.” And the community of God’s people on earth, gathered in the temple, chant “Glory.” Heaven and Earth united in praise.

I should also say that at the time the song was written, the Canaanite god Baal was known as the ‘god who rides upon the storm.’ Psalm 29 is an assertion that it is rather Yahweh, the god of Ancient Israel, the creator of heaven and earth, our maker, who is the true ‘Lord of the storm.’ So I will be reading the name of God as revealed to Moses in the burning bush, Yahweh, in place of the English word Lord.

[Psalm 29, inclusive version]

Our Gospel reading according to the Gospel of Luke describes an encounter of Jesus and his disciples in a small boat upon the Sea of Galilee when Jesus exercises authority over the storm.[i]

[Luke 8:22-25, Inclusive Version]

When I was a child, I used to love rainstorms. I looked forward to them. I would lay in the large west-facing bay window of our home at 1723 Tina Lane, Flossmoor, Illinois. And wait for the storms to come. We were in the mid-west so, you know, you could feel them coming as the air changed. You could smell them coming. I would wait for the air to cool, and then that growing rumble of thunder that would eventually break out into great sky-rending cracks, and the sky would split with jagged bolts of lightning. And I was mesmerized by the different kinds of rain, the soft gentle pattering, the rhythmic rainfall, the thundering downpours that sounded like waterfall and looked like falling oceans. Lighting transfixed me. Counting … 1-100, 2-100, 3-100, 4-100 … how far away is the storm?

We lived along a kind of tornado corridor in Illinois. Tornadoes generally moved about ten miles south of us, but were not unknown near us. I was quite aware that ten miles to the south were my grandparents, and lying in the bay window watching a storm pass by I was aware both how far and how close they were – that lightning over their home ten miles away could easily strike in my neighborhood.[ii]

I would stay in the window unless there was an official tornado warning and the horns would sound and we would go into the basement and climb under the steel desk to wait it out. My favorite part of a storm was the calm that followed. I would lie near the windows, which were always cracked as a precaution against tornado, and I would smell the ozone, the electrically charged air. I know it’s no good for you, but I loved the small of ozone after a storm.

I get that same feeling of large places united by the awesome power of storm when I visit with my mom in Florida. My mom lives in Naples, on the Gulf Coast. On my most recent visit with her I would go out into the Everglades during the day. Warm water in the Everglades evaporates with the heat of the day, which would rise and move west out over the Gulf, where cool air would push it back toward land and it would fall in great sheets in the afternoon back along the coast. We took one day to watch the entire cycle by taking an airboat ride in Everglades National Park the morning, a hike in the afternoon, and then watching the rain come down in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge at sunset. Thus the water system is continually refreshed. Water lifting up in the morning and coming back down in the afternoon, creation alive and in motion.[iii]

Psalm 29 is a marvelous Psalm, but it is easy to miss what the poet is describing. It is the movement of a storm, a single storm system. It pictures a life of a storm as it moves from North to South. It first forms in the West, out over the waters of the Mediterranean. It takes shape as thunderclouds rumble toward the coast. It moves inland and makes land in Lebanon. It comes in over the mountains, whipping and lashing the trees as it turns south along the land. It begins to rain. Hail begins to fall. That is what the image of ‘Lebanon skipping like a calf’ is about – it is the bouncing balls of ice, bouncing wildly up and down like so many Ping-Pong balls, making the land look alive. The rain falls as the storm moves south until it burns itself out as it enters the dessert sands of the Negev, 100 miles south of Jerusalem. But what follows in the Psalm is the water rushing down from the mountains, all the accumulated rainfall that gives strength to the people and makes possible peace. It is the rain that makes the thirsty land productive, gives drink to the wild animals, that is the basis for peace among God’s people. The human worshippers in the Temple respond to all of this awesome drama with the simple word “Glory!” which echoes the song of the heavenly host.

lightning-beirut-lebanon-karim-bechara-57e8004eca134-png__880

lightning over the Mediterranean and seen from modern Beirut
by Lebanese photographer Karem Bachara

The “Ancient Israelites believed that ‘the earth belongs to God’ (Psalm 24:1) – [it is] not ours and not that of some evil power. Therefore it is appropriate for us to find a sense of the glory and majesty of God in the forces of nature and in the handiwork of creation.”[iv]

Do you know how often God’s prophets have had to remind kings and ruler that they do not control or call the weather? I’ve been thinking about it this week, for obvious reasons. I’m not trying to score a political point by bringing up the whole twitter-storm initiated by our president when he offhandedly and inexplicably spoke about how Hurricane Dorian would effect not only Florida, South Carolina and Georgia but also Alabama, and how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in Alabama responded that it would not effect Alabama at all, and then the President directing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to fire top scientists at NOAA for ‘falsely’ claiming that rain would not fall where it was obviously not going to fall, for daring to insist that science is science and not subject to direction by the President. I’ve been reading through biblical encounters this week of prophets reminding kings and rulers that they do no call or control the weather, because ‘the earth belongs to God, and the fullness thereof. (Psalm 24:1).

The entire story that formed the basis of our summer sermon series, the story of Elijah verses King Ahab and his prophets was about a three year conflict over who controls the weather – Yahweh, the God of liberation and Life, the God of Israel, or Baal, the god who authorizes injustice, oppression and inequity. The prophet Jeremiah called out the Pharaoh in Egypt who believed that Nile belonged to him and he call forth the floods in due season and for the waters to recede at command. The prophet Amos spoke also to kings who thought they controlled the weather. As I said, I don’t bring this up to score a political point but to keep track, in worship,

  • that this conflict is old, and that the arrogance of the powerful is endless and must be accountable;
  • that accurately understanding the weather is a matter of life an death, for human and non-human alike; and
  • to attend to this here in worship so we may rightly worship the God to whom the earth belongs.

There is a really interesting irony in Trump’s tempest-in-a-teacup, and that is that those who have for so long denied the reality of climate change did so with the sanction of churches who made the seemingly orthodox claim that ‘only God controls the weather; we humans certainly cannot be changing earth’s climate.’ But now our denier-in-chief thinks he’s calling the shots on the weather, directing scientists to ignore data and conform to his claims. And it is the scientists today who are playing the role of biblical prophets – describing for us what is plainly happening in our world and the consequences of ignoring it.

Right.

GettyImages_1167860285.0.jpg

There’s a Global Climate Strike happening this coming Friday, which we will be taking part on right here with an event of our own. Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old student from Sweden has come all the way across the ocean to speak before the United Nation, and stand with students in front of the United Nations, and her message is simple, “Listen to the scientists.”

This moment of climate crisis reminds us that we cannot be naïve about the way our weather has changed. We are no longer in the place where we can sing easily with the poet that God rides upon the storm; that God is to be found even in the winds and floods; that nature works benevolently, if sometimes destructively, so that all creation can thrive. We are increasingly in an environment out of control, turned against itself, less and less conducive to life.[v]

I find sanction for both of these perspectives in scripture. It was Job, in his encounter with God, who found the divine presence in the whirlwind, the cyclone, in the storm. He could hear the voice of God sounding, rather than speaking, “Glory.” Wild, uncontrolled, beyond comprehension, yet full of wisdom nonetheless. But it was Elijah the Tishbite who did not find God in the storm, but rather in the pregnant silence of God’s people listening, expectant, for what would come next.

It would be very easy in this moment of climate crisis to feel the despair that so many experience, to believe that Jesus has fallen asleep in the bottom of the boat; that he is unconcerned for us, abandoning us to our fears and to the danger of rising water that will overwhelm us. Climate despair, or eco-nihilism, is a real thing.[vi] There is no doubt that the Gospel of Luke intends us to understand, like the disciples in the story, that in meeting Jesus we have met that great and mysterious and glory-filled God who rides upon the storms, who oversees the working of creation. But I would ask you to look again at the encounter between Jesus and the disciples. “Jesus, it is true, initiates the voyage across the [sea] (v 22). But, once [he is] in the sphere where the fishermen disciples are competent and he is a mere passenger, he leaves them to it and, in a very human way, simply falls asleep.”[vii]

This is what they do – the disciples as fishermen navigate boats through the waters. But in this crisis they panic and turn to Jesus and ask him to save them. But as he does so he asks them, “Where is your faith?” Where is your confidence? Where is your trust in yourselves? The point is made poignantly in the gospel of Mark where the disciples attempt to cross the sea twice: the first time with Jesus, this encounter, and the second time when Jesus puts them in a boat and Jesus stays on the shore and simply says “Go. Make the crossing by yourselves. Wake yourselves up and get through the storm.”

Jesus in this story does not need to save us from, but strengthen us for, the storms in our lives.

In just a moment we’re going to sing “How Firm a Foundation,” which comes with this promise.

Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed;
for I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

Jesus rides with us through the storms in life, not to fix them or solve them or take them away, but to strengthen us, comfort us, and help us to stand through them Let us sing our affirmation of trust in this God as we sing hymn 463, “How Firm a Foundation.”

 

 

 

[i] Their is humor in this story. The travel writer, Pamela Olson, records her first visit to Galilee this way: “The next morning we drove tot eh Sea of Galilee and had breakfast at a cafe near the water. The ‘sea’ is technically a lake, ten miles wide and still as a millpond, with the yellow-green hills of the Golan Heights towering solidly above it. I said to Dan, ‘This was seriously where the disciples thought they were going to drown in a giant storm?’ / He laughed. ‘I know. I always thought it was like the Black Sea or something. But it’s just this little lake.’ He shook his head. Nothing was what it seemed here.” In Pamela J. Olson, Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland. (Sea Press, 2013). p. 41.

[ii] Though Illinois was on the edge of Tornado Alley, climate change in my lifetime has been driving tornadoes increasingly North. See “Illinois is now in ‘Tornado Alley,’ study finds.” Daily Herald: Suburban Chicago’s Information Source. April 30, 2014.

[iii] For a fascinating land quirky look at weather systems, see Lauren Redniss, Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (Random House, 2015). For the everglades, see the National Park Service Junior Ranger booklet for The Verglades National Park.

[iv] Marshall D. Johnson, Psalms through the Year: Spiritual Exercises for Every Day. (Augsburg Books, 2007). p. 62.

[v] See Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014) and David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2017).

[vi] Climate Despair is a real and frightening thing, as numerous recent studies are showing. See, for example, Mike Pearl, ‘Climate Despair’ is Making People Give Up on Life.” VOX, July 11, 2019. See also both books listed in note v.

[vii] Brendan Byrne, S.J. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (2015).

Consider, Be Concerned, and Care Deeply – Animal Sunday

September 11, 2019

National Animals

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 8, 2019

 Psalm 104:14-23          Luke 12:22-31

Our first reading this morning is a continuation of the Psalm we began last week. As Leah Schade has written in resources for the Season of Creation, “Psalm 104 engages in a positive theology of nature wherein animals are not just passive receptors of God’s grace, but actively doing God’s work with their very existence. The processes of their life in the ecosystems God established testify to an enduring truth: God’s work never fails. What does fail, however, is human willingness to recognize the intrinsic value of the [non-human] animals and plants who share our home on earth. [Instead] too often animals are seen a nothing but our servants, entertainment, subjects of scientific experimentation, or food sources.”[i] Let us turn to scripture to hear of the world as God created it.

[Read Psalm 104:14-23]

We turn for our Gospel reading this morning to the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. I want to say four quick things about this reading before I share it with you. First, Jesus is here in the gospel teaching his disciples, and he is trying to address an anxiety that they experience. He has just old them a parable concerning a man who builds bigger barns in which to store his stuff, to secure his life and his goods for himself and his future. It is a project doomed to fail, Jesus tells them. At the end of the parable the man dies, and all that he has possessed and hoarded for himself goes to another. Jesus is trying to address his followers’ anxiety about food and drink and clothing by showing that it is that very need to secure for themselves through grasping and greed, through storing and hoarding, through acquisition and then securing the stuff acquired for life that causes so much harm in our world and ultimately robs us of the life God intends for us. Second, to contrast the life of anxiety, Jesus turns to the natural world and he asks his disciples to consider the flora and the fauna, the plants and the animals, the lilies and the ravens, the birds of the air. Jesus is here standing in continuity with the ancient sufferer Job, who advises,

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the sky, they will tell you, or speak to the earth, it will teach you; the fish of the sea, they will inform you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of Adonai has done this? In [God’s] hands is every living soul and the breath of all humanity.” (Job 12:7-10).[ii]

My third point is important. In turning his disciples’ attention toward and asking his disciples to consider the natural world, he is not, though it sounds this way in our translation, placing human life above the life of non-human creatures. He is not saying human life is more important. He’s not making a moral point but appealing to his disciples’ imagination: think, remember, see, observe, how God cares for all living things (as in Psalm 104). In this way God cares for you, if you can let go of your grasping and greed. Your anxious need. Fourthly and finally, Jesus is not saying that food and clothing are unimportant. In fact, they are so important that God provides them for all living things.[iii]

[Read Luke 12:22-31]

CONSIDER THE ANIMALS

So much of this passage and Jesus’ appeal to our imagination here turns on this word consider. It is a translation of a Greek word that means “to perceive, to remark, to observe, to understand, to fix one’s eyes and attention on something.” As an aside, we’ve just done a blessing of school backpacks with our children. The word blessing in scripture means much the same thing as the word consider. To be blessed is the be the recipient of attention. Primarily God’s attention, but also the attention of God’s people.[iv] To address their anxiety and help them rightly understand their place in creation, Jesus asks his disciples to consider, to pay attention, to observe and see with their eyes the natural world around them.

As we consider creation today, we are thinking particularly on non-human animal life.[v]

The big story in the news this week has been, of course, the destruction of the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian, particularly the horrific images coming from Abaco: the abandonment and frantic flight from the island, the human suffering and loss of life among those who remained, the total destruction of so much property, the rescue efforts and the search for loved ones and survivors. But with the theme of our relationships with non-human animal life in my mind all week long my attention picked up some of stories about animal life. I don’t know much about the natural fauna of the islands (such as the famous swimming pigs of Abaco) or how the hurricane’s destruction will play out among the indigenous animal life, but I did notice the story of charter boat captain Renaldo Bowleg of Marsh Harbor, Bahamas, who was trying to evacuate with his two pit-bulls. It was late and the storm was approaching but he was waiting for the right ferry that would allow passage of all three, and I realized the immense difficulty of negotiating a mass evacuation which includes pets.[vi] Sandra Cooke, a resident of Nassau lost track of her sister-in-law Angela, who was trapped under the roof of her collapsed home on Abaco Islands. Angela was lodged under the roof for 17 hours as the family was unable to locate her among the debris; that is, until the family dog named Shepard was able to find her. “The dog laid on top of her to keep her warm until the neighbors could come to help,” she said.

8a19101a-9163-45ab-96d3-495a29e26e96-AP_Bahamas_Tropical_Weatherphoto credit, USA Today

Did you see the story of Chella Philips, the woman who invited 97 dogs into her home in anticipation of the storm, 76 of them in her master bedroom? OK, I find this kind of mind-boggling, especially 76 dogs in a single bedroom, but as a n appeal to my imagination I have thought about the noise and smell of confined animals, the stress we all know animals experience, the fear in the house and the care this woman was giving these dogs. Someone asked me earlier this week, when animals and their owners are separated, what are the chances that they will be re-united again, which brought to mind the parents and children separated at our border and the many children ‘lost’ in the system. I had the awful thought that the chances of reuniting pets and their owners is probably greater than that of reuniting immigrant children and their parents. And I was ashamed.[vii] My mom lives in Florida and she tells me that animal shelters there have been offering free animal adoptions for the last few weeks to clear their kennels and make way for welcoming refugee pets and animals that were headed their way.[viii]

The other big story in the news this week has been the burning of the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, and there have been no small number of articles talking not just about the loss of the vital oxygen produced by this portion of the earths lungs and the consequent release of carbon into the atmosphere, but also the significant loss of wildlife taking place. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Amazon is home to “one in ten known species on earth, including at least 40,000 plant species and more than 400 mammal, 300 reptile, 400 amphibian and 3,000 freshwater fish species, including the already endangered, such as the white-cheeked spider monkey, Milton’s titi monkey and Mura’s saddleback tamarin.” I think of the tremendous loss of life in nearly 100,000 fires so far this year and the permanently destroyed habitats, ecologies, ecosystems – systems that can never be restored.

You see, Jesus asks us to consider the natural world, to turn our attention to the non-human animal world, so that when we think about our world and our place in it we are thinking always with a larger perspective than the one that seeks bigger barns for short-term gain.

BE CONCERNED FOR ANIMAL WELFARE

If Jesus asks us to consider the natural world, it follows that he also needs us to be concerned for animal welfare. While I was on vacation in Florida, my son and I took a road trip to Key West on the Overseas Highway. Along the way we passed several ‘theaters’ and attractions’ that offered opportunities to swim with dolphins and touch sea creatures.[ix] But there are serious ethical problems with putting humans and cetaceans together in tanks, or for that matter keeping whales, dolphins, or porpoises in captivity – period. I don’t know enough about the range from care to mistreatment of our kin in captivity, so my son and I refrained, though we certainly understood the great appeal in swimming with dolphins. (You can learn more for yourself by following the links in my footnotes). We refrained out of concern for the care and treatment of these highly intelligent and social animals and because we could find no assurance, and many good reasons to doubt, that they were being treated properly and well.[x]

Did you see the opinion piece in the NYTimes this week by Farhad Manjoo, Stop Mocking Vegans? It was a fun read. Instead of directing our attention the “squalid, overcrowded, constantly-lit, 40 day life span of the typical factory farmed fast food chicken,” he instead asked his readers to pay attention to those who are trying to change eating habits, and in particular for his readers to get over the image of the ‘self-righteous vegan.’ He suggests that most vegans or vegetarians come off as self-righteous not because they are, but because deep down we know that what they are saying is right. In terms of the big issues,

the criminal cruelty of industrial farming; the sentience and emotional depth of food animals; the environmental toll of meat and the unsustainability of its global rise – vegans are irrefutably on the right side of history. They are the vanguard. Climate scholars say that if we are ever to survive on a warming planet, people will have to consume far fewer animals than we do now. We will all have to become a little more vegan…

So without pressing that further, I want also to note that what is primarily driving the burning of the Amazon Rain forest right now is deforestation and the clearing of land for the farming of animals, particularly cows for hamburgers, as well as the growing of soy which is not producing tofu but being fed to our fast-food chickens.[xi] We will learn more about deforestation and agribusiness in a few weeks when our mission co-partners in Costa Rica visit with us.

I have been, more or less, meatless for the last twelve months – a year now. Not quite 100%, but I am trying something new and developing new habits: a new diet with significantly less meat. A number of churches, particularly the Lutheran Church, have begun to embrace and promote movement toward Meatless Mondays, a way of getting us to consider our diets differently and to introduce new ways of eating at the beginning of the week. That’s a big topic, and we should probably have an adult education class or two or three about diet and food justice and sustainability, but for now I would ask you to consider trying something like a Meatless Monday, much like the older Roman Catholic practice of fish on Friday. There is solid science behind this movement.[xii]

CARING RELATIONSHIPS WITH ANIMALS

Jesus asks us to consider the natural world. Jesus needs us to be concerned for animal welfare, for the care, treatment and welfare of the non-human animal world. But first and finally, Jesus comes to us in our caring relationship with animals we are closest to, the pets we know and love.

How many of you have had or now have pets at home? (Nearly every hand in the congregation went up).

These are animals we share our lives with. When my son and I returned from vacation we discovered that in the last hours of our return, probably while our plane was delayed, his smallest reptile, an Emerald Swift named ABE, inexplicably drowned in a small pond in its terrarium. We came home, and walked in the door, to grief. And the full range of feelings that attend grief: anger, blame, guilt, and no small amount of magical thinking that somehow we were wrong and ABE was still alive, merely sleeping underwater. We cared for ABE, but not with deep emotional attachment. He was beautiful but small, about the size of a mouse; he didn’t move much but was known to be wickedly fast which meant that we never took him out to play. But then last week we discovered that out Bearded Dragon, an 18-inch long reptile that was really part of our family, had developed inoperable, cancerous tumors that were going to take her life. And so, on Friday, August and Noelle held Bazil the Bearded Dragon as she was put to sleep and then buried yesterday. This little pet, in terms of how she fit into our household – we would let her out and let her trot around like a dog. She particularly liked to sit beside my wife Noelle while she worked. She would lift her head and “listen” while she spoke on the phone and follow her around the apartment. She responded to Noelle’s voice. The silliest encounter we all remember with Bazil is sitting in our home, each member doing our own thing; and we had a Roomba, you know, a robot vacuum, in our house, and Bazil the bearded dragon climbed up on the Roomba, stepped on the start button, and then surfed around the room for the next 20 minutes. She just… (stops speaking)

We love our pets. They draw us out of ourselves; they invite us to be concerned for something other than ourselves. We often give pets to children to help them learn empathy and responsibility. They give us joy, companionship; comfort us when we are lonely, pick us up when we are down; they make our lives more complicated, as all relationships do, and our lives are richer because of their presence. Pets remind us daily that are ourselves animal and teach us what it means to be uniquely human.[xiii]

As advertised in our mid-week newsletter, later in our service we will have a chance to lift up the names of pets we have shared out lives with and who are no longer with us. But because I put that invitation out there, I have been hearing deeply moving stories about animals you have shared your life with all week long.

  • I have heard of long, loving relationships, like the one Beryl had with her cat Princess for 18 years. Beryl is just home from the hospital, but you should know that Princess died just a few days before Beryl went in. Grief and worry.
  • On Friday I performed a marriage service for a couple unrelated to our congregation. At our rehearsal on Friday I learned that the bride’s parakeet, a long-standing part of her family, had passed away that day. Grief and joy.
  • Walking to church this morning I heard the story of a beloved dog, a companion to a single person, who died on cancer some time ago, not to be replaced. A lingering loss.

I recognize how much a part of our lives our pets are, and we don’t often talk about them the way we talk about other relationships in our cares and concerns, but I would invite us to do so, particularly over coffee and refreshments today at Fellowship House.

As we move toward our prayer we are going to sing a hymn that weaves together some of the roles and relationships we have with non-human animals in our world, and I would ask you to do so prayerfully, and then during our prayers Pastor Sarah will make space for us to call out names of pets and animals we have loved, saying something like, “Snowy, the parakeet,” Bazil, the dragon,” or “Princess, my cat.”

Let us sing, “O God, Your Creatures Fill the Earth” by hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.

 

[i] Leah Schade, Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary – Year C.

[ii] Tanakh, trans. Jewish Publication Society, cited in Jonathan Crane, ed. Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents. (Columbia, 2016), p. 19.

[iii] “Jesus is not making amoral point. He is appealing to the imagination, attempting through poetic exaggeration to inculcate a basic attitude to God.” Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. (Liturgical Press, 2015). But see also, “In specific ways the Bible clarifies what life under the reign of God looks like, how faithful disciples think and act, what priorities they set, and what passions control their beings. More often than not, the Bible does this not by prescribing rules, but by prodding the imaginations of the faithful, by offering scenarios, by posing questions about life without giving direct answers, by forcing readers to stop and take stick, by molding institutions and sensitivities.” Charles Cousar, et al, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year A. (WJK, 1995).

[iv] We are blessed because God sees us and knows us and loves us, not because God pleases us, answers every request we ask for, or answers every perceived need.

[v] If you were to read only one essay on the complexity of our relationship with non-human animals, I would recommend “Animals and People” by poet Pattiann Rogers, reprinted in Food and Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, edited and compiled by Michael Schut. (Living and Good news, 2002).

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/world/americas/hurricane-dorian-bahamas.html

[vii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/09/03/this-woman-took-rescue-dogs-into-her-bahamas-home-protect-them-hurricane-dorian/

[viii] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/humane-society-of-grand-bahama-dorian_n_5d7199a4e4b0fd4168e7e0ad

[ix]  Please tell me if you click on this link. I couldn’t help myself: https://www.theonion.com/florida-resort-allows-guests-to-swim-with-miami-dolphin-1819577471?utm_campaign=SF&utm_content=Main&utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=SocialMarketing&fbclid=IwAR38bXxIWcQZN8vB4kyjMT-MNEekXTSP4Hf1HU4VIQClb8CxFjtbGeBQuJc&/setsession

[x] Learn more from the www.WorldAnimalProtection.us.org, www.Whales.org, and www.WorldCetaceanAlliance.org, all brought to our attention by our Lonely Planet Guide.

[xi] Farhad Marjoo, “Stop Mocking Vegans: They’re right about ethics and the environment. If you won’t join them, at least respect their effort to build a sustainable future.” New York Times, August 28, 2019.

[xii] Meatless Mondays: Read about it on wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meatless_Monday and then check out the movement website: https://www.meatlessmonday.com

[xiii]  On the human as animal, see Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am. Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (Fordham University Press, 2008). On animals, empathy and the complex way “animals teach children how to become human,” and always have, I was instructed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages” in Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Edited by Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser. (Notre Dame, 2008). pp. 39-62. For another perspective in which animals teach, see the role of animals, especially crow, horse, fish, deer and eagle, in Native American cultures through the poetry of Nobel Laureate Joy Harjo, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001. (Norton, 2002). On Animals as moral agents and a discussion of animal rights, see Jonathan Crane, ed. Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents. (Columbia, 2016). The later includes as discussion of the only two animals to speak in scripture, one of which was a prophet (Number 22:21-38).

A Beautiful Creation – Ocean Sunday

September 3, 2019

69705243_10157186509886351_3545531486084005888_n

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The First Sunday in the Season of Creation – Ocean Sunday, September 1, 2019. I took the photo above at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park near my mom’s home in Naples, Florida. (Yes, it is the Gulf, not the Ocean)

Psalm 104:1-9, 24-30         Luke 5:1-11

We live in a really beautiful world. When I take a Sabbath Day or set out on vacation I primarily want to experience beauty – to reacquaint myself with beauty, immerse myself in it, and to simply enjoy it. I can do this by reading an enlightening book; I can find it in a good conversation, or even in watching a movie and sharing a delicious meal with someone. But most of all, for me, I find beauty by being outdoors in God’s creation.

The highlight of my vacation this summer happened in Puerto Rico following a deeply moving worship service in a Presbyterian Church. I packed a van full of young adults and drove them into El Yunque National Forest where we spent the rest of the day hiking the only tropical rainforest in the United States Forest Service. All in all during my vacation I visited five national parks (including Big Cypress, the great swamp in Southwest Florida; the Everglades, the great ‘river of grass’ in the Southeast of Florida; and Biscayne National Park, 95% of which is underwater). I climbed towers up into the sky to watch, for hours, birds coming home to their rookery at sunset. I walked and biked and hiked and kayaked across coast and land and swamp and bay. And I dove beneath the water to see what was there.

A couple of encounters with animals really stand out to me. I was kayaking with my son in Estero Bay one morning and I turned around to – we were maybe ten minutes out – and I turned around to see how far back he was and he was a good ways back. Then I turned ahead and I put my paddle to the left of the kayak. And when I put it in again on the right something came up underneath of me and shook my kayak hard enough that I dropped the paddle … and then it rolled two or three times making great splashes beside me, and then disappeared. The person who rented the kayaks to us later told me that it was either a small shark, or an alligator, or a large tarpon. Somewhat nervous now, August and I continued to kayak side by side, sticking close to one another. And about ten minutes later a silver fin rose silently out of the water in front of us. Thinking ‘shark,’ August asked nervously if we should go back. (We had watched jaws together earlier this year). But the next time the fin came out it had the familiar bowed back of a dolphin, which then swam with us for a while. Companioning us. Maybe an hour later I was kayaking beside a mangrove island and looked down into the water beside my kayak. The water could not have been more than two or three feet at this point and something large and as long as my kayak and as fast as imaginably possible slid by my kayak under the water – raced past, really. I don’t know what it was but it reminded me of the scene when the great kraken passed under the pirate ship in Pirates of the Caribbean – quiet, silent and fast. Nothing could surpass snorkeling with August off Key Largo at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We boated out into the Straits of Florida and dove down to see the coral reef. There was a shark in the water with our group, a hammerhead, there was a manta ray, and there were fish of all stripes and hues, but there was also the coral reef – this living creature – pinks and blues and grays and reds and purples and yellows. There is so much life in our ocean. And this was my first time to experience it up close in this way.

70142321_10157186509341351_7877327349258125312_nThis ocean shot of the Atlantic Ocean was taken east of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Psalm 104 is acquainted with the abundance of life in creation. It is a retelling of the story of creation as found in Genesis, told by a gifted poet with an eye for beauty. All seven days of are accounted for – there is the sky, and the earth and water; there are plants, the sun and the moon, the great sea, and woman wisdom, the sustainer of all life. The author of psalm 104 has a keen power of observation and detail. He or she creates these “easily visualized scenes and vignettes: cattle grazing in a lush pasture, people moistening their skin with olive oil and enjoying a cup of wine, lofty cedars of Lebanon, on op of which you an see a stork’s nest, and wild goats frolicking in the high mountains, whose rocks provide a refuge for coneys (rock badgers). These gifts of nature are useful in many ways but they also provide delight and pleasure by their beauty.”[i]

This sense of wonder and beauty inspired Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) to write his hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”:

All thy works with joy surround thee,
Earth and heav’n reflect thy rays
Stars and angels sing around thee,
Center of unbroken praise.
Field and Forest, vale and mountain,
Flow’ry meadow, flashing sea,
Chanting bird and flowing fountain
Call us to rejoice in thee.

Our theme on this first Sunday in the Season of Creation is God’s oceans, seas and waters. 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, which is why it is called the blue planet. There are five major oceans on the earth that move continuously with their currents. Water temperature, the salinity (or amount of salt in) the water and the direction of the wind keeps these currents moving, and these currents become home for, and shape, our earths eco-systems, creating rich sources of food for us and for other organisms. The waters of the oceans both reflect and store the sun’s heat, regulate our climate, and their movement gives rise to weather patterns of cloud and rain. All life depends on the health of our oceans.[ii]

Our gospel reading has Jesus set out in a sea, and inland sea, a fresh water sea, called Lake Gennesaret. Jesus encounters some fisher folk. He steps out into a boat to teach. And then he asks them to set out into deeper water and to cast their nets. Jesus uses God’s creation, water and the life in the water, to tell a story about God’s world. “When Jesus tells Peter to let down his nets into this lake, Peter protests, saying in effect that the entire fishing trip from the night before has yielded absolutely nothing to that point and so what difference would it make now” to cast their nets one more time? “And yet when Peter acquiesces and follows Jesus’ [instruction], the amount of fish in the net is so large that they need nearby boats to come and haul it in.” The nets are bursting to breaking.[iii]

69167085_10157181230906351_1421264210788089856_nMy son feeding tarpon on Lower Matecumbe Key, Islamorada, Florida 

There is a lot we could say about in this story, in this encounter with Jesus. We could talk about

  • the contrast between these three men mending empty nets at dawn and then nets bursting with abundance later in the day;
  • the fact that Jesus is giving instruction essentially to strangers – this is Jesus’ first encounter with these three men – and he is giving them instruction before asking them to follow him, as a prelude to his invitation to discipleship; we could talk about
  • the way they are not enthusiastic, or even believing, but do what they must reluctantly;
  • how what began with Jesus’ teaching ends with the formation of a new and small community that can support one another and help one another out – brining in the abundant harvest – but also a community of purpose: the fishermen are sent out to find and create new people, to fish for truly human people.[iv]

But as I prayed on this passage over the last few weeks I found myself mostly resonating with Peter’s question. With the frustration, perhaps despair of the laborers.

What’s the point? The efforts of the fisher folks have amounted to nothing, “We’ve been out all night. We’ve tried we’ve failed. The trip is a bust. What’s the point of trying again?” But they do, and that’s important.

As we embrace this season of creation, the sixth one we have observed as a congregation, I wonder myself, “what’s the point?”

  • The Amazon is on fire. It is being burned down in what should be a crime against humanity- ecocide;
  • Glaciers and calving and rolling over in our oceans as our climate warms;
  • Tropical Storm Dorian has picked up the unnaturally warm waters of the Caribbean and has become a Category 4 Hurricane and is ravaging the Bahamas right now, before heading toward Georgia;
  • Scientists this weeks are trying to artificially inseminate the last two northern white rhinos on earth; and
  • There is lead in the waters of Newark?!!
  • The endangered species act is gutted, the EPA has announced that new protections will be put in place not for our oceans but for marine diesel engines and, apparently, we are now cool with methane![v]

Jesus, what’s the point?

Years of activism, prayer and education for a sustainable future. Years of organizing and letter writing and marching for a livable planet. Years of learning what it means for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. What was the point of it all?

Did you know that the creation of Bitcoin, a virtual currency, has wiped out all gains we have made in alternative energy through solar energy? And we have made considerable gains. The energy put into mining Bitcoin exceeds to the progress we have made over a generation of hard work.[vi]

And we must know that the abundant life in the sea that is Jesus’ own metaphor for the Kingdom of God is threatened with annihilation. Jesus could not offer this teaching of God’s purpose to us today. The life in our oceans is vastly reduced, numerous species are endangered, our coral is dying, much of the fresh and ocean water is toxic, and all of it is floating in plastic.[vii]

As I said, when I have prayed on our gospel reading over the last couple of weeks, I have felt like Peter: frustrated, despairing and wondering, ‘what’s the point?’

But I realize that even asking that question is a form of privilege.

I don’t experience all of this loss directly yet. Sure, I know that the birds I saw on vacation are only a token of the massive flocks that once characterized the Everglades just 12 years ago, that the fish in the ocean are a token of the vast schools of a pervious century, that the world not only Jesus but all people knew a century and a half ago no longer exists. But people at the frontlines of this struggle, in communities that are most effected by climate change, know that there is no choice, no truly human option, but to cast our nets out again for a different future, to redouble our efforts looking for God’s promised abundance.

  • Fisher people in Sri Lanka must literally keep putting their nets in the water as they sound the alarm of our oceans’ health. They have no choice.
  • Citizens in the Marshal islands know that their country is sinking under rising sea levels and so they fight climate change on every front.
  • The people I met in Puerto Rico are simply moving from protest to proposal, crafting an alternative energy future and building food sovereignty, economic sovereignty, cultural sovereignty.[viii]
  • The two women who are coming to visit us from Costa Rica as international peacemakers are going to share with us how they are going up directly against the corporations that are profiting from all of this destruction and causing immense ecological and human suffering.
  • The three Young Adult Volunteers (Juliana, Andrew and Rachel) who are now in Peru will encounter climate change up close. By the way, they all arrived safely on Monday. I got an email yesterday from our mission co-workers, Jed and Jenny Koball, that the students arrived and told him immediately that they carried the prayers of the White Plains Presbyterian Church with them. They send greetings back to us.

Throwing our arms up in despair, wondering whether we can cast our nets out or make an effort one more time on behalf of our planet is a privilege that most in our world do not have. A priviledge none of us can afford.

And then comes Greta Thunberg, right? This sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden, a climate activist who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a solar powered boat so as not to fly in order to deliver an urgent message and call to action. Last year, Greta as a fifteen year old with Asperger’s, walked out of her school on a Friday afternoon so that she could take up a day of action on behalf of our earth. This started a weekly movement known as Fridays for Future and has inspired several student led Global Climate Strikes. “It’s insane that a sixteen-year old had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to make a stand,” she observed, and added “It is our responsibility to love this amazing world.”

greta

Greta is here this week to address the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23. And people are gathering. Students have been holding Fridays for Future vigils in front of the U.N. since last December, and thousands gathered again this week. And we will be taking part in this too. We have our own Global Climate Strike event planned here at the church on Friday the 20th where we will gather to learn more about the climate crisis and what we can do about it. This is when we will meet the two women from Costa Rica, Erlinda and Karla, that I mentioned earlier.

When Greta stepped off her boat and walked in to New York City she said that after that long journey had at times felt like “It was just he ocean and me,” and then she looked at the cameras and said, “but now this…,” the media, the crowds, and young people from the United States. Now this!

Jesus calls us to cast out nests back in the water, to throw ourselves back into the work of loving and repairing this broken world, so that we might realize the abundance that God intends for us all. Jesus needs us to cast out nets back into the water no matter how tired we are. Jesus needs us to cast out nets back into the water no matter how frustrated or despairing we feel. Jesus needs us to cast out nets back into the water maybe because we’ve been the tactics and strategies we have been using aren’t working and we need to find new ones. Jesus needs us to cast out nets back into the water one more time because we will one day stand like Peter and James and John and be amazed at the abundance God intends for us.

I know it can be hard. But if we could see the end already, this wouldn’t be called faith, would it?

Jesus calls us to renewed faith, to see faith in ourselves, to immerse ourselves in and enjoy the beauty of the world, and from that beauty act for our future.

Following the sermon we sang “You Walk along Our Shoreline” by Sylvia Dunstan, which ends with this verse: “We cast our nets, O Jesus; we cry the kingdom’s name; we work for love and justice; we learn to hope through pain. You call us, Lord, to gather God’s daughters and God’s sons, to let your judgment heal us so that all may be one.”

 

 

 

[i] This quote, and the reference to Van Dyke in the following paragraph, are from Marshall D. Johnson, Psalms through the Year: Spiritual Exercises for Every Day. (Augsburg Books, 2007). p 247-252.

[ii] These and other facts are known to every National Park Service Junior Ranger with an Underwater Ranger badge (which August earned on this trip), and can be found in An Explorer’s Guide to the Underwater World, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

[iii] Preaching Resources for the Season of Creation, Year C, by Rev. Dr. Leah Schade. www.letallcreationpraise.org.

[iv] Most immediately I have Nobel Poet Laureate Joy Harjo in mind, particularly her How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001: “Becoming human is the most honorable task of poetry.” But I also have further back in my mind the reformed ethics of humanization developed by theologian Paul Lehman in Ethics in a Christian Context (1963) and expanded upon by Nancy Duff in Humanization and the politics of God: The Koinonia Ethics of Paul Lehman (1992). The idea, of course, goes all the way back to the Council of Chalcedon. We need the fully, truly human people today.

[v] This specific list of ‘events of the week’ is drawn from Emily Witt’s piece in The New Yorker, “Greta Thunberg’s Slow Boat to New York.” September 9, 2019 Issue.

[vi] “Five years ago, hardly anyone outside the darkest corners of the internet had even heard of Bitcoin; today mining it consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined, which means that in just a few years we’ve assembled, out of distrust of one another and the nations behind “fiat currencies,” a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovation. It did not have to be that way. And a simple change to the algorithm could eliminate that Bitcoin [carbon] footprint entirely.” and “The cryptocurrency now produces as much CO2 each year as a million transatlantic flights.” David Foster Wallace, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. (2019). Page 33 and 179.

[vii] See the documentary film A Plastic Ocean directed by journalist Craig Leeson (2017).

[viii] See my previous Ocean Sunday sermon: https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/god-like-power-ocean-sunday/

A Letter Concerning Puerto Rico

September 3, 2019

Fossil Free PC(USA) sent a delegation to Puerto Rico in July 2019 to witness for ourselves the work of recovery following Hurricane Maria in 2017 and to learn from those who are steering the rebuilding in ways that are sustainable through alternative energy, food sovereignty, and community development. While away, I sent this pastoral letter back to the White Plains Presbyterian Church to serve as the message for the day. It was read by Norma Smile on August 4, 2019.

Psalm 19         Philippians 1:1-11

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To all the saints in White Plains, gathered in the (hopefully) cool air of the Church House to celebrate the Great Feast of Thanksgiving: grace and peace to you in the name of our Creator, in whom we live and move and have our being. Like Saint Paul, I thank my God every time I remember you. May the love and justice of Jesus Christ be yours this day.

I send greetings to Pastor Lynn, who leads you in the worship today as a steward of the mysteries of God, having herself just returned from what I hope was a restorative vacation, and to Ty and Patty as they lead you in musical praise. As you sing songs and hymns that turn your hearts to God, as you listen to the scriptures read and present yourselves to be used in mission, as you make your offerings to support our shared ministry, I am with you in spirit at the Lord’s Table. I am in Naples, Florida, this morning where I worship with my mother and her pastor. I will be remembering you in my prayers. Please remember me in yours. We ARE one body.

I have returned from my ten-day mission in Puerto Rico. Our fourteen member delegation was commissioned by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and sponsored by Fossil Free PC(USA) to walk with the people of Puerto Rico. It was a great honor and privilege to do so. Who knew it would turn out to be such an historic moment? Over the last three weeks the entire island of Puerto Rico rose up in nonviolent protest – with strikes and mass engagements, with song and dance and the banging of pots! – to throw out a corrupt government, and resist U.S. imperialism. With shouts and tears they grieved the previously unacknowledged deaths caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria nearly two years ago, and the inadequate response our federal government. I am confident you have been following the news. I know you have had no little anxiety for my safety. You told me so before I left. You sent me with “words of blessing” that I have held in trust; and I have carried, and still carry, the paper blessing given to me by Cora Fenton. I assure you that what newspapers presented as political unrest has been one of the most joyful experiences of my life. A people alive, free, and united in hope and resolve. Everything has changed in Puerto Rico.

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According to the United States, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an “unincorporated territory,” yet everyone down here knows that the island is a colony. There is a long history of resource extraction, military occupation, political repression, forced sterilization (more than one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized), medical experimentation, and taxation without representation. All of Puerto Rico’s consumables must be delivered on U.S. ships, which means goods often cost three times what they do in the states. The island has become a corporate tax haven for the elite. And while Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and enjoy certain political rights to assembly and speech, etc., they are not guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. And so the revolutionary moment down here has been about much more than offensive chats and corrupt politicians – things we are ALL familiar with. The protests in Puerto Rico have been as much about the federally managed austerity program and continued dependency that, if it continues, will leave most Puerto Ricans without a viable future. By the end of this year it is estimated that nearly half-a million will have fled the island. There will be, I am sure, a backlash from the U.S. because of this moment. The Puerto Rican people are bracing for it. On Friday, the Trump administration announced that much expected FEMA aid has been tabled because of “unrest” and “corruption.” But corruption, capitalism and colonialism are all faces of the same reality, and it is THIS that Puerto Ricans have risen up against. I can only imagine the anxiety this hopeful moment brings to those of you who have participated in decolonization movements in your own countries, particularly here in the Caribbean. Yet the Puerto Rican people, once risen, will not be put back down. As they chanted in the streets, “They took EVERYTHING from us, even our fear.” Joy and dignity will carry the day.

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We did not come to Puerto Rico, of course, to witness “The Rising,” but to learn about climate change, resilience, and the strength of the Puerto Rican people during this time of recovery. While we were there we experienced some of the hottest days on record. We spoke with those who lost their homes and are struggling to rebuild, we saw with our own eyes the amazing work being done by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and we learned how communities came together to care for one another.

I want to share with you this morning just one story today, about our delegation’s visit to a community in the Southeast of the Island under the imposing presence of Mount Guilarte.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) believes that the mission and purpose of the church is to be “a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity.” This is exactly what I experienced on our third day in Puerto Rico when we visited Casa Pueblo in heart of Adjuntas. Stepping into Casa Pueblo was like stepping into the gospel story itself – it was a foretaste of the Reign of God.

Casa Pueblo opened its doors in 1980 as a resistance movement began mobilizing to oppose government and corporate plans to authorize open-pit mining in the pristine and geologically unique mountain communities of Adjuntas. Open pit mining, as I witnessed it in Guatemala two years ago, is horrifically destructive. Though the hills around Adjuntas had proven gold, silver and copper resources, the proposed extraction process would destroy both the beauty and bio-diversity of the region as well as pollute the local watershed feeding the Rio Grande de Arecibo, a major source of water for costal communities. During the long fight against the mining industry, Casa Pueblo provided a much-needed center for culture expression, community empowerment, democratic decision-making, and the sharing of technical information. As Alexis Mossal-Gonzales, the founder of Casa Pueblo, would often say, “Science + Culture + Community = Change.” The first organized event against the mines took place in 1980 and attracted exactly one person. One person! When, fifteen years later, in 1995, the government finally decided to permanently ban mining in Puerto Rico, more than ten thousand showed up to celebrate together with song and dance and festivity. Science + Culture + Community = Change (and ultimately celebration).

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From Protest to Proposal: If this first stage of Casa Pueblo’s mobilization necessarily placed it at the center of community PROTEST, the second stage was one of PROPOSING alternative futures. This was, admittedly, long and hard work. During the two decades that followed the victory over the mining companies, Casa Pueblo transformed itself into a center of sustainability and resilience, installing its now famous off-grid solar system, growing and selling local produce, marketing and serving its own coffee, providing a venue for artisan crafts, running a community radio station in a region without stable telecommunications, opening a butterfly garden for children, teaching new methods of agriculture, and offering classes in and a performance venue for art and music. It has also helped establish the first ever community-controlled forest in Puerto Rico, the Bosque del Pueblo, protecting the resources of the region for the future. They are now working on establishing a protected green corridor through the mountains in which they have opened a ‘forest school’ for environmental and conservation education. These are provisional demonstrations of another world that is both possible and necessary. And the list of demonstration projects goes on. Earlier this year Casa Pueblo initiated #50ConSol, a campaign calling for 50 percent of Puerto Rico’s power to come from the sun, “which shines 365 days of the year.”

For all this work, Casa Puebla has received numerous recognitions, including the Goldman Environmental Prize. But Alexis Massol-Gonzales, the founder of Casa Pueblo, would say that he does what he does at Casa Pueblo not only because it is good work and the right thing to do, but because it makes him happy. As we spent a day with Don Alexis early that happiness was expressed in his warm and easy smile, and the source of that happiness is everywhere evident at Casa Pueblo. I look forward to showing you my photos.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 21, 2017, the island was plunged into a month’s long (and in many places much longer) blackout. But the solar lights at Casa Pueblo remained on. Casa Pueblo became what Naomi Klein has called a self-sustaining solar oasis: “Like moths to a flame, people from all over the hills of Adjuntas made their way to the warm and welcoming light.” Casa Pueblo quickly became the center of community renewal. The radio kept broadcasting, food continued to be served, emergency health facilities were set up, FEMA applications (which must be completed online) were able to be filled our and filed, and neighbors could refrigerate life-saving medicine. In the coming months, more than 10,000 free solar lamps were distributed, bringing light into the darkness of every home, and by these lights Puerto Rico saw its future. Casa Pueblo not only saved lives, it offered hope. Hope, not just for surviving the present crisis, but for building a different and better future.

“Faith is not only hope,” he told us, citing scripture, “but acts.”

As I thought about our own congregation’s divestment from fossil fuels in 2015, our installation of solar power in 2017, and the resiliency center currently being worked on by Elders Kathy Dean, Heather Norman and myself – as I think about all that we do in and for our community – I continuously gave thanks for YOU and urgently wanted to be back with you to think about what God is calling us to next. I am on vacation now, a stored up need for sabbath rest, but will see look forward to seeing you in a few weeks.

I send you greetings from Michelle Muñiz, Disaster Recovery Coordinator in Puerto Rico, who thanks us for our faithful support for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. She invites us to return and work with her in the continuing work of recovery and to enjoy the beautiful island. Are you up for it? With this letter comes a love and hugs from Rev. José González-Colón, pastor of the Iglesia Presbiteriana in Hato Rey and Moderator of the Synod of Puerto Rico, who was our host in San Juan. He has promised to join us White Plains very soon. Words of admiration and encouragement are yours from abby mohaupt, the chair of Fossil Free PC(USA), who hopes to see some of us at the Presbyterian General Assembly next summer in Baltimore.

In Christ, who is our new reality,

Pastor Jeff

 

The God of Life and the Worship of Death

September 2, 2019

Word of God, Word of Earth – Part V
Psalm 82         1 Kings 21

This is the fifth and final sermon in my summer series called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I explored the ways the natural world challenges, comforts and grabs our attention so that we might be grabbed by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation. Preached on July 23, 2019. 

So friends, in the last five weeks we have covered a great deal of ground in our reading of scripture in worship, beginning with our reading of Proverbs 8 (Woman Wisdom Makes a World) and then the narratives and stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. I have called this sermon series “Word of God, Word of Earth” because we have been talking about the ways God comes to us in the natural world, to comfort us and challenge us, so that God can grab our attention and we might be made useful and responsible people in the world.[i]

WORD OF GOD, WORD OF EARTH

We began by talking about the ways in which God has made the world with Wisdom and that Wisdom became first personified as a woman and then incarnate in Jesus so that God’s ways might become enfleshed in each of us.[ii] We have looked at God’s display of God’s glory in the natural world; first in the elemental displays of earth, wind and fire and then in the ultimate whirlwind that takes the prophet Elijah to heaven. We have talked about sacred geography; about the storied land and the way land tells stories. And we have talked about soil and water, material sacraments of healing. We have seen in the Prophet Elijah, at his very worst, how God both comforted and challenged him and sent him back with mission and purpose for God’s people. We have seen how Elijah, passing on his prophetic spirit, both trained and nurtured – how the land both trained and nurtured – across generations, bringing Elijah into the story of God’s liberating purpose in the world. And we have seen how Elisha then ran with that prophetic spirit to heal those who were experiencing the trauma of conflict and war. Along the way we have seen how kings and rulers – even Israel’s kings and rulers – have circumscribed and limited power for good; how God empowers and inspires ordinary people with prophetic power and prophetic spirit – even us.

As we have passed this way, seeking to understand the paths of righteousness, Wisdoms Ways in the World, we have talked about the crisis in the way our nation is dealing with immigration; about children and the way they are being kept on our nation’s borders. We have spoken about the ceaseless drumbeat toward war that we are hearing. We celebrated the presence of God in black bodies and green spaces with a photo project. We have written letters to congress urging the passage of the Khanna-Goetz Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which I want to tell you passed on Friday to ensure that we cannot go to war without congressional approval. Thank you for the letters you wrote. We gathered two days ago, right up here in Tibbits Park with the “Lights for Liberty” gathering calling for the closing of the concentration camps on our nation’s borders.

In this long series of sermons we have encountered the God who has formed us in God’s image and respects that image in each of us. We have seen and experienced healing as a gift, and welcome as a grace.

In my sermon last week I spoke about the conflict between ‘God and the gods’ in the narratives of Elijah and Elisha, and I read to you some of the testimony that Ta-Nahesi Coates gave before congress when speaking about reparations for the practice of slavery on this continent. When Coates spoke in his testimony about “the god of bondage, lustful for flesh and begetting many heirs,” I understood this conflict between ‘God and the gods’ in scripture. There is, running from beginning to end in Hebrew scripture, a critique of idolatry that is not the critique of the names different people use when worshipping ‘God or the gods’ but a critique of the character of the ‘God or the gods’ that we worship.

THE CONFLICT BETWEEN GOD AND THE GODS

Our first reading this morning, Psalm 82, is a bombshell. It is unique in the Psalms; unlike any other. It imagines a heavenly court meeting in which the God of Israel has gathered all the gods together for judgment. The critique leveled by God – the God beyond God, the One God, the God of Israel, Yahweh – the critique leveled against the other gods is that they authorize injustice, and oppression, and inequity. Thus this Psalm pictures the twilight of the gods. After this there is only the God of Life and the worship of Death. The God of Life and the worship of Death; because Death is no god but is served under many names.

Listen for the word of God in Psalm 82.

[Read Psalm 82, Inclusive Version]

The Word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

It’s really a bombshell of a psalm, I think, because it leaves us also with a critique. What is it that we love when we say we love God? What is authorized or passes, what is permitted, in the name of the God/god we worship?

TAKE THE SAVING WORD OF GOD

There is a story behind the song that we introduced this morning and that we will sing as a prayer for illumination throughout the summer and for months to come. In 1890, the United States government passed the Indian Allotment Act. It was an act designed to destroy the very idea of sacred land. To break up what existed at that point as Native American Reservations to the extent that the US government could do so; to break them up, to turn them into individual allotments so the land could be sold to families and could be turned into merchandise. Land could then be bought and sold. The very idea of sacred land, or tribal land, was attacked, and was intended to be destroyed, by the Indian Allotment Act.

The Kiowa in Oklahoma and Texas, when the Allotment Act went into effect, decided collectively that the very idea of chieftainship, or role of tribal chief, could not exist without the land. The two were inextricably connected. And so the Kiowa ended the role of tribal chief. Kicking Bird, Wooden Leg and Lone Wolf, among former chiefs, simply did not pass that role on to future generations. Some of those chiefs became pastors, became Christian leaders, and this song emerged in the churches of the Kiowa as a reminder that the authority behind any pastor was the handling of the Word of God, just as the authority behind any chief had been the Word of Earth, the care and preservation of the land. That is the story behind the song we are going to sing this summer as a prayer for illumination, a reminder that we come to scripture listening for the Word of God, we come to church in order to handle and be handled by the Word of God.[iii]

THE LAND AS GIFT AND PROMISE

Our scripture reading this morning, our last reading of the Elijah stories, is about a conflict in understanding of land. There are two understandings of land in our story of 1 Kings 21. There is the idea that is normative – it’s the main idea in scripture –that ‘all the earth belongs to God,’ ‘all the land belongs to God.’ The earth, the land, is given to us for security, and sustenance, and it is our protection. It is, as our translation has it, ancestral land, but I assure you that the terms sacred land and tribal land would not be wrong. However, there is a competing idea, prevalent in Israel at the time of Elijah and Elisha, and that is that the land belongs to the king, it belongs to the ruler, it belongs to the crown, and it can be taken, confiscated, grabbed at will. Ahab, a king in Israel, is conflicted about these ideas in our story: he desires a piece of land that belongs to a neighbor; it belongs to Naboth. Naboth, however, will not give it up; he says, “I cannot, God forbid, I cannot give you my ancestral land.” The king is justly rebuked. And he goes, he returns to his home, downcast.

Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, who comes from another country and serves another (an other) god (than the God of Israel), a god who authorizes injustice, oppression, and theft by the elite, simply cannot understand why ‘King’ Ahab is downcast. Ahab, she believes, should simply take what ‘belongs’ to him, and Jezebel says to Ahab that he should simply take what ‘belongs’ to him.

And so Ahab does just that. Notice, though, that Ahab keeps his own personal hands clean: he lets others do the dirty deeds for him, which includes the murder of a neighbor and the theft of the land. Notice also the function of law, and courts, and the legal system that permits this injustice to take place. Listen for the word of God:

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.” As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

A hard and difficult word.

We have spoken about this text before. The last time I preached on it I pointed out a number of things:

  • the importance of land and the conflicting interpretations of what land is in our bible;
  • this competition between the practices authorized by different gods, the taking or preservation of land, the exploitation or repair of the earth;
  • I pointed out that the land taken by Ahab was a vineyard, which means it was land that took years and generations to grow and work: vines take many years to cultivate and very, very, long growing seasons to bear fruit. Tearing a vineyard up for a vegetable garden represents permanent loss of the grape which makes ‘wine that gladdens the human heart,” according the Psalmist, for a short-sighted project of a single season’s harvest; and finally
  • we talked about the tactics that were used. The use of laws and courts and public spaces and public officials, as well as outright lies and the buying off of witnesses, in order to acquire the land.

The last time we talked about this text, though, I said we would save for ‘another time’ a conversation about repentance and repair. The story of Elijah v. Ahab ends, this story as we have read it ends with judgment. The king will die. The king hears that judgment three times from Elijah. The king will die and his reign will come to an end. Three times. And so, hearing this three times, the king ultimately decides that he will repent for anything/everything he has done wrong. He puts on sackcloth and ashes and he cries for mercy.

EMPTY WORDS

But the king never does offer to restore the land. It never even occurs to him.

There is, here, a kind of repentance of the heart; but there is no reparation, there is no repair of the deed that was done.

I think of the destruction of native lands that was carried out by the Indian Allotment Act in 1890, the destruction of an entire way of life, that we will liturgically remember every time we approach God’s Wisdom/Word. This kind of destruction requires reparation.

We have, ever since the 300th Anniversary of this congregation, talked about the land on which this church is located; of the way it came into the possession of the first settlers. On the back of our bulletin we acknowledge that we worship on traditional land of the Weckquaesgeek band of the Wappinger Tribe of the Lenape People. We have talked about the Doctrine of Discovery, which is the legal doctrine that says, essentially: “finders, keepers,” “Those with might, have the right,” and “White, Christian, Supremacy.” The Doctrine of Discovery legitimized the settlement of this continent with the idea that any Christian who discovered land that was not already governed by a Christian sovereign could claim the land for their crown and either kill or enslave the indigenous population. Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has forcefully, publically, and officially repudiated this doctrine, and our congregation has twice submitted overtures to our General Assembly to advance our intention to understand our relationship to the land on which we worship and to understand wrongs that were done in our name, wrongs that were authorized in the name of the Christian God, to take sacred land from others.

You see, that ‘critique of the gods’ comes back home to us as we look at the actions authorized by our use of the word ‘God.’ Ponder that.

A GENEROUS GIFT

Your church council has asked me to talk about something that Pastor Sarah has brought up a number of times in prayer, and that we have celebrated here in worship. And that is the relationship between the Hudson River Presbytery, our congregation, and the Ramapough Lenaape, our nearest Native American neighbors. Our presbytery, the regional body that we are a part of, had an opportunity this past year to make an act of reparation, to do something right, to repair a relationship, with this community.

The Stony Point Presbyterian Church, which is near the Stony Point Center, as a congregation growing smaller by the years, had come to the place where they asked the Hudson River Presbytery to help them close their doors. Which they did a couple of years ago. When a Presbyterian church closes, our presbytery appoints what is called an Administrative Commission. Really, it is a church council run by the presbytery for the purpose of helping members of the congregation transfer their membership to other churches and ultimately determining the dispersal of real property. The Administrative Commission for the Stony Point Presbyterian Church heard from former members of the congregation that their hope was that what would happen with the property, the land and the church building and the existing manse, would be that it would serve in a way consistent with what had been the Christian values, the progressive Christian values, of the former congregation. The Administrative Commission, thinking carefully about the work that our presbytery has done to come to terms with the Doctrine of Discovery and its continuing legacy, determined to recommend to the presbytery that we give the land back to its original custodians. The commission considered the way in which numerous members of our presbytery were driven to Standing Rock in 2016 to show support for the Standing Rock Sioux in their resistance to a gas pipeline passing through their sacred land; it considered the relationship between Presbyterian churches, particularly churches in Rockland County, with their Native American neighbors, the Ramapough Lenaape tribe; and determined that it would best serve the mission of our presbytery, that it would honor the past of the Stony Point Presbyterian Church, and it would preserve the land for sacred use in a way that continued the use of the land for worship, if we were to make of it a reparative gift to the Ramapough.

Chief Dwayne Perry, in Mahwah, New York, working with the tribal leadership, had the idea of creating a non-profit organization called The Sweetwater Cultural Center. The Sweetwater Cultural Center is a nonprofit organization that was created this spring. It exists for the purpose of celebrating and preserving and teaching Native American cultures, not limited to the Ramapough Lenaape and not limited to native tribes of the New York area, a place where we and could come together to learn, to share, to sing, where we (non-natives) could be educated and where Native Americans could come together. It was a really beautiful gift.

This reparative gift was voted on at a presbytery meeting this past spring and your pastors brought that news back and celebrated it in prayer here. The Presbytery gave the land of the Stony Point Presbyterian Church, its building and manse, to the Sweetwater Cultural Center. The organization has a governing board made up of a majority of native persons, but also preserves seats on the board for representatives of the presbytery, which means that this gift also launched a new mission partnership between our presbytery and Presbyterian congregations and the Ramapough Lenaape.

I spoke at the presbytery meeting urging the taking of this action.

Rev. Noelle Damico spoke.

Rev. Sarah Henkel spoke, with passion, on the floor about this.

When the Administrative Commission recommended this action, they opened by reading the story of Zacchaeus the Tax collector. It’s really an interesting story for us to pair with the story of Elijah speaking on behalf of Naboth before Ahab, because Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8)

The presentation to the presbytery began with these words:

In the past few years, Presbyterians, encouraged in no small part by leaders from this Presbytery, have begun to examine our role in the long and painful history of colonialism in this country. As Zacchaeus did, we have started our own reckoning. And as our denomination has repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, the idea that the land upon which we gather today is ours by virtue of its discovery by European forebears, we have also begun a process of repentance, of naming the wrongs we as a church have committed against indigenous peoples and acknowledging the profit we have gained from these wrongs.

Yet if we as a church stand convicted of this sin, we are reminded that conviction is never the last word. We are always offered the choice of something greater. John Calvin taught us that the highest use of [God’s] law is not to convict us, but rather to guide us into righteousness.

If this sounds like grandiose language for a proposal about the dispersal of church property, I beg your forgiveness, but I’d also like you to hang with me for a minute, because it is finally a theological claim that we are advancing, a theological truth that we are attempting to articulate.[iv]

This represents how we as a body of Christ both enact repentance and celebrate the earth.

The gift of land to the Ramapough Lenaape is one of the most exciting things I have been a part of in this presbytery because it was not an act of words … it was an act that cost. The gift of property; the gift of, of, of possibility for this new ministry is so deeply to be imitated. And I hope you can see how it brings together work we have talked about and conversations we have had and studied together over the last number of years.

This gift is not without controversy. There are certainly those who thought it would be a better idea to sell off the property and pocket the money and use it for other purposes. And there are a lot of noble purposes that could be proposed. But I just want you to know that it was a decision that took a spirit, a prophetic spirit, like that of Elijah and Elisha, to pull off.

We (as a congregation) are going to launch a partnership with the Sweetwater Culture Centre this fall. And your church council wants me to offer you an opportunity to make a direct gift to Sweetwater Culture Center. During worship today, as we take our offering this morning, there will be an offering plate that will remain on the table up here, and I would invite you make a token gift to the Sweetwater Cultural Center.

There are some congregations in our Presbytery that have decided … have questioned the wisdom of this decision … and are withholding money that is used to share in our presbytery’s mission. I think that will work itself out. With a lot of prayer and a lot of pastoral work. But in the meantime our church council has increased our giving to the mission of the presbytery by 5% because we are proud of this decision and what says about who we are as Presbyterians. And they wanted me to give to you an opportunity to make a gift to the SCC for their work this coming fall. If you are like me, you don’t come to worship with cash in you pocket. And so if you would like to make a gift, but cannot today, feel free to write on one of the pink prayer slips the amount you pledge to give.

This is a powerful work we are a part of.

Friend our second hymn this morning is #413, a prayer about the church at work and mission in the world. “All Who Love and Serve Your City.”

 

[i] David Napier published Word of God, Word of Earth in 1976. It was a fresh translation of the Elijah Narrative with an eco-focused interpretation and served as the inspiration for this sermon series. He reworked and revised the entire book in 1992, publishing it as part of The Best of Davie Napier through Abingdon Press. Throughout he pays attention to this juxtaposition of the Word of God which speaks in our scripture through the Word of Earth. Recommended, if you can find it. The entire series can be found at https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2019/07/06/word-of-god-word-of-earth-series/

[ii] See The Gift of Theology: The Contribution of Kathryn Tanner, edited by Rosemary Carbine and Hilda Koster. (Fortress Press, 2015).

[iii] “Take the Saving Word of God” (Dawk’yah towgyah thawy báht-awm), Hymn 454 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal. This story is told in Carl P. Daw, Glory to God: A Companion. (WJK, 2016).

[iv] These are the words of Elder Rob Trawick, before the Hudson River Presbytery. His words, in their entirety, were inspired and will become part of the historical record of PC(USA) response to God’s call to justice, peace, and reconciliation.

The Geography of Healing

July 13, 2019

657f5ff7f72ee67269af83b40561d09eWord of God, Word of Earth – Part IV
Psalm 104         2 Kings 5:1-14

This is the fourth sermon in my summer series called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I am exploring ways the natural world challenges, comforts and grabs our attention so that we might be grabbed by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation.[i] We are in the midst of exploring this topic through the Elijah and Elisha narratives in First and Second Kings. Above, artist Janet Mckenzie depicts a mother and child, which for the purposes of this sermon represent the parents and children being separated at my nation’s border right now. They are like all those in the Elijah and Elisha stories who suffer the trauma of national wars – overt and covert – stories filled with mothers and children.

We are part way into a summer sermon series on the ways God comes to us in the natural world; comforts us, challenges us, grabs our attention so that God might grab our attention and make us useful and responsible in this world. We are in the midst of the stories of Elijah and Elisha and I am so excited to be talking about these stories every week and feel we are just scratching the surface of them.

It would be hard to over estimate the importance of these stories of Elijah and Elisha for our New Testament and for the gospels. The gospel writers clearly thought of Elijah when they were trying to understand who Jesus was for them.

  • When the New Testament was being put together, for example, the Hebrew scriptures were ordered in such a way that the prophet Malachi was placed last so that the final words of that book seem to herald the coming of Jesus as they look for the return of Elijah who would turn the heart of parents and children to one another and restore a covenant community.
  • When John the Baptist appeared out of the wild, he appeared to be the prophet Elijah dressed in the telltale costume – a hairy man with a leather belt eating locust and wild honey.
  • When, in John’s gospel, inquisitors from Jerusalem came out to see John the Baptist they wanted to know, “Are you Elijah come back?”
  • When Jesus asked his own disciples who people thought Jesus was, the first answers was, “They think you may be Elijah.”
  • On Mt. Tabor, when Peter, James and John witnessed what we know as Jesus’ transfiguration, they saw Jesus atop the mountain in the company of Moses, and Elijah.
  • At the crucifixion, onlookers hear Jesus cry, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” meaning “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Now the Roman guards witnessing this don’t speak Aramaic, so they are confused and think that Jesus is crying our for the prophet Elijah to return and save him. You see, even they knew the importance of the prophet Elijah to God’s people.

These are all will known references to Elijah in the gospel stories, but it wasn’t until just this week that something else was driven home to me, and that was not only how importance the stories of Elijah were for the gospel writers, but how importance of the stories of Elijah and Elisha were for Jesus himself.

Last week I said that Spirit that was upon the Prophet Elijah, the Spirit that was passed on to the prophet Elisha, was the same spirit that animated Jesus in his ministry, descended upon him at his baptism, drove him into the wilderness, and led him back to Galilee where he stood in his hometown of Nazareth and recited the words of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim released to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor (Luke 4:18-19)

Immediately after reading this scripture, Jesus tells two stories: one is about the prophet Elijah, and the other is about the prophet Elisha.

And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow [and her son] at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ (Luke 4: 24-27)

Remember, Jesus says, the prophet Elijah, during a time of drought and famine, helped the foreigner first. Crossed the border and helped a woman and her child in need. And remember the prophet Elijah who when a foreign military commander came for healing in Israel, Elisha helped him, though there were lepers aplenty in Israel. The significance of these stories for Jesus seems to be that prophets do not serve at the behest of local or national rulers, but serve the real needs of people no matter which side of the border they are on. There is a geography to healing.

[Read 2 Kings 5:1-19]

ON KINGS AND PROPHETS

The story cites an aphorism that ‘prophets are not welcome in their hometown,’ but I think that skirts some of the politics of these stories, the particularities of why these prophets – Elijah, Elisha and Jesus – are in conflict with the rulers of their day. So there are several things that I want to point out about this story and the first is that these prophets operate entirely outside the halls of power. There is a conflict set up between both of these prophets, Elijah and Elisha, and their respective kings. While the kings are busy parading their horses and chariots, their means for making war, while they bicker across their borders with their neighbors fighting back and forth, the prophets deal with the fallout. Elisha in particular is a prophet who picks up and cares for the victims of the kings wars.[ii]

I mentioned last week that biblical scholar Gale Yee opens her commentary on these stories by saying:

In 1879, General William Sherman declared “War is hell” to give a reality check to those in the graduating class of Michigan Military Academy who looked on war [in the post-Civil War era] as all glamour and glory. Much of the background for the so-called miracles that Elisha performs is the hell of war.

Do you know remember what Elisha’s first prophetic act was? It was to prevent a mother from being separated from her children by selling them into slavery during a time of national crisis. Elijah ministers those experiencing the trauma of war, particularly

  • war captives (5: 2);
  • famine (4: 38–39);
  • starvation (6: 24–25; 7: 3–4);
  • cannibalism (6: 26–31);
  • economic chaos (6: 25);
  • and ecological destruction (3: 25).[iii]

Elijah brings healing and help and hope outside the halls of power. Elijah frees and feeds and heals and helps people, while the kings/rulers can think of nothing but making war. Elisha performs miracles at a local level. The kings, in these books of 1st and 2nd Kings stand helpless before the people’s real needs. Walter Brueggemann suggests we think of the books of 1 and 2 Kings as 1 and 2 Kings? (with a question mark) because it is the prophets, not the kings, who bring to people what is truly needed.

Naaman comes from his own king with a letter, he comes to the king in Samaria with a letter, asking for help and the king in Samaria says, “What? I cannot heal anybody.” But so that Naaman may know that there is prophet in Israel, Elisha says, “send him to me.”

INDOORS AND OUTDOORS

There is another really fun aspect of this story in light of our special service today where we are beginning indoors and moving outdoors; there is a whole indoor outdoor aspect to this story. Naaman crosses the border out of Aram and into Israel, enters into the hall of the King of Samaria with his letter of recommendation, and then has to travel back out of doors to the prophet Elisha – and then when he arrives at the home of the prophet, Elisha remains inside, he doesn’t even bother to come outside. Instead, he sends a messenger, “Tell Naaman to go wash.” While the prophet remains inside, the commander is left standing outside.

“Surely the prophet is going to come out and wave his hands around and do something really impressive to heal.” Naaman is looking for a show. For a display of power. And the prophet simply says, “go wash.” Naaman recalls the geography and rivers of Damascus, “What is the Jordan River to all this, he wants to know.

Well last week was saw that when the prophet Elijah passed on this authority, power and wisdom to the younger prophet Elisha, he did so by taking him on a tour of Israel’s sacred geography, its topogeny, he took him both literally and mythically through the Jordan River to remind him that the God of Israel is a God who takes slaves and sets them free, that the God of Israel wishes health for God’s people, that the God of Israel helps. The true power is not in the great display but in the land and waters blessed by covenant care. This is the river, the River Jordan, into which Naaman must descend and in which he will find his healing.[iv] Word of God, Word of Earth.

It’s a very funny story when the servants have to tell Naaman, this great commander, “Surely if the prophet instructed you to do something difficult, you would have done it.” Naaman is no doubt used to giving orders to others, probably these very servants, and to telling people to do difficult things; he’s been successful on the field of battle. He is asked by the ‘Man of God’ to do a very simple thing. His servants, those also outside the realm of power, get to point and get to point this out to him – outdoors, in the water, a sacrament of healing for this foreign commander. When it comes to healing as opposed to war making, there is a reversal here of who the insiders and outsiders are, of where true power lies.

Naaman comes out of the water and his skin is cleansed; he has skin like that of a young boy, the text says. Which might make you remember where this story began: mighty commander, skin disease, and a servant girl – a captive, a slave, taken in war, working in his household of a military wife, this young girl, the spoils of war, she says, “There is a God in Israel.” She knows what no one else knows. She does not appear again in the story, but she may remind us that the context for Elisha’s amazing ministry is both the fact that ‘war is hell,’ and the hell of war.

ON GOD AND THE GODS

God and the god’s: another aspect to this story. “Surely, I know now,” says Naaman, “that there is no other god than the God of Israel.”

This confession begins curiously. Naaman tries to offer payment for what has happened to him. “Please take a gift.” We recall that he came with gold and silver and ten changes of clothes. “Please take something.” He wants to monetize a miracle. He wants not to be in the prophet’s debt. If he can pay for this, then everything’s square. He’s good. He can go home. But he has received a free gift from Israel’s God, he is the recipient of God’s grace. The prophet will not take payment for this. And so what Naaman says is “please give me …” – did you notice this? I had never noticed this before and have yet to speak with a colleague this week who has taken note of it. Commentaries are all but silent – What Naaman asks for is two carts full of earth. He ask for soil from Israel, because he has learned the sacred geography of healing. The God of freedom and hope is the God of this land. Naaman will stand on this land when he worship God, from this point forward. The geography of healing.

Yet he asks for pardon while he takes his master, his king, up before the god of Aram. “You know, he’s old. I’ve got to take his arm. I’ve got to help him kneel down. Please, forgive me this one sin.” This later is an odd bifurcation of conscience and duty, but the prophet simply says, “Go in peace.”

We don’t talk a lot about the conflict between God and the gods in scripture, partly because it seems too easily to lead us into some kind of religious chauvinism or holy war. But I was arrested by an image a week and a half-ago, listening to the testimonies in congress over reparations to African-American’s for the legacy of slavery, that helped me understand this conflict better. Ta-Nahesi Coates gave a speech before congress in which he was addressing the Chairman and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell had said that “America must not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago.” You may remember these words as Coates spoke about the legacy of slavery, the assets accumulated to the country and to white people through the practice of slavery…

The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader.

It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders, and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs. Coup d’états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.[v]

The god of bondage! A god our nation has served alongside others gods, a god comfortable enthroned alongside God, God forbid! Right there I felt, ‘this is the kind of conflict our scripture is showing us.’ The conflict between the God of liberation and freedom and hope for all people, and the gods of bondage, slavery, oppression – Biblically Baal or Rimmon – the other gods that authorize enslavement and land theft and all those victims of the nations’ wars. Even Israel’s wars. These are the conflicts into which Elijah and Elisha entered, charging not only that both kings and people sometimes worship ‘other gods,’ but that all too often they also use the name of God to bless that which should not be blessed, that which is blessed by these other gods, to the destruction of themselves and others.

“I know there is no other God,” says Naaman, “but the God of Israel, who heals and helps and brings hope, and from now on I will stand on the earth, on the soil of Israel, having washed in the river, from now on I worship this God alone.”

These are really powerful texts for us, and they remind us that when Jesus appeared, and the spirit came upon him, he understood himself to be standing on the same soil, and in the same place as, and walking in the footsteps of, action prophets like Elijah and Elisha; and all those around Jesus saw this as well.

Today, we will in a short while move outside to continue our worship outdoors – indoors/outdoors – and we will slip off our shoes and stand upon this, our local earth, and we will greet ‘all our relations’ and share the sacrament of communion for the healing of all creation and share God’s presence with one another.

Our next hymn is “For the Beauty of the Earth,” to put us in mind of all creation as we walk outside.

IMG_8295

Note: The Indoors/Outdoors service drew on liturgy published by Prof. Lisa Dahill, California Lutheran University.

[i] David Napier published Word of God, Word of Earth in 1976. It was a fresh translation of the Elijah Narrative with an eco-focused interpretation and served as the inspiration for this sermon series. He reworked and revised the entire book in 1992, publishing it as part of The Best of Davie Napier through Abingdon Press. Throughout he pays attention to this juxtaposition of the Word of God which speaks in our scripture through the Word of Earth. Recommended, if you can find it.

[ii] Horses and chariots were the ancient world equivalent of tanks, and are so treated throughout scripture. Three days before this sermon President Trump’s partisan Independence Day Celebration featured tanks and fighter-plane fly-overs in Washington D.C., with a price tag of 5.4 million taken from the National Parks.

[iii] Yee continues, “To counteract and militate against the trauma of war in its myriad guises, Elisha performs miracles at the local level, but does not critique the roots of war at the systemic level. His prophecy to the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom deals with whether God will grant them victory over Moab (2 Kings 3), not whether they should engage in war in the first place. These texts encourage us to examine the systemic causes of war to eliminate the monstrous effects of war on the people and the land.”

[iv] On sacred geography, or topogeny, see last week’s sermon, Wisdom Sits in Particular Places.

[v] Ta-Nahesi Coates testimony before congress, and his original article on reparations.