Several of you noticed that I did not have a sabbath day last week. Thursday was my birthday – and I had important meetings and conversations all day long. My wife did cook a delicious dinner – which had to be eaten way too fast – and my son planned cheetos and ice cream cake to accompany the late night “happy birthday Jeff” song.
Today I find myself cleaning house, re-organizing closets, and writing.
My focus for reading multi-national literature this week was the deeply moving novel Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. I have had this text of ritual healing on my “to read” list for over 20 years and finally got around to it – thanks to inter-library loan. Published in 1977, the New York Times called Leslie Silko “without question the most accomplished Native American writer of her generation.” The text follows the ritual healing of Tayo – suffering what we would today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on through military service in World War II.
“How far are you willing to go?” he is asks Ts’eh, a woman Tayo lives with on the mountain.
How far indeed are we willing to go to be healed of all that has led us astray from our human nature and purpose? For me, this is necessitating a long look at native american history.
If the white people never looked beyond the lie, to see that there’s was a nation builder on stolen land, then they would never be able to understand how they have been used by the witchery; they would never know that they were still being manipulated by those who knew how to stir the ingredients together: white thievery and in justice boiling up the anger and hatred that would finally destroy the world: the starving against the fat, the colored against the white. The destroyers had only to set it into motion, and sit back to count the casualties. But it was more than a body count; the lies devoured white hearts, and for more than 200 years white people at work to fill the emptiness; they tried to collect the hollowness with patriotic wars and with great technology and the wealth it brought. And always have been fooling themselves, and they knew it.
POSTSCRIPT: Well, this post got away from me. This was a draft. I accidentally published it, and didn’t notice, even as I continued to write quite a bit more. And it was good, I think. Ah well, I’m going to go sit under an American Chestnut tree and ‘let it go.”
A sermon preached by The Rev. Susan De George at the White Plains Presbyterian Church for the Feast of St. Francis / Blessing of the Animals on World Communion Sunday, October 4, 2015.
Psalm 148 (select) Mark 16:14-20
For those of you who don’t know about my family, I’ve raised three generations of children. There was a ten-year age gap between Frantz and Dan and an eight-year spread between Dan and Becca so every time I thought I had some experience in an area, I kept finding out that things had changed. Technological stuff was the hardest to keep up with. The demand of my first teenager for a corded phone extension in his room became a request when my second child became a teen to have a cordless phone. Then, eight years later, my third teenager declared her need, not just for a phone, but for a a cell phone with a camera, unlimited texting, email, and data usage. With such rapidly changing technology, it was clear that, no matter how many times I’d gone through it, I was always going to be an inexperienced parent.
Luckily there was one non-technological thing all three of my children liked – puzzle books that had visual challenges—not the same visual challenges, but visual challenges none-the-less. When Frantz turned 14, he became intrigued with the “Where’s Waldo” type of puzzle books. Do you remember these? Each puzzle consisted of a double-page spread illustration that had dozens and dozens of people doing a variety of funny things that were connected with a specific theme or a specific location. The reader had to search through the tiny, detailed pictures to find Waldo (who was always dressed in a red-and-white striped shirt, weird hat, and glasses). You’d think his distinctive outfit would make him easy to recognize, but many of the pictures contained red herrings. The illustrator had put in lots of other red-and-white stripped objects to throw the searcher off but only one tiny Waldo. To find him you had to locate one red-and-white object after another until, usually after a good block of time squinting at the page, one of them finally turned out to be Waldo. Where’s Waldo books were great for long car trips, because Frantz could spend hours locating Waldo on page after page.
Dan never took to Waldo. He didn’t have the patience to keep searching. Luckily, however, when he turned 10, Magic Eye books came out. Magic Eyes were also visual game books, but instead of searching through tiny objects until you found the specific person you were looking for, Magic Eye books allowed you to see a 3D image hidden in a 2D picture. To see the stereogram picture embedded on the page, you had to hold the center of the printed image right up to your nose so that the original picture and its details became blurry. You then focused your eyes and your mind as though you are looking through the image into the distance. Once your eyes were set on what wasn’t there, you very slowly moved the image away from your face until a three dimensional pattern popped into your line of vision. If you moved your eyes during this process, lost focus, or moved the image away too quickly, you missed the three-dimensional picture and would have to start over. For Dan, Magic Eye books were techie enough to keep him busy in a car as he tried to figure out not only what the hidden picture was but why the stereogram was working as it did in each picture.
If you ask Becca now, she’ll tell you that she also loved Magic Eye books, but we could never get her to spend more than a few minutes looking for the hidden three-dimensional picture. Finding it just didn’t matter enough to her. Instead the visual puzzle books that grabbed her attention were the I Spy series of riddles that presented amazing photographs with lots of objects gathered around a theme and then asked children to find specific objects that were found in the photo. When Becca was young enough that she couldn’t yet read the list of hidden objects herself, Dan used to try to do the I Spy books with Becca, reading her the objects to look for. Becca would start to hunt for the object, only to be caught up in all the other intriguing objects on the page. Dan would try to bring her back to the list of “special” objects to be found, but Becca’s delight at the ordinary objects would continue and, after she’d pointed out one after another, Dan would give up in disgust while Becca continued to enjoy everything she was seeing on the page.
On this worldwide communion Sunday when we also more consciously bless the animal members of our community, I thought of these different types of visual puzzle games and what they teach us to focus on when we want to see God. Much of the religious education I was given growing up took a Where’s Waldo approach to finding God. There’s lots of beautiful literature that’s been written, this approach said, but if you want to find God, there was only one piece of literature in which to look for God– the Bible. In this Where’s Waldo way of searching for God, worship services became built around the Bible and its interpretation, church schools focused on learning and understanding scripture, and people were taught that looking elsewhere for the divine could give you the wrong image of God. You might initially think that God was to be found in other places, but if you looked carefully the other images weren’t really God, just red herrings. In this Protestant “Where’s Waldo” approach that Calvin so strongly emphasized, you used your head and searched the scriptures to find God. While many people today no longer prefer the “Where’s Waldo” way of finding God, our worship services and education programs still strongly reflect this vision game approach.
And then there are experiences like Paul of Tarsus had on the road to Damascus or Francis of Assisi had on his way to head off to fight as a soldier, with unusual, memorable experiences that are so sudden and so intense that they change your life forever. Paul the persecutor of Christians becomes Paul the believer and advocate. Francis the well-off soldier becomes Francis the preacher who lives in poverty. They each see things in new ways, ways that revealed the divine in what before had seemed ordinary. Saul’s and Francis’ experiences are in many ways like the process required for the Magic Eye vision game, with the two-dimensional way in each had previously seen the world and God blurred out and a new three dimensional personal revelation taking its place.
A Pew Center Report on Religion noted that 50% of mainstream Protestants report having had personal experiences or moments of self-transcendence that for us, like for Francis or Paul, have been life-changing spiritual experiences. You wouldn’t know it though, from visiting our places of worship on Sunday or listening to conversations we exchange with each other. The Pew Report goes on to say that, while you may have someone with such a—for want of a better word—mystical experience sitting next to you, or you may yourself be that mystic, few churches provide opportunities for sharing those experiences, despite the fact that we claim our faith is grounded in such experiences of the Holy. We Protestants are so used to the Where’s Waldo expectation of how to look for God in scripture that we won’t talk about our own Magic Eye experiences and how they’ve both blurred some of our ways of seeing the world and brought others magically into our focus. We need to begin to find ways to acknowledge in worship that revelation is always personal, variable, and experiential. We would do well to explore ways that would allow us to talk more about those transcendent moments when the divine suddenly makes itself clear in our lives. After all, such Magic Eye God-moments are, for many of us, transformative and healing, putting new choices before us and allowing us each to find unique ways to say yes to the divine presence in our lives and in the new world that confronts us.
But today’s first reading – the responsive reading from Psalm 148 that becomes reflected in St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun– and Francis of Assisi’s life itself—point us toward another way of seeing God, a way that takes the I Spy approach. In them we don’t have to search the scriptures to find God and we don’t need to have some extraordinary mystical experiences that call our attention to God. Instead in the Psalm we are called to find God praised by and reflected in all the earthly things around us, in the ordinary miracles of dogs and cats, of bats and squirrels —the wonder of creation. And in story after story from Francis’ life he calls us to see all of life as sacred and revealing of God. Here’s one of my favorites. Francis says:
“I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments—
he got so excited
and ran into a hollow in his tree and came
back holding some acorns, an owl feather,
and a ribbon he had found.
And I just smiled and said, “Yes, dear,
St. Francis of Assisi, “The Sacraments”
translated by Daniel Ladinsky, Love Letters from God
In this I Spy approach all ordinary creation imparts God’s grace. You begin with a particular and specific acorn or owl feather or loaf of bread or furry family member sitting next to you and that particular being becomes a sacrament, a doorway to the mystery of the Incarnation. As Francis and the squirrel both understood so well, we can discover the divine by looking sacramentally at what’s right in front of us. Through Franciscan eyes, how you love anything, anyone, any part of creation, is how you love everything. As Pope Francis wrote about God in his recent encyclical Laudato Si’ “Today you are alive in every creature in your risen glory.” Today we can look at any part of the earth and see a reflection of God. Seeing God is an I Spy game, in which God appears not just in the Bible or in extraordinary experiences, but also in the wonder of flowers and microbes and water and other encounters and movements of our lives. Look up to the stars and find a reflection of God. Look out among the people and animals and trees—spy an icon of God’s face–and possibilities for yet more spying of God. I’m not advocating pantheism here—God isn’t the grass or the soil—but the ground and the grass are infused with the resurrection love of God in the same way that the bread and the cup are.
But God doesn’t just ask us to spy reflections of God in the abundant creation with which we are surrounded. God also gives us— each and every one of us -a task, a charge, one form of which is found in today’s scripture reading from Mark 16 to “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole of creation, to every creature.” Francis of Assisi took this commission literally, preaching to birds, insects, wolves and many other creatures, realizing that God’s good news is not meant to be just good news for human beings, but for all beings. Mark’s Great Commission should awaken us, not only to see God with our I Spy eyes rather than our Where’s Waldo ones, but to think carefully about how we respond to and treat the world around us. Do we listen to those creatures with whom we share our environment—our lizards and chickens and dogs and worms and cats, as well as our trees and soil and sky and stones and rain? Having listened, do we then tend carefully to them and to the rest of our environment, offering it God’s good news by the way in which we treat it? Do we spend time teaching our children to come to understand that all creatures bear Christ’s image, are interconnected, and are meant to have good news proclaimed to them through our actions, since such an understanding is the Great Commission, the key work to which God is calling all of us? Might this proclaiming of good news to all creation begin to move us away from an anthropocentric approach to the world around us toward a more biocentric perspective of our lives as part of the whole of creation? For perhaps more than preaching to the birds or wolves, what this Great Commission is calling us to is a change in perspective, one where we approach anything and everything that surrounds us with more intentionality and care because it is all a reflection of God that deserve to hear God’s good news—not just on a Sunday or two a year or even every Sunday, but in every moment of our lives? Perhaps, in order to follow Christ’s commission and truly bless all animals-human and non-human and the rest of our universe with them, we should our primary aspiration that of living according to Christ’s Great Commission as captured by Pope Francis who suggested that we pray: “Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, [and] to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey toward your infinite light.” May it be so. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Susan De George is the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Hudson River, is a GreenFaith fellow, and teaches Religious Studies at Pace University. Prior to being Stated Clerk, Susan served as a pastor for several different Hudson River Presbytery congregations. She enjoys playing flute in the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra, gardening, reading, swimming, and having interesting conversations with folks who really want to change the world.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation: Mountain Sunday, September 27, 2015
Psalm 48 Romans 8:28-39
As we come to our fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, I want to say a word about HOPE.
On our First Sunday in the Season, we read the story of creation up to – but not including – the creation of human beings. We imagined together the beauty and diversity of this world-without-us, a world of self-perpetuating fruitfulness, of sustainable fecundity, of a life whose true nature is to bring forth more life. Remember the seeds? We were invited to “see as God sees” – to see clearly the patterns of life before us – the ones that give life and the ones that rob us of our future – and to affirm the goodness that our earth was meant to embody.
On our Second Sunday in the Season, we wrestled with two dominant ways we have interpreted our human nature and purpose: on the one hand my son August (the voice of humanity in Genesis 1) insisted that human beings are to have dominion over, that we were meant to subdue and rule over, creation. On the other hand, Norma Smikle (the voice of humanity in Genesis 2) spoke of our vocation to serve and protect creation. Each one of them claimed to reflect what it means to be made in the image of God. My son claimed to be like God, while Norma claimed to be liked by God. August said that he was meant to rule and subdue, and Norma said to him, “When you rule, I suffer.” Both claimed God’s word on their side. And both were right. But we gave Jesus the last word, he who had said:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not to be so among you; for whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Human came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. [Mark 10:42-45]
And then our choir sang that marvelous song, “You Must Be Faithful Over a Few Things, to Be Ruler Over Many Things.” Amen? Amen!
Finally, last Sunday, we entered into the Prophet Jeremiah’s dark vision of the systematic unmaking of our world, the undoing of creation itself. Jeremiah imagined the unimaginable – the failure of the very systems God made to sustain life – as a wake up call to an over-confident and so complacent people. In uttering his oracle Jeremiah called us to repentance and responsibility for what we are doing to this world and for what we do to one another.
We ended our reflections last week with words of Pope Francis: “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” Though we acknowledged that making a new start will require significant commitment and change on our part, and bear no guarantees. It is work undertaken for its own sake.
So … if the world is created good, with the capacity for sustaining a diversity of life; if we human beings have done a pretty thorough job of messing it up; and if God’s faithfulness to creation does not necessarily entail faithfulness to human projects and pretentions: what is hope?
Hope is the refusal to believe that the future is determined. (That would be despair). Or perhaps it would be better to say, hope is the confidence that the future may yet surprise us.
* * * * *
Over the this past summer I completed a ten-week course at the American Museum of Natural History, studying climate science. I earned a nifty certificate naming me a “Climate Citizen.” But I didn’t need a certificate to know that if we do not make significant reductions in CO2 emissions, and end our dependence of fossil fuels, our future on this planet is very dim. We have talked about this many, many times here in worship.
And while there are uncertainties in climate science, they pertain to questions like “when will we reach the point of no-return on melting ice, acidifying oceans, spreading desserts?” Not whether these things are happening. The real uncertainty, which scientist can’t address, is the human. What will we choose to do, or not to do, in light of what we now know? As we put on our t-shirts for the People’s Climate March last fall, “Climate changed. Will we?” That’s are the real question.
Hope is the refusal to believe that the future is determined. Hope is the confidence that the future can yet surprise us.
Think back just 2 ½ years ago. Who could have imagined Pope Francis? Named to honor St. Francis, he is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European since the year 741. Who could have imagined the address he gave to the United States Congress: proud to be in a country built largely by immigrants, addressing climate change as a moral obligation, invoking the nonviolent witness of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and reminding our senators and representatives that
“A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called, and convened by those who elected you.”
Who could have imaged 2 ½ years ago that 100,000 people would be expected in New York City as part of a global People’s Climate March, and 400,000, four times as many, would show up demanding immediate action for our common future. The organizers didn’t expect it even as it was happening!
And who could have imagined that in this same short time, more than 2,000 individuals and over 436 institutions would withdraw investment from coal, oil, and gas companies in order to tackle the extractive industries that are killing our planet. To date these withdrawn funds amount to over 2.6 trillion dollars, making those same funds available instead for much needed investment in clean energy and renewable resources. Christina Figueres of the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change said this week “Investing at scale in clean, efficient power offers one of the clearest, no regret choices ever presented to human progress.”
Scientists are clear that most of the fossil fuel reserves in the world need to stay in the ground if we have any chance whatsoever of keeping our atmosphere from warming more than two degrees. The fossil fuel divestment movement is aimed “primarily at stripping legitimacy from fossil fuel companies and has grown faster than even the divestment movement that targeted apartheid South Africa and it is backed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.” Active in 43 countries, the campaign for divestment now includes the country of Norway, the Church of Sweden and the World Council of Churches; two of the world’s biggest pension funds, as well as numerous churches, local governments, health and education institutions. Last fall even the Rockefeller family withdrew their financial support from oil. (Think about that!)
On Tuesday the Hudson River Presbytery held an open discussion on an overture to divest our denomination from fossil fuels, an overture that I hope our own council will affirm at our meeting this week. Several pastors during the discussion said that they thought it is inconsistent to divest from fossil fuels while we are members of a society that is addicted to them. But that is not really so much an objection as it is an observation. Our whole society is invested in fossil fuel – it’s how we run our cars, our homes, our churches. But we cannot exempt ourselves from society. There is no Eden we can build for ourselves. Instead we must use the power we have to stop investing in dangerous sources of energy and, instead, invest in clean efficient power. No change will EVER happen if fossil fuel companies continue to have the support for doing the same thing they’ve done for generations. But if their consumers and investors demand a change, they will change. If you wonder whether it’s possible to change multi-billion dollar companies, just remember the lessons learned from the success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who’ve changed McDonald’s and Walmart and most recently Stop n Shop. Change is possible. And we must do everything we can on every possible front to redirect our lives toward a sustainable future. That’s how change goes from being (excuse the pun) a “pipe dream” to a reality.
That evening, after the Presbytery meeting, I asked my son which he thought would be easier: eliminating our use of ALL fossil fuels or eliminating single-use plastic bags from grocery stores, retail shops and restaurants. “Oh, fossil fuels, definitely is easier. We can all drive Teslas! But getting rid of plastic bags? That’s impossible, Dad.”
Well, when it comes to our capacity to make difficult and necessary changes, there are many challenges, certainly. But while the pathway is steep. But it is not insurmountable. And there will be many surprises along the way.
I’m a “Climate Citizen.” I know there is no short-term return from the damage we have already done to our planet. Much of what we have set in motion will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future, even with our best efforts. (Those plastic bags my son can’t imagine living without, they will eventually break down into smaller and smaller bits, but the plastic itself will be around virtually forever in our oceans and in our food and water supply). To do anything less than our best is to give in to despair that will consign our planet and the lives of our children and grandchildren to a terrifying and harsh future.
* * * * *
According to theologian Charles Mathewes, Hope allows us to “live as best we can in THIS world – the world that we find ourselves in, not the world that we tell ourselves should be.” This requires a form of realism, seeing the world as it is without either turning away (in denial or retreat or escape) or explaining away (through ideology). Hope refuses determinism and despair (which are but two sides of a coin). Which is risky. “We are far less comfortable with hope than we think we are.” As John Cleese says in the movie Clockwise, “It’s not the despair I mind, it’s the hope I can’t stand.”
So hope is fundamentally an attempt to communicate the volatility of the world. [By the volatility of the world Matthewes means the idea that] the way things are can change, change radically, sometimes for the worse, but also, sometimes, for the better. This hope is not optimism, for it does not visualize a route from the way things are now to the way they will be. It is rather a profound apprehension that “the way things are now” is not the final word.
Vincent Harding – the great African American historian and social activist, founder of the Veterans of Hope Project, tells the story of the time he visited a middle school in Denver on the occasion of a Martin Luther King day assembly.
When the student assembly was finished I was surrounded by a dozen or so students. One of them, an African-American young man who looked about 13 or 14, sidled up closer to me and said, “Dr. Harding, I’ve got a question to ask you.” With an interesting combination of boldness and wonder he asked, “If Dr. King knew that he could be killed at any time, why didn’t he just back off? Why didn’t he just chill out for a while?”
As I stood there, considering how I might share with my young friend the reality of Martin’s commitment, courage, and compassion, a young woman who looked about the same age as the questionnaire moved into my aid. “What do you mean, chill out? Dr. King couldn’t chill out. He had work to do.”
There it was. The word. For them, for me, for all of us, especially in times like these, when it seems so much easier to chill out, to back off and away from the hard, sometimes dangerous work of challenging the racism, the extreme materialism, the militarism, [and we must add climate threats] that threaten to undermine our best possibilities for creating a humane, compassionate, and nonviolent democracy, King’s kind of place. So the word continues: “we have work to do, not just to celebrate, admire, and praise [Martin]. But, like him, we have work to do, to be.
So friends, we have work to do. Are you ready to roll up your sleeves?
Are you ready? Are you ready to work? To work hard? (I kept asking until I heard…) Yes! Yes! For:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8]
And this is the ground of our hope. God is our hope. In this struggle to set our planet back on the thriving course which God intended, God is our hope. When we labor, we do not labor alone, we labor with God, because God is our hope. We do not face distress or hardship alone, we face these challenges with God. Because God is our hope.
In life, in death, and in life beyond death, we are not our own. We belong to God. Let’s get working.
 Charles Mathewes, Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. (John Cleese, p. 17 and volatility, p. )
 A Maryknoll Book of Inspiration: Readings for every Day of the Year. Michael Leach and Doris Goodnough, eds.
I don’t shave every day. I shave each Sunday for worship. I shave on Tuesdays, which tend to be days on which I have a lot of meetings and see a lot of people. I shave on Fridays, which are spent in my office and on pastoral calls. If weeks were only six days long that would work out neatly as every-other-day. I don’t shave on the seventh day either, my sabbath day, and today I remembered why. My son loves me with stubble. He loves caressing my chin and cheek after a day or two of growth. This morning he held my face and said “I like you.” I believe he was talking to my hair as much as to me.
I have offered to be a chaperone on a school field trip next month and he has requested that I grow a beard for the trip. Why not?!
My sabbath day today was spent perusing several books to understand the virtue of hope in the Augustinian tradition. Hope, according to Charles Mathewes, allows us to “live as best we can in the world – the world that we find ourselves in, not the world that we tell ourselves should be.” This requires a form of realism, seeing the world as it is without either turning away (in denial or retreat) or explaining away (through ideology and understanding). It refuses determinism and despair (two sides of a coin). Which is risky.
So hope is fundamentally an attempt to communicate the volatility of the world, the idea that the way things are can change, change radically, sometimes for the worse, but also, sometimes, for the better. This hope is not optimism, for it does not visualize a route from the way things are now to the way they will be. It is rather a profound apprehension that “the way things are now” is not the final word. (Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times)
The work before us then is a mixed blessing, both “to be delighted in and to be endured” as we are being prepared as citizens of the kingdom of heaven and waiting expectantly for unimaginable joy. – Companions today also included Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, and Eric Gregory’s Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship.
This was a busy seven days, so my week of reading multi-national literature was spent largely with poets from Spain: Juan Ramon Jimenez (Nobel Prize in 1956), Camilo Jose Cela (Nobel Prize in 1989), Frederico Garcia Lorca, Gerardo Diego, Antonio Machado, Gloria Fuertes, Angel Gonzalez, Luis Garcia Montero, and more. This included representatives of the Generation on ’98 (Machado), the Generation of 1914 (Jimenez) and the Generation of 1927 (Garcia Lorca), and two of the five Noble Prize winners from Spain (Jimenez and Cela). Spain has more Nobel Prizes in Literature that any other country, and with Latin America give the Spanish language the most Laureates of all. This photo of Frederico Garcia Lorca can stand on for the whole lot.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation, Sky Sunday, September 20, 2015
Psalm 19:1-6 Jeremiah 4:23-29
The oracle recorded by the prophet Jeremiah in today’s second scripture reading is one of the darkest passages in the entire Bible. In four parallel lines God systematically de-creates the world. God, who created the heavens and the earth, who saw them and called the good, now demolishes what God has created and returns it to nothing. The references to the creation story in Genesis (which we have been reading these past two weeks) are unmistakable, except that here there is a step-by-step subtraction from the “very good” creation upon which all life depends.
The lines proceed from the most general (heavens and earth) to the landscape of the earth (mountains and hills), to the inhabitants (humans and birds), and finally to the specific land of well-being God had guaranteed – Judah and Jerusalem itself.
These elements of creation are matched and trumped by terms of negation, ‘waste and void’ at the outset, ‘quaking and moving’ as signs of elemental instability, every line except the first summarizes with “all” – all hills, all birds, all cities – nothing spared, nothing held back, nothing protected, nothing guaranteed.
Listen for the Word of God.
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
There is a very startling line in our English translation near the end. Did you hear it? “The whole land shall be at desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” Is this a line of unexpected hope? It seems out of place. Or is the word not a later addition, as some scholars believe, so that the original read “And then I will make a full end!” Complete. Finished. Total. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested that John Calvin may have gotten it right when he understood this to mean added harshness, that God has not yet made an end to the devastation, that there is even more destruction to come. In other words, the unmaking of creation will be, to borrow language from climate scientists, a “slow catastrophe.”
And as the very earth systems that were designed to provide a garden of abundance for all cease to function as they were designed to, the earth mourns, and the sky grieves.
This is devastating stuff. I am devastated.
How could God abandon creation? Abandon us? What could’ve led Jeremiah to believe that things of gotten so bad that God would abandon the entire project of life?
Our children are upstairs right now studying the story of Noah’s Ark. They have a small LED generator and a prism that is casting rainbows upon the ceiling of the classroom – the very sign in the sky that declares that God has hung up God’s War Bow, and will never destroy us again.
Ah, but the biblical prophets have always known that we presume upon such promises to our peril. Do we not also know the words of the African-American spiritual; God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time? There is no escaping judgment. A world out of sync with its creator is not sustainable.
Of course, God DOES NOT abandon creation. God continues to see us, embrace us, and not forsake us – that is why we yet live. But that does not mean that we are unable – or prevented – from laying waste our earth home and visiting all kinds of evil upon one another. And that evil must be answered for. Psalm 19 declares that “The heavens are telling the glory of God” – that the sky bears witness to God’s goodness in creation. But for Jeremiah, the earth mourns and the sky grieves, having seen too much of what humans can do to the earth, its creatures, and one another. The earth and sky bear witness against us, they grieve how we have failed to care for one another and our world, clinging to idols of political and economic security rather than clinging to the sovereignty of God and God’s intentions in creation. And this is something we just don’t want to know!
Yet I must be pointed out that this passage
… is not a blueprint for the future. It is not a prediction. It is not an act of theology that seeks to scare into repentance. It is, rather, a rhetorical attempt to engage this dumb, unaware community in an imaginative embrace of what is happening. The world is becoming unglued. The [prophet Jeremiah] has the awesome burden of helping his people sense that their presumed world is in jeopardy, because God’s holy patience is fully ended.
Jeremiah tried to wake his people out of their active denial, to get them to see what was actually happening in their world and to take responsibility for it before it was too late. In Jeremiah’s time it was the threat of foreign invasion and the domestic failure to care for the widow, orphan and immigrant. But the ruling elite’s combined trust in military power and the dependability of creation led them to deny the future that was coming (for them). And so, in denial to the end, they watched their world disappear: their temple destroyed, their leaders killed, their elites sent into exile, and their poor burdened with the payment of tribute.
As I witness the migrant crisis which is unfolding in Europe, I cannot help but think that we are seeing our future. And I wonder whether we will wake up and take responsibility for what is happening. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing violent conflict and poverty in a “slow catastrophe” that began with what one person has called the “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent.” From 2006 to 2010 the years of the world food crisis and the Syrian drought, 75% of the crops failed, 85% of the livestock died, affecting 1.3 million people. 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihood and many moved, en masse, to the cities, which were already dealing with refugees from the U.S. led Iraq war. Unable to deal with the resulting food and water crisis in the cities, the Assad government, once thought immune from popular unrest, was overthrown as this drought driven catastrophe catalyzed the Arab Spring. The failure of the Syrian state then opened the door for civil war, ISIS, and the mass migration now taking place.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the biblical prophets frequently use the metaphor of the earth mourning and the sky grieving to refer to prolonged drought. Drought is the failure of all that sustains life. Because of anthropogenic(human caused) climate change droughts are now two to three times more likely, and each one is expected to be hotter and longer. When we look at the drought in California, in Texas, in the Sahel regions of Africa, in Sao Paulo, what we are seeing is the earth in mourning, and the heavens grieving. Just this week the Malawi Mission Network, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Presbyterian World Mission issued a call for prayer, fasting and action for the 2 million people of Malawi affected by serious food shortages brought on by torrential flooding followed by severe drought.
But here is what terrifies me. How we treat one another now, during these times of crisis, is indicative of how we will treat one another in the future, and the way we are treating one another now isn’t promising. If our own nation is willing to jail children fleeing violence and terror in their Latin American countries and allow them to languish in horrific limbo, if we think barbed wire border fences and 30 foot walls will keep that crisis at bay; if we are willing to take only 10,000 Syrian migrants while Europe is only willing to take a fraction of the hundreds of thousands that attempt to cross their borders, leaving them stranded behind barbed wires in Budapest and behind hastily erected walls at the Croatian border, I can’t imagine how we will treat one another when the climate catastrophe really hits.
My friends, Jeremiah calls us to repentance and responsibility, for what we are doing to this world and for what we are doing to one another. God loves this world so much God sent Jesus to call us home to it. We should be encouraged that God’s prophets use whatever language or action it takes, even imagining the unimaginable unmaking of creation, in order to shake us out of complacency. There are no promises, of course, that it will all turn out all aright, no matter what we do. The world CAN be unmade. Is being unmade at this moment. But God does promise to meet us if but return. God needs partners in the healing and re-creating of the world. As Pope Francis says in his recent encyclical Laudato Si, “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home…. Men and women are still capable of intervening positively…. All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” All we need to do is say, “Here I am, Lord.” Roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
 Walter Brueggemann, “Theology in Jeremiah: Creatio in Extremis” in Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah (Fortress Press, 2006) p. 41-55.
 Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah 1-25: To Pluck Up, To Tear Down. (Eerdmann’s, 1998) p. 57.
 Brueggemann, Jeremiah, 57-58.
A very peaceful day. I walked to the library to return and pick up a few books. I had my weekly cup of coffee at Hastings Tea Room while reading outside. And a bowl of the best clam chowder in the city. After school I took my son to the pet store to buy crickets for his gecko and then helped him focus on his homework. We had dinner and spent the evening in the park. Early to bed (but a long time falling asleep).
My focus for reading multi-national literature this week was inspired by the peace agreement reached by the P5 + 1 (U.S., U.K., China, France, Russia plus Germany) with Iran. On my church office shelves I have a copy of Paved With Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran which Barry Rubin published in 1980 during the hostage crisis (reviewed here by Daniel Pipes.) The book sought to answer the question, at a moment of high political stakes, “what did the U.S. do that so enrages Iranians?” Well, plenty. And since both the U.S. government and the Shah kidded themselves and one another about their true interests, the revolution of ’79 was doomed to be misunderstand, and be misunderstood by, the U.S.
In 2000, Marjane Satrapi published the first volume of Persepolis, an autobiographical graphic novel describing her childhood in Iran up to and including the revolution. In 2002 she published a second volume detailing her studies abroad in Vienna, her return to Iran, and her eventual emigration to France. The books won numerous awards and, in 2007, were turned into a major motion picture (which won a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival). I have wanted to read this for a long time.
Satrapi has written that since the 1979 revolution, “this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth… I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten.”
A good reminder.
And with the ridiculousness of the second Republican Candidate’s debate still echoing across social media platforms, the following is frightening…
Listening – despite trying not to – to the candidates speak about our country prompted me to move Chris Hedges’ American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America to my bedside table. Satrapi’s work is not only a plea for understanding across cultures, but a reminder of how quickly a civilization can be torn apart when fear, and fundamentalism win the day.
I finished my day with “Existence” by Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, one of Iran’s greatest modern poets, who died in 2000.
If this is life – how low!
and I, how shamed, if I don’t hang my lifetimes’s lamp
high on the dusty pine of this dead-end lane.
If this is life – how pure!
and I, how stained, if I don’t plant my faith like a mountain,
eternal memorial, to grace this ephemeral earth.
A dramatic reading presented at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation, Humanity Sunday, September 13, 2015. While it might seem like humanity gets pride of place throughout the rest of the year, Humanity Sunday is about restoring the proper place of humanity in the natural world. Our liturgy sustained and extended this message far beyond this drama. The drama is found on the Season of Creation website.
Reading 1: Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of Earth, and over every creeping things that creeps on Earth. So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them. God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill Earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon Earth. [Genesis 1:26-28]
Reading 2: Then the Lord God formed a human being from the dust of the ground and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life. And the human being became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the East. Then the Lord God took the human being and put the human being in the garden of Eden to serve and preserve it. Then out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal in the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the human being. [Genesis 2:7-8, 15, 19]
Voice 1: I am the first human being, the voice of the human being in Genesis One. I am Adam and Eve. I am humanity!
Voice 2: I am the first human being, the voice of the human being in Genesis Two. I am Adam and Eve. I am humanity!
Voice 1: God made me in a special way. The word of God in Genesis One says so!
Voice 2: And God made me in a special way. The word of God in Genesis Two says so!
Voice 1: I am created in the image of God. Do you understand? The very image of God!
Voice 2: I have been made personally by God. Do you understand? By God’s own hands!
Voice 1: I am like God, created in God’s own likeness.
Voice 2: I am liked by God. I even live in a garden where God likes to walk and talk!
Voice 1: I have human reason. That makes me superior to all other living creatures! Superior! Get it!
Voice 2: I am flesh taken from Earth itself and formed by the breath that comes from God, just as the other creatures. So I am kin with all other creatures. We are family! Do you understand family?
Voice 1: Family? Fiddlesticks! I have dominion over all creatures. I dominate! I tame! I rule all other creatures.
Voice 2: I have a partnership with all other creatures. We are friends.
Voice 1: I am authorized by God to subdue Earth, to harness nature, to put creation under my feet. Yes, to control your friends!
Voice 1: I can conquer creation. I rule! I rule!
Voice 2: I groan with creation. When you rule, I suffer. I suffer!
Voice 1: I am the king of Earth. I bear the image of God! I am king over creation! I rule!
Voice 2: I am a servant on Earth, caring for creation.
Voice 1: I am king, God said so! God said so!
Voice 2: I am a servant, God said so!
Voice 3: Wait just a minute! Stop your arguing!
Voices 1 & 2: I have God’s word on my side!
Voice 3: Sure you have! But do you have the final word? Do you have Jesus’ word? Do you?
Voice 3: Who is the one who reflects the true image of God on Earth? Come on! Who?
Voice 1& 2: Jesus Christ!
Voice 3: Who is the true servant of God? Come on. Who?
Voice 1& 2: Jesus Christ!
Voice 3: And how does Jesus invite us to live? To rule like the Romans and dominate like their Caesars?! Or to follow the way of the cross and serve as Christ came to serve? Listen to his word from the Gospel for today!
So Jesus called the disciples and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over the, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not to be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Humanity came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. [Mark 10:42-45]
Voice 1, 2 & 3: This is the Gospel of our Lord. We are to serve as Christ served. Lord, teach us to serve.
These stories tell us about ourselves – our power and our vocation. we need both of them. Following the scripture presentation, the congregation took time to write about our own power over creation and our practice of preservation. We then sang the hymn, ‘God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens.”