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An Ecological Ethic of Care

July 23, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 20, 2014

Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24          Genesis 28: 10-19a

Last week Pastor Jeff encouraged us to try the practice of keeping a manna jar, to write down signs of God’s blessings and presence in our lives on little slips of paper and place them in a container.  In the morning of the next day we were to take out the papers, read and remember those signs, and then let them go so that the jar would be empty and ready to be refilled.

As I thought of things to place in the manna jar this week, I noted how specific or particular were the blessings I encountered.  They were all tied to a specific place, a particular person, an unrepeatable moment in time.  In the manna jar, I placed the joy of seeing a dolphin leap and dance out the water on the beach in Florida where I was earlier this week.  I placed in the jar a conversation I had up in the enormous, sturdy branches of a Banyan tree with a friend I’ve known for 18 years.  I placed in the jar the feeling of warm air and relief as I left the surgeon’s office with good news for my upcoming jaw surgery.

Yes, we know that God is everywhere and in everything but we humans encounter God in particular places and moments in our lives, moments of connection with one another, with the created world, with the presence of the living God.  They are ordinary and sacred moments that deepen our care for one another and the earth.

Jacob encounters God in a dream, a vision in the night.  He is on the run, disconnected from family and community.  He stole his brother Esau’s blessing from their father, Isaac and now he’s an outcast.  When Jacob lay down to sleep that night,  he was very much alone.  But the dream changes and reconnects him.

He sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth and angels moving up and down the ladder. Walter Brueggeman notes, “Those angels in that vision are connectors.  And this man in exile is disconnected, and what he discovers in his vulnerability is that he is connected.”[i] God, standing beside Jacob, reminds him that he is part of generations of blessing, a blessing so large that it encompasses all nations, all the earth.  Jacob awakens with a deeper knowing of his connection to God and to the human community and to the earth itself, the dust of the earth.

Jacob stumbled into that site as night was falling.  He did not recognize that God was in that place until the gracious gift of that dream but now he recognizes God’s presence saturates that ground, the night air, the early dawn, the rock pillow that becomes the foundation for an altar.  Jacob now approaches this place with care.  Jacob declares the site, Bethel, the house of God because that is where Jacob noticed the nearness of God.

The drama of Jacob’s dream – the incredible image of a ladder connecting the heavens and the earth, the awesome fear-inspiring presence of celestial beings – may distract us from the very ordinariness of this encounter with God, the mundane circumstances that host sacred revelation.  God uses the ordinary stuff of creation – Jacob’s lonely night under the stars, the bread and wine we share, our laughter and tears – to reveal the sacred and to call us to deeper love and care for all that God has created.

This summer I’ve been slowly working through the essays of Kathleen Dean Moore, a Philosophy Professor and nature writer from the Pacific Northwest.  She writes with vivid detail about the creation she observes and what is revealed in it.  She tells the story of a nighttime spent with her daughter, listening on a small island off the west coast.  I heard echoes of Jacob’s dream in her words describing the revelation of that night:

“But if you sit still in the dark, breathing quietly, the world will come to life around you. Astonishment will rise in you like the slow tide, sliding in under the soles of your feet.  And then you will understand: you are kin in a family of living things, aware in a world of awareness, alive in a world of lives, breathing as the shrimp breathe, as the kelp breathes, as the water breathes, as the alders breathe, the slow in and out.  Except for argon and some nitrogen, every gas that enters your lungs was created by some living creature – oxygen by plankton, carbon dioxide by the hemlocks. Every breath you take weaves you into the fabric of life.”[ii]

I’ve heard many people say in the last couple of days, “This was a hard week, a heavy week.”  It feels as if the fabric of life is unraveling.  In light of all that is happening in the world – acts of war, mass movement of refugees, local tragedies of violence, and the pain that is simply a part of life – the office of the Presbyterian Church offered a prayer for use in worship, which we will use during the Prayers of the people.  The prayer begins with these words: God of light we praise you for the wonder and glory of this world and the many blessings we have received. Still, at times the darkness is like a night and it feels you have hidden your face from your people. [iii]

This prayer speaks of a different nighttime than the one that Moore describes or the night of Jacob’s dream of brilliant celestial light.  In the long night of pain and tragedy in our world –the land and people – we are called to reveal God’s nearness to one another, to rebuild what Kathleen Dean Moore calls an “ecological ethic of care.”  Listen to how she describes this way of caring,

“I think [Philosophy’s] ethic of care has it right: The care we feel for people is the ground of our moral responsibilities toward them.  And I think Aldo Leopold [the American ecologist] has it right: Our moral responsibility to care for the land grows from our love for the land and from the intricate, life-giving relationships between people and their places. Then doesn’t it follow? – that our moral calling must be to reknit and cherish healthy webs of connection not only to people, or not only to land, but also to families, human communities, landscapes, and biotic communities – all our relations.

What we need next is a new ethic – call it an ‘ecological ethic of care’, call it a ‘moral ecology’.  It’s an ethic built on caring for people and caring for places, and on the intricate and beautiful ways that love for places and love for people nurture each other and sustain us all.”[iv]

Alone in the desert, Jacob encountered God in a place and through a people.  He cared for the place and returned to it in later years.  He cared for the people – in his own broken human way.  This is our work: to care for people and places that we encounter because they are holy; to let the love that we feel for the people and places we know and cherish move us to love people and places that we do not know; to be aware of God’s presence in unexpected messengers; and, to be, ourselves, the ordinary stuff of creation through which God draws near in the long night.




God of light we praise you for the wonder and glory of this world and the many blessings we have received. Still, at times the darkness is like a night and it feels you have hidden your face from your people. The most vulnerable and innocent among us seem to be hemmed in by violence and conflict. This week we realized that no place is safe—not home, not a 2,000-mile trek through rainforests and deserts, not 30,000 feet up. Yet, we profess that you know all things, count the hair on our heads, and know our rising and our sitting. How can this be?

God we are saddened by the news reports of people taken too soon from this world and we shake our head with disbelief when we see the bodies of children carrying the ravages of war. It seems as though the only ones in the crosshairs of violence are those with no power, little to gain, and much to lose. They pay with the thing you hold most precious, the very breath you breathed into our lungs.

May your Spirit of peace and wisdom descend on the Middle East. May the words and actions of Abram haunt the leaders of Palestine and Israel. May they rescue one another, become great nations, and bless all peoples on earth. Protect the innocent and send prophets among them and their leaders to find a just resolution. Grant this through Christ our Lord

Wars rage on the ground, the sea, and in the air in the Ukraine, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and many other places. Families mourn the loss of loved ones and are robbed of hope for a future for their children. Help us see the painful reality that conflict zones cannot be contained. Comfort the grieving and burden the rest of us with this senseless loss of life. Open the way for aid agencies and those offering relief, give them courage and resources to ease the immediate suffering they encounter. Grant this through Christ our Lord

Walk with children fleeing homes terrorized by gang violence, crushing poverty, and drug wars. We know they carry a singular hope, to have abundant life that you have promised us. The journey is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Hold them in your arms and nurture the hope planted in them by their families and your Spirit and do not allow it to be crushed by hatred and racism. Grant this through Christ our Lord

Break our hearts Holy God by the reality that faces so many of your people. Let the scales fall from our eyes so that we may see how our own choices and passive acceptance of U.S. policy contribute to unrest and injustice. Grant this through Christ our Lord

God grant us the grace and courage to work for all these things that we pray. Help turn sadness into righteous anger and action. May we know your ways, and beat our weapons of destruction into instruments of reconciliation and creation. It is an honor to be agents of your peace so that this world will know and confess your name.

In the name of the one who taught us to pray:

[i] Moyers, Bill. Genesis: A Living Conversation (New York: Doubleday, 1996), p. 292.

[ii] Moore, Kathleen Dean. The Pine Island Paradox (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2004), p. 54.


[iv] Moore, Kathleen Dean. The Pine Island Paradox (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2004), p. 64-65.



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