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Reclaiming Land and Life – Land Sunday

September 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pineapple ‘hijos’ ready for spraying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creator God you are always with me.

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

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

And then I am glad.[2]

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

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

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

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