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An Interlude on Eating – Climate Change & Environmental Justice Sunday

September 6, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The First Sunday in the Season of Creation: Climate Change and Environmental Justice, September 2, 2018

Mark 7:1-23

The Season of Creation was first adopted in 1989 by the Greek Orthodox Church. It spread rapidly among protestant churches in Australia, Europe, the United States and Canada, promoted by the World Council of Churches. In 2016 Pope Francis urged its observance by all Catholics. Resources for worship this year were prepared by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and reflect the global nature of our observance.[i]

I submitted my sermon title earlier this week. I called it “An Interlude on Eating” because the whole of the seventh chapter of the Gospel According to Mark is about food, and food justice. It is about who eats, with whom, what they eat, and how. It is situated between Jesus’ feeding of five thousand in chapter six and his feeding of four thousand in chapter eight. But what happens here in this interlude is crucial for understanding the issues these two feedings (as well as Jesus’ willingness to eat with ‘sinners and tax-collectors’) raised for his opponents and, eventually, among his disciples. And it will be the failure to work through these issues with Jesus that will foster the disciples growing resistance to the direction Jesus’ prophetic ministry was heading.

The first half of chapter seven, which we will read today, is literally about food, while the second half of the chapter, which we will read next week, uses food figuratively as a metaphor for ways we relate to one another. Together they lay the groundwork for the more inclusive fellowship Jesus is nurturing over against the religious and ethnic nationalism of the Pharisees.

This is also the last controversy Jesus will have with the Pharisees who have dogged his steps ever since he began his prophetic ministry in the village of Capernaum on a Sabbath morning not so long ago. Jesus has been healing, feeding, and freeing people throughout Galilee, renewing the fabric of covenant economics of ancient Israel in village after village. And the Pharisees have followed him – challenging Jesus’ assertion that humans can forgive one another (2:1-12); Jesus’ willingness to eat with sinners (2); his willingness to pluck grain and heal on the Sabbath day; and, now, his free feeding of five thousand without rules, ritual, or restrictions. The Pharisees were representatives of the temple-state in Jerusalem, and in our passage today they criticize some of Jesus’ disciples for not recognizing the authority of the temple traditions (the tradition of the elders) and for not observing the purity practices of the Pharisees – ritually washing their hands and utensils and only eating certain foods. Essentially, the Pharisees accuse some of Jesus disciples of behaving like Gentiles. Oh, if they only knew that when this encounter is over Jesus is going to cross the lake and repeat the free feeding, actually eating with Gentiles, they would be beside themselves.

Let’s listen to the encounter:

Read: Mark 7:1-23

On the final night of my vacation, I headed down to the beach in Naples, Florida to catch the sunset. Watching sunsets has always been an important part of my time in Florida. I get great peace from being by the water, and there were precious few opportunities to see ‘ the show’ during this past month. Though the forecast threatened rain, I took my chances and headed to the beach. I joined a small group gathered on the beach and was rewarded with quite a display. Off to the south, the sky was a beautiful blue, without a cloud in the sky. Just expansive, endless blue. Off to the north, however, the sky was grey, with the vertical lines that indicated that it was raining just a couple of miles out over the gulf. And right in front of me the top half of the sky was dominated by an imposing black cloud, a solid line across the horizon. But when the sun dipped below this line, oh, the most dazzlingly gold sun I have ever seen. Brilliant. It lit up the whole beach. I wore sunglasses. And then the thunderclap. It was so loud all of us on the beach jumped. And then the lightening. It streaked all through the sky – south, north, straight ahead – cutting bright lines through the blue, the gray and the black. It looked as if the sun were exploding. I have never seen anything like it. An English woman standing beside me suggested that if it were to start snowing we would have seen everything; I mentioned that hail was not out of the question. When the rain started, in large, fat drops plopping in the sand, we all turned to go. And stopped still, with an audible gasp. There, in front of the battle-grey cloud that dominated the heavens, stood a glorious rainbow – its red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet bands illuminated by the golden sunlight bouncing back to us off the reflective cloud.

2018-08-24 19.46.56

The rainbow – mentioned in our prayer of confession this morning – the sign of God’s covenant with all creation, God’s declaration that God intends for us life and not destruction. It was a welcome sign, and moved me deeply. This quasi-apocalyptic scene and heavenly sign was a fitting end to my vacation in which I had grown increasingly saddened by our capacity to ignore the harm we human beings wreck in creation.

I spent nearly all four weeks of my vacation in Southwest Florida, staying with my mom and visiting my grandmother. I had taken my son and my niece there for what we called “Grammie Camp.” My mom cooked up for them an immersion in Southwest Florida ecology (plus daily swims in the pool and other adventures). Together, we

  • Walked boardwalks through swampland;
  • Hiked the wilderness through cypress groves and mangrove forests, sharing the trail with gators;
  • Visited ecology and nature centers, bird rookeries, and botanical gardens;
  • Witnessed watershed preservation efforts;
  • Toured an wildlife rehabilitation hospital; and
  • Toured an eco-farm run by a Christian organization for the purpose of sharing best practices in sustainable agriculture learned from indigenous communities around the world.

What we did not do, was swim at the beach. All the Gulf Coast beaches south of the Caloosahatchee River are closed on account of deadly Red Tide. The Red Tide is a naturally occurring algae bloom that often appears in the late summer months. It is deadly to marine life and hazardous to humans, particularly those prone to asthma. But the Red Tide this year is already in its tenth month. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency. The beaches are all closed to swimmers. The sands in Fort Myers, Estero, Sanibel, Bonita Springs, and Naples are littered with dead fish that fed on the toxic algae or suffocated in the oxygen depleted water. One of the trips we intended to take in ‘Grammie Camp’ was to Mound Island in Estero, which had been the home of the Calusa, the native Floridians 500 years ago. The island can only be reached by kayak, and all the kayak companies were closed. Fishing has been declared catch-and-release only, which has depressed commercial fishing and driven recreational fisher elsewhere. The anxiety in the tourist industry was palpable.[ii]

The problem is exacerbated by the addition of another toxic algae with origins in Lake Okeechobee, which is the second largest freshwater lake entirely in the United States. This blue-green algae flourishes in the phosphorous rich waters of the lake – a result of agricultural runoff: fertilizers from lawns and farms, pesticides from sugar-cane fields. When water is released from the swollen lake during the rainy season, the algae forms a plume down the Caloosahatchee River, enters Estero Bay, and take up residence in every small cove and inlet. This toxic mix of algae flourishes in the unusually warm waters of the Gulf, a partial result of global warming.[iii]

In addition to the unimaginable tons of dead fish on the beaches, this deadly tide has claimed the lives of forty-one dolphin, one hundred and fifteen manatees, and a twenty-six-foot whale shark. But spookier than the bather free beaches, was the absence of birds. The terns, snowy plovers and sand pipers (you know the that chase the retreating water and then run away from the waves, over and over) – all gone

The evidence of our carelessness with creation was everywhere, and I did not need ’eyes to see.’ Destruction was unmistakable.

This is our fifth year observing the liturgical Season of Creation. Part of the reason for this new season is the recognition that the liturgical year is largely built around the life of Jesus, with the Season of Pentecost set aside to focus on the work of the Holy Spirit, but there is no season dedicated to our Creator; no season focused especially on our place in the created world and our vocation as human beings responsible to and for the world we live in. And this kind of attention is urgently needed today.

We live with what theologian Norman Wirzba called ecological amnesia. The causes for this are both physical and existential. Physically, we live at a distance from the productive use of land. Few of us see, let alone work in, the fields and farms where our food is produced. But existentially, we can get along just fine without knowing how deeply we need the earth. To get on with our daily lives we simply do not need to know about our connection with local, regional and global ecologies. We don’t notice the slow catastrophe of climate change until is disrupts our enjoyment of life, until it affects us.[iv]

You would think that with sinking cities in rising waters, with extreme weather exacerbated by climate change, Southwest, Florida would be acutely aware of environmental threats, but I did not see that evidence.

As I walked around my mom’s neighborhood I could see the damage from Hurricane Irma, that struck the Gulf Coast on this weekend last year, much of it still in need of repair. The water rose as far as my mom’s street, creeping right up to her garage door. And this, even though the expected nine-foot storm surge never materialized. If it had, water would have flooded my mom’s place (and submerged by grandmother’s). Yet just a few miles north of my mom’s home, a developer is draining a wetland and cutting down a woodland to build new homes regardless of the threat. Is he telling prospective homeowners that they will be in a mandatory evacuation zone? The construction has further displaced black bear who have now migrated south to my mom’s neighborhood where we twice saw them foraging for food, going so far as to enter her neighbor’s back porch to eat birdseed. These bear have no future now.[v]

Yet at this moment many churches have yet to even mention ’climate change’ in worship, or wrestle with the uneven way costs and consequences of our ecological denial are born by poor communities and communities of color, an unevenness known as environmental racism. Churches continue devising new building projects without having a single conversation about rising sea levels and how they will affect coastal cities. Much that passes as worship in our churches serves as an escape from these hard realities rather than as a space for helping us hear and receive this painful information in the context of our creator’s loving and reconciling work in the world.

To return to our scripture…

When the Pharisees question the behavior of some of Jesus’ disciples, Jesus does not defend them. Instead Jesus seems to take the approach that the best defense is a good offence. He attacks the tradition of the elders itself, calling it a pious disguise for the practice of injustice. “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” he says. A better translation might read, “How piously you ignore the requirements of God.” In saying this, Jesus places himself in the lineage of the prophets. He cites Isaiah, who calls out those who use religion as an evasion of moral responsibility, but alludes to Amos, who condemns ritual sacrifice and ritual practice in favor of justice, and of Jeremiah who looks for a new covenant written on the heart.[vi]

Jesus will, in the next several chapters of Mark’s Gospel, repeatedly urge his disciples to

  • Listen
  • Pay attention
  • Be Aware
  • Wake up

And in his most desperate hour, Jesus will ask his disciples to stay awake with him. He will do this because they (and we) have a tendency to drift into drowsiness when difficulties arise.

As a congregation that has woken up to the deadly threat climate change and environmental racism, we cannot go back to sleep. But we recognize how easy it would be. We observe the Season of Creation in this congregation as a way of staying awake to the complex, challenging, frightening and painful problems of our day. We do so to fight our ecological amnesia by reconnecting with our creator, reveling in the beauty of the created world, and taking responsibility for its precarity.

By the way, I recently learned the world precarity comes from an old English word that means ‘filled with prayers.’ To acknowledge the precarity of our world is to fill it with all our payers, for life, for health, for healing and wholeness.[vii]

As a hymn of commitment, let us sing “Touch the Earth Lightly.”

 

 

[i] Seasonofcreation.org

[ii] A brief history of the Calusa is briefly described, in the context of climate change and threats to Southwest Florida, is described by Jeff Goodall in The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. (Little, Brown and Company, 2017). pp. 26-30.

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/31/us/algae-toxic-florida-dead-animals-red-tide.html

[iv] Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation. (IVP, 2012). Chapter 1: Reconciliation with the Land, pp. 19-40.

[v] See Jeff Goodall, op. cit. on the level of denial among those truly shaping development in Florida. Goodall says the practices of realtors and real estate developers as Russian Roulette.

[vi] Martha Moore-Keish, Feasting on the Gospels – Mark. Edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson. (WJK, 2014). pp. 200-205.

[vii] Robert Bly, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: A Poetry Anthology. (HarperPerennial, 2011). p. 35.

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