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Black Bodies, Green Spaces

July 9, 2019

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“Elijah Hears the Still Small Voice of God”
by artist Janet McKenzie

Word of God, Word of Earth – Part II
1 Kings 19:1-16

This is the second 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 in by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation.[i] For the next few weeks we will be exploring this topic through the Elijah and Elisha narratives in First and Second Kings.

The big story here is that Elijah, like Moses and Job, is exposed to the wild otherness of God in the awesome power of earth, wind and fire, only to be given a task – to appoint a new king (and in so doing initiate a coup against an unjust ruler), and to appoint a successor. The danger in what Elijah is being asked to do may have something to do with the urgent need to prepare someone to take his place if things go south. That’s the big story, but we may relish in the details.

There has been a drought and consequent famine in the lands of ancient Israel. This ecological crisis is a personal matter between Israel’s notoriously unjust ruler, King Ahab, and the God of heaven and earth. King Ahab, with the help of his wife Jezebel, has led all Israel in the worship of another God, a foreign god who, it turns out, cannot make it rain. Government policy, however, favors and follows this foreign god and produces prophets who bless official oppression. This ‘other’ god authorizes the killing of God’s true prophets and, with the prophets out of the way, this ‘other’ god approves the expropriation of poor-peoples’ land. Before our story opens we learn that Elijah had organized a public demonstration against the king and sorely humiliated these false and sycophantic prophets of elite power and extractive greed with a powerful display of the true God’s power over the elements. He also, in sad imitation of Ahab and Jezebel, or perhaps in retribution, put all the prophets of Baal to death and subsequently fled for his life. As our reading today opens, Elijah has a price on his head. And he is on the run.

I preached a Lenten sermon on this text last year in which I suggested that Elijah is, on Mt. Horeb, wrestling with his quite justified fear of the consequences of his prophetic action.[i] However, there are other dimensions I want to lift up today as we continue our summer reading strategy of attending to the natural imagery in the story.

THE BROOM TREE BEYOND BEERSHEBA

First, Elijah flees to Beersheba, which is about as far as it is possible to run while still being within the land of Yahweh, the jurisdiction of Judah. Any further and he truly enters the wild, which he will, of course, soon enough. From there Elijah travels one day further toward the wild and hides himself under a broom tree. The allusion, twice, to this being a solitary broom tree underscores the prophet’s sense of loneliness and isolation. “I am the only one left,” he cries to God; though it turns out he is far from the only one left. The prophet Obadiah has hidden and protected scores of prophets in caves throughout Israel (1 Kings 18:2-6). More on that in a bit. But the broom tree itself evokes a Elijah’s mood – which commentators describe as downcast, distressed, dismayed, discouraged, disheartened, depressed – a whole lot ‘d’ words. But also quite self-pitying and even whiny as Elijah declares his wish that God allow him to die.

  • It was under a broom tree just beyond Beersheba that Hagar and her infant child Ishmael lay down to die when jealous and fearful Sarah instructed her husband Abraham to cast out her servant and his first born son. And Hagar and Ishmael were fed by an angel (Gen 21).
  • The prophet Job, when the discouraging encouragement of this friends failed to lift his spirit (or even address his complaints) – Job evoked the broom tree as a place of desolation, ruin even abandonment by God (Job 30:3-4).
  • The psalmist too connects the broom tree with mourning, distress and punishment (Psalm 120).[ii]

A broom tree is where one goes to die, abandoned by God. But it is also the place where one is recued, fed, and sent on one’s way – by an angel (Hagar), toward a cosmic vision (Job 38), or through pilgrimage and prayer (Psalm 120 leads to Psalm 121).

Elijah, like those before him, crawls under the tree to die. He sleeps; perchance to dream? It is interesting that the entire encounter of being fed may occur in a dream state, as a vision of sustenance. Elijah is told to eat, for he needs his strength for the journey ahead. This is, of course, the last thing Elijah expects. Journey ahead? You can almost hear him ask, “What journey? I came here to die.” But God has others plans.

ON CAVES, CORPSES, AND CRIMINALS

Up and on his way again, Elijah travels forty days and forty nights until he comes to Mt. Horeb, the Mountain of God. Moses called it this mountain Sinai, but it is the same mountain. It was here that God appeared to Moses in loud thunder and bright lightning, a display of elemental power that left Moses’ face shiny. Here God ‘passed by’ and Moses was forever changed. This is mountain where God gave to Moses the very covenant about which Elijah is so zealous. Here, in God’s home, Elijah hides. In a cave.

When I mentioned to my twelve-year-old son that Elijah hid himself in a cave, without any other prompting from the story he shouted, “You don’t hide in a cave! Caves are where you bury dead people.” And of course he was right. Abraham with his sons and daughters-in-law are buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Lazarus was buried in a cave. As was Jesus.

Caves were also used as hideouts for criminals and as meeting places for guerilla fighters. We should not forget that when Ahab and Jezebel began killing God’s prophets, Obadiah had hidden from them scores of prophets in caves to preserve and protect them. And we might remember that the young shepherd and mercenary David – soon to be king – conspired a coup against his own king in a cave. Elijah is, of course, on the run as just such a criminal and outlaw.

THE THEATER OF GOD’S GLORY[iii]

Elijah may try to hide, but God instructs him to come out so that he might experience God’s presence as God ‘passes by.’ Elijah, knowing that no one but Moses might see God and live, wraps his mantle, a kind of cloak, tightly about his face so that he is not overwhelmed, which gives the scene a slightly surreal auditory sense – Elijah only hears the earthquake, the violent wind, and could only feel the heat of the fire. And while the King James Bible has led us all to believe that God spoke in a “still small voice,” the text says that there was a ‘pregnant silence.’ One can imagine Elijah, with his eyes closed and head wrapped tightly in his mantle, straining after what might come next – expectant, waiting, anxious. Only then does God speak, and our text does not say that the voice was small or quiet. It was, in fact, crystal clear and what it said unmistakable: “Go back, Elijah. I still have work for you to do.”[iv]

I know the text says that God was not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire. But God was not entirely absent either. as we sang earlier

Storm and Stillness, Breath and Dove,
Thunder, Tempest, Whirlwind, Fire,
Comfort, Counselor, Presence, Love,
Energies that never tire:

May the church at prayer recall
that no single holy name
but the truth behind them all
is the God whom we proclaim.
(Hymn 11 – Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud)

We are going to learn much more about Elijah and his disciple Elisha next week. This week, I want to linger a bit longer on the experience of God in the natural world that these prophets were so open to which kept them ‘grounded’ in the covenant justice, love and peace of God and infused their witness with spirit.

BLACK BODIES, GREEN SPACES

Last weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Harvard professor Tiya Alicia Miles. Miles teaches cultural history and her research interests include the way Native American and African American histories are intertwined. Her piece for the Times was called “Black Bodies, Green Spaces” and addressed the question, “Why is the image of an environmentally conscious African American hard for us to picture?” She opens with a reference to comedian Wanda Sykes’ new Netflix special, “Not Normal.”

“Black people,” declares Sykes, “we need a better publicist.”

Ms. Sykes has just told the story of a black security guard in Chicago who apprehended a gunman and then was himself shot by the police. Her solution for changing the perception of African-Americans as dangerous is a nationwide publicity campaign featuring photos of black people doing “fun, nonthreatening, frivolous” stuff — bowling, for instance, or “something environmental” like taking out the recycling. Ms. Sykes reaches for an imaginary waste bin and tips one foot at a perky angle that says she is ready for do-gooder action, sending the crowd into uproarious laughter.

I wondered, as I watched (and chuckled), [opines Miles,] what makes this image of Ms. Sykes taking out the recycling so funny? At least part of the laughter is elicited by an unspoken asymmetry that viewers can recognize regardless of their racial identity: the image of a black woman being “environmental” versus the picture of the environmentalist that most Americans carry around in their heads.

More than 30 years into the movement for environmental justice, and more than a decade into a global, multiracial campaign led by groups like 350.org to raise awareness about climate change and push governments into action, many Americans still do not associate black people with environmental engagement. But this notion of African-Americans existing apart from natural environments is more than just a contemporary stereotype ripe for satire; it all but ignores crucial aspects of American experience. The truth is that African-Americans’ relationship to the environment is complicated and runs deep.[v]

I encourage you to read the entire piece as it explores this ‘complicated relationship’ from slavery to sharecropping and from the death of reconstruction and outright land theft to the Great Migration. I was reminded of it repeatedly during the congressional hearings on reparations this week. A link to the article is provided in your bulletin this morning.

And yet, as I have shared this article with black members of the congregation and neighbors this week I was greeted with a great laugh-back: “Black people have always recycled,” they chuckled. Which confirmed my own experience. When I first read the article I immediately felt, “we’ve got this!” Meaning we, in this congregation, with our mission commitments to confront the triple threats of structural racism, systemic poverty and climate change, we simply are the publicity campaign for environmentally conscious Black-Americans, as well as Asian, Indian, Hispanic and white Americans, all together caring for our world and one another. And so I began imaging what a local campaign might look like, answering the question about black Americans first, and by the end of the week I had dozens of photos of black members of our congregation displaying their love of, care for, and work on behalf of our environment, the natural world, all creation.

  • Here is Olga, at 93, standing in her rooftop garden with a sign that reads, “I love to spend time in my vegetable garden” beside a photo of four year old from Malawi working in our church garden.

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  • Here is Carmen standing beside an open door of her car holding a large bag in one hand and a sign in the other which reads, “ I deliver plastic bags and plastic containers to the soup kitchen every week for re-use.” Did you know that you can deliver your bags and take out containers like this one [holding it up] that I received Indian take-out in last night, and Carmen will give it another life before it is recycled?

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  • Here is Barbara (doing her best Wanda Sykes imitation) who recycles both at home and at the church, and Beryl enjoying summer beauty while disposing of her plastics.

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  • Here is Edna who became a vegetarian for her health and the planet.

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  • Our member Jackie, who is camera shy, submitted this photo of her colleagues at school displaying their love of nature, love of children, and love of teaching.

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  • Here is Avis who helped raise over $6000 last spring to care for our watershed and help children in the Bronx learn from and enjoy the river the seat of canoe. Shout out to our mission partners in the Bronx River Alliance. 

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  • Here is Food Justice advocate L.S., who coordinates our local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to support local farmers, food justice, and healthy eating. This is our fourth year working with the farm, distributing fresh produce every Saturday right out of our front hall.

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  • And here is Norma, who travelled (with La-Sheila) to Peru to learn about Climate Change on a church sponsored trip. 

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  • Here is Leslie, and her daughter Adina, camping in the great outdoors.

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  • Here’s Sharon, who loves walking through creation.

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  • Here are the Nifty Thrifties, running our Thrift Shop.

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  • Here we are, West Indian, Native American, and white protesting a local gas pipeline.

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  • Here we are all together at the People’s Climate March in 2014.

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1924382_776448099082706_923714326797387762_nSporting our Presbytery T-Shirt: “Climate Changed. Will We?

The photos keep coming in. Even as I was putting my notes together for this sermon I received this photo of Kitty, representing not only herself but the entire garden club, holding a sign that read “Spring brings forth the rain and flowers which is a manifestation of the miracle of life. All our garden club members invest our time and effort in preserving the beauty of God’s creation by planting in our gardens  trees, flowers & shrubs which helps to extract carbon dioxide from the air and supply oxygen to sustain life.”

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And as I look around the congregation this morning we could magnify this testimony with each of your stories. Each and every one of us. God comes to us in the natural world, calls to us, speaks to us, surprises us with beauty and ravishes us with wonder.

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness, ” Lord, unto me!

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Our congregation in 2016 witnessing green

[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.

[i] https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2018/03/12/forty-days-hiding-in-fear-with-elijah/

[ii] https://fivetalents.org/blog/2017/8/21/beneath-the-broom-tree-discovering-hope-in-the-deepest-moments-of-suffering

[iii] This is John Calvin’s name for the Book of Nature, or what I am referring to the Word of Earth.

[iv] See also Walter Brueggemann, Walter. 1 and 2 Kings. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. (Smyth and Helwys, 2000)for a description of how the elemental display as well as this silence, “whatever is was,” served to get Elijah’s attention.

[v] Tiya Miles, “Black Bodies, Green Spaces: Why is the image of an environmentally conscious African American hard for us to picture?” New York Times, June 15, 2019.

 

 

 

 

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