Archives for category: Creation

a Watershed Approach

Sermon given the fourth Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2018 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Seattle.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. (and) Happy Earth Day. It is an honor to share with you a reflection on today’s scriptures in this season of the resurrection, as all creation waits for the coming reign of God the Creator, Source of abundant and everlasting Life.

My husband, Christopher and I come to you from lower Queen Anne, via Chicago. We tried to live away from mountains while I started a doctoral program in theology and ethics, but Lake Michigan is a bit unsettling for some of us—it’s on the wrong side, for one, and then it just drops off at the horizon. So, we’re back; and it is good to be back. Before going further, I want to acknowledge that we are worshiping in the Duwamish watershed, so named for the river and the people who have shared their identity, united by water and salmon for a great long time.

Take a moment and imagine waking up one morning, looking out the window, and there stands a flock of sheep milling about. You think, perhaps the neighbors decided they needed some mowing done—but, no. When you walk out the door, their big brown eyes focus on you, expectantly. One particularly fluffy, and disheveled, ewe ambles in your direction. They are hungry, thirsty, and a little unnerved. These are not urban creatures, and unlike goats, they won’t tackle the blackberry hedge down by the tracks at Golden Gardens. So, where might you take them for food? Aside from the garden hose tap, where is the nearest source of freshwater? How do you even begin to care for these creatures?

sheep on the hillsidePsalm 23 paints a bucolic scene of an attentive shepherd leading his animals to dewy green pastures and calm streams. The poem is a song of trust, attributed to David, sung to Yahweh. The biblical imagery is familiar both from other places in scripture, and (for ancient listeners) from the hillsides and wadis surrounding towns in the ancient world. For the psalm to speak of lush pastures and clear water, followed by a table set and a cup that overflows—these are signs of abundant life. Such life is contrasted with the threat of death: a deep dark shadow, the presence of enemies.

In their collective contexts, the motif of God our good shepherd is familiar to the ‘Jews’ (using John’s language) of Jesus’ time, particularly the religious elite. The word most often translated as ‘good’ (for good shepherd) can also mean ‘noble’; it’s antonym is not “bad” but, rather, shameful. Thus the shepherd willing to lay down his or her life for the sheep lives according to a different code. They choose the good of the other whom they are called to care for. The noble shepherd is held up in stark contrast to the hired hand who abandons the sheep. Danger is above his pay grade. Jesus was not subtle in his insinuation that the religious leaders were the hired hands who have not cared for their flock as they should.

Echoing themes of life and death, Jesus inhabits the person of the good and honorable shepherd who willingly places his life in danger to keep the sheep alive. In John’s text he enrages the religious leaders with the statement “I AM”—the very words that constitute the name of the Holy One of Israel. Remember Moses and his little chat with a burning bush? There he was, with his father-in-law’s sheep, on Horeb, the mountain of God, when a voice emerges from the flames and tells him to go speak to the Israelite leaders suffering under Pharaoh. In Moses’ trepidation at being chosen to liberate the very people he had abandoned some years past, he insists on a name to give the Israelite leaders. [God/YHWH] said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” [Exodus 3.14b] Moses was not entirely convinced, but from that point on, according to tradition, Yahweh / I AM / Adonai is the divine name, the name of the One who delivers the people. Yahweh is my shepherd, who gives food to those who lack, and water to those who thirst. For Jesus of Nazareth to claim this name was blasphemy.

Moses and David were the archetypal shepherds of Yahweh. Shepherds gather their flocks close for safety. They look for any sheep who wandered too far afield. They know each animal by face and temperament. They make sure the less assertive sheep get enough to eat and drink. Jesus also reminds us that the sheep know their shepherd; they respond to their own shepherd’s call. (Familiarity goes both ways.) And there is more—a shepherd must be intricately familiar with the landscape. Where is the good pasture? Where is there clean, gentle water the sheep can drink from? Are the paths of last month or last year still traversable? Are the paddocks secure? In other words, shepherding—like farming, fishing, and forestry—is intricately linked to place. Tending creation and our fellow creatures happens somewhere.

~ ~ ~

Do you remember a moment when Psalm 23 came to mind as a source of comfort, your own song of trust? Where were you—inside, or outside? In a church, or perhaps a garden? I remember once in college—it was a bad day—I was in a foul mood, so I went hiking along a trail off Chuckanut drive. I had been there a couple-few times before, and was fairly confident in my sense of direction. That became the day I learned never to go off-trail in our densely carpeted forests. The squirrel scolding me for a good twenty minutes didn’t help much in reorienting me to the path, either. There, on the east side of a ridge, with the evening shadows growing ever longer, I prayed, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He leads me to the right path, where my truck is parked. (I felt a little sheepish that day.)

Getting lost in the woods was part of my childhood, but so was exploring with an experienced guide. During weekends and school breaks, I would often travel with my dad out to local streams and rivers to investigate salmon habitat, or check out hatcheries up and down the Puget Sound region. I learned to read water at a young age; the swirls of fast currents roiling over submerged debris, the quiet eddies circling below wide cedar root systems. It’s good to know where the shallows end when your boots only go so high. I would watch my father work, taking water samples, checking for impassable culverts, analyzing riverbeds for imbalances in sediment washed down every spring and fall by flood waters. Here in the northwest we have a different kind of shepherd—those who seek to guide salmon back to their spawning grounds, and help native fish species thrive. We could also call their work stewardship, yet there’s a distinction between the resource management of stewardship, and the embodied nature of the relationship scripture describes between a shepherd and his/her sheep. Shepherding is a way of abiding, dwelling with creation that attunes us to matters of life and death for our fellow creatures. To shepherd is to actively seek/pursue life, to facilitate flourishing, for one and other—even to the point where we are willing to face death (literal or otherwise).

There are differences between stewarding and shepherding. Stewarding entails managing resources wisely. God certainly calls on individuals and communities to be stewards. (and) Earth Day is a good time to take stock of where and how our natural resources are currently allocated, and to look for ways they could be better managed/conserved. Stewarding done well allows for increased access to goods and the means to live. Yet, if we only go by the logic of stewarding, when it gets disconnected from the gift economy of God’s reign, stewarding becomes a zero sum game. Smaller pastures means fewer sheep, and larger pastures means more sheep (and more is always better). Shepherding, on the other hand, places gathering and flourishing at the center. Our attention shifts to the larger context of interconnecting factors that engender life within a particular location. Such intimacy also, of necessity, draws us into a familiarity with those things that diminish life, that—like the thief—come to steal, kill and destroy.

On Palm Sunday this year, young people of St. Luke’s led a group of us around the immediate neighborhood on an ‘urban stations of the cross’. I hope they guide us through again next year, and every year. To hear the stories of some of our most vulnerable neighbors told in the shadow of Jesus’ broken body is a profound act of lament. In fact, I invite anyone and everyone throughout the year to visit the bronze leaves laid in the concrete there across the street (the final station of the cross). Those leaves carry the names of neighbors who have died on the streets. And they continue to fall and collect on the sidewalk. When we listen to the stories of guests and neighbors, we hear about their specific challenges and choices–or lack of choices–that are diminishing their lives. Some narratives are familiar, others less so; a confluence of missteps, or simply the wrong place at the wrong time with no one to guide them out. As the Good Shepherd knows, death, too, is linked to place. So the figure of the leaf is an appropriate link to creation, a sign that reminds us of the kind of death experienced by creation each year. Those particular leaves outside provide an apposite image—like a black and white negative—juxtaposed to the symbols in which we partake each week when we celebrate the Eucharist. We may not have actual sheep outside our door, but there are many who are hungry, and thirsty, and harried.

God in Christ, our Shepherd, invites us to celebrate grain and grape gathered to give sustenance to the weary, hope to the hungry. We know the voice of the shepherd because each week God in Christ gathers us together to celebrate nothing less than the life of the risen Christ, the one who traversed death. This is our head shepherd who leads us through valleys, who restores our souls, and brings us to the table—so that we may become attentive to creation and to our fellow creatures, here in this place. Amen.

Google will tell you that the Anthropocene is “relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” I suppose that’s as good a starting point as any to do a little deconstruction work. But what does the concept really communicate? What do we see, who comes to mind, when we think of the Anthropocene?

I should begin by saying this delineation of a new/current geological age is still highly contested. Not everyone in the scientific community is convinced, yet much of the bickering has to do more with ‘when’ it begins than whether to use the term at all. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer (2000) were among the first to use the term, and suggested an origin point of the late 18th century–right around the time Benjamin Franklin and friends declared independence from England, and Adam Smith (Scottish) wrote the Wealth of Nations. William Ruddiman (2003) counters their origin point by going back as much as 8000 years to locate the beginnings of human meddling in large scale agriculture and subsequent deforestation. Humans have been changing the environment for a very long time–building cities into hillsides, clearing land for grazing and crops, setting fire to whole villages and towns in times of war. Are we really only now realizing that what we do effects change in our surroundings? Yes, and no. coal train

To make a grand sweep and include agricultural development over entire continents dating back thousands of years helps us to recognize that humanity makes an impact wherever it goes. However, it generalizes the extent of the impact and–more importantly–the agents of environmental impact in such a way that blunts the political edge to the notion of the Anthropocene. Not every person, nor every society makes the same kind of impact on their environs. The Anthropocene, for better or worse, is a term embedded and entangled with capitalism, globalization, exploitation, and the commodification of Nature. It is also about the only concept big enough to capture our imaginations, and provide a semiotic web thick enough to divert winds of Progress.

We humans were not around when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but we can go to a natural history museum to see and hear life-sized renderings of tyrannosaurus rex locked in battle with the feisty stegosaurus, and the placid herbivore brontosaurus chewing its cud. These creatures live in our imaginations through toys, television and children’s room decor. From bones to films, the Jurassic age is alive and well. Past is present through a heightened awareness of its extinction.

Now we are in a new age of human technology where, in the U.S. especially, the realm of childhood is increasingly distant from the world our grandparents inhabited. With rapid change, we are constantly negotiating losses and gains. Additional screen time can take away from encountering what is outside our front door, and we are alienated from the ground beneath our feet. Aware of this, many folks have returned to the garden to get their hands dirty, practice a new form of meditation, and connect offline. Here in the Pacific Northwest, going into the woods is a kind of religious practice, accompanied by the daily rituals of recycling and composting. We are aware of our footprints, but still feel powerless in the face of rising tides and swirling islands of plastic, or indignant when we hear of others who do not share the same values.

Human activity has changed, is changing, and will continue to change the most basic elements of our world. We could stop every piece of machinery today and it would still take decades for the air to clear. Hell, the people of Flint, Michigan, still don’t have clean water. So, it makes sense to speak of a geological era meteorically impacted by humans. However, when we say that humans are ruining the earth, we must also keep in mind the following:

Which humans? Individuals? Societies? What parts of the earth? Who lives in those parts? Are those the people ruining their own environment? Who benefits, and for how long? What kind of destruction is taking place? Can recovery happen? What might it look like? How long will it take?

To speak of the Anthropocene is to speak of sin and salvation. We all have sinned against the rest of creation, though not all in the same ways, nor to the same extent. For some, salvation comes in the form of ecologically beneficial technologies. However, if those who develop technology for the sake of profit, then withhold it from the communities who may benefit from it the most, sin is perpetuated. True salvation can only begin through a full conversion to the earth, repenting of the ways in which we are complicit in the earth’s destruction, and lamenting in solidarity with those who bear the burden of capitalist consumption. Let us use our imaginations to take us there and beyond.

In homage to Smokey Bear’s 73rd birthday, a reflection on water.

You have been deputized, by any and all environmental groups, to do something about resource consumption. Yes, you, the individual. Because, we are told, one multiplied by thousands and even millions becomes many. This kind of multiplication of ‘one’ is seen all around the internet. For example, Woodchuck uses the tagline, “buy one, plant one” meaning that if you buy one of their products, they’ll plant a tree. The Nature Conservancy (among others) provides a carbon footprint calculator so you can know how your household rates. And, perhaps the most ubiquitous expression is in the petition. Sign up to receive news from the Sierra Club and you are guaranteed a petition a week which, with just one more signature added to many others, is destined to communicate something important. The one flows into the many to create a swell of influence and change.

Or so we believe.

Smokey, straight talking for 73 years.

But the one and the many are simply not enough. By the time an individual receives the information needed to persuade him or her, damage is already done. As I type, the Cascade region has been enshrouded in smoke from B.C. wildfires for a full week. The particulates in the air are still dangerous to breathe beyond minimal exposure. And, while the daytime highs are coming down, we are on day 12 of 80+ degrees, day 52 with no rain. No rain, in Seattle.

Wildfires are a normal part of the season. What is disconcerting is that they start earlier in the season, last longer, and hit some unusual places. For example, in 2015 the Hoh Rainforest caught fire, in June. Those two words–rainforest and fire–are not supposed to be used in the same sentence, except once every 500 or so years. For the Pacific Northwest region, the new normal of climate change comes in a haze of smoke with less and less water to temper the flames.

You have heard it said, “Conserve water by taking shorter showers,” but that isn’t enough. In fact, according to an Orion article by Derrick Jensen, it doesn’t even really address the situation. Contrary to consumer culture belief, it is not all about you because the vast majority of our water is redirected before it hits the tap. You do not have access to 90% of the water currently consumed. It goes predominantly to agriculture and to manufacturing. Sure, the juicy tomatoes and cucumbers are a manifestation of some of that water, as is the wheat that went into the hamburger buns–and don’t forget all the water needed to raise cattle for hamburger meat. Thinking of going vegetarian? While it might eventually reduce some agricultural water consumption, your one change is but a drop of dew.

But I want to make a difference–or feel something other than helplessness. And Grist.org would love for us all to believe we can use the power of individual choice to make a difference. They have the infographic to prove it. Yet in this instance, the ‘proven’ change culminates with “Have one fewer child”. How many families would consider whether or not to have a child in the same way they think about, say, car ownership? Even the editors hinted that might not be a compelling message by highlighting the “real takeaway” that personal choice matters, and every action counts.

What we are up against requires a tectonic shift in the rhetoric. The accumulation of personal choices will begin to make a difference when they are an expression of many voicing their dissent against the primary users of water: industrialized agriculture and major manufacturers. But this is a radical message for consumer culture because we are supposed to power progress and good change through buying more, or at least buying into the myth that the best thing we can do is simply take care of ourselves.

 

Listen to the opening paragraph of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si:

“Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

Mother Earth, our common home, is the conduit of God’s care and sustenance for humanity. But we have split her open for rare minerals and to mine her veins.

He continues, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” We are plunderers, and we violate the very soil that nurtures us. This is not a new message. It is a confession of sin much like that recited with each communion. The underlying question is, does ‘we’ mean ‘me’? Read in the consumer culture of North America, we only pertains to me–it is not connected to brands, labels, box stores, and corporate entities. Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned, is the more common confession of sin. In film, in newspapers and on Sunday mornings, we are so consumed with the sins of every-one, that we do not look upstream to see those redirecting the pipes at their source.

You have heard it said, ‘Take shorter showers, and turn out the lights’; but I say to you, follow the waters from tap to source, and find out who it is that drinks deep from our sister’s aquifers, draining her sides with unfathomable speed.