Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hearing Stephen's Cry

A Reflection for Earth Day, 2008

Excerpted from a Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Easter 5 Lections

A mentor and good friend to me once remarked that he wasn’t an environmentalist. Charlie said he didn’t honestly care so much about the whale or the walrus, the polar bear or the eagle. But what he did care about was the human family and our need for clean air and clean water, for adequate food for all people, for health and well-being. Taking care of the whale and the walrus, the polar bear and the eagle, the farmland and the rain forest – all of this was good in as much as it meant good things for us.

I may care more about the natural world than Charlie did or does, but his observation holds true. We have forgotten in our daily habits and consumptive appetites that our common life and work depends on a 100-million-year-old ecosystem that is now under siege. The household of God, built by our Creator through almost unimaginable and miraculous processes spanning vast eons is the sacramental sign of the home with many dwelling places that Christ promises us in the Gospel. And we are placing it in peril on to imperil ourselves.

We have learned in recent months the close connection between policies on bio-fuels, industrialization, soaring oil and agricultural prices, and food riots in Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa. We struggle as a people with the fact that we cannot so easily engineer our way out of the dangers of global warming, increasingly scarce commodities, and famine for some of our sisters and brothers. These are huge problems. They require not only a complete top-to-bottom re-thinking of how we have lived and will live as a people, but a renewed solidarity and commitment from each of us in small, everyday decisions. We are re-learning what the bee and hummingbird both instinctively learn: balance in an inter-dependent cosmos.

Picking up the lid to a dumpster yesterday while we were at the beach on our youth retreat in Inverness, I glimpsed piles of plastic, discarded cardboard, scraps of paper carelessly tossed on the pristine sands of Northern California: an accusatory fingerprint of our forgetful appetites and ways that abuse the Earth.

Some Christians – indeed many through the centuries – argue that all Creation is fallen. That is among our hallowed traditions. But what even our most ardently theologically conservative sisters and brothers are now starting to see is that our abuse of the planet is a symptom of our fall. Our often unconscious and sometimes brazen insistence that the resources of the Earth are endlessly ours to be used as we see fit is eating our home – made by God – is eating it alive, tearing it apart brick by brick. We are dismantling God’s mortal mansion lovingly given for us. We are consuming our own body. And we are caught, so many of us, unknowingly in this system of quiet violence to our roots. Heaven help us if we pull the cornerstone!

I am increasingly alarmed by our ever more sleep-deprived and over-medicated culture, whatever claims it may make, consciously or not, to a Judeo-Christian heritage. I find myself more and more these days listening to Scripture and prayer alongside the wisdom of my gut as I trim back the ingested sugar and processed chemicals; the cleansing of simple water that marks our baptism; the wisdom of the wind in the trees like the breath of the Spirit; the heartbeat of Christ in the motion of the waves; and the sacramental generosity of self-giving love in the life of grain and the vine that we point to and then take in each Sunday. It is as though the Earth itself has taken up Stephen’s loving cry as he, the first Christian martyr, is stoned by the powerful and the heedless, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

For too long, we have rejected the earth as a resource for holiness. The linear-thinking ancestors who wrote our history were carrying the mantle of ancient and medieval empire when they, in the name of God’s kingdom made in their image, threw out pagan worldviews and practices wholesale: those traditions of indigenous peoples that, at their best, remembered that our relationship with the earth itself is inexorably caught up in our relationship with the divine. The people many of our ancestors were taught to hate now speak like ghosts to us across the ages through the creatures at the edge of extinction, the dying reefs, and the starved and parched earth, reminding us that we are accountable to the soil and the land and the spirit of the creature every bit as much as God is accountable to us the abundant love we receive in the harvest, the catch of the day, and the strike of raw materials.

Listen closely to the lives of many of our own neighbors who are not Christian. So many of the spiritual practices they take up quietly damn our Christian tradition – and rightly so – for its rejection of the body’s wisdom, the life that flows from being rooted in the Earth and her patient rhythms and all the dance of the Cosmos. Sometime between the first Christian martyr and the present day, we became the powerful and the heedless, stoning the body of Creation that saw the heavens opened and witnessed to us in ways too many to number.

What we have too often forgotten is that Jesus was born human, crucified, and rose again not only for our sake, but for the sake of all Creation. The heritage of his body, beyond that of the lineage of ancient Israel and King David, was the heritage of genetics and mitochondria, cells and organs, matter and energy woven into beautiful life, the heritage of the whale and the spider, the sky and the ocean, the stars and the galaxies. Stardust made green and verdant is who we are, too, every bit as much as our intelligence and industry. Jesus today promises his followers a mansion, a house with many rooms. The Earth, and indeed the universe, is a sacramental sign, however fallen, of this promised home for us. We break it at our peril and risk the curses of our children. Indeed, it is not too much to say that we risk a hideous damnation for our failure to heed the Gospel, the Word made flesh –flesh like our flesh, bonded to the life of all Creation.

Yet for all the doom and gloom, for a Creation profoundly threatened, there is reason to hope. The long-silenced cries of the Earth, echoing Stephen’s words, have at last gotten the attention of politicians and even the great leaders of industry, whose ambitions and machines gave birth to our economy and lifestyle. Scientists are back in the labs and the fields and the oceans trying to close the loops of our energy cycles. Indigenous practices are strangely winding their ways back into the hands of farmers who have grown tired of chemical fertilizers, poisoned wells, and tainted livestock. Fishermen are gladly putting their marginal livelihoods on the line to restore fish populations. And we as Christians are called to the table to remind us that these actions are not about mere survival, but about the Gospel, the working out of our salvation.

We are just starting to recover in our faith and practice a sense of the sacramental nature of God’s creation, a body that nourishes us and attends to us with the great cycles of warm and cold, rain and sun, the green and blue life whose DNA is at our roots like long lost relatives or the ancient, land-based tribal peoples from which we descended.

We are, in small but significant ways, starting to remember this as Celtic Christians did, invoking the name of the Trinity each time they dug their hands into the soil, tended the tree, or prepared the food. We are learning to remember it each time we think twice before buying the plastic, taking out the recycling, starting a compost, replacing a light-bulb, downsizing our consumption, calculating our carbon footprint, or pondering our gas mileage.

We must remember it as we learn to stand up in Christ’s name for justice not only for the suffering humanity around us but for the often silent cries of our forgotten neighbors – the creatures in all their diversity and plentitude, strangeness, and beauty that God also lovingly made. They share God’s house with us. In many ways, their welfare is our welfare. These are small steps, but cumulatively, they add up to a great deal, and they send a powerful message that we are waking up again to who we were made to be, and who we are called to become.

We must return to the fullness of our deepest traditions, with its cycle of seasons, our rhythms grounded in those of the earth, the sun, and the moon. For, in truth, we are both a cyclic and a linear people. Our brains are hardwired for both. The cyclic to nurture us on the journey and remind us of our heritage, the linear to set us free from bondage and unfold the divine gift of salvation among us.

We must learn again to pattern ourselves in closer harmony with the stuff from which we were made and that which sustains our earthly pilgrimage, to regain hearts for green and growing things and the life of the seas. To care for this fragile house with many rooms, a home that nourishes our earthly pilgrimage and bears the marks of the divine architect, sacramental reflections of the Spirit that breathes life out of nothingness.

And then to recognize we are one in Christ, not only with each other, but with all Creation, called to lead the earth in God’s praise, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we sing not only with our voices but in our bodies and relationships, “Holy, holy, holy!”

And, like Stephen, see the sky open and heaven revealed, to glimpse the divine dwelling places prepared for us and all life from the foundations of Creation.

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