singing of a stormy Mother

(inspired by Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, 1971)

 

Mother Earth bears the dust

on which Thou, O God, dost

breathe to make us,

and She our grounding

on which we, the prayer saying,

“live and move and have our being”,

and o’er which ruach’s fury doth threaten to break us.

 

For our Mother we pray

alway

in gratitude for life

to Her, at times bereft,

in fear of death.

 

May we, can we, too, wonder

whether

we had (have?) any part

in weather’s

power?

 

If we dare consider

any thought of our share

in Her change

in tempest’s temper

might we deem it wise to suffer

our change?

God’s wrath and our deliverance

preaching a sermon, based on Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28 and Luke 15.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

the-prophet-jeremiah-lamenting-the-coming-destruction-rembrandt-1606-1669

It would be easy for the sake of spiritual security and emotional sanity to ignore Jeremiah’s prophesy of destruction, dismissing it as an ancient word, which it is, directed at the people Judah, thus not…never at us. Yet it has an ageless quality. There is much we in our time can glean from these terrifying words that remarkably parallel a better known story in the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,”[1] calling into being light, firmament, sea and earth, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, creatures of all kinds and humankind[2] “and God saw that” everything “was good.”[3]

Sadly, according to Jeremiah, God “looked on the earth” seeing only “waste and void, and to the heavens, and they had no light,” no sun, moon, or stars. Because of the malfeasance of humans who “do not know” God, “have no understanding…skilled in doing evil, not knowing how to do good,” squandering the stewardship of dominion God granted at creation,[4] God’s handiwork has reverted, regressed to the primeval state with which God began when “the earth was a formless void.” Therefore, that same “wind from God,” in the Hebrew, ruach, breath or spirit, that created all things now blows “hot…from the bare heights in the desert towards my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse (but to judge) against them.”

Jeremiah prophesies nothing less than the destruction, the deconstruction, the de-creation of the cosmos by a God of wrath. But suppose we think of God’s wrath not as an emotion, a divine feeling of fury, God being upset with us and desiring to do us harm (though, yes, the English text speaks of God’s “fierce anger”[5]). Rather as the sun rises, giving light, then sets and darkness falls, so God’s wrath is a metaphor for an inherent (that is, written into the code of the universe) cosmic reactivity to a creation gone bad. In that light or perhaps shadow, let us read Jeremiah’s prophecy as less about what God does and more about what we over time have done.

I think of climate change. Despite the deniers who believe talk of climate change comes from the chirping lips of Chicken Little pseudo-scientific pessimists who think the sky is falling, I believe it’s real, too real to ignore and that humans, with our ages-old obsession with fossil fuels, are principal culprits. We have upset our Mother Earth and she is reacting. The symptoms of her distress? Rising temperatures and sea levels, mounting winds and waves, scorched earth, the erosion of seacoasts, and evaporating water resources, all affecting arable lands and agricultural production, and human habitation. All making terribly real that petition in The Great Litany: From lightning and tempest, from earthquake, fire, and flood, from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord, deliver us![6]

In addition to climatic forces, I think of destruction wrought by human hands. Today, we commemorate the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001, when terrorists at the controls of hijacked airliners brought down New York’s World Trade Center towers, damaged the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field killing nearly 3,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 others, causing billions of dollars in damage to property and infrastructure. Since that day of this generation’s mega-event, akin to Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., or Watergate, we have witnessed the horrifying rise of incidents of terror and hate crimes. Sadly, there is nothing new under the sun about human cruelty in whatever name, for whatever cause.

We might react to all that befalls our world and us with immobilizing dismay and active fear, save for our faith, our trust and confidence in God. Jesus, in response to the religious authorities grumbling that he “welcomes sinners,” tells parables of a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep, seeking, finding the lost one…

the-good-shepherd-le-bon-pasteur-james-tissot

and a woman searching her home for one lost coin.

the-lost-drachma-la-drachme-perdue-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Immediately following these stories, Jesus says, “There was a man who had two sons”; the Parable of the Prodigal Son making clear the point that God always is in the redemption-business. God always seeks the lost. God always is never done with us. Surely, one faithful response to God’s unconditional, unconquerable love…one faithful response to God Who is love is our repentance, turning away from our abuse of our world, turning away from our abuse of others and ourselves.

In 1989, September 1 was proclaimed by the Orthodox Church as the World Day of Prayer for the Creation. Now, September 1 through October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment, is observed ecumenically and globally as the Season of Creation. Again, today is the 15th anniversary of 9/11. In the spirit of these commemorations, one aspect of divine deliverance is our contemplation and taking action, communally and individually regarding our daily behaviors in relation to our struggling planet and one another. What can you and I do to make the world a safer, saner, sounder place?

 

Illustrations: The Prophet Jeremiah (lamenting the coming destruction), Rembrandt (1606-1669); The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum; The Lost Drachma (La drachme perdue) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 1.1, 2

[2] Genesis 1.3, 6-7, 9-10, 11-12, 14-16, 20-25, 26-27

[3] Genesis 1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31

[4] Genesis 1.26

[5] Jeremiah 4.26

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, page 148

at(one)

Earlier this week, China and the United States, our planet’s greatest (here, hardly a compliment) producers of greenhouse gases, announced a long-term agreement concerning carbon emissions. Reacting personally to this word of good news to the world, I am spurred to contemplate afresh our human ontology: Who are we and what do we do in relation to creation?

We are sentient and self-initiating beings. However, despite some interpreters of Genesis (God blessed [humankind], saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth” 1.28), we are not masters of the world. Citing Francis of Assisi who, in Canticle of the Creatures, called sun, wind, air, and fire his brothers, moon, his sister, earth, his mother, and claimed all living things as his family, I believe our relation to creation cannot be dominion, far less domination, but rather the equality and intimacy of an at-one-ness with all things. We, as integral threads in a cosmic tapestry, woven together by a divine hand, are not brighter, bolder, or better than any other strand.

Would that we believe this and act accordingly. History tells us we oft have not.

From the vantage point of one of my favorite biblical prophets, I perceive the dreadful consequences of our corporate misuse, abuse of the earth. Isaiah speaks of God’s innocent suffering servant afflicted on behalf of the people, the true offenders. Whatever Isaiah’s original intent, Christians viewed this prophecy in relation to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to redeem us from sin: Surely, he has borne our infirmities, carried our diseases, was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and by his bruises we are healed (my emphases). As Christians re-envisioned Isaiah, I reinterpret the prophecy, using Francis’s Mother Earth metaphor, as a word about the world and us: Surely, she is made infirm and diseased by us; wounded by our transgression of profligate pollution, crushed by our iniquity of wasteful consumption, and because of her bruises she may not be renewed.

Mother Earth has changed, is changing. Naturally, so it has been from the dawn of creation through continental shift, volcanic eruption, the spinning and tilt of the world on its axis, the movement of ocean tides. Yet, especially since the 19th century Industrial Revolution, our reliance on fossil fuels and our rapacious clearing of land of vegetation to make way for the building of “civilized” societies has aggravated and has accelerated the aging of our mother.

Some continue to argue against climate change and about its causes. Some deny responsibility for harm done in ages past. I find it difficult to refute that we, particularly westerners, are overindulgent consumers, taking more than we need, wasting more than we use. We can wax poetically about the earth’s beauty, yet we enjoy the blessings of electricity produced by power plants run on fossil fuels emitting pollutants, we love our gas-burning and diesel-powered cars, and plastics and paper are existential essentials. We, with detached fascination, can watch and find entertainment in movies like The Hunger Games and its post-apocalyptic dystopian vision of the world assured that it won’t happen (and if it does, confident that it will be something for subsequent generations to endure). We could react that way, but I pray we will not. Believing, knowing that we, each of us, are at one with creation, may we daily do all we can, when we can, where we can, and with what we can to care of the world, thus strive to atone, make right our disregard for our Mother Earth.

coming up short

What happens when we’re short of time? When tomorrow is today. When what is yet to be now is. Lament lost opportunities? Kick ourselves or others or both for wasting time? Forge ahead, confident in our preparedness or simply hope for the best? (I reckon scads of candidates for public office feel this pressure right now!)

What happens when we’re short of talent? When tasks loom large and our abilities few, requiring, demanding more than we, with our experience and expertise, can manage or even imagine. Curse God or the fate of chance or our forebears and our genetic code for not having gifted us more generously? Press on, changing plans, maybe confessing our limitations and networking with others to expand the pool of skills?

What happens when we’re short of money? When whatever we want, we can’t afford and gratification is deferred. When whatever we need, we can’t buy (a daily experience for much of the world’s population) and necessity is denied. Use credit to fill the gaps? Tighten our proverbial belts ‘til it hurts, doing with less? Conserve – reuse, recycle, repurpose – what we have, letting nothing go to waste? Join forces, share resources with others so that all may have some of what we want and need?

As (more) important than being short of time, talent, or money, I think of creation. Not the Bible’s Genesis-version, “in the beginning,” but rather the end. What happens when it is clear that we, humankind, have come up short in our care for this fragile earth? When, in decrying the devastation ‘round about us, we also need confess that it hath been wrought in good measure by our guilty hands of gluttonous waste and massive pollution, whether by action or inaction, arrogance or ignorance? When through it all we have demonstrated our obvious, if, at times, unconscious, but no less unconscionable lack of concern for future generations? Another way to frame this question: What happens when we come up short of love and justice?

I pray we pledge our substance, our time, our talent, and our money (with each, how we use it, where we spend it, and for what). Most of all, I pray we pledge ourselves in a spirit of love and a sense of justice toward our greater care of the earth. May we open our minds to learn, our hearts to feel, our hands to do, so that we need not fear coming up short.

(I close, I confess, on a somewhat less than sanguine note. On Monday, the Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, speaking at the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas and describing the threat to global stability posed by climate change, presented the Pentagon’s 2014 Adaptation Roadmap, detailing how our military would respond to potentially escalating local, regional, and international disputes over resources. Though a prescient measure, I suppose, it remains largely reactive. Surely all national governments can do more.)