Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Held in Common with Creation

Well, aren't you lucky readers! Two posts in two days! And get this--both sermons! Below is the sermon that I preached this past Sunday, Earth Day/Integrity of Creation Sunday (ugh, UCC, could you have come up with a more un-poetic name?) in the church I've been attending since the fall, in my hometown. I was a little worried it was too prophetic for a debut preaching gig, but it seemed to go over well. Oh, and the lectionary text I used was Acts 4:32-35.

"Held in Common with Creation"

Three years ago, in February 2006, I was beginning the spring semester of my first year in seminary. I was in my first session of a course entitled, “Religions in the City,” where we would study Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. Since it was a requirement for all first-year students, it was pretty big class, but the professor asked that we each introduce ourselves, in an unusual way. Our professor opened up a red umbrella that had ruffles on the edges. Maybe it was really more of a parasol. The professor explained that we were to each take a turn standing in front of the class, holding the umbrella, and after giving our name, describe our religious, social, and political beliefs in one sentence. I remember standing up there, and stating that I believed I was quickly becoming an eco-feminist, a new term in my vocabulary that had been growing on me as I took an increasing interest in ecology and our relationship with the environment and saw how it related to the oppression of women. I remember the professor, who uses that label to describe herself, cheering. I remember thinking how radical I was becoming by being an “environmentalist.”

What a difference three years can make. Later that spring, Paramount Pictures released the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which won an Academy Award and helped former Vice President Al Gore win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. All of a sudden, global warming and the effect humans were having on the Earth was everywhere—and it hasn’t let up yet. It seems that every company is spending money on advertising how eco-friendly they are. Many food companies are claiming that they are using “all-natural ingredients.” Car companies are coming out with more and more hybrid models—including hybrid SUV’s. Fashion magazines have been including articles and features on ways to reduce energy consumption and promoting “green” fashion—like organic cotton t-shirts and sheets made from bamboo. Trendy fashion labels came out with designer grocery bags. There’s even a whole cable network devoted to living green. Somehow in just the past three years, being eco-conscious has gone from being radical to being chic. Green is the new black.

While I am glad to see individuals, businesses, and government embracing the green lifestyle, I’m a little worried it’s too trendy, that it’s no more than a passing fad, that such over-exposure will actually backfire and cause people to think it’s all hype. I also worry that the green movement is very image-oriented, that many people do it just for the cool-ness factor. But most importantly, I worry that despite the increased attention being paid to living green, our culture—how we relate to the earth and to each other—is really not changing all that much.

Now, for the most part this is happening in our secular culture, outside church. So why does it matter if this eco-consciousness is just a phase? What does being green have to do with being a Christian?

Well, as Freuline Maria would say, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” Let’s look at Genesis 1:26-28:

                                    Then God said, “Let us make humankind

in our image, according to our likeness; and let them

have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the

birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the

wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping

thing that creeps upon the earth.”

            So God created humankind in his image,

               in the image of God he created them;

               male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful

and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and

have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the

birds of the air and over every living thing that moves

upon the earth.

And so it began. The use of these biblical verses as validation for the notion that humans are “above” the rest of the natural world and meant to take it as their own goes back centuries. By being created in the image of God—as apparently no other part of creation was—we assume that we are therefore more God-like than anything else on earth. We have been fruitful and continue to multiply; we have, for the most part, subdued the earth.

Our newly eco-conscious society does not seem to be changing its views on this, and I think there are two reasons for it.

The first is a view of humanity going back to the philosopher Plato, and within Church tradition to St. Augustine, which exalts the spiritual aspects of humans while disparaging the physical parts. By focusing so much on our spiritual selves rather than our bodily selves, it is easy to continue seeing ourselves as separate from—and superior to—what we call “the natural world.” However, as gardener and writer Vigen Guroian says, “We humans belonged to nature right from the start. We are not interlopers…” The passage I read from Genesis a moment ago is part of the first creation story. In the second, Adam is created out of the dust of the ground, and God breathes life into him. If you attended an Ash Wednesday service at the beginning of Lent, you might’ve been reminded of that creation with the phrase, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Just last week we celebrated Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, God-made-flesh. In the elements of communion, as we partake of food from the earth, we are reminded of Jesus’ physicality, of his body and blood. And yet we often forget this, and see nature as something other, something that does not include us.

The second reason I believe we aren’t really changing is that we objectify the rest of creation. Rather than seeing it as another subject that we can relate to, it is an object, there simply for our use. The earth and its inhabitants have no purpose or value in their own rights, but rather are valued by what they can do for us.

Now, there has been some recognition among Christians, going back to earlier environmental movements, that caring for the earth should be a part of our faithful duties. This still is mostly promoted using the stewardship model. Referring to the earlier passage from Genesis, we are called to be stewards of the earth. However, I struggle with this idea because it still doesn’t deal with the two problems I just mentioned. This idea of stewardship still places us as stand-ins for God in a position of domination (through care) of creation, instead of recognizing we are part of a greater whole, which includes the Divine, animals, the atmosphere, and the earth. It also still upholds the view that creation is there for us to use. The concept of stewardship—whether of creation or in a household—is about managing resources.

One aspect of the stewardship model that I do like, however, is that it stresses the idea that the earth does not belong to us; it belongs to God. We like to think that we own our property, that within certain lines everything belongs to a nation, and we forget that we’re simply occupants, borrowing from the true landlord.

So if the stewardship model doesn’t really work, is there another way to view creation, another way to integrate our faith as Christians with the green movement? Yes, and I think part of it is found in a little nugget from one of today’s lectionary readings.

The Acts of the Apostles is the earliest book in New Testament, and one of my favorites. Maybe that’s because it was written by Luke, my favorite Gospel writer. Really, though, I just love following along as this rag-tag group of Jesus groupies tries to figure out how to continue on without his physical leadership, how to be a community following his teachings, how to live not as Jews or Gentiles but as this new thing, Christians. In today’s passage, what sticks out to me is that by sharing their resources, by holding everything in common, all their needs were met, “there was not a needy person among them.”

I think that we need to expand that a little, from people to all of creation. See, those first Christians recognized that they were a community and dependent on each other. They were in relationship with each other. If they had maintained their independence, tried to maintain they separation between “mine” and “yours,” they would’ve fallen apart. As church communities of people, we still do this pretty well. If someone in the church has a need, the community comes together to fill it. We are in relationship with each other, fulfilling one of Jesus’ two most important commandments: loving our neighbor as ourselves. I’m suggesting that we expand our concept of neighbor to include not only people but trees, animals, dirt. Now, before I’m accused of being some kind of hippy or bleeding-heart liberal, let me say that I agree with Sally McFague, one of the leading environmental theologians, when she says that in this case, equality is not sameness. We do not treat the dog the same way we treat the tick on its body or the Lyme disease the tick carries. In that case, yes, we are called to be caretakers because we can. Choices have to be made—tick or dog? Tree or caterpillars destroying tree? Rabbits that only live in meadows or trees taking over the meadow? Those choices can be made with love, though, and as products of a common Creator.

I think the key to a long-term Christian eco-consciousness is to remember that Rolling Stones song: “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” There is enough room on this planet for all to get what they need; the problem is many of us are living to fulfill all our wants. And this, I think, is the biggest problem with the current green movement. Our lives are really not changing—we’re just making them slightly less toxic for the rest of the world. But we’re still consuming a lot, and still manufacturing and using resources to keep up with that consumption. Climate change is occurring rapidly, bringing stronger storms, and more extreme weather conditions like drought and floods. And the worst part is that the people most affected are the people contributing to it the least. The wealthy developed countries contribute the pollution, garbage, and destruction of eco-systems, while the poorer, developing nations suffer. In the United States, when the south suffers a drought or the Midwest floods, we have plenty to offer for help. No one goes hungry because the crops didn’t make it. Disease doesn’t run rampant when the rivers overflow their banks. The same is not true elsewhere in the world. We’ve heard a lot about pirates lately, with the heroic rescue of Capt. Phillips. But did you know where some of those ships being attacked are headed? To Kenya, where they are suffering through a severe drought and there is no food.

This, to put it very simply, is sinful. That is a loaded word, but there is really no other way to put it. This is not what God wants for God’s children or any of God’s creatures.

I’m not saying we should feel guilty every time we use a plastic bag or upend our whole lives once we walk out of here today, but we need to be aware how our actions—or inaction—affects the rest of creation.

It is not all darkness, though. This is Easter season, a time of hope and promise of resurrection, freedom from sin and fullness of grace. Let us heal our broken relationships with each other and God and with the rest of Creation. Let us live simply so that all may simply live. Let us remember that if we release our claim on creation, recognizing that it belongs only to God, and hold all in common, no part of creation will have need. Let us bless all the earth in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

A Sermon on Water

I preached on World Water Day, March 22, which happened to fall on Sunday this year. Below is my sermon. 

When asked how much water we use each day, or what effect water has on our lives, most of us would probably answer that it’s a decent part. After all, we use water to clean ourselves and cook, and of we try to drink that recommended 6-8 glasses a day. But if we stop and think about it, we might realize just how much our lives depend on water.

Let’s just take my typical morning as an example. I wake up in a bed made up with cotton sheets—water’s needed to grow that cotton. I brush my teeth, shower, flush the toilet. I get dressed in clothing that I wash in my washing machine on a fairly regular basis. I make coffee—not only do I use water right then, but the coffee plantations depend on water to run. I eat breakfast, most likely a bread product, made from grain on a farm that depends on good irrigation. Maybe I have a little bacon or sausage—meat products use a LOT of water to produce.

So clearly water factors highly into our daily earthly lives. But what about our spiritual lives?

In many world religions and cultures, the elements of the natural world—wind, water, fire, and earth—are held in high regard. In astrology, each star sign has a corresponding elemental sign. So Aries is a fire sign, Pisces is a water sign, etc. Some religions worship gods of those elements, while other people simply uplift them as the four core parts of nature.

Christianity, on the other hand, is often viewed as sacramental, rather than elemental. We like to see ourselves as being more about the unseen, intangible things like grace or the Holy Spirit, about the rituals of communion and baptism.

And yet the elements do factor into our Christian tradition quite prominently, particularly water. In our particular tradition, communion and baptism are our only sacraments. Obviously water is important—it’s what we use to baptize, whether it’s a little sprinkle on the forehead or a dunk in the river.

But water is threaded throughout the Bible, and often plays a prominent, if not the dominant role in stories.

Some that quickly come to mind:

  • Creation, which began with a wind from God sweeping over the face of the waters, and then God creating life out of those waters
  • Moses as a baby floating in a basket of reeds in the river
  • Moses parting the Red Sea
  • The flood and Noah in his ark
  • Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan
  • The woman at the well from whom Jesus requests a drink
  • The disciples and Jesus on the boat when the storm comes up
  • Jesus walking on water

There are others that perhaps aren’t remembered for the presence of water quite as quickly, but that are just as important. One that I particularly like is the story of Hagar.

It’s a story that shared among all three “people of the Book”—Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The story appears in a section of Genesis that recounts the history of Abraham and his descendants as they move from Haran into the land of Canaan and then into Egypt. Wells and water figure prominently at important points as this story follows characters back and forth from their tent community to the wilderness within a broader desert landscape.

Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave, given to Abraham to conceive a child because Sarah was unable to do so. Hagar leaves their home and goes out into the wilderness on two occasions.

The first time, Hagar is pregnant and has allegedly looked upon Sarah with contempt for her barrenness, so Sarah “deals with her harshly,” as the Bible puts it, and Hagar runs away. The angel of God finds her by “a spring of water in the wilderness,” and tells her that she will bear a son to be named Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And then by that spring, Hagar does something no one else in the whole Bible does: she gives God a name, El-roi, “God who sees.” And because of this, the Bible tells us, the well where this happened is named Beer-lahai-roi, or “the Well of the Living One who sees me.”

The second time Hagar goes out into the wilderness, she is sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s request, because Sarah does not want Ishmael receiving any of Isaac’s inheritance. Abraham sends Hagar out into the desert with bread and a skin of water. Let me read to you what happens from there:

(Gen. 21: 14c-19) And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voices and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God as heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

It is this scene in particular that grabs me. I can just picture Hagar heading out into the desert wilderness, no where to go, no one to turn to, and only a little bit of water and bread on which to survive. In a hot dry desert, humans can only live a couple days without water, so imagine Hagar’s distress when the little bit of water she had was gone. She knew it meant certain death for her child, and so she put him under a bush so she didn’t have to watch him die of thirst.

I wish this was something that only happened in biblical times, many thousand years ago. If only there weren’t mothers in the world right at this moment watching their children die of thirst or disease because of lack of access to clean water.

UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, estimates that 5,000 children die every day because of unsafe water, poor sanitation, and hygiene. That means that in the time it takes for us to worship together this morning, about 208 children will die as Hagar thought Ishmael would. And that’s just children. More than 1 billion people worldwide lack clean drinking water.

For Christians, water is symbolic of our relationship with God, carrying the image of renewal, promise, and hope. It is through water that we are baptized and welcomed into the Christian community. Water is essential to all life, connects us with the rest of Creation, and is a gift from God. As a gift from God, it is meant to be shared. As one resource from the National Council of Churches declares, “We recognize clean water as a priceless gift of God, but too often we don’t realize the global water crisis is ours to reconcile.”

Isaiah says that when the poor and needy are thirsty and seek water, but have none, God will not forsake them; God will provide rivers, fountains, pools, and springs. While it may not seem like it, that is still true today. God does provide. There is enough water for all—but only if we use just what we need, and make sure that all have access. And this is where we as faithful Christians come in.

“When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink,” Jesus describes himself saying in the kingdom of heaven. “Just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Hear this woman’s story from Uganda:

"At the request of the community where I grew up, a church development organization funded the construction of a water well project and trained 30 villagers how to properly use and administer water resources. The effects on the community have been like ripples in a pond. Before, when I was growing up, we did not have easy access to water. With a new water point, villagers created an irrigation system that waters crops of bananas, mushrooms and vegetables. With water, it has been possible for them to raise livestock. With livestock, they have milk that lowers malnutrition, with a surplus to sell. With water, some are beginning to farm fishponds and sell fish. There is more. As they drilled and built the well, villagers discovered clay that makes good bricks. Some villagers have become brick-makers and sell what they make. Others have built more permanent housing by using the bricks instead of grass. All of them worked together to build a permanent school for their children. Water has brought surprising new life to the village."

The water debate is often about two distinct perceptions. The first understands water as a “public good” to which all forms of life have a right. One South African activist puts it this way: “I need to have water, enough even for a stranger. The one thing that I cannot do, even to an enemy, is deny water.” The community I come from has protected water and treated it as a common good that is sacred and beyond commercial value.

In 2003 the Africa Women’s Economic Policy Network did field research in Uganda

and reviewed existing government policy concerning water pricing and public utility management. Their research, not surprisingly, revealed that water privatization has already taken a heavy toll. When the cost of water is high, people who live on less than a dollar a day have to choose water over school fees or food, or find alternative ways of getting water. People resort to unprotected springs, boreholes and long-distance wells. Health problems increase from lack of clean water, including cholera, typhoid, diarrhea, malaria, intestinal worms and skin-related diseases. Alternative water sources hold not only health hazards but also physical dangers. Stand taps installed along the Nile require a fee. Those with no daily income to pay the fee fetch water from the river. Women and children have drowned in River Nile, and several have been taken away by crocodiles. When people have no money to buy water, there is death.[i]

Another story, from Vietnam:

“People of faith can make a real difference in confronting these problems. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is one of the leading causes of illness and death among people in poverty in Vietnam, where many in rural areas suffer from waterborne disease. This is particularly true in the mountains of Pho Yen district, where more than one out of four people suffers from a water-related disease. In Pho Yen, even the health clinics lack access to clean water, thus facing the double burden of treating patients suffering from water-related diseases without having their own clean water. In response, Church World Service (CWS) is helping to construct water supply facilities and hygienic latrines for three clinics, and lay pipelines for water distribution to 150 households. Training is being provided on the operation and management of the systems, on prevention and transmission of water-related diseases, and on good hygiene practices. This is an effort we can all be a part of, too. Members of the Church of the Brethren, taking part in a faith expedition in 2007, saw the situation in Ph Yen first hand. Upon returning, they worked through CWS and their Global Food Crisis Fund to directly fund a project at a local school. We can all be involved in making a difference.”[ii]

How can we make a difference? How can we offer a drink of fresh, clean water to our thirsty brothers and sisters?

First of all, we can educate ourselves. I didn’t give you a lot of facts and figures today, because I don’t think they really belong in a sermon, but they’re out there and fairly easy to find (and if you’d like me to come back some other time and do a workshop or presentation on this stuff, we can talk about that). We need to learn about our role in the global water crisis, and know what’s going on globally and in our own backyards. For instance, a cholera epidemic has been sweeping through Zimbabwe since December. As of the end of last month, over 80,000 people were infected, and 3,800 had died. When we face Jesus in the kingdom of heaven, and he asks us why we didn’t give him a drink (or why the water wasn’t clean), we cannot say we didn’t know he was thirsty or that the water was contaminated.

Second, we can conserve water and pay attention to our water usage. Are we watering our lawns while someone is forced to drink dirty water? I’m not saying we should feel guilty every time we take a shower, but we need to be conscious that our decisions and actions affect others.

Third, support legislation and governmental action that helps provide everyone, and particularly those living in poverty, with access to clean water. One thing that’s happening now is a push for the United Nations to add a 31st article to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would establish access to clean and potable water as a fundamental human right.

And finally, get involved in funding water projects. Church World Service has great projects, like the one I mentioned in Vietnam. Instead of a DVD for a gift, for $18 you can buy water jugs for three families from Oxfam in someone’s name. Want to get kids involved? Raise money to provide a community with a PlayPump—a water pump powered by children, since it doubles as a merry-go-round.

Water equals life. God called Creation out of water, we begin our lives cushioned in the water of our mothers’ wombs, our lives are sustained through water. Jesus called relationship with God “living water,” saying all who drank of it would never be thirsty again.

As I pour this water, I’ll say a short prayer, and then I invite each of you to touch the water—as reminder of your baptism, as a reminder of your creation, as a reminder of the gift of life and new life in Christ it brings. You might simply put your fingers in, you may want to trace a cross on your forehead as might have been done if/when you were baptized, maybe you want to cup some water in your hands—however you feel moved to connect with this water, and remind yourself of the life it gives.

[ii] http://www.nccecojustice.org//network/downloads/WaterResouce_3P.pdf

I was pleasantly surprised that the congregation readily participated in the ritual. Sure, we did them all the time in seminary, but asking a small congregational church in New Hampshire to do it is another thing. They were game, and many said they were moved by it, so I'm glad I took what seemed like a big risk to me!

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pick me, pick me!

Remember when we were kids, and had to choose up teams for in gym class for dodge ball or capture the flag or some other competition? No matter who was named "captain" by the teacher, there were those highly athletic kids who got picked first--they gave the team a better chance of winning. Then the popular, if unathletic kids got picked--maybe they wouldn't help skill-wise, but socially you had a better team if they were on it. And then down the skill and social ladder it would go, always with those few awkward unpopular kids left looking at the ground, toeing the dirt with their shoes as they waited for their fates to be decided. Who would be the last this time? Who was the least-wanted kid there? Through the whole process, those of us not near the top rung would be chanting in our heads, "pick me, pick me!" No one wants to feel like they are only chosen because there's no one else left.

There have been a few articles in the news sources lately about adoption. China, once the most popular foreign source of American adoptees, has created stricter rules and hence lowered the number of children adopted by American families. Other countries have done or are considering doing the same. Madonna recently attempted to adopt another child from Malawi, but was unsucessful. Though I often think about adoption, these news items have brought it to the front of my consciousness, enough to stop me in the midst of checking e-mail and Tweeting to blog about it.

Often people on the pro-life side of the abortion debate cite the fact that so many couples are just waiting for babies to adopt domestically. Those same couples often end up turning to countries like China, Russia, and Guatemala, spending tens of thousands of dollars to bring home a baby. 

A baby. A little one, usually under a year old, sometimes, if the timing and coordination are right, as young as 8 weeks. These are the top-round picks in the adoption world. White American babies go first, then healthy infants from abroad. 

The kids left looking at the ground, desperately pleading inside, "pick me, pick me?" Older kids in the American foster care system. 

These are not the kids that get the sympathy vote like those in foreign orphanages, who often tend to generate the "look I'm helping this poor child have a life s/he couldn't ever have had in her/his own country" feeling. (Note: I am not against international adoption, but feel the need to call it like it is).

The fact that these children are available for adoption through the foster care system largely means something went seriously wrong. Yes, there are some who are orphans with no other family to care for them, but the majority have been removed from their homes and their parents' rights have been terminated by the state. For that to happen, generally those kids have been through major neglect or abuse or both. 

So not only are they not cute babies, but they come with baggage. It takes special people to bring these kids home to their forever families, and it's not easy.

But those kids just want a chance, want to know they're not the least-wanted kid in the world. Some of them don't learn that, and age out of the foster care system at 18 (some states have wisely extended that deadline to 21 to continue to provide support to young adults). 

I often go to AdoptUsKids  and look around. It's a list of kids in foster care, most of whom are or will soon be available for adoption. It's not a pick-your-own catalog, but an attempt to find family matches for these, often the most difficult kids to place. According to one report, in fiscal year 2006 almost 127,000 kids were waiting to be adopted out of foster care. 

Look at their faces. Who wants to be the one to tell them, month after month, year after year, that they were not chosen?

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