Category Archives: Creation Care

Sermon, March 15

Read the lessons for this Sunday here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=26

A NOTE FROM REV. MIRANDA…  This isn’t a sermon about coronavirus. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing! Instead, it’s an invitation to reflect on our accountability to God’s Creation, as we enact it through our relationship with our church grounds. There’s an invitation here into some shared wondering that may help us look towards a future beyond the current public health crisis. Eventually spring will turn into summer; eventually we’ll be able to gather freely again; eventually we’ll be able to joyfully undertake shared work and song and prayer. Walk with me in that faith, friends. – Rev. Miranda+

 

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) 

Living water. It’s a beautiful phrase. It had a concrete meaning as well as a spiritual meaning. Living water, for the Biblical texts, meant water that moves. Running water in a stream or river, but also water falling as rain or bubbling up as a spring. 

People living in an arid environment – as the people of the Bible largely did – were dependent for much of the time on still, stale water in cisterns and wells. For them, the attraction of living water would have been obvious. People have long understood that moving water is cleaner and clearer and tastes better. It doesn’t just slake thirst and allow life to continue, but offers beauty, delight, and satisfaction. 

Jesus is speaking metaphorically rather than ecologically, here. He is drawing a contrast between physical and spiritual realities, as John’s Jesus often does. The “living water” he offers this unnamed woman isn’t literal water, any more than the new birth he described to Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel is a literal second birth. Instead it’s a way of describing an inner state of being tapped in to something that sustains and refreshes you deeply – irrespective of physical circumstances. He’s offering this woman that kind of deep connectedness with the Divine, with grace, with Love. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to the life of the Age.”

The Gospels are some of the least ecological texts in the Bible.They don’t say much about our relationship with the land and the whole created order. That’s somewhat unusual – pretty much anywhere you look in the Old Testament, you trip over ecological texts. (For just one example, consider our psalm today. It was chosen for the lectionary because it alludes to the Exodus story; but it also speaks about how all Creation belongs to God and how we humans are part of that divine created order, God’s sheep living in God’s pasture.) There are some significant creation-focused texts elsewhere in the New Testament as well – including later in Paul’s letter to the Romans; we’ll get to that this summer! 

We don’t necessarily notice the strong ecological themes in the Bible because generations of Protestant Christianity have taught us to think about faith as a matter between humans and God. But for the Old Testament, right relationship with God and neighbor and land are all inextricably linked. Justice and righteousness in society cannot be accomplished without a just and righteous relationship with the land – including sharing the produce of the land fairly, treating the land with respect and care by letting it rest and renew itself, and so on. 

This year, St Dunstan’s is part of a program called ChurchLands.It’s a pilot program inviting Episcopal churches and church leaders to explore and discern ways to reconnect faith and land in their parish context. It is specifically for churches that have land holdings of some sort – inviting us to reflect on how we might integrate our relationship with our land into our shared life as a community of faith. 

Our land is not especially well integrated right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if many newer members don’t even know about it. So let me tell you about it! St. Dunstan’s sits on about seven acres, in total. It was once part of the territory of the Ho-Chunk people. The U.S. government seized it after the Blackhawk War, and sold it off in parcels to settler farmers. In the late 1850s, the Heim brothers, immigrants from Bavaria, bought this land & built the farmhouse that still stands. It changed hands over the course of a century & eventually was given to the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, which then gave it to a mission congregation who wanted to start a new church on the west side of Madison. And here we are. 

The church building sits near the northeastern corner of the lot. Behind the farmhouse and the Parish Center, our grounds continue down to Old Middleton Road, with about three acres of woodland, mostly black walnut with some oak trees and pines. That’s the part that it’s easy for us to forget about; to just have, year after year, without any real sense of purpose or engagement. Now and then we walk through it, or wander down to pick a few black raspberries. But mostly – even for me – it’s out of sight, out of mind. 

Three acres of woods – and a couple more acres if you count the grassy area around the church, the Pine Island out front, and so on – it’s not a lot. There are folks in the ChurchLands program who are trying to figure out what to do with ten acres, or more. But it’s here, and it’s ours; and we have named ourselves, from the earliest years of this parish, as a church that cares about God’s creation. So the ChurchLands program offers a great opportunity to wonder together about our grounds. 

The structure of the program itself is pretty simple. Two of us attended a retreat in Michigan in late January, where we and other program participants dug deep into some foundational values and questions. There will be a second, concluding retreat in December. In between, there are monthly online meetings for learning and check-in. Meanwhile, we’re supposed do… something, here. Some kind of project or initiative. I’ll come back to that in a moment. 

On that retreat back in January, we did a lot of Bible study – looking at some familiar and unfamiliar stories through the lens of human relationship with the land. One was the story told in Genesis chapters 41 and 47. Joseph – great-grandson of the patriarch Abraham – is in Egypt, in jail. (It’s a long story!) Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has a strange and troubling dream. Joseph has a knack for interpreting dreams – and someone mentions that to Pharaoh, so Joseph is called to the throne room. And he interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a message from God: The seven fat cows in your dream mean there will be seven good years of harvest. The seven lean and ugly cows in your dream, who eat up the fat cows, mean that after the seven good years, there will be seven years of famine, that will devour all the surplus from the good years. Joseph goes on to suggest that for the next seven years, one-fifth of each year’s harvest should be gathered and stored as a reserve against the famine; and that Pharaoh should fin somebody discerning and wise to put in charge of that endeavor. 

(Let me say here that Joseph is right up there with King David on the list of people that your children’s Bible called a righteous hero favored by God – but whose story turns out to be a lot more complicated than that when you actually read it.)

Naturally Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge, and it all happens just as the dreams predicted: seven years of bounteous harvests – and then, the famine begins. And Joseph shares the stored food among the people of the land so that everyone survives, as God intended in sending the dream. 

Hah… no. That’s not what happens. Joseph makes people buy the food. First with money, until they run out of money. Genesis 47:14: “Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.” Now, THAT is Employee of the Month. Then, when people are out of money, Joseph gives them food in exchange for their livestock, their flocks and herds. All of that ends up as Pharaoh’s property too – and incidentally, it’s Joseph’s family that has the job of tending all those animals. 

And the next step is inevitable – the people come to Joseph and say, “Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us grain, so that we may live and not die.’… So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh… As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.” (Genesis 47:19-21)

I think this is an interesting story for us to dwell with, because it’s a story about preparing for ecological crisis. Joseph and Pharaoh receive an insight from God – and they decide to use this privileged knowledge, and the power they already have, to further consolidate wealth and power, and to take away people’s freedom and livelihoods.

We face impending ecological crisis today. There’s no secret about it, no mysterious dreams to interpret; many, many people are sounding the alarm. And there are absolutely people of wealth and power today who plan to use the years ahead just as Joseph and Pharaoh did. 

How can we face our frightening future with a commitment to  building relationships and sharing strategies and resources, instead of hardening social lines and deepening inequalities? How can we resist the quarreling and division that comes with scarcity and fear, as we see in the Exodus lesson today? 

Those are great big questions. The invitation of the ChurchLands program is to dwell with questions like that as we discern how to live more fully into our values on this land, our four-plus acres of woods and grass. The work is motivated by a conviction that reconnecting with Creation, with land, in very local, small-scale ways DOES matter, IS a step towards our hopes in the face of these frightening larger realities. 

This week I read about a beautiful example – at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland. Like St. Dunstan’s, St. Luke’s had about four acres of woodland behind their church. Unlike our site, their woods back up to a creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The land had been originally intended for a larger sanctuary, back when folks thought churches would keep growing forever. But a few years ago, the church began to envision another way to reclaim the land as sacred space. With help from a couple of grants, they undertook a project to turn those four acres back into wetlands, including restoring a stream that had been buried when the area was developed.

The project wasn’t driven by a naive desire to return the land to its original condition, but by current need. Climate change is raising sea levels and causing more frequent extreme weather. Along the Maryland coast, flooding is becoming more common, with seawater breaching sea walls to flood parking lots, roads, homes and businesses. In 1960, four such events were recorded; in 2017, 63. 

The marshland restored by St. Luke’s Church helps absorb extra water. Avery Davis Lamb writes, “By restoring their land to serve its intended purpose, the church created a climate sanctuary: absorbing higher tides, filtering polluted stormwater from extreme rain events, [as well as] hosting displaced [wildlife] and drawing carbon out of the air.” St. Luke’s itself sits high enough to avoid flooding, but their wetland restoration project serves their neighbors by absorbing water their houses cannot. 

The restored stream flows gently down the property towards the creek, surrounded by wet-loving native plants. Living water. 

St. Luke’s solution is obviously not our solution. But there are things we can learn. The people of St. Luke’s studied their land and how it fit into local systems. They paid attention to how climate change was harming their neighbors and neighborhood. They found non-church agencies to help them learn, fund, and do. And they held fast to their conviction that a restored landscape can manifest justice, wholeness, and holiness. 

At our initial retreat in January, we were invited to set goals. Carrie’s goal was to understand better what’s growing on our grounds, and how we might get to know those resources, as way to be in touch with the land and engage with it. My goal was just to get people together. Specifically, I wrote down an intention to gather at least at least 5 to 8 people, at least 3 times, between February and August, to bounce ideas around and come up with one or two specific things to do or try. 

It’s hard for me to come before you without a project, a plan; to have this be so open-ended. But in my nine years here, we have had lots of ideas for our grounds; what we’ve lacked has been follow-through. So I believe God means for me to come to this with my mind and hands open, and wait for ideas and directions to emerge and gather energy from among us. 

I invite you to consider whether you’d like to be part of those conversations – and/or part of the work, once we’re working on something. Even if you don’t feel called to that, maybe you have a connection or idea to offer. Please do! This is wide open! As Sharon Bloodgood used to say, it’s easier to tame a wild idea than to spruce up a dull one. 

Jesus uses the image of living water, this ecological image, because it is so evocative and so important in his context. Living, running, fresh, clear, satisfying water… Deeply meaningful, deeply attractive, to a desert people. 

What can we think of that’s not only life-sustaining but also delightful and satisfying for us? A strawberry still warm from the sun; the intoxicating scent of basil fresh from the garden; the color and detail of a flower in bloom; the smell of the earth just after a rainfall. What if things like these aren’t mere physical pleasures, but ways to tap into something that sustains and refreshes us deeply – means of connectedness with grace, with love, with the Divine? What could a landscape of justice, wholeness, and holiness look like here? Let’s wonder together. 

 

Read about St. Luke’s, Annapolis, and other examples here:

https://sojo.net/magazine/april-2020/how-three-coastal-churches-became-hubs-climate-resilience

Sermon, Sept. 22

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth. (Ps 79:1-2)

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? (Jer 8: 21-22)

The book of the Prophet Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are texts of conquest and exile. 

Jeremiah was born around the year 626 before the birth of Jesus. The days of the great united Kingdom of Israel under King David were long past. The Assyrian Empire had conquered the northern region in 720. Judea, the territory around Jerusalem, remained nominally free, but fell under Assyria’s authority in 700, as part of their empire, forced to pay tribute and obey their rulers. When Assyria fell and Babylon arose, Judea got tangled up in a war between Babylon and Egypt, and then became part of Babylon’s growing empire. Judah revolted against Babylon, first in 598 and then again ten years later. Both times, Babylon won. And after the second revolt, in the year 587, they made sure there wouldn’t be a third one. The city walls were torn down, the great Temple burned. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea were killed or exiled. Those exiles, the survivors, struggling to build new lives in Babylon, had endured a decade of active military threat, and over a century of domination by external powers.  

The book of Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are  texts of trauma.

Trauma here refers both to shocking negative events that overwhelm one’s immediate capacity to cope, but also to the ways such events affect us for the short, medium and long term. These Biblical texts bear the marks of traumatizing violence, loss and displacement, as they tell the story of an event so pivotal in Jewish history that it is described in at least five different places in the Old Testament. 

The book of Jeremiah largely dates to the years before the conquest – the prophet is warning Judah and its leaders of their approaching doom, and begging them to change course. But Jeremiah’s prophetic mission extends into exile – and as his prophetic texts were gathered into a book during and after the exile, those ancient editors may have added their memories of devastation to the prophet’s oracles of warning. As for Psalm 79 – we think of the Psalms as coming from the time of David’s court, and some of them do; but others were written centuries later, like this one, which clearly describes the fall of Jerusalem – with a vividness that makes it hard to read. 

What does it mean to call these texts of trauma? What can we read from them, through that lens? First, it helps us understand this sometimes horrific imagery. One common after-effect of trauma is intense and intrusive memories, that may overwhelm the survivor at times. When our psalm speaks of blood poured out like water, or when Jeremiah speaks again and again about dead bodies scattered in the fields, food for carrion birds and wild animals, with no one left to bury them – I think that we are hearing the memories that haunt these survivors and shatter their sleep, even years afterwards. 

Understanding these as texts of trauma also helps make sense of the strong themes of guilt and shame. Excessive guilt is a common response to trauma. It’s actually a way to try and make sense of what happened, and why it happened, by assuming responsibility. As horrible as it is to think that a tragedy was my fault, it may be easier than thinking it was nobody’s fault. The book of Jeremiah spends a lot of time explaining the violence that has fallen upon Judah by describing their collective misdeeds and failures. The word “shame” appears 34 times in the book of Jeremiah, and the word “guilt” another 13 times. Just a few verses before today’s passage, the text says, “I will give their fields to conquerors, because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall. (Jeremiah 8, selected verses)

Not only the idea of Judah’s guilt, but the idea of God’s punishment, are cognitive tools for making sense of disaster. Scholar Kathleen O’Connor has written about trauma in the book of Jeremiah. She argues that making God the agent in the devastation of Judah means that neither the gods of Babylon – nor random, cruel Fate – have triumphed. Even in conquest, even in exile, Judah remains, as always, under the authority of its God. 

Holding onto a sense of God’s presence and power was important because trauma can shake or shatter your worldview and sense of who you are. Clinical psychology and trauma scholar Amy Mezulis says that violent loss “breaks past that… barrier that most of us have that says ‘This isn’t how the world works’ or that life is sacred.” After trauma, the world may feel unpredictable and unsafe.  It may feel impossible to engage with normal life events, or imagine a future. Life may feel hopeless and overwhelming, long after the actual traumatic events are over. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician who can heal my people? 

And yet… Trauma does not get the last word.  With support, and love, and time, and luck, people can heal. People can grow. They will always carry the mark of what they have been through. But they may be able to integrate it into a new sense of self and  world. I’m in tender territory here, which some of you know far more intimately than I do, and I’m speaking with humility. But the literature suggests there can be good outcomes for people who come through significant traumas, whether individually or as a group. They may arrive – with support, love, time, and luck – at a  stronger sense of connection with loved ones and community; and at a new sense of meaning and purpose. We can see this happening late in the Book of Jeremiah, and other books of the post-Exile period. Watch for that in the weeks ahead!

The exiles lost SO much – but they survived, and their faith survived. They discovered that God was not left behind in the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple. They began to see that God’s presence and promise and plan were bigger than any one nation or people. Kathleen O’Connor calls the book of Jeremiah a “survival manual” for how to maintain life, faith, and hope, after profound loss. 

What will you do when the end comes? The prophet Jeremiah asks that chilling question in chapter 5. What are the gifts of these texts of trauma? What will you do when the end comes?

We live in a time of impending crisis. It has a name: the Anthropocene. The epoch in which human activity is massively altering the conditions of life on earth. It’s characterized by dramatic, short-term, localized crises; and the slow, stealthy global crisis of climate change we all share. We have always had hurricanes, floods, droughts, blizzards. But climate change makes those systems more intense and destructive, and less predictable – like the intense hurricane drowning Houston this week, or the deadly flooding in Wisconsin last August. 

At the same time, the long-term, large-scale impacts are becoming more visible, bit by bit, if we pause to notice. Dan Zak writes in the Washington Post, “There is no crisis, just an accumulation of curiosities and irritants. Your basement now floods every year instead of every five or 10 years. Your asthma has gotten worse. You grew up wearing a winter jacket under your Halloween costume in Buffalo, and now your kids don’t have to. The southern pine beetle that once made its home closer to the equator is now boring through trees on Long Island… We freak out, but go about our business. The problem is clear, but it has yet to consume us.”

I recently read a journalist who covers climate change, David Roberts, reflecting on how our nation might respond to future mass traumas. He reflects on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and concludes that in that case, in hindsight, we did not respond terribly well. We let our rage and need for revenge – our shared trauma – lead us into endless and senseless wars; into tolerating surveillance that chipped away at our privacy and civil rights; into a demagogic and scapegoating mode of political discourse. Roberts writes, “Climate change is, above all, going to manifest as a series of traumas — storms, heat waves, food shortages, mass migrations, [and so on.] …Our only hope is to react to trauma with grace, compassion, and solidarity. That’s what I would like to tell the [teenagers] of the world: you are going to be tested, again and again. Don’t be like your parents. Don’t be small; don’t retreat behind tribal walls; don’t wallow in rage and self-righteousness. Be better. You have to be, or we’re all [screwed].” 

Today’s Gospel parable is one of the more perplexing of its kind. But it does show us one thing to do when the end is coming, when you’re about to lose everything – job, status, income, way of life all at once. The dishonest manager doesn’t despair, and he doesn’t run. Instead, he tries to build relationships, so that he isn’t facing an insecure and diminished future alone. What will you do when the end comes? 

Being a church-going Christian means a lot of things. One is that we’re in a living relationship with an ancient text. If you’ve been coming for even a few weeks and paying even some attention, you carry around inside you stories and songs and laments and advice and poetry that range from 2 to 4000 years old. That gives us a somewhat unusual historical perspective. As I told a friend this week: if NOTHING else, the Bible shows you that God’s people have been through some stuff. Our faith ancestors survived traumatic loss and epochal change. They had to come through struggle to new understandings of God and world and self. Maybe we can, too. Maybe the poetry of grief and perseverance that they left for us can give us courage to face this season in the life of the world. 

Because, writes Kate Marvel for On Being, courage is what we need for the days and years ahead. “I have no hope,” she says, “that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet. But the opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale and inevitability, binds us into one, broken hearts trapped together under a warming atmosphere. We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending….  [Because] here we are, together on a planet radiating ever more into space where there is no darkness, only light we cannot see.”

 

SOURCES

An overview of trauma: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/

On mass trauma: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.sciencenews.org/article/what-we-know-how-mass-trauma-affects-mental-health/amp

Walter Brueggemann review Kathleen O’Connor’s book on Jeremiah: https://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2012-04/jeremiah-kathleen-m-o-connor

Dan Zak on climate change: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/everything-is-not-going-to-be-okay-how-to-live-with-constant-reminders-that-the-earth-is-in-trouble/2019/01/24/9dd9d6e6-1e53-11e9-8b59-0a28f2191131_story.html

David Roberts’ thread on 9/11 and climate crises: https://twitter.com/drvox/status/1171915448088256512

Kate Marvel for On Being: https://onbeing.org/blog/kate-marvel-we-need-courage-not-hope-to-face-climate-change/

Sermon, Oct. 2

God made us to love the world, and God made the world to be loved. So God rejoices when we are fulfilling God’s purposes by loving the world.

So says the 17th-century priest and writer Thomas Traherne. Traherne died on September 27, 1674, so this past week was the 342nd anniversary of his death. His writings demonstrate an expansive and joyous understanding of God’s love and grace immanent in the beauty of the natural world.

It’s a deeply Anglican perspective. Richard Schmidt argues that the Anglican theological heritage, which we share as Episcopalians, is profoundly incarnational. God becomes human and enters our world in Jesus Christ, and that moment of incarnation teaches us always to look for God present in the world, to honor God through with art and music, with human skill and reason, in the disciplines and duties of daily life, and in our love for the natural world.

There are Christians who see the world in other ways – as a resource entirely at our disposal, with no responsibility of care; or as inherently bad or flawed, over against a spiritual realm which is the true and good reality. But we Anglicans, we incarnational Christians, expect to meet God here, in this world, in these bodies; we expect to honor God’s grace and treasure God’s gifts; we expect to serve God in our daily living.

In seeking to know, honor, and serve God in the material world, and especially in the natural world, we stand in the current of a long and deep stream of Judeo-Christian thought. Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century saint whom we’ll honor this afternoon at our Blessing of the Animals service, is remembered for seeing animals and plants, sun and moon, as brothers and sisters within the created order. When I’m blessing the water up at the altar, I use a simplified version of a prayer of Francis: ‘I thank you, God, for Sister Water, who is so beautiful, humble, mobile, and pure.’

In the early 16th century, between Francis and Traherne, Martin Luther, the founder of our sister tradition, the Lutheran way of faith, wrote, “God is entirely and personally present in the wilderness, in the garden, in the field….even in the smallest flowers! … God is wholly present in all creation, in every corner, behind you and before you. Do you think that God is [just] sleeping on a pillow in heaven?”

There are so many witnesses to the possibilities of encountering, praising, and serving God in Creation spread across two thousand years of Christianity – and before that, in the Hebrew Bible, as well. The Creation story in Genesis, the book of Job, portions of the Psalms and the Prophets – there are many passages throughout the Hebrew Bible that describe God’s glory and generosity as vividly present and available in the natural world and its creatures.

Ellen Davis, my Old Testament professor, argues convincingly that the first covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, was triangular – connecting three parties in mutual responsibility: humanity, God, and the land. God’s people are called both to be faithful to God’s ways and to care for the land with respect and love. Davis says that in her reading of the Bible, that part of the Covenant is still in force.

God made us to love the world, and the world to be loved. But we are alienated from the natural world, which has diminished our love; and the love we do feel is shot through with grief.

I think the Anthropology Police would break down the door and take away my degree if I tried to romanticize pre-modern peoples and say that everything was better when we lived closer to the land. Before urbanization and mass production and a dozen other vast historical trends moved most of humanity away from small-scale farming and into lives in which the change of seasons is primarily a matter of wardrobe, and a bag of groceries is more likely to contain food from Chile and China than from Wisconsin. Modernity has a lot going for it – medicine, technology, mass education. I would not choose to go back to Traherne’s time, or Francis’s. I probably wouldn’t have survived the birth of my first child.

But: when I read Traherne’s euphoric praise for the gifts of the ocean, the hills, the skies, when I read Frances binding us in poetry and prayer to flower, cloud, bird and star, I feel a tug of sadness. I know those beauties less well than my ancestors in faith did; and I know them as endangered. Compromised, diminished, at risk.

Humans have always used and abused Creation; but the pace and the impact have increased sharply since the 19th century, and we see, and bear, the costs of those changes. Already by the 1870s, with the Industrial Revolution casting a pall of coal smoke over the world, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins voiced the grief we feel: “… All is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil, and wears man’s sweat and shares man’s smell.”

Today the lectionary brings us two songs of exile. Lamentations gives voice to the loneliness of the land, the city, with its people taken from it, and Psalm 137, one of the most poignant of the Psalms, gives us the voice of the people, grieving the loss of their homeland, the landscape of their hearts: “By the rivers of Babylon, we lay down and wept when we remembered Zion… we hang our harps on the willow trees, for how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” We had a place, says the song, a land that was ours; we loved it, it was beautiful; and we lost it. It’s gone.

That’s us. We live there, in that terrain of memory and grief. In the book Healing Through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan proposes that we are all living with chronic anxiety and sadness about what’s happening, what’s already happened, to the natural world. When I first read that, during seminary, I recognized it instantly as true for me. Does it ring true to you? … When I talk with you all about spirituality and where we feel close to God, a lot of you say, In Nature. And when we talk about Nature, there’s this shadow that comes across people’s faces. The simple joy and intimacy with Creation that we hear in the words of Frances and Traherne – sometimes we feel that for a moment. And then we remember how much we have lost; how much we still have to lose.

I don’t know how you live with it. For me, it involves a lot of denial, a lot of things I just don’t think about much. Because I don’t have time to fall apart like that.

God made us to love the world, and the world to be loved. But we are alienated from the natural world; our love of Creation is diminished and shadowed by grief. We know and feel that we are called to care for the world, but we lack the will.

In today’s Gospel, some of Jesus’ friends come to him and say, Increase our faith! He’s been talking with them about discipleship – caring for each other, forgiving each other, serving the poor, and so on. And reasonably enough, they think, All that sounds pretty hard. And maybe if we had more faith, it would be easier. So: Jesus, give us more faith. And Jesus says, Look. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree, Go jump in a lake! and then listen for the splash. When your slave who works for you does a full day’s work in the field and then comes home and serves you dinner, do you thank him? No, you don’t; because that’s his job. That’s what he’s supposed to do. So how about you just do the things you’re supposed to do?

It’s a Gospel lesson that can give us pause. Not because what Jesus is saying here is perplexing or hard to interpret; he’s just being a little blunt. Less warm and fuzzy and affirming than we like him. He’s a little fed up that the disciples think they still need something else. That in their laziness, they hope that maybe Jesus can just wave his hand and make discipleship into a cakewalk. So his reply is kind of a kick in the pants. He says, You don’t need more faith. You have faith, and you know what it means to live faith. You just need to make up your mind to do it. You don’t lack faith. You lack will.

Oh, boy, do I recognize that truth about myself. I have faith. I believe. And I know what belief demands of me, in my obligations to God, my neighbors, the common good, the created order. The things I don’t do, the places I fall short, are because it’s hard, and I’m weak and lazy. Fortunately God is gracious; I keep getting second chances. But when Jesus says, Faith is not your problem; just act on the faith you already have! – he’s talking to me.

This past spring we called and gathered a task force here at St. Dunstan’s, the Creation Care Task Force. Loving care of creation has been part of mission of this parish since its earliest years, when the first rector, Father Childs, worked to plant conifers from around the world on the church grounds. Over the decades, the trees, plants, birds and animals of this place have been part of our identity here, and have called us into awareness of God’s beautiful creation. In the parish mission statement developed in 2010, “Care for the environment” is named as one of the ways we strive to respond to God’s grace. But we have not had a consistent or clear witness on creation care. It’s in danger of being just another value that a church claims, but isn’t really sure how to live out.

So we called the Creation Care Task Force, inviting members of the parish with knowledge and passion around issues of environmental stewardship to gather to reflect on what it means for a church to be committed to creation care. We’ve been meeting regularly since the spring, and they’ve been such fruitful, insightful conversations; it’s truly been holy work.

We’re still at it – for a couple more months, I expect – but we’ve achieved one important goal that we’re sharing with the congregation today: a Creation Care Mission Statement. It names our hopes and intentions for living as people who still honor the First Covenant! – who see loving stewardship of Creation as an integral part of holy living. So far that Mission Statement belongs to the Task Force; but I very much hope that it will come to belong to the whole parish, that we’ll claim it and own it and live into it together, in the months and years ahead.

The Creation Care Task Force and its work are an example of doing what we know we need to do. We didn’t need more faith – we already believed that Creation matters, that the natural world is beloved of God. We didn’t need more concern for the earth, or more guilt or anxiety – we had plenty of that. We didn’t lack faith; we lacked will. We just needed to start somewhere. And so we started.

It’s just a start. This mission statement invites us into demanding ongoing work, as individuals and as a community of faith. It will be hard, and I, for one, am still weak and lazy. But – we’ve started. And – this is the part that gives me the most joy – we’ve come to some clarity about where to start.

God made us to love the world, and the world to be loved. But we are alienated from the natural world; our love of Creation is diminished and shadowed by grief. We know deeply that we are called to care for the world, but we lack the will. The path towards awakening our longing to protect and renew begins with cultivating love.

The path towards awakening our longing to protect and renew Creation begins with cultivating our love of Creation.

Ever since it first became clear that human activity was changing and harming the environment and the world’s creatures, we’ve been living with guilt, shame, and fear. Those feelings have shadowed us for decades – and a lot of us still feel paralyzed. There’s been some interesting research on environmental education with young children that concluded that it’s not a good idea to start too early with teaching about endangered species and threatened landscapes. The sense of impending loss can just make kids disengage. Why learn and fall in love if these creatures and places seem doomed? They can’t process the grief when they haven’t yet even had a chance to discover the joy. Instead, effective environmental education for young children focuses on developing curiosity, engagement, wonder, connectedness… love. I think that, while that’s particularly true for young children, it’s true for all of us. We need to renew and nourish our love for Creation.

Listen, when the Creation Care Task Force first gathered, I was hoping for outcomes like guidelines for what kind of dish soap to buy. And we may yet get there; this mission statement should inform those choices. But gathered around the table, walking around the grounds, in conversation and in prayer, we have discerned something much more foundational and hopeful. I’d like to use a word we don’t all know: charism. It’s a Greek word, a New Testament word; it means gift – but we use in the church to mean particularly a gift from God given with a purpose. A gift given to be used.

The Creation Care Task Force believes that this parish, St. Dunstan’s Church, has a charism for the restoration of the relationship between humans and nature.

This parish has a charism for the restoration of the relationship between humans and nature.  Our grounds and the plants and creatures that inhabit them – our spaces for worship and fellowship that look out on nature- our heritage of planting and tending here – the joy our members and guests take in exploring, playing, foraging, wandering, praying here – the people God has sent us who themselves carry charisms, gifts, for teaching and advocacy and care for the natural world – these are all clues that fed our discernment that God wants this church to help people love the world.

And our grounds are our central gift and tool for that work. A core and distinctive part of St. Dunstan’s identity and mission is inviting people into loving engagement with creation, by practicing sustained compassionate attention right here on our little patch of fertile ground.

That local focus – using this place to learn to know and love nature together – that’s not navel-gazing or parochialism or escapism. It’s more like learning a skill in a classroom or workshop that you’ll take out and use in daily life. Our life here together, in this place, can be that classroom or lab where we cultivate a disposition of heart and mind that we’ll carry with us out into the world. Just as we practice love of neighbor here, to shape our daily interactions with others, we can practice love of creation here, to shape our daily living, buying, eating, voting.

What does that look like? Well, this is a brand-new thought; my prayer is that we’ll develop it together. I think there are ways in which we’re already doing it, have always done it. I think there are other ways we can take it on with intention, in our shared life of worship, learning, fellowship, and work. I heartily invite all of you to share your ideas, questions, hopes.

Today the Creation Care Task Force is offering the congregation three simple exercises to try out, in the spirit of cultivating our love of the natural world. These are exercises in abiding, practices of curiosity and compassionate attention. Please take a look at the Tiny Hike, Small Ecology, and I Notice, I Wonder, and give one of these practices ten or twenty minutes today, or this week, or anytime. Share with me, with each other, how they feel, where they take you.

God made us to love the world, and the world to be loved. Our love of Creation is diminished and shadowed by grief. But the path towards awakening our longing to protect and renew begins with cultivating love. I believe that we, as the parish and people of St. Dunstan’s, are called to that work of cultivation. May the God who has given us this desire and intention, continue to stir it up within and among us, equip and inspire us to live out our hopes, and prosper the work of our hands. Amen.

Sermon, July 24

Jesus was praying in a certain place. (Luke 11:1)

We understand that, don’t we? Sometimes we just pray, we turn our thoughts towards God, wherever we are – in the car or at school or work or on Facebook or reading the news, whatever. But we also know about having certain places, special places, where we come to pray. We know that God is everywhere. But there are certain places where it’s easy for us to feel close to God. It’s easy to share our thoughts and feelings with God, and to listen for God’s voice in our hearts, and feel God’s love around us.

Some of those certain places are places like this – places made by people. Churches, temples, mosques.  But some of those certain places are natural places. Humans take care of them and protect them, but their beauty comes from God, and from Nature, which is God’s.

Often, when I ask people where they feel closest to God, they say, In Nature. And they seem to feel a little guilty about it! Like they think it’s a bad answer. It’s not a bad answer! Christians have known for a long long time that Nature shows us God’s glory and love and power. It’s in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and there are voices all through 2000 years of Christian tradition that tell us we can meet God in the natural world.

We heard one of those voices a little earlier – Thomas Traherne, who lived in the 17th century.  And he says, God made the world to be enjoyed, and God made you to enjoy the world; so it makes God very happy when you do what you were made for, by enjoying the natural world!

What’s your favorite thing in Nature?…

Have you noticed that in Nature, the more you notice, the more you find to enjoy and appreciate?  When you look harder, or you learn more, it just gets more amazing, doesn’t it?

My friend B, who is a nature educator, introduced our Creation Care Task Force to the work of naturalist John Muir Laws. Laws gives us a really good definition of love: Love is sustained compassionate attention. Sustained compassionate attention.

Let’s unpack that. Sustained means you do it for a while. You don’t just take a quick look and then move on.

Compassionate means caring. It means you look at something with a warm, open heart.

And you know what attention means,because your parents and teachers use that word, don’t they? When something has your attention, your eyes are on it, and not just your eyes, but your mind too. You’re focused on it. You’re really there.

So: Love as sustained compassionate attention. You could absolutely apply that to other human beings – but right now we’re talking about love of nature.  And the great thing about love is that, just like a child or a plant, if you feed it, it grows. Laws says, Every time somebody has an opportunity for sustained compassionate attention with a leaf, or a bug, or a tree, they fall in love a little bit more with the natural world.

And for us that means we also fall a little bit more in love with God, whom we know through the beauty and order and complexity of Nature.

Our Creation Care Task Force is still doing its work, but here’s one conclusion we’re reaching: We have a special gift and mission, here at St. Dunstan’s, to invite people deeper into love of nature, love of Creation. To offer ourselves and others opportunities to practice sustained compassionate attention. That’s where the gift of our grounds points us -and even our nave, where we are right now, where we can pray and sing and reflect while we look out at birds and trees and flowers and snow and rain. Where instead of stained glass, we have Nature’s beauty.

From here we went into this amazing exercise in sustained compassionate attention!