Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
“What God has joined together, let no one separate”
I had an aha! moment a week or two ago, just as the seasons changed and we began heading into fall. I was eating supper with my husband on the porch of our home in Northampton, and as we sat there chatting about our day and digging into greens and raw vegetables that I’d picked up at the Food Bank Farm in Hadley, I had a sudden revelation. It wasn’t a formal meal, so I had put down my fork and picked up a carrot in my fingers, and I was just about to take a bite when it suddenly came to me: this carrot had been planted, grown and harvested just a few miles from my house. I felt a sudden sense of kinship with that carrot. We were connected. We’d lived through the same summer heat and the same summer downpours. We’d felt the same wind blow across the valley, experienced the same warmth of the sun, the same cool of the clouds. We were creatures together, this carrot and I: neighbors of a sort, some kind of kin.
I don’t suppose that human beings actually share very much DNA with a carrot, but in that sudden moment of illumination on the porch I realized that this carrot and I were creatures connected to the same soil, growing under the same sun, sprung from the divine Source.
“Brother Carrot,” I might have called it, before I took a bite.
I know this is a rather fanciful way to start a sermon, but my story has a point: we human beings are on a long journey back to understanding our connections with the Earth. “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9). That’s the task before us, as I see it: how to find our way back to union with God and all God’s Creation, how to reclaim our partnership not just with our human fellows but also with all living creatures. I savor every moment of ecological consciousness that is given to me, and to you, because every such moment is a moment of healing.
All week we’ve been celebrating St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, whose Feast Day was on Wednesday and whose vision of God’s presence in the biophysical world we will honor again this afternoon at 4 o’clock in a service of blessing the animals. Heaven knows that in many ways we human beings do not live in right relationship with the land and sea and sky, to say nothing of our relationship with our brothers and sisters who are four-legged, feathered or finned.
I don’t think I need to belabor the point. Some of you are fresh from seeing “An Inconvenient Truth,” when on Friday about 85 people packed the Parish Hall to watch the movie. We are one of 4,000 congregations across the country that showed the film this week, as people of faith take hold of the urgent need to curb global warming.
Even if you haven’t yet seen the movie, you may know that climate scientists reported at the end of September that the Earth may be close to the warmest it has been in the last million years (1). At the end of the summer scientists also reported that Greenland’s ice sheet is melting much more quickly than they had anticipated, and that in a drastic and unprecedented thaw, this summer an area of Arctic sea ice that normally stays frozen all year briefly opened a channel that was “big enough to allow a ship to sail to the North Pole Polar bears have drowned and receding Arctic glaciers are uncovering previously unknown islands.” (2) The effects of global warming are being felt not only in far off places but right here in our beloved Pioneer Valley. Maybe you read the front-page news this week about the new study “projecting that the Northeastern climate will become like that of the deep South by the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are lowered.” (3)
We all know we’re living in an unsustainable way. Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable. Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable.
So what are we to do? As Christians, one thing we do is dive into Scripture and tradition, looking for wisdom as we struggle to articulate what a religious environmental worldview might look like. We read familiar texts with a new ecological eye, pressing them to deal with questions that human beings have never faced before.
Today’s reading from Genesis is a good case in point. It’s a section of the mythic story of our creation, and the first time I read it through in preparation for this sermon, all I could see was a justification for human alienation from nature. I interpreted it like this: God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18). OK, fine, but God apparently creates animals only to relieve human loneliness. In other words, man is supreme and is created first, and animals exist only to serve his purposes and needs. God then trots the animals out to the man, who slaps a name on each one – cow, bird, crocodile, whatever – as a way of expressing his dominance and control — there is power in assigning a name. The animals prove to be inadequate companions for the man, so God decides to create woman.
The moral? Well, I decided, this text could be read as a Judeo-Christian rationalization for human dominance and exploitation of the natural world. Taken alongside Psalm 8, with its lines “You give him mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field, The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea” (Ps 8:7-9) – well, I thought, now there’s a mandate for plundering and spoiling the natural world.
But we can’t settle for interpretations like that – they’re not adequate today, if they ever were. I went back to the Genesis text and considered a different way to read the story. God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” OK, I thought. Humanity is built for relationship. We can’t exist by ourselves or for ourselves alone. God has created us to seek connection.
Out of the ground God then forms “every animal of the field and every bird of the air” (Gen 2:19). You may remember that in an earlier verse Adam himself was formed “from the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7). It’s as if the storyteller wants to show that humans and non-human creatures are intrinsically linked, because we spring from the same soil. We’re made from the same stuff.
Then God brings the animals to the man “to see what he would call them.” Clearly human beings have a special role in God’s creation, but is it one of domination and exploitation? Naming a living creature, or discovering the name that it’s already been given, requires care and curiosity, not high-handed authority. From this perspective I imagine Adam contemplating each God-given creature one by one, and taking time to get to know and interact with it before deciding on its name. How can you know the name of one plant or another, or distinguish one bird from another, until you’ve looked at it closely?
Last week a naturalist took my husband and me on a walk around our land in Ashfield, teaching us how to identify wild edibles and healing plants. Unlike many of you, I am clueless when it comes to naming trees and birds and mosses and plants, so I had to work pretty hard. She had us comparing the edges of leaves, to see if they were wavy or rounded or sharp. She had us squatting to examine mushrooms, and scraping birch bark to catch the root beer scent, and peering through a magnifying lens to study the patterns of veins on a plant and the spores on the underside of ferns. She had us look and smell and touch so that we could notice the difference between one plant and another, and perhaps begin to remember its name. As we walked out of the woods at the end of the afternoon, she remarked, “If you don’t remember the names, never mind: now you know how to look.”
So I like to imagine that Adam’s naming of the creatures had something of the same gentle, inquisitive, appreciative spirit that I saw in her. I like to think that he knew how to look – that his naming of the animals was a sign of his willingness to abide with them and learn from them. The best words for anything come only after we’ve experienced it deeply, not before.
And when Adam finally finds his partner, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, their shared task as human beings is to “to till and keep” (Gen 2:15) the Earth – that is, to exercise a “mastery” or dominion over non-human creatures that is marked by benevolence, not exploitation. Some theologians define dominion not as domination but as “the mediation of divine blessings to nonhuman creatures.” (4) That’s our vocation, that’s our job – to mediate divine blessings to nonhuman creatures. Imagine!
In a time of planetary crisis, we need to reclaim an ecological consciousness, to perceive and celebrate the sacredness of all Creation. You may or may not be drawn to nature mysticism, and I’m sure that some people think it impossibly sentimental or eccentric to imagine speaking, as St. Francis did, of Brother Wolf, Brother Sun, or Sister Moon – to say nothing of feeling any kinship with a carrot!
But I would argue that one of the most urgent tasks of our generation is to move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to one of intimacy with it. And we don’t have much time- for instance, some experts say that we have about a decade in which to avert – or not – the most catastrophic level of climate change.
The good news is that there are many things we can do right away, as you will see if you come for coffee hour in the Parish Hall and take a look at our little eco-fair. We hope you’ll stock up on compact fluorescent light bulbs, which save both energy and money, and get off junk mail lists, since junk mail gobbles up the equivalent of 100 million trees every year. (5)
Like many of you, I’m trying to make changes at home. A few weeks ago I set up a composter in the back yard and I’m figuring out that whole business of when to put in leaves, when to throw in food. We’ve been driving a hybrid car for a while, we became members of Co-op Power, and soon we’ll set up photovoltaic panels to heat our hot water and produce some electricity. We’re trying to turn off unnecessary lights, and next week we’re getting a home energy audit.
Personal actions are important, but participating in regional and national initiatives may count for even more. Here in the Pioneer Valley we have a unique opportunity this month to participate in a public planning process to create a regional Clean Energy Plan. During the month of October, all citizens of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties are invited to join an online conversation that will help us set goals and develop action plans for how to increase our energy efficiencies and how to generate more clean, renewable energy right here in the Valley. At the eco-fair we’ll have little cards like this one that will show you where to sign on. (6)
I’m also excited about two other initiatives. Focus the Nation is a project to create a national dialogue about stabilizing the climate that will culminate on January 31, 2008, when teach-ins will be held simultaneously across the country. Inspired by Earth Day 1970, this event will be held early in the presidential primary season. (7) Focus the Nation could help generate the political will to make our national government freeze carbon emissions and take the lead in curbing global warming. I’m hoping that Grace Church will want to be a part of this effort.
I’m happy to tell you that Grace Church has already signed on to be a co-sponsor of another event: a global warming walk I’m helping to organize that will head from Northampton to Boston next spring. The Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue will begin in Northampton on March 16, and end in Boston on March 24, with an interfaith prayer service and rally. (8) You can walk for an hour, a day, or a week. We’ll sing, we’ll pray, we’ll walk in silence, and we’ll bear witness to our commitment to the God “for whom and through whom all things exist” (Hebrews 2:10) and who connects us one with another and with the whole Creation.
What God has joined together, let no one separate.
And when I see you on November 4 at Grace Church’s Hundred-Mile Meal and we share a potluck feast of local foods, I’ll be the person bringing a pot of carrot soup.
(1) “Earth May Be at Warmest Point in One Million Years,” by Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters, September 26, 2006.
(2) “Thaw and Storms Opened Channel to North Pole,” by Francois Murphy, Reuters, September 21, 2006.
(3) “Heading South? Reports: N.E. faces big climate changes,” by Richie Davis, The Recorder, Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 5, 2006, p. 1.
You can visit the Union of Concerned Scientists’ new, interactive website to review findings from the new report by independent scientists and researchers on climate change in the Northeast and to consider how the choices we make today will determine our children’s and grandchildren’s future.
(4) 18th century theologian John Wesley is one example cited by James A. Nash in Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991, p. 103.
(5) New American Dream calculation from Conservatree and U.S. Forest Service statistics.
(6) Sign up at: http://forums.e-democracy.org/pioneer-valley.
(7) For information and to sign up your school, college, church, or business, visit http://focusthenation.org .
(8) For information or to volunteer, contact Mathilda Cantwell, (413) 534-6488, email: firstname.lastname@example.org .