Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Preaching Environmental Justice in "The Purple Zone”


The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, PhD
Krost Symposium, Texas Lutheran University
Sept. 3, 2014

The Krost Symposium is TLU’s premier yearly academic event. This year’s theme, “Environmental Justice: Texas Responses to Global Crises,” explores exactly what environmental justice is and how we can work together to solve current issues that will impact future generations.  The following is my presentation at their opening worship for the kick-off of this series.  The video can be found here and the 10-minute presentation starts at minute 6:00: 



I want to thank Tim Barr and Texas Lutheran University for inviting me to be part of this important series of speakers in the Krost Symposium addressing the topic of environmental justice.  It is an honor to begin this series and to be counted among some of the most prominent figures undertaking the task of addressing the relationship between people, Earth and its other-than-human beings, and, for those of us with a religious persuasion, our relationship with the Divine Creator.  

There is always a risk that when we focus on an area of justice, someone is going to get their gander up, so to speak.  You could have chosen a less controversial topic, but you have courageously decided to enter into what I believe is the most vital question of our time:  how will we live if we destroy the very planet and biotic community that enables our lives?  Stated in a positive way, how can we live in a way that ensures the just and right relationships between humans, Earth, and those most vulnerable?

Let’s take a moment to talk about why people get so contentious when talking about environmental justice issues?  There is much at stake: incredible amounts of wealth, questions of power and equality, personal and community identity, the ecological conditions that support life itself, and the very real persons (human and otherwise) affected by these issues all have a stake in our conversations, decisions, policies and actions.  Because of this intense and complex overlaying of competing interests, we find ourselves, in Jesus’ words, “a house divided against itself” (Matthew 12:25).  And, indeed, the oikos – meaning “house” in Greek – the oikos of earth is crumbling, flooding, and burning all around us.  Some of us may have enough temporary wealth, power and privilege to shore ourselves in little enclaves longer than our poorer sisters and brothers.  But the frantic grasps to protect this illusory wealth only hasten the speed at which the ensuing ecological domino effect will collapse the collective house of this planet.
 
Thus it is imperative that we find ways to talk effectively and respectfully with each other in order to address these issues.  A central question for me in my work as a pastor and scholar who is also an environmental activist is:  How do we listen to each other across increasingly hostile divides of red/blue politics, race, class, geography, culture, and religion?  For example – is Texas considered a Red or Blue state?  (Red).  And do you know what Pennsylvania is considered?  Blue.  But I can tell you where I am in Central PA it’s probably closer to Texas in many ways. 

As a pastor I ask, how can we preach environmental justice in what I call “The Purple Zone”?  Because, as I have come to learn, when we enter the dialogue with a commitment to process and trust in God’s guidance, we find that the divides themselves are also illusions.  None of us really lives in a “red” or “blue” state.  In fact, those colors run together in our families, our houses of worship, our schools, and even within our own hearts and minds.  Our job, then, is to find a way to courageously step into the “Purple Zone” and speak a word that casts out demons and stands with Jesus and all those who gather, not scatter. 

In these next few minutes I want to share some insights that I have gleaned from my work as a community organizer and from my work on a bipartisan synod task force on fracking.  These are also lessons I’ve learned from 14 years of preaching about justice issues in the pulpit in congregations that have a wide range of political, economic, cultural, and personal stances on issues.  My goal is to offer some insights for the conversations that will follow in my next session about fracking, and that can be helpful for all of you over the course of the symposium these next several weeks.

I’ll use the synod task force on fracking as a case study.  On the recommendation that group, the Upper Susquehanna Synod Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in June to call for all environmental and public health exemptions on shale gas and oil drilling and its related processes to be repealed and all processes related to shale gas and oil extraction and processing to be subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), the Clean Air Act (1990) and Clean Water Act (1972). 

The task force was created as a result of action taken at the Synod’s 2012 assembly directing the group to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the justice issues surrounding the natural gas industry.  The resolution came as a result of two years’ worth of research, field work, and discussion by a diverse group of individuals, appointed by The Rev. Bishop Robert L. Driesen, representing opposing viewpoints on the issue of hydro-fracking.

Our task force was made up of scientists, professors, pastors, teachers, and lay leaders in the church, including individuals who actually work in the shale gas industry or are supportive of it.  Some of us would like to see a total ban on fracking.  Others think it can be done safely with proper regulation.  The fact that we were able to come to the table and engage in civil, bipartisan moral deliberation about this issue and offer a recommendation for the larger church is very important. At the very least we could agree that the so-called “Halliburton Loopholes” created for the industry exempting it from the established laws protecting our water, air and public health are unjust and need to be repealed. 

So how did we get to that point of being able to agree on these recommendations?  I will be honest – it was not easy.  In fact, it was probably one of the most difficult groups I’ve ever worked with.  The process was messy, tense and frustrating at certain points.  But there were some key principles and moments that kept us from giving up, and directed us toward the task at hand.

First, all of us made an effort to understand where each of us was coming from in our positions, and to share our story of why we had come to believe what we did.  This enabled us to respect each other as people with families, livelihoods, communities, and deeply held convictions.  This meant that we had to actually listen to each other.  This, in turn, enabled us to move beyond negative generalizations and stereotypes about the side we disagreed with. 

Second, even though we might have initially mistrusted each other, we trusted the process of the church that brought us together, and were committed to that process.  Our bishop did a good job of choosing people from different stances on the issue so that no one could look at the result of our work and accuse us of being biased one way or another.  And because we were a church group, there was always prayer at our meetings.  I am convinced that sometimes the only thing that kept our group from breaking apart was the presence of the Holy Spirit somehow holding together whatever tenuous strands there were.

Third, we did our homework.  Each of us chose a particular area to research, went after it with diligence, and brought it to the group for discussion and debate.  In addition, each person had a key part to play in the overall task, so we were invested in the process. 

Finally, after months of throwing around skeins of data, wrestling with various interpretations, and debating the veracity of different claims, what finally allowed us to settle in and do real work together was finding common ground.  Or in this case, common water.  In fact, the only thing we could all agree on was that water needed to be protected, whether you were in favor of fracking or not.  So we were all able to say that the Halliburton Loopholes are not good for anyone.  The only prudent thing to do is to close the loopholes and subject the industry to the same regulations everyone else must answer to.  It is a basic question of fairness. 

So – if we could pull off something like this in Pennsylvania, you can certainly undertake this process in Texas.  By listening to each other’s stories, respecting each other, doing your homework, trusting and being committed to the process, and finding common values, it is possible, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to bring people together across ideological lines to engage in robust ethical debate about controversial issues and arrive at some consensus for the common good.

May God bless each of you as you enter this process so that you may maintain positive relationships with each other, speak a prophetic word of truth, and emphasize God’s creative, hope-filled and redeeming activity in our world.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Border Children: Like Moses on Mt. Nebo, Longing for the Promised Land

As most of you know, we are in the midst of a sermon series on mountains in the Bible.  Today we are on Mt. Nebo, also called Pisgah, where Moses stands wistfully looking out over the Promised Land, knowing that this is as close as he'll ever get to it before he dies.  It is a bittersweet moment.  You can't help but be filled with pathos, imagining this great leader of Israel standing alone on the mountain, the presence of the Lord surrounding him, the wind gently blowing his long, white beard, listening to the silence as he gazes across the vista. 
 
If you've ever been to the top of a mountain, you know the feeling.  You are aware that you're as high as you'll ever be, granted a view of the surrounding landscape that fills you with feelings of majesty and awe.  And yet there is a sadness, knowing that you can't stay on the mountaintop forever.  Eventually, you have to come down.  The clean air, the stunning view, the feeling of being so close to heaven - it will all be just a memory once you're back on level ground.  And for Moses, when he leaves this mountaintop, he knows he's going to his death.  He must have lingered there many hours before the voice finally said, "Come on, Moses - it's time to go."  And heaving a heavy sigh, he tears his eyes away from this last, best view and begins his descent down the mountain.       

What makes this last scene especially heartbreaking is that Moses knows that after all those years of wandering in the wilderness, he will never actually step foot into the Promised Land.  After bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt, after enduring the hardships of the wilderness, after putting up with the complaining and whining and near-revolts of the people, his final hope will never be realized.  And it’s all because of one mistake, one instance of faithlessness, that results in Moses coming away from Mt. Nebo with only a distant view of the land of milk and honey. 

Have you ever worked so hard for something, endured so much, withstood so many hardships, only to be turned away just when you thought you were about to reap the reward for your labor?  The heartbreak can be crushing, especially when it appears that God is either punishing you for your mistakes, or simply is not following through on the promise you thought had been made.  Perhaps you have stood on your own Mt. Nebo, gazing wistfully in the distance at what you thought was your destination, only to learn that, in fact, you will never actually get there.
 
Many of you have heard about the refugee crisis on the southern border of the United States, where tens of thousands of children from Central America have flooded facilities seeking asylum.  Many people think that the children are sneaking in illegally or trying to bring in drugs, when in fact, they have presented themselves to border patrols as asylum-seekers, and, thus, are in the country legally.  The rhetoric about the situation is getting heated and hateful. But the facts are:  these are children, they are without their parents, they are lost and alone and afraid.  And for many of them, they are standing like Moses on Mt. Nebo, wistfully viewing a land of safety from afar, but never actually being able to enter.
LIRS-HomeBanner-BorderCrisis 
Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Gulf Coast Synod visited the transition centers and talked with the children, with volunteers, border patrol and lawyers. He explains in his blog that violence in Central America is on the rise. Poverty leads to desperate measures. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. 
ActofLoveCarousel
One of the young boys, age 13, was told by the gangs that he had to join or be murdered. “He refused and they beat him nearly to death. A year later they came back again with the same demand. After refusing they ran him over with a car. His mother gave him $30 and told him to go north.  Hitchhiking on trains he made it to Mexico, where he was kidnapped and held for ransom. Escaping, he crossed the river and was picked up by US Border Patrol. He was treated poorly in a harsh detention facility until the local sheriff stepped in. In time he was settled with a foster family, but after a month he was picked up by immigration.” Now he is behind bars, waiting either for another foster family to take him in, or to be sent back to the gangs in his homeland.  http://bishopmike.com/2014/07/18/a-visit-with-children-at-the-border/

Like Moses on Mt. Nebo, this young boy, and the rest of the children at the border, was fleeing violence and oppression in a land where they were treated as nothing more than slaves for gangs.  Like the Israelites who had fled from the violence and slavery in Egypt, they journeyed through the wilderness and all its many dangers, hoping against hope that they will make it to the Promised Land of our country where they will be safe.  But so many of them will be turned away by a nation fearful of them and what people think they bring with them – disease, drugs, laziness, unwillingness to learn the English language, another mouth to feed and take advantage of the system. They, like Moses, will come away from Mt. Nebo with nothing but frustrated hopes and disappointment, and many will face certain death if returned to their home countries.

You may have strong feelings that these children should not be allowed into our country.  But regardless of your feelings, there’s something we can learn from these children, and from their faith journey, just as we can learn from Moses.   When he stood on that mountaintop knowing he had failed, he did not whine about it.  He did not blame anyone.  He did not try to argue with God.  He willingly passed the mantle of leadership onto Joshua, not desperately grabbing at the reins to secure his own thirst for power, as we see so many leaders do.  He entrusted his life and his death to God.

These children at the border also entrust their lives to God.  The Rev. Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern PA Synod, in a sermon to the gathering of the Women of the ELCA a few weeks ago, shared some really moving stories about how the church is ministering to those children.  She shared about a woman named Martha and her husband Gabriel.  “They have opened their homes to these children, as part of the network of transitional group foster care.  Since the facility opened in April over eighty children of God have been guests in their home.  ‘The children are afraid when they come to us,’ said Gabriel. ‘ But this is their ‘promised land’ given everything they have been through. These children come with remarkable faith. We pray with them at night, at meals.  Some of these children become “little evangelists” because they are welcomed here and their faith is nurtured.’  In the faces of Martha and Gabriel, and in the faces of the children, you can see the faith of Jesus.”

You see, the church comes alongside those who stand on Mt. Nebo and reminds them that no matter what awaits them on the way back down the mountain, the love of God is there as well.  There is a woman named Kathy Herzberg who is a member of an ELCA Congregation, Our Savior in McAllen, Texas.  She volunteers with other Lutherans along with parishioners from Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Catholics and Lutherans together are working day and night. Kathy manages the teams of volunteers who feed, clothe and care for border children.  Every day teams of volunteers launder 10—20 loads, seven days a week.  Love and Laundry – that’s how the church stands on Mt. Nebo with the children who are longing for a promised land of safety. (Visit Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to learn more about how you can help the children at the border:  http://lirs.org/).

Because Christians remember another refugee who fled with his parents from violence in his homeland. 
The child Jesus was a refugee from the murderous rampage of Herod and his gangs, seeking asylum in a foreign land.  Ironically, that country was Egypt, where his ancestors had been slaves.  Apparently since that time, the hearts of the people in that land had softened and changed, and they were kind enough to allow that child and his parents into their country. 

Later, as a grown man, Jesus would come to know the same frustration that Moses had experienced, having traveled through so many wildernesses, trying to lead the people to the Promised Land of God’s love, forgiveness and reconciliation.  But like Moses on Mt. Nebo, Jesus could only stand and look out on the future with wistfulness, saying, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” 
 
The church of Jesus has not forgotten that longing.  While others may be screaming at the children to leave, or bringing in soldiers with guns to keep them away, the church stands quietly with her arms outstretched, like a mother hen welcoming the children.
 
“There is a sign out in front of Martha and Gabriel's home in Spanish.  La Ășltima parada de un largo viaje. Bienvenidos. In English it reads: The last stop of a long journey.  Welcome.’

Perhaps Moses, too, felt welcome as he came down that mountain.  He entrusted his life to God.  God had never abandoned him.  And he knew with certainty that he could entrust his death to God.  Perhaps you, too, can come to trust that no matter what frustrations you have experienced, no matter how many disappointments and failed hopes you suffered through, there is a welcome sign put out for you, too. 

The welcome sign was put out for you as you entered the Promised Land through the waters of baptism.  The welcome sign is put out for you every week as you come to the table and taste the bread of hope and wine of forgiveness.  And when you make your final journey down the mountain, the welcome sign will be there for you, in the shape of a cross, of the One who entrusted his life and his death . . . and his resurrection to God. 

La Ășltima parada de un largo viaje. Bienvenidos. The last stop of a long journey.  Welcome.



Saturday, August 2, 2014

Miners versus Clean Air Activists? Don't Believe the Lie

Miners versus Clean Air Activists?  Don't Believe the Lie
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade

On the morning of July 31, 2014, I gathered with about 25 people of faith representing different traditions and denominations in front of the Moorhead Building in Pittsburgh where the EPA was holding hearings about their new proposed carbon reduction rule for coal-fired electricity plants. 
Led by Rev. Paul Lubold, Advocacy Developer for Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of PA (LAMPa), we prayed, invoked the Four Directions (in the spirit of our First Nation friends), lamented the desecration of God’s created world, read inspiring passages about healing and protecting God’s Creation, and held hands singing a chorus of “Amen.”  All the while, the busy world of car and truck traffic, foot traffic and the hectic life of the city during the morning rush seemed oblivious to what we were doing.  But we were creating sacred space, lifting up the EPA officials who would listen to our testimonies, and praying for all those who would testify both for and against the rule. 
   
At 9:30 a.m. I gave my testimony (read the full version here).  Before and after, I heard others testifying in favor of the rule, including a scientist, a nun, environmental activists, a teenage boy, a farmer, and two individuals who spoke passionately about the effects of carbon pollution on African Americans and other minorities.  Nikki Silvestri of Green for All noted that 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant and bear the cost through debilitating lung diseases and poor health.  She gave the encouraging news that according to recent polls, minority populations are paying more attention to environmental issues and becoming involved in seeking practical solutions.

At 11:00, a rally for clean-air advocates was held, after which we made our way down to the street where miners and boilerplate makers where marching to protest the rule, yelling that it would take away their jobs.  The scene was tense and confrontational.  As I watched the camouflaged-shirted men (and some of their wives) moving through the street, listening to the two groups yelling at the top of their lungs, the distressing nature of the scene was not lost on me.  

These miners – these could be my parishioners – hard-working, family-loving men with strong faith and solid values.  Yet here we were, yelling at each other across a divide that doesn’t really exist.  They care about their children, and so do clean-air activists.  They want to be able to provide for their families, and so do we.  We are not their enemy.  What they don’t realize is that we are actually on their side.  We want them to have good paying jobs that will not require them to sacrifice their health and the land around them that is sacred to all of us.

At the clean-air rally just a few minutes before the protests, we listened to a single mother from West Virginia who came from three generations of miners.  She watched her grandfather, father and many family members lose their health and ultimately their lives to the mines, lung disease, and injuries.  She shared with us how much pride her family had in their occupation as coal miners.  But one day it finally hit her – it’s not acceptable that the powering of America should require the sacrifice of her family, of America’s men who work in the mines. 
We also heard from a fifth generation Iowa farmer who admitted that farmers have been “late to the game” in combating climate change.  He noted that although many of his peers deny humankind’s culpability for climate change, they all know that something is seriously wrong when their farms go from extremes of too much rainfall in one month to drought conditions the next, with seasonal temperature disruptions that are affecting all of them. Something has to be done, he said, and we can do it. American ingenuity can tackle this problem.

Another speaker echoed the farmer’s words and said that he refused to believe the lie that converting to energy efficiency and renewables will send our energy costs higher and result in economic shut-down and loss of jobs.  We are better than that, we’re smarter than that, he said, to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd.

Perhaps the speaker that gave me the most hope was from the BlueGreen Alliance, which, according to their website, “unites 15 of our country’s largest unions and environmental organizations. Acting together, through nearly 16 million members and supporters, we are a powerful voice for building a cleaner, fairer and more competitive American economy.”  This is the kind of unity of purpose we need to see more of, now more than ever. 

How I wished, as I watched the miners and union workers screaming at us, that we could sit down together, talk and listen to each other.  As the prophet Isaiah spoke, “Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you will be willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land: but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” (Isaiah 1:18-20).

The Fossil Fuel Giants must have been tickled with glee that their workers were fighting their battle for them.  Why can’t they, like the mother from West Virginia, realize that they are simply throw-away parts in a machine that only creates the illusion of security through a dangerous job that will kill them and the planet which we all share?
The confrontation between our two groups took me by surprise, and I deeply regretted and was saddened by the hostile nature of the competing protests.  Had I known, I would have brought a different sign than the one I held about climate change.  I would have held a sign with a quote from the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: 
“Remember who the real enemy is.”
We are not your enemy.




Wednesday, July 30, 2014

EPA Carbon Pollution Hearing Testimony

US EPA Carbon Pollution Guidelines Public Hearing, Pittsburgh, PA
Testimony by
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, PhD
Pastor, United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
Member, Task Force on Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing, Upper Susquehanna Synod of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Representative of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry of Pennsylvania (LAMPa)
Founder, Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition of the Susquehanna Valley

July 31, 2014

First, I want to thank the EPA and Administrator McCarthy for paying serious attention to this issue of carbon emissions and their deleterious effect on our planet’s atmosphere.  I commend you for giving citizens the opportunity to be heard on this important issue.  The proposed rule is well-researched, with solid background in science regarding greenhouse gases, their effect on the planet, and their negative impact on public health.  It offers a wide range of options for states and power generators to meet the new requirements to reduce greenhouse gases.  As a pastor who has particular concern for “the least of these,” I was especially pleased to see attention given to the health of children when weighing the input of stakeholders.  I come today on behalf of myself, my husband and two young children, my congregation, United in Christ Lutheran Church in Lewisburg, the Upper Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran Advocacy Ministry of Pennsylvania, and the Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition of the Susquehanna Valley to express my support for the new EPA rule to reduce carbon pollution, even while it is under attack from industry groups that want to weaken this life-saving measure.  As a clergyperson, you can be assured of my backing of this proposal.

However, as a member of my synod’s task force on slickwater hydraulic fracturing which spent two years studying the ethical and moral issues surrounding fracking; and as a member of several environmental groups that study and bear witness to the harmful effects of the shale gas industry in our state and across the country, I must raise concerns that are not addressed in the EPA’s proposed rules.  Three years ago I gave testimony in support of the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxins Rule which, at the time, was a strong measure for reducing poisons from the coal industry.  An unexpected and harmful effect of this rule, however, was that it helped to pave the way for the shale gas industry to establish itself in our state and commit untold damage to our air, water, state and private lands, and public health.  I fear that this new rule on carbon emissions would only further enable the shale gas and oil industry to secure its hold in Pennsylvania and do still more damage to ecological and human health.
Yes, the new EPA rules will force Pennsylvania to reduce its air pollution and burn less coal. But how we adjust to less coal will make all the difference.  If we build more renewable energy infrastructure and increase energy efficiency, our air will be cleaner and greenhouse gases will be reduced. But if we replace coal with fracked gas, we will only be making our air and atmosphere worse.  These rules, as written, only codify the transition from coal to gas that is already underway. As well, the rule gives implicit consent to burn more trash, tires, coal sludge, and other forms of toxic waste for electricity.  So while I believe the proposal is a good first step, it is not only inadequate, it will have the unintended consequence of replacing one source of dirty fuel with many others.
Methane is a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon.  The rule does not address total lifecycle emissions from methane-gas-fired power plants, including leakage during production, processing, and transmission, emissions flaring at gas wells, and energy consumed in the production and transport of liquefied natural gas.  Researchers found methane leak rates of 100 to 1,000 times greater than EPA estimates at well pads in Pennsylvania. And the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General just issued a report citing the agency’s failures to manage methane leaks from pipelines. 

Instead of promoting a strategy that perpetuates fossil fuels and fracking (and make no mistake – shale gas is a fossil fuel), the proposed rule should include an aggressive pursuit of renewables, energy efficiency, and conservation.  Shale gas and oil are not the solution to carbon pollution in the United States.  They are, in fact, an even worse enemy.  The rule should set absolute reduction targets for total greenhouse gas emissions for each state. Otherwise emissions will continue to grow as more energy is consumed.

I urge for the rule to be substantially amended with policies that expressly favor stringent conservation standards, as well as increased sourcing of electricity from renewable energy, which is emission free.  
This would be faster, cleaner and more economical than investing in natural gas, waste product incineration, and nuclear power. Renewables and efficiency can produce more reductions of CO2 per megawatt hour than natural gas.
I am committed to helping people of faith learn how to do their part to care for God’s Creation and support eco-justice issues.  I call for the EPA to not only stand its ground with this rule, but to actually strengthen and expand it in order to put in place the strongest protections possible to defend public health, the fragile atmosphere of our planet, and the communities that will bear the costs and suffering from our addiction to fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.  Thank you.



Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: Abraham and Isaac, Guns and God

Sermon -- The Rev. Leah D.  Schade
July 20, 2014
Text:  Genesis 22:1-14:  “The Near-Sacrifice of Isaac”


We’re on our second story in our sermon series on mountains in the Bible.  Today we’re on Mt. Moriah with the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham.  This mountain’s location, unlike Mt. Ararat (Noah) where we were last week, is disputed by scholars.  There are different theories from Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars alike as to its location.  But even though we don’t really know where the near-sacrifice of Isaac happened, what’s more important is what actually did take place on that mountain.

Today’s story has all the drama of a Hollywood movie.  
There is no greater cliff-hanger than the image of Abraham’s knife poised above Isaac, just as an angel flies down to stay his hand.  But it is also one of the more disturbing stories in Genesis for one simple reason.  Why would God want to test Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his own son?  What kind of a God is this?  Why would God do such a thing?  Not only that, but why would Abraham so willingly follow this command to kill his own son without questioning?

In order to answer these questions, we need to see that there are several layers to this story.  And in order to understand what this story means for us today, we need to peel away the layers to find the core that lies at the heart of the story.

Let’s begin with Abraham’s response to this strange and cruel command.  He follows God’s dictate without question.  This may seem odd, but remember the pattern of Abraham’s previous responses to God’s commands. The first command God gave to Abraham was for the 100-yr-old man to leave his home, the land of Ur, with his elderly wife, and make a perilous journey across the desert to the Promised Land.  He believed God’s promise of land, prosperity and children, so he did as God commanded without question.

But in this story, God’s demand seems downright cruel.  Abraham himself must sacrifice his own son.  Why?  Why would God issue such a violent and abhorrent edict? Well, in that day and age, child sacrifice was not unheard of.  It was not unusual for the peoples and cultures of that time to sacrifice their own children in order to appease an angry god, or to stay on the good side of capricious deities.  

While it must have broken Abraham’s heart to hear his God make such a demand, he knew from the cultures and religions around him that sometimes this is the price that must be paid in order to secure the favor of the god.

So Abraham and Isaac travel three days into the wilderness.  Upon seeing the mountain where he is to perform the deed, Abraham tells his young attendants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship and then we will come back to you.”  This is a classic moment of irony and ambiguity.  Does Abraham really believe that he and Isaac will return?  Or does he only say this to keep them and his son from knowing the truth?  We’ll never know.  But we can be sure that there must have been a questioning look that passed between the attendants and Isaac.   What’s really going on here?  It feels like something ominous lies ahead.

Abraham and Isaac begin their final walk to the site of sacrifice.  Isaac’s mind must have been racing, the weight on his shoulders nothing compared to the weight in the pit of his stomach.   Finally he asks, “You know, Dad, I was just thinking.  We’ve got the fire; we’ve got the wood . . .where is the lamb?”

It’s a question that must have gone through the heart of Abraham like the dagger he carried in his hand.  It’s one of the most dramatic moments of irony in the Genesis story.  Abraham’s answer seems evasive, but it also reveals his faith:  “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

The double meaning here is significant.  God has indeed provided the one whom Abraham is to sacrifice.  This is the son promised by God to the elderly man and his barren wife.  But these words, “God will provide,” (in Hebrew, YHWH  yir-eh)  are a real statement of faith based on Abraham’s previous experiences with God.   When Abraham set out on that journey to the Promised Land, God provided him the strength and endurance to survive the trip.  God provided land upon which to settle.  And God provided not just one son, but two – Isaac and Ishmael.  “YHWH yir’eh, God will provide.”

I would imagine that those were the words Abraham kept repeating to himself over and over as he piled up the stones for the altar, as he lay down the wood for the sacrifice.  “YHWH yir’eh, God will provide.” Perhaps even Isaac began repeating the words like a mantra as his father bound his hands, and he allowed himself to be laid upon the altar, the wood that was on his shoulders now laying under his back.  “YHWH yir’eh, God will provide.”

With tears in his eyes, Abraham grabs the dagger.  He stands over his son, his tears dripping onto Isaac’s face, mingling with the tears of his beloved son.  And he raises his dagger.  One last time, “YHWH yir’eh, God will provide.”

“Abraham -- STOP!  Do not hurt the boy.  I know that you trust me.  I know that you would do whatever your God asks of you -- even if it meant killing your own son.  But let this be a sign unto you -- I do not require child sacrifice.  God does not demand the blood of children.”

And in that instant, Abraham’s eyes are opened, and he sees the ram caught in the thicket.  He unties his son and they embrace.  Then they use those ropes to bind the ram and tie it to the altar.  Now their tears of fear and sorrow are turned to tears of joy and laughter, “YHWH yir’eh, God will provide.”  See?  I told you! We’ll even call this place “YHWH yir’eh, God will provide.”

Sometimes we have to be taken right to the edge of death to realize the truth about God.  In this story, we are taken right to the edge of the knife so that the lesson of this story will be indelibly etched in our minds.  And the message is: 

Do not sacrifice your children.  Do not engage in deadly violence against your offspring.  Not now, not for all time.  This is not a God who demands us to put our children on the altars of idols and sacrifice them.  This is a God who seeks the preservation of our offspring.   The books of Exodus and Deuteronomy have explicit laws against child sacrifice.  

Now this may seem like such an obvious command to us, a no-brainer.  Of course we’re not going to kill our own children.  But in reality, this story needs to be retold again and again. Because it raises important questions for our modern society.  In what ways are we threatening the health and well-being of our children on the altars of sacrifice?  Might we, in some ways, be like Abraham, blindly assuming that certain sacrifices are necessary, without questioning the culture around us that has conditioned our behaviors?

In reality, child-sacrifice occurs daily on the altars of the gods of war, commerce, lust and greed.  We are seeing those child-sacrifices in the Holy Lands where teens are kidnapped by both Israelis and Palestinians and brutally murdered, not to mention the military action that will cause still more deaths of children.  We’re seeing children suffering by the thousands at the US southern border, caught between countries where their lives are threatened, and a country that does not welcome them into safety. 

Children are sacrificed on the altar of anger in abusive households.  And in many areas of the world children are valued no higher than chattel.  Kids are cheap – they are recruited for armies, sold into child slavery and brothels, and brainwashed to become the terrorists that carry bombs.  Over and over, children are used for immoral purposes and are treated as property and ammunition.

And our American society, while not so overtly barbaric, is not above the sacrifice of children.   Besides illness and accident, do you know what one of the top five causes of death is among children?  Gun violence.  According to the latest data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,042 children and teens died from gunfire in America in 2007 – one child or teen every three hours, eight every day, 58 every week.  What’s more 17,523 children and teens suffered non-fatal gun injuries and the often-lifelong emotional aftermath that follows.   (http://sbcoalition.org/2011/01/gun-violence-children/)

 A year after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, a report was done on the deaths of 194 children ages 12 and under who died at the end of a gun barrel. From inner cities to tiny rural towns, 127 of the children died from gunshots in their own homes, while dozens more died in the homes of friends, neighbors, and relatives.
  • 72 of the young victims either pulled the trigger themselves or were shot dead by another child.
  • At least 52 deaths involved a child handling a gun left unsecured.
  • 60 children died at the hands of their own parents, 50 of them in homicides.
  • The average age of the victims was 6 years old.

I have held a gun.  I have fired it.  As a hunter I have used it to kill, to take the life of another being.  There is something about the gun that imbues the holder with a sense of power over another – the power to give and take life.  If I do not pull the trigger, I have spared your life.  If I pull it, I take your life instantly.  This is god-like power.  It may be argued that any weapon can give that sense of power.  But let’s face it – the only purpose of a gun is to kill or injure.  That is why it was invented, and that is its sole purpose.  Guns end lives.

And I say this as a former hunter who used to faithfully go into the woods every fall and spring to kill animals with a shotgun or rifle.  I do not begrudge hunters this right.  But as a parent, and as a citizen who has watched one too many sacrifices of our children at the altar of the gun, I have to ask: 

Are we worshiping the god of the gun?  Have we allowed ourselves to become convinced that the sacrifice of children is simply the price that must be paid to the gun-god? 
 

Our Confirmation students learned that “worship” may be defined as anything to which human beings devote their sacrifice, allegiance, finances, time and heart.  Are we devoted to the “gospel of the gun” that promises safety -- salvation, even? The gun-god declares that it is the only one who will provide protection.  The gun is the answer to all that threatens us or makes us angry.  Is the teenager’s music too loud?  Shoot him.  Is his wearing of a hoodie making you feel threatened?  Shoot him. Are girls not going out with you?  Shoot them.  Are you angry at the politician, at your classmates, at the driver who cut you off?  Are you angry at the ones who have mistreated you?  The world?  More and more people are turning to the gun-god for their solution.  And for thousands of people it is the final solution.  There is no going back once the trigger is pulled. 

I remember in 2012 when 20 children and 6 of their teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  When my son, who was five years old at the time, heard the news that kids in an elementary school just like his were killed, he didn’t ask about gun regulations.  He didn’t ask about the sanity of the killer.  He didn’t ask about the 2nd Amendment.  He asked a question that reminded me of Isaac’s question about the lamb:  "Is someone going to come to my school and shoot kids?"  In other words, where is the lamb?  Am I next?  Am I the lamb to be sacrificed? 

I could only say to him words similar to Abraham’s, “I hope and pray that God will provide and save you and your classmates from this fate.”  “YHWH yir’eh, God will provide.”

Of course, there is no easy answer to the reality of gun violence.  And I recognize that people will disagree with me about the level to which guns have taken on god-like status and become an idol in our country.  But perhaps it is time for people of faith, people in churches, people like you and me to talk about it.  Perhaps there are people in this congregation who would like to engage in discussion about gun violence, and to talk about it in a way that is respectful, honest, and guided by the Holy Spirit. If so, I would invite you to let me know of your interest. 

Because in the midst of all the voices screaming and threatening and pushing their own agenda, it is time to listen to a different voice.  The time has come, and is past due, for us to hear the voice of the one, true God, who is reaching out to stay our hand and keep us from sacrificing our children.  God is trying to show us another way, directing our vision to an alternative we had not previously considered. 

We are standing on Mt. Moriah today.  We are at the altar.  Look around you.  Look at the culture surrounding you on all sides in the form of media and video games and movies and websites that promise power, safety and security through the violence. 
Is this what you want?  Is this what we want as Christians?  Or is God calling us to something more? 


I want to have faith like Abraham had.   But I want it to be faith in a God who does not demand the death of children as the price to pay for faithfulness.
 

Listen – God is calling.  “YHWH yir’eh, God will provide. God will provide.”  Amen.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Noah on Mt. Ararat - The Floods of Climate Change

Sermon Series:  Mountaintop Experiences
Part One:  Mt. Ararat and Noah
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
Texts:  Genesis 8:1-4, 6-12, 11-17; Matthew 24:36-44
July 13, 2014

Mountains in the Bible were extremely significant, as they were for all  ancient peoples:  Mountains are naturally assigned religious significance and symbolism for three main reasons: 1) their height
projecting above the surrounding area, 2) the feeling of grandiosity and awe one experiences upon viewing a mountain from a distance; and 3) the vista of the sky and the earth when standing on top of the mountain that is unmatched at lower levels.

In fact, the ancient peoples of Egypt, Babylon and in the Mayan culture of South America thought so highly of mountains that they attempted to create their own.  Man-made mountains can be seen in the form of pyramids, ziggarats, and massive temples.  It was felt that by ascending a holy mountain, one could encounter the great sky-god.  Heaven and earth appear to come closest on a mountain.  So it is no wonder that sacred peaks figure prominently in the biblical story.

This summer we’ll be touring these lofty heights - beginning today with  Noah on Mt. Ararat, onto Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, then Moses on  Mt. Sinai and Mt. Nebo.  And we’ll end with Jesus’ “mountain of prayer” – the Mount of Olives.

Our tour begins with Noah on Mt. Ararat. 
Ararat is the tallest peak in what is now modern-day Turkey.  It is a dormant volcano, and its last eruption was on June 2, 1840. At present the upper third of the mountain is covered with snow and ice throughout the year.  The mountain is unique, because it is a year-round snow-capped mountain in the middle of a dessert.

The fact that it is named as the resting site of the ark after the flood indicates that Mt. Ararat was regarded as the highest point of the world in that region.  And with a height of (16,946 feet) above sea level, it is definitely one of the highest points in that area of the world.

One of the things I appreciate about the Noah story is its abundance of archetypes, or symbols, that are common themes in nearly all the world’s religions and cultures.  There are six of these archetypes in this story:  the great flood; the humongous sea-going vessel on the water (representing the womb carrying life across the birth waters); the lone hero/survivor in the face of total destruction; the mountain top; the dove and olive branch symbolizing peace and hope; and, of course, the rainbow, which has as many interpretations as there are colors, but for the biblical story, it symbolizes God’s promise and covenant never to destroy the earth again.

What you may not know is that the Biblical references to a great flood and Noah’s ark have remarkable parallels in many other archaic myths found around the world. The story of Noah's ark, as it is told in the Old Testament, is actually a reworking of an earlier Babylonian myth recorded in the Gilgamesh Epic.  The stories are nearly identical, save for the names of the characters.

In Greek mythology, there is a story of a eerily similar cataclysmic event in which a hero builds a boat to survive a great flood.  In fact, more than 500 deluge legends are known around the world on nearly every continent.   Why are there so many flood stories?   With so much similarity, historians have concluded that there must have been some global cataclysmic event very early in human history, maybe as early as 9500 BCE.

There are different theories as to what caused this global catastrophe.   Some geologists think there may have been a huge shift in those tectonic plates I mentioned earlier, causing devastating flooding.  Others posit that a comet or some other cosmic object impacted the earth resulting in earthquakes, volcanic activity and abrupt climate change.   But whatever the reason, there is little doubt that the earth was covered by a deluge that wiped out civilizations around the world, leaving only a remnant of humanity behind to survive, rebuild, and repopulate the earth.

 If any of you have been in our children’s nursery downstairs, you can see the painting on the wall of Noah’s Ark.  It is one of the most popular stories of the Old Testament.  Kids love the story because of all the animals floating together in a big sea-going zoo.  The ark theme is  popular for children’s bedrooms.  I remember shopping for baby stuff for my children and seeing an abundance of cute renditions of the ark with adorable animals poking their heads out of the windows and smiling from the deck.
But the story is really quite a tragedy, as the movie Noah starring Russell Crowe, has portrayed. But regardless of the film, if you actually ponder the logistics of getting all those species on a single seafaring vessel, it really seems quite absurd and impossible.  Just think about how many living creatures Noah would have had to collect and fit on that ark.  Here’s a list:

“7000 species of worms
50,000 species of arachnids
900,000 species of insects
2500 species of amphibians
6000 species of reptiles
8600 species of birds
and 3500 species of mammals
plus food for one and all.”   (Walker, Symbols, p. 85)

How big would that boat have to be?  Here’s the thing:  “The only vessel truly capable of holding all these is Spaceship Earth,” (Walker, Symbols, p. 85).  And this is where we begin to climb the mountain ourselves and get a different perspective on this sacred legend.  The story of Noah’s ark, while based on a true episode from ancient history, actually has significance for our planet today, especially in light of the current environmental crises facing our world.

In fact, it’s not just the environmental crisis.  It is a convergence of global crises swirling into a perfect storm on the horizon.  The cost of our primary source of energy - fossil fuels - is draining the world economy as it is simultaneously coming to an end.  The explosion of the human population is about to reach unsustainable levels.  Financial crises have swept across our human society.  And, yes, ecological issues regarding water supplies, global warming, garbage and pollution are threatening the health of the planet itself. 

Add to this the accompanying threats of terrorism and war as a result of these basic conflicts over land and resources, and you can see that we are, once again, facing a flood of catastrophic proportions.  
A flood of people, a flood of poverty, a flood of violence, and yes, the actual flooding of the coastlands and river beds around the world. But this time the flood is not coming from God.  It’s coming from humankind.  As Jesus alluded to in our Gospel reading, we may, indeed, be on the verge of the end of an age.

What does this mean for us?  And what does this mean for the church in the decades ahead.  We’re going to see our lifestyles radically altered in the coming years.  There will be drastic changes in how we live, what we can afford, and what we do to survive.  And for many people, it will be a matter of survival.  In fact, for a large portion of the world’s people, it already is a question of basic survival.

The Church, then, must serve as an ark, not just for humanity, but for all Creation.  All species of plants and animals should be able to find refuge through the holy ark of the Church.  And this is already happening.  More and more, we are seeing religious communities “going green,” as they come to view ecological issues as justice issues for the poor, and for the voiceless among God’s creatures. 

In terms of more immediate danger, there is also the urgency among religious communities to be prepared for disasters when they happen.  In fact, Lutherans have an entire division devoted to this called Lutheran Disaster Response.  What’s great about LDR is that not only do they arrive on the scene when disasters hit, but they stay with communities long after the media spotlight has moved on.  They remain committed to the people and neighborhoods in need of help until they have restored their lives and communities. Also, our own church has a local disaster fund to help people in need right here in our community.  

When God warned Noah about the impending disaster, we’re not told how many other people God tried to warn, but who did not heed the call to prepare.  Even Noah’s urgent pleas to his neighbors to prepare were laughed off as the crazy doomsday scare tactics of a lunatic.  In the same way, the warnings of climate scientists today are often dismissed, ridiculed, mocked and silenced.  People of faith must add their voices to the calls for immediate changes in our energy policies, carbon-burning lifestyles and industries, and financialization of our local, national and global economies that is causing the waters of injustice and poverty to rise at unprecedented rates.

And when there are catastrophes, the ark of the Church must be there to assist people, restore some sense of sanity, provide aid and relief, and help to rebuild.  We’ve seen that happen over and over again, whether they are tsunami victims in southeast Asia, AIDS orphans in Africa, flood victims in New Orleans and along the Mississipi, or victims of the hurricane that struck our area 3 years ago.  The ark of the Church is there for them, sending forth the dove of peace, and pointing to the rainbow overhead promising God’s ever-present care.

Yes, today we are on Mt. Ararat to take in the view, to remember the story, and to be reminded that God does indeed care for us.  It’s the mountaintop experiences of faith that help to sustain us in the dark valleys of fear; in the emergency rooms waiting for medical care; in the deserts of poverty waiting for relief; and in the hot, crowded ark praying for ourselves and all the creatures hoping to survive along with us.

Whatever flood you are facing in your life right now - keep your eyes on the mountains in the distance.  Keep your eyes on the sky.  And be on the lookout for rainbows, even as the rains of the flood begin to fall.  Because God has promised to be with us, no matter what we face.  And that promise is refracted by millions upon millions of tiny prism droplets in the sky, forming the colors of the rainbow that fill us with hope once again.  Amen.






Sources:

Walker, Barbara G., The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred
Objects, HarperSanFrancisco, 1988

Walker, Barbara G., The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,
HarperSanFrancisco, 1983

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Black Raspberries: A Poem

Leah Delight Schade
July 6, 2014
 
I’m sorry I did not answer the phone when you called.
I was picking black raspberries
along the hedgerow.
Little clusters of
dark
purple
fruit
peeked out
from behind jagged green leaves
and thorns that stung like tiny bees
and scratched my skin
like mischievous kitten claws.
A small pain to pay for
bursts
of juice in my mouth.

I’m sorry I did not answer the phone.
As I picked the berries,
a moth displayed his splayed Designer wings,
pointing the way to another cluster of berries
just over the rise.
Fingers marked with the color of the sunset

gingerly reaching
lifting
plucking
                              popping
the handfuls into my jacket pocket
that looked like I had bled into the fabric.
Sharing is worth the stains.

I’m sorry I did not answer.
The fireflies silently blinked their light-chorus,
a symphony of soundless phosphorescence.
The Conductor unseen.
My eyes had to listen.

I am not sorry.  I did not answer you.

I answered another Call.