Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Challenges of Racism

#elca #blacklivesmatter #racism

(This is the column that I published in our church's September 2015 newsletter.  The column is called "Sunlight from Schade.")

As part of our preparations for the ELCA Youth Gathering, we were asked to do a session on racism with our youth and their parents to help us begin thinking about this aspect of what we would encounter when we went to Detroit.  We worked through the materials and began talking about racial and ethnic stereotypes and the way racism is “baked in” to the fabric of our lives on an individual, interpersonal, social and institutional level.  I have to say, those sessions generated some of the most meaningful conversations I’ve ever had in our church.  While on the surface, it may appear that we are a fairly homogeneous congregation, if you dig just a little, you discover that we are more diverse than you might think.  For example, we have several people of mixed races or African descent in our congregation.  We also have some folks who are LGBTQ, or closely related to someone who is.  The group also discussed our diversity in terms of socio-economics, age, and disability.  So when we talk about “confronting racism” and other forms of injustice, we’re talking about very real people—our brothers and sisters in Christ—who have experienced injustice in a very personal way.

Our ELCA Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, made an intentional effort to address these very concerns in a recent webcast she did with William Horne II, an African American ELCA member in Florida.  In several public statements, Eaton has called for deep conversations about racism and racial justice, particularly in response to several events in the United States, such as police killings of unarmed black men and women, and the June 17 racially-motivated slaughter of black women and men at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. “God’s intention for all humanity is that we see the intrinsic worth, dignity and value of all people. Racism undermines the promise of community and fractures authentic relationships with one another. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act,” says Eaton.

Added Mr. Horne:  “Talking about race and racism is hard work for most of us. Our Christian witness compels us to confront our sinfulness in all forms from within and outside of ourselves. It is more beneficial if we do it together.” You can see the video of their enlightening conversation here:  http://elca.org/webcast. 

In response to a statement and call to action from the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), Bishop Eaton has asked ELCA churches participate in a day of prayer and commitment to end racism on Sept. 6.  During worship that day, we will offer prayers specifically addressing the need to confront and root out the hold that racism has on our hearts, minds and actions. 

But it cannot end here.  Racism is a hundreds-year-old demonic force in our country, and we will not be done the work of casting out this evil until our brothers and sisters of color say we’re done.  White privilege has dictated the terms of this “conversation” for far too long.  As a white, middle-age, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, heterosexual female who strives to answer God’s call to lead a Lutheran congregation, I must do my part to listen to the voices of the oppressed, take seriously their calls for justice, call out racism (and all “isms” for that matter) when I encounter it, and encourage the parishioners I serve to do the same.

I hope you will join me in undertaking this difficult but necessary work of critically examining our prejudices, assumptions, and enculturated beliefs in order to humble ourselves before God and our neighbors of color and repent of our collective and individual sins of racism.  God promises that by doing this work together, we will learn what healing looks like for the Body of Christ.

Pastor Schade


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

And God Pitched a Tent - Sermon for a Church Camping Retreat

Preached at R. B. Winter State Park, Pennsylvania
Aug. 9, 2015
Texts:  Revelation 7:9-17; Revelation 21:1-7; John 1:1-4, 14-18

A few weeks ago we had a famous singing group at our church who gifted us with wonderful hymns and songs of praise.  At one point in the program they did a medley of what I call “old chestnuts” – the songs of faith that go back generations and have a soft spot in people’s hearts in memories.  Songs like “In the Garden,” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

But there was one snippet of a song that gave me pause.  It’s called “This World is Not My Home,” and it includes these lyrics:

This world is not my home I'm just a-passin' through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore

On the one hand, I can appreciate the sentiment of someone drawing near to the end of a difficult life and desiring to be with the Lord and see their loved ones who dwell in heaven.  But the idea that this world – which we know God created out of God’s divine love – that this world is not our home, and that we’re just passing through, is problematic.  Because if this world is not my home, then I really don’t have a reason to care about it.  It’s like a mere hotel room on our soul’s journey to heaven, and we’re just here on a temporary stay. 

When I go into a hotel, I expect that someone is going to clean up my mess, straighten up the clutter, scrub off the soap scum on the shower walls, and empty my trash.  I have no attachment to that place where I’m staying.  I’ve got no “skin in the game,” so to speak.  So it makes no difference to me how I treat it while I’m there, nor who will stay in it after I leave. This room is not my home.  Of course, if I had that attitude in my own home, what would happen?  I would end up living in a filthy, junked-up mess.

Perhaps that partly explains the state of the earth in which we find ourselves.  Adhering to a theology that teaches us that the world is not our home leaves no room for caring.  Such an attitude means that we have no attachment to this place and divorces our thoughts and feelings from how we treat the earth and who will live here after we leave. 

It’s no wonder, then, that we produce trash that is overflowing the landfills, choking wildlife, and creating entire islands in the ocean of floating plastic

That we mine and dig and extract the fossil fuels for our energy needs and end up poisoning our waterways, fouling our air, and blanketing our earth with carbon dioxide that is disrupting our planet’s climate cycles. 


We live as if this world is not our home, that we are just a’passin’ through.  That our treasure is not in these green mountains or pristine waterways, but “laid up somewhere beyond the blue.”  It’s like we’re having a huge party in our hotel room with 7 billion of our friends, and we’re just trashing the place, expecting the maids to clean it up. 

But of course there are no maids.  There are just lots and lots of people left wallowing in heaps of trash, dying from cancers caused by environmental toxins, and fleeing their island homes because the waters are literally swallowing their coastlines. 

Or perhaps we expect God to clean up our mess.  That Big Daddy in the sky will just take us up to heaven with him, and let this world literally go to hell.  There are many who read the Bible and derive this interpretation which guides their thoughts, words and deeds on this planet.  Which leads to corporate decisions and government policies and individual choices that reinforce the belief that this world is not my home.

But when we read the words from the Gospel of John, we get a very different impression about who God is, what’s important to God, and how God feels about this Earth:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.14And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Did you hear that?  The Word became flesh.  That means God actually does have skin in the game.  Jesus was a person who lived on this Earth, drank this water, walked on this soil.  Jesus lived among us.  The Greek word here is:  skano-oh.  In English we translate it as “dwell,” but the word literally means “to pitch a tent.”  So think about that for a minute.  Jesus, as God’s Word made flesh, pitched a tent among us.       

"God Pitched His Tent Among Men" - Patrick Pye

I’ve been thinking a lot about tenting this weekend as we’ve taken part in our church’s annual family camping retreat.  Pitching a tent is no easy task.  There’s a lot involved with packing everything up, setting off for the site, setting up the tent, planning and cooking the meals, and keeping an eye out for critters both annoying and dangerous.  But there’s also something about setting up camp and sharing time in the woods with people who are important to you that is deeply meaningful.  The shared meals around the campfire.  The long walks exploring creeks and hiking trails.  The time away from work and technology that opens up space for breathing, long conversations, and playfulness. 


This is what Jesus did.  He shared meals around campfires and cooked fish on the beach for his friends.  He took long walks with them and had meaningful conversations.  He played with children.  It would not surprise me a bit if he enjoyed the First Century version of the game Capture the Flag!  And Jesus often encouraged his disciples to take time away from their work of ministry to simply enjoy the world God had made.

So if Jesus, the Word made flesh, pitched a tent among us, doesn’t that mean that he considered this Earth his home? And if this is God’s home, do we dare treat it like a mere trashy hotel room? Revelation shares a vision of the world not as a place to be trashed and thrown away, but as God’s very temple and throne:

15For this reason [the saints] are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:15-17).

Isn’t this the kind of Earth we want?  Where no one will go hungry because there is equitable sharing of food and resources.  Where there will be no more thirst because waters run clean and pure, droughts are few and far between, and pollution is greatly reduced.  Where the sun’s heat will not be trapped within the atmosphere by greenhouse gases because we are using the sun’s power and the wind to generate our electricity.  Where worshiping the Lamb – the vulnerable one – means caring for the most vulnerable lambs among us – unborn children, infants, children, and pregnant mothers.  Where our decisions about what we buy and what we drive and how we grow our food and what chemicals we use will be governed by the needs of “the least of these.” 

This is the kind of world the prophet John would want us to see from his vision. Because, as the Gospel of John reminds us:  God so loved the worldThis world.  This soil.  This tree.  That bird.  This human.  They all say – the world, it is my home.

3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3).

God, indeed, is with us, pitches a tent among us.  And Jesus, the Word made flesh, beckons us to sing different words to the song:

This world it IS our home.  We're not just passin' through.
Our treasures are found here AND beyond the blue.
The Spirit beckons us from Earth’s open door.
And we can finally feel at home on Earth once more.

Amen.









Friday, July 24, 2015

Postcards from Detroit, Part Two: Racism – The Struggle is Real

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
#blacklivesmatter #racism #riseupelca
(Part One of "Postcards from Detroit: Let's Tell the Rest of the Story" can be found here: http://ecopreacher.blogspot.com/2015/07/postcards-from-detroit-part-one-lets.html )

Prior to my trip to Detroit for the ELCA Youth Gathering with the teens from the congregation I serve, United in Christ Lutheran in Lewisburg, PA, we completed a preparatory session on racism.  We learned about the levels of individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural racism that we encounter in our relationships and in society.  We discussed the term “white privilege” and the stereotypes we have about certain races.  As a seminary student, I had gone through anti-racism training, and as a pastor of Spirit and Truth Worship Center in Yeadon, PA, I had the honor of serving an African American/African native congregation who taught me a great deal about the challenges of racism.  But I encountered something in Detroit that showed me just how embedded my stereotypes are about non-white people.
 
On our walk through center city Detroit one day, my youth and I came upon an open-air plaza where tall tables and chairs were lined up and eleven young black boys and girls sat across from each other playing chess – competitive speed chess, complete with timers.  


These girls and boys were upper elementary and middle school-aged, and they had an adult male mentor with them.  We watched, mouths gaping, as they made their moves, slapped the timers, joked and laughed, and whizzed through their games.  One boy, seeing his opponent make a good move against him, shouted out, “The struggle is real!” And we all laughed together. (For more info on the Detroit City Chess Club:  http://www.detroitcitychessclub.com/chessphotos.html)


As I was taking pictures of their group, one little boy called out to me, “You want to play?”  While I knew how to play chess, we were on our way to the next event for the Gathering, so I had to politely decline.  “It’s okay, I can teach you!” he offered.  It was an “Aww,” moment – but I felt convicted in my soul.

Why is it that we were so shocked to see young black boys and girls engaging in a game that requires incredible mental skills of logic, strategy, pattern-recognition, and intellectual speed?  Did we not think their brains capable of such feats of intelligence?  Did we succumb to the stereotype that black children are only troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells, training for gang life and criminal activity, and incapable of higher thinking skills?  Were we so caught up in the assumptions that black males are lazy, violent and only interested in sports, and girls only destined to pre-teen unwed motherhood, that seeing them peacefully and joyfully engaging in chess just blew our minds?  And did we think them an exception to the unspoken rule that black people simply don’t have the capacity or interest to engage in demanding brain-training activities?

One of the speakers at the Gathering, Marian Wright Edelman, was a Civil Rights activist and is a lawyer who founded the Children’s Defense Fund.  As she spoke, I pictured those young black girls and boys at their chess boards.  And I began thinking about the millions of minds we wasted in this country by relegating them to slavery, then segregation, then the new Jim Crowe, and the ongoing instances of discrimination in education, housing, jobs, ecological racism, and economic access.  Not to mention the growing instances of violence by police and citizens against unarmed blacks in this country. She has fiercely advocated for policies that enhance the lives and educations of America’s poorest children, noting that the economic and racial inequalities in this country actually hinder all of us – not just the ones denied access.  (The video of her full speech can be found here:  https://youtu.be/xVg62VaQL50?t=8115.) 

Yes, chess-playing child, you have taught me.  We all need to be reminded that the minds of black boys and girls are as smart as those of whites.  That they are just as capable of learning and cognitive development as their white counterparts.  And that when we deny them access to education through the myriad of social problems such as inadequate housing, healthcare, nutrition, and the mass incarceration of their parents, we are actually hurting ourselves.  How many potential inventors, scientists, writers, surgeons and artists have we denied ourselves as a nation over the past 400 hundred years by enslaving and shutting out those minds?  Who are the potential engineers, college professors, doctors and well-educated parents and voters we are shutting down right at this very moment? 

In central PA where I live, there is a heated battle over whether or not to allow a low-income housing site to be located in the wealthy, white, privileged, “safe” Lewisburg school district.  Citizens at the meetings blatantly voice their racial stereotypes:  we don’t want “those people” lowering our property values, bringing crime and drugs to our town, and bringing down the test scores of our schools. (See: http://www.dailyitem.com/news/housing-foe-says-penn-commons-may-become-a-crime-riddled/article_62979064-30c7-11e5-bc2c-9f98ab3f786a.html . Also see https://www.facebook.com/ccalewisburg.)

Those people are the chess-playing girls and boys.  By refusing to welcome them and educate them, we are sending away the future of America.  Shame on us.  The struggle is real.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Postcards from Detroit, Part One – Let’s Tell the Rest of the Story

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
#riseupelca #detroit

During the week of July 14 – 20, I accompanied a group of youth from the church I serve, United in Christ Lutheran in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, along with youth and advisers from four other Lutheran churches in our conference, to Detroit, Michigan, for the triennial ELCA Youth Gathering.  We joined 30,000 other Lutheran youth for five days of learning, service, worship, fellowship and fun.  What we saw in Detroit is a very different place than the one consistently portrayed in the media.  Coming from small town, rural central Pennsylvania, our youth felt some trepidation going to a city that has a reputation for violence, poverty, drugs, gangs and general depravity.  However, after walking the streets of downtown Detroit and serving in a HOPE Village community clean-up project in the northwest part of the city, we met the residents, learned about the complexities of this city, and have come back to tell a different story. 
We came . . .


 Yes, the negative things heard about Detroit are true.  
We saw . . .




But what is rarely, if ever reported is that the people of Detroit are welcoming, friendly, warm, appreciative, and joyful – even in the midst of their struggles.  When word got out about these busloads of youth being deployed throughout the city in their orange shirts to clean out abandoned lots, paint park benches, read to children, pack food boxes, and countless other projects, the residents made it a point to come up to us and thank us for the work we were doing.  
We cleaned . . .

Weeded . . .


Clipped . . .





One resident I talked to, upon seeing his neighborhood transformed from trash-filled to clean before his very eyes, said, “This gives me hope.”  
Before . . .
After.


Coming back from Ford Field each night after the spirit-filled concerts and inspirational speakers, we saw local children greeting the parade of singing teens in the streets,


parking attendants dancing for us, 
video


and residents in high-rises waving and smiling.  What I heard repeatedly from residents who we talked to was this plea:  Please tell the rest of the story about Detroit when you get home. 


The challenges of structural racism, patterns of poverty, educational inequality, and economic misfortunes in Detroit are real, deeply embedded and complex.  But every city, every town faces these kinds of challenges.  The youth in my church reminded me repeatedly that drugs are a problem in their schools, racism is thinly veiled in our community, poverty is a constant for many, and their own neighbors and family members make poor choices when it comes to important life decisions.  They now realize that their circle of “family” has been extended to Detroit.  And Detroiters came to learn that they have more allies in their corner than they ever imagined. 

Most importantly, our youth realized that God is already at work in these supposedly God-forsaken places.  The theme of the Gathering was “Rise Up.”  We saw this resurrectional rising in Detroit and are inspired to continue to do God’s work with our hands here in our own community as well.  




Friday, July 10, 2015

Student Haiku Reflections on The Holy Spirit: Creator of Life

video
Haiku poetry by the confirmation class
United in Christ Lutheran church, Lewisburg, pa
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, pastor

July 2015

The Confirmation students completed their final unit on the Apostle’s Creed with a session on the Holy Spirit.  After reading Bible passages, discussing the Apostle’s Creed, and meditating on the Spirit, we went to the Island at Milton State Park where the students spent time writing haiku poetry about the Holy Spirit. 

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that consists of three lines, the first with five syllables, the second with seven, and the third with five.  

Spirit: Fire and Dove
Creator of Life and Church
Upholder of Truth.
-        Amy Danowsky


Fire, Wind and the Dove.
Creating the Life within
And the endless Love.
-        Marianne Murray


Creator of Life
Spiritus creates the Church
Wind, Dove, Breath of God
-        Dalton Shearer


Spirit in the Fire
Three-in-One, the Trinity
Holy bond of Life.
-        Dustin Kemper

Sustainer of Life
Forgiveness and Communion
The Resurrector
-        Amy Danowsky

Children will learn to protect what they love.  Connect youth to the Creation of God and cultivate their appreciation for the power of the Holy Spirit to create new life in them and all around them.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Sermon: Finding Jesus in Our Weakness

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
July 5, 2015
Text:  2 Corinthians 12:2-10

(Children’s sermon: Children are given thin sticks and asked if they can break them.  We can break the stick when it’s by itself.  But when we bundle it with a bunch of other sticks – we can’t break them.  Bound together in God's love, we experience power - even in our weakness and brokenness.)

We are at the end of our sermon series “Finding Jesus Finding Us,” and today we’re focusing on finding Jesus in the midst of our weakness.  As St. Paul wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:  “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

What an odd statement:  power is made perfect in weakness.  It seems like a contradiction.  We would think that the phrase should be:  power is made perfect in strength.  But that’s not what Paul said.  He’s talking about the thorn in his flesh (that’s where we get the phrase – a thorn in my side, by the way).  We don’t know what he’s referring to – some kind of physical ailment or injury?  Some ugly growth on this skin?  Or perhaps it’s a weakness for something – some temptation that causes him to give in.  We don’t know.  All we know is that he prayed for the thorn to be removed.  And God’s response is:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
This week on Facebook, I posed the question:  What is your weakness?  And how have you experienced God’s power in that weakness?  One Facebook responder gave a list of different ways we experience weakness, including:  depression, lack of clarity, financial fear, stress from parenting, and broken relationships.  She said that experiencing weakness feels like “God is closing a door and not opening a window fast enough.”

You’ll see at either end of your pew that there are slips of paper.  I want you to think about what your weakness is and write it on that slip of paper.  Don’t put your name – just write down what your weakness is.  Whether it’s your pride, or a health issue, or your stubbornness, or your addiction.  Just write it down and fold it up tight. 

As you’re doing that, I’m going to ask Mike Mertz to come up and share with you his testimony about where he has experienced God’s power within his own weakness.  Mike is one of the biggest, strongest guys I know. I remember the first time I met him here at church when I came here four years ago – I thought the church had hired a bouncer!  Mike is a trainer and specialist in sports medicine.  The more I've gotten to know Mike over these years, I learned that he has a very deep faith – faith that has been tested by times of weakness.  And he has learned a thing or two about what it means to experience God’s grace and power made perfect in weakness.

[Mike’s testimony: see video for full story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJbWLwwxqN4&sns=fb  Mike's portion starts at 6:19.  Summary - Mike was a golfer who was prepared to turn professional, but two weeks before he was to start, he broke a bone in his hand, which ended his career before it started.  He was devastated at the time, but eventually followed the path of sports medicine and give thanks to God that he has been able to help so many adults and kids.]

Here’s the thing:  Mike literally experienced a pain in his wrist that was like a thorn in the flesh.  It was a career-ending injury.  He would no longer be able to pursue his dream of becoming a professional golfer.  But through this weakness, God’s power was made perfect in Mike.  He has touched the lives of probably a thousand adults and young people as a sports trainer, and has helped them either avoid injury, or recover from injury.  Mike understands sports medicine on a very personal level, knows the importance of keep one’s body in good shape and playing sports the right way in order to minimize injuries.  God’s power of healing has been made perfect in Mike’s weakness. 

Remember – I’m not saying that God caused Mike’s injury so that he would follow the path of sports medicine.  That’s not how God works.  God is not like a master game player up in the sky, deciding to afflict some people just to achieve a certain outcome, no matter how positive.  If that was the case, it would mean God is arbitrary and manipulative and cruel.  No – God is not up in the sky making things happen.  God is here below, among us, accompanying us no matter what we face, no matter what circumstances arise, and creating something new out of our brokenness. 

When I was a hospital chaplain I had the occasion to visiting a young woman in the oncology wing who was facing a recurrence of cancer. She was very frustrated – just like Paul.  This person had prayed fervently that the cancer would resolve itself.  Lots of people were praying for her, all over the world.  So she had strong confidence that God would keep the cancer away.  So when the test came back positive, and it turned out that the cancer was back, this person was understandably shaken.  She was doubting the power of prayer, her own faith, and doubting God. As I sat with her, I remembered this verse from 2 Corinthians and read it to her – “My grace is sufficient for you.  Power is made perfect in weakness.”  I asked her to imagine a way that God’s power might be made perfect even in her illness.

She thought for a while, then answered:  “Maybe if - no when - I come through this surgery, I can help other cancer patients who are facing the same thing as I am.  I know there is a cancer support group here at the hospital.  Maybe I can volunteer with them, maybe become something like a cancer coach, helping people go through what I’ve experienced.  No one understands cancer better than one who has been through it.”

I thought this was a very wise and faith-filled response.  I don’t know what happened to the woman, because after she left the hospital, my chaplaincy ended.  But I felt certain that God would find a way for that divine power to be made perfect through her weakness. 

That’s what Mike has learned over the course of his life.  Power is made perfect in weakness.  Notice – God did not magically make everything the way Mike wanted it to be after his injury.  But when we walk with each other, help others by sharing what we’ve been through, it’s like bundling these sticks together – there is incredible strength.  Every fault, every sin, every failure, every affliction can eventually be an opportunity to walk alongside someone on the same path, embodying Christ’s presence, compassion and grace.

Here’s what I invite you to do.  As we sing the hymn, I invite you to come forward and make an “offering of weakness.” Put your folded up piece of paper here in this basket – remember, no names.  At the end of the hymn, I will say a prayer over the offering of weaknesses.  We will pray together that God’s grace will be sufficient for you and for our congregation. And that we might, together – like sticks banded together, weak by themselves, but united in strength – that we might experience God’s power through our weakness.

As the Facebook responder wrote:  “When I am weak, He is strong! I lean harder on Him! I wait patiently (okay, maybe not so patiently) but I remind myself of God’s love for me. I remind myself that God is bigger than my problems! That He is Jehovah Jireh, Lord Provider; Jehovah Shalom, Lord of Peace; Jehovah Sabbaoth, Lord of Deliverance! And I have learned when the storm clouds roll, I send my praises up and they break apart those clouds and the blessings come down! Praise is the weapon and I have never seen it fail!"

May God's power be made known to you through your weakness today.  And may we, as a bundle of brokenness and weakness, be a witness to God's power through Jesus Christ.  Amen.




Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Laudato Sí Sermon: A Resurrection Sermon for an Earth-Kin Congregation

A Sermon for an Outdoor Setting
Text: Colossians 1:15-20; John 20:1-18
Preached at R.B. Winter State Park in Pennsylvania, in the outdoor Whispering Pines amphitheater

(This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit, available from Chalice Press for pre-order at http://www.chalicepress.com/Creation-Crisis-Preaching-P1550.aspx).

Introduction

            In honor of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Sí, this sermon takes its cue from the Pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.[1] I reintroduce his idea of preaching to the creatures, flora and non-human others in Creation. In this way the eco-hermeneutical principle of proclamation for the other-than-human community of Earth is given a completely different conceptual framework. The Earth-congregation is directly addressed, and the humans are told they can “listen in.” Thus anthropocentrism is de-centered from the outset and humans are relegated to the margin. Moreover, the members of the other-than-human community are addressed not just as “Brother” and “Sister,” but are identified by their role within the liturgy of Creation, much the way humans have parts to play in the worship service as ushers, greeters, choir members, and lectors.

            The ecological hermeneutic is also woven throughout the sermon by seeing the story of the Passion and Resurrection from the nature characters’ points of view. They are identified as witnesses to the events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and as co-sufferers in Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus the sermon, through both its form and content, enacts a creative actualization of the biblical story from Earth’s perspective and situates them as equals in the Divine drama of the Passion and Crucifixion.
            The primary text for consideration alongside that of the Gospel is the hymn of the Cosmic Christ in the first chapter of Colossians. Here I drew on Joseph Sittler’s interpretation which contains seeds of an early ecofeminism, in that he identifies nature as “God’s sister”:
We must not fail to see the nature and size of this issue that Paul confronts and encloses in this vast Christology. In propositional form it is simply this: a doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God's creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is God's home, God's definite place, the theatre of God's selfhood, in cooperation with God's neighbour, and in a caring relationship with nature, God's sister.[2]

            While the ontological implications of such a relationship between God and nature (i.e., if they are siblings, who is their parent?) are worth exploration at another time, what I wish to highlight is the way in which Sittler expands a salvific Christology to be inclusive of nature. With this in mind, the middle of the sermon takes time to trace the contours of the story of the Cosmos’ and Earth’s ancient, primordial history in order to provide the memory of God’s steadfastness and love through the unfathomable reaches of time.
            The sermon then returns to Holy Week. Earth is described as taking Jesus’ body into herself and birthing him from her womb as the Resurrected One. The Greek chorus of Creation is set in relief against the reaction of the women at the tomb on Easter morning. And just as the elements of Creation provide a unique witness to the crucifixion, so they also provide a fly’s eye, stone’s eye, and birds’ eye view of the risen Christ. The description of what they see is influenced by Catherine Keller’s description of an ecological resurrection: "[T]he old creation will remain, marred and scarred, to be mourned, healed, teased, its lonely phallic signifiers danced around like ancient maypoles."[3]
Sermon Text:

St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecologists, preached to the flowers. He preached to cornfields, stones, forests, earth, air and wind. He considered them and all God’s creatures to be his brothers and sisters. He thought of them as his fellow worshipers of God and exhorted them to praise their Creator.

I think it is high time to revive his practice of preaching to our Earth-kin. So this sermon is not for my human sisters and brothers, it is for my other-than-human family. You are welcome to listen in. But as we stand in this cathedral of God’s creation, surrounded by the very presence of God in the midst of this congregation of trees, creeks, hundreds of varieties of plants and wildlife, thousands of insects, and microbes we can’t even see, this sermon is for them.

Brother Fern and Sister Porcupine; Choir of Cicadas and Altar Guild of Spiders who weave the fair linens of the forest; Lightning Bug Acolyte and Lector Bull Frog who reads to us the lessons of God’s Creation as the sun sets each summer evening: Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of the most moving hymns that we humans sing on Good Friday is “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” Lest we forget that God’s very Creation witnessed to Jesus’ suffering and death, I want to acknowledge your presence at every point along Jesus’ journey to the cross, and that you witnessed his resurrection before any human eye beheld him.

Stones, your voices echoed the ringing “Hosannas” shouted by the disciples and crowds along the road to Jerusalem. Palm leaves, you laid a green carpet for Donkey’s hooves as he carried Jesus into the city. Olive Grove, you stood sentry over Jesus as he prayed at Gesthemane, knowing the suffering that awaited him. Sun, you hid your face during those torturous hours Jesus hung on the cross, as Nephesh, the Breath of Life, was forced from his lungs with each passing hour. And Trees, both of you felled in the prime of your life after having housed countless birds, insects, and children’s playtimes – they lashed you together crossways and forced you to become the scaffolding of death for Jesus. Each of you was there. Even you, Rocks, trembled and shook, fractured and split as Jesus breathed his last.

Yes, you were there. You suffered as Jesus suffered. And is your suffering any different today? Yes, it is different. For as man’s death-machine has become more sophisticated, so has his ability to violate your life processes become more complex and sinister. Brother Trees, you are massacred by the millions every hour to make room for human houses, strip malls, fields of human-designed genetically-mutated seeds, and drill rigs. Sister Rocks, you tremble and shake, fracture and split, as these rigs puncture you, inject you with biocides and chemicals to kill any and every living thing, as the essence of your ancient depths is extracted. Nephesh, Breath of Life, you are polluted with carbon dioxide, fumes, and the smallest particulates that find their way into our children’s lungs and cause them to gasp for air. Sun, your heat is no longer simply beneficial, but trapped inside the atmosphere of Earth, causing Brother Ice Caps to shrink, Sea to rise, and Storm to rage with irrepressible anger against us. The crucifixion of Jesus happened once in history. But your crucifixion, O Earth, is carried out daily.

It is no wonder that you groan, waiting for those of us who are Christian to claim our birthright and responsibilities as Children of God to finally stand up and say, Enough! We have done such damage to you, committed so many sins against you and our human brothers and sisters, I worry that we may have already reached the tipping point and that we are on a fast track to an environmental Good Friday, the likes of which none of us will survive.

But when I am tempted to give in to despair, I am reminded of a story that gives me hope. It is the most ancient of stories. It is your story the story of the birth of the universe itself. Cosmos of God, you are nearly 14 billion years old. The story we hear in Genesis is of your creation, conceived from the great unfathomable depths of God’s bottomless, tehomic love. And the set of circumstances for life to begin and evolve on this fragile blue orb is so impossible, it can only be Love itself that would enable it to happen at all.
I am reminded that in Earth’s history there have been waves of catastrophic events which have threatened life on this planet. But again and again, the resiliency and creativity given to you by God has found ways to push through and around the crises and enabled life to flourish once again. I have to believe that God, who has brought us through 14 billion years of time, will not abandon us now. That somehow God is working through even this man-made catastrophe of global climate change, deforestation, massive extinction, and toxic poisoning to find a way for life to push through once again. And so I make the choice to believe and act on my firm belief that on the other side of the Good Friday of the eco-crucificion, there is an eco-resurrection waiting to surprise us.

Because when I remember that you were there at Jesus’ crucifixion, I also remember that you were there at his resurrection. Earth, you took Jesus’ body into yourself, into the very heart of your bosom. What did you witness there if not a birth from the womb of your body? Great Stone hewn from the cave, how light you were in the hands of the angels who rolled you away. Quiet Garden in which the women stood, uncomprehending of the miracle before them, how the Crickets must have laughed, how the Flowers must have glowed with joy, seeing the women’s faces behold the Resurrected One.

What did you see, Sister Flies, no longer drawn to a decomposing body? How did Jesus appear to you, Brother Birds who whistled the first “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”? He was the same, yet different. He was filled with new life, yet with scars remaining. So, too, will be your appearance, O Earth, when your resurrection is complete. For God so loved the world – the cosmos – that She gave her only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.

I ask you, Sister Dolphin and Brother Arctic Moss, not to give up hope. Believe in the One who loves you, who created you, who suffers with you, and who will raise you up into new life. Do not give up on us, O Earth. There are humans who are teaching their children and others how to see the world not just from a human point of view, but from your point of view. We are learning how God sees the interrelatedness within all of Creation. We are learning from you, listening to your teachings, reintroducing ourselves to Brother Fox and Sister Salamander. We are drawing our faith from you, and repenting of our arrogance as that has oppressed you for so long.

You, our Earth-kin are grounding us in the universe story so we can see where we come from and what we come out of – this soil and water and breath - reminding us that we are all indeed one – of the same substance that exploded in that glorious instant of creation. You will help us to unfetter our imagination by asking: what does the world look like when we live within our means and see Earth as family? And you will show us what it looks like when all God’s creatures, including these Children of God, praise their Creator through worship and song and quiet meditation. As we learn to love you, O Earth, and love God, we are being moved to advocate for you and to be servants of the Most High God.

O Earth, I must believe that we can look forward to the Resurrected One calling our name and opening our eyes to your crucified body transformed to new life, even as we have done all we could in our faithful witnessing and ministering, and still fallen short.

Pray for us, Earth-kin, as we pray for you. It is no accident that you are here, that any of us are here. God has brought you to this place and God will guide you and lead you as you lead and guide us. Go forth with the faith that will sustain you and assure you that you are doing God’s work with your very existence. And God’s work never fails. Amen.





[1] Francis' first biographer, Thomas of Celano (1229) wrote: “When he found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart, as one who had already escaped into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.” (1 Celano, 81-82)[1] [as cited in Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997). p. 210].)
[2] Joseph Sittler, "Called to Unity: Redemption within Creation," in World Council of Churches Meeting (New Delhi, India: 1961, reprinted 1985), 3.
[3] Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 179, 180.