Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Eco-Ethical Bridge Connects Us (The ISEC Sermon)

The Eco-Ethical Bridge Connects Us
Sermon, United in Christ Lutheran Church, West Milton, PA
The Rev. Leah D. Schade

Mark 9:38:  “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’”

Insiders and outsiders.  That’s what John is concerned about.  Who’s in the “Jesus Club”?  Who’s not?  And if someone is doing the work of Jesus but not actually following him, shouldn’t they be stopped?  Only insiders should be able to access that kind of power.  Outsiders either need to make the decision to follow Jesus, or accept that they’re not part of the club and get out of the way.

I have to admit that I was worried that I would encounter the John-attitude here in Central Pennsylvania before I moved here.  In the weeks before I was about to begin my call here at United in Christ, while I was still living in Philadelphia, I would tell people where we were moving, and nearly everyone had a similar reaction.  “Wow – that’s such a conservative Christian area!  It’s like the Bible Belt of Pennsylvania.  How are you going to deal with that after living in the Philadelphia area for the past decade?”  The implication was that the city is a place of diversity and variety, while the middle of the state is a homogenous blob of pale-faced Christians.  And I have to admit, I was a little concerned that I would miss having the opportunity to work with clergy of different faiths, as I had the pleasure of doing during my time in Philly.  And I was worried that I would encounter some who insisted in the exclusivity of the Jesus Club, as John did.

But it wasn’t long after we moved here that Jim was out playing the drums at the Bull Frog, and he met another drummer whose wife is the pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Northumberland.  “You need to get in contact with her and connect with her,” he encouraged.  So Pastor Ann Keeler Evans and I had lunch, and she clued me in on something about this region of the state I was not yet aware of. 
“There is much more diversity to this area of Central Pennsylvania than you might at first think,” she said.  She went on to tell me about the Jewish synagogue in Sunbury, the thriving Muslim community in the area, and the myriad of other non-Christian faiths and practices around us, everything from pagans to New Age to agnostics and atheists.

And when this really started to become apparent for me was last December when the Susquehanna River Basin Commission was about to have a public meeting on the approval of water withdrawal permits for natural gas drilling, and we began circulating a letter to area clergy asking them to sign in support of protecting the Susquehanna from these million-gallon withdrawals.  In three days’ time, over 50 people had signed the letter from six different faith traditions.  

We knew something important was happening in this area, because people of different faiths wanted to join their voices and meet across interreligious lines to protect God’s sacred creation.  So this past January, we decided to form an organization called the Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition.  In the past nine months I’ve been blessed to meet, correspond with, and work alongside an incredible variety of people who have taught me so much about what it means to do the work of Jesus, even if they themselves are not followers of Jesus. 
Remember Jesus’ response to John about the man who was casting out demons: ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

What I have found is that there is an incredible number of people who are trying to cast out the many demons that are afflicting our society and our earth.  They may not be followers of Jesus, but they are doing the work that Jesus calls us to do. 

·        *  I’ve seen Christians, Muslims, and Jews discuss the sacredness of water in each of their traditions and how that informs their work of environmental justice. 
·       *   I’ve watched New Age spiritualists stand alongside Lutherans making speeches that confront the demons of political power abused, corporate wealth used to oppress, and ignorance manipulated for profit. 
·         * I’ve witnessed a Roman Catholic Church serve as host to an interfaith care-of-creation symposium with nearly 50 people in attendance from different faith traditions.
·        *  I’ve watched a gathering of non-religious philosophers and environmental activists take part in an interfaith vigil lamenting the loss of the Riverdale Mobile Home Park in Lycoming County, decrying the demons of corporate capitalism that value profits over human community.
·        *  I’ve seen Buddhists join with Christians and atheists in a Native American four-directions ritual to bless a gathering of people committed to protect the area of Rock Run and Old Loggers trail.
·         * I’ve seen Muslims and Jews stand side-by-side in solidarity against the demon of hate crimes at the synagogue in Sunbury.

What is it that is binding us together?  I think Psalm 19 can give us some insight.  The Psalm begins with declaring that the heavens and earth are proclaiming God’s glory.  Nature is silent and voiceless, yet somehow has speech and words that are heard across the earth.  The writer explains that the very design of nature discloses the law of the Lord which is perfect, revives the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. 

I suggest that there might be a connection between attending to God’s law in nature and the exorcist working outside of the disciples’ inner circle.  What is that connection?  Well, the members of the Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition, while they may not be part of the same club, have certain beliefs and values in common.  For example, we believe that children, women, men, and earth-kin have the right to clean water, land, air, and health.  We are committed to being a public presence on ecological issues in order to bring ethical, moral, spiritual, and religious perspectives to bear. 

In other words, what once made us outsiders of each other’s religions is making us insiders of the same planet.  It is what’s outside our houses of worship that is making us insiders working for the same cause.  
The theologian Paul Knitter, in his book Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002), says that one model for a theology of religions, that of “mutuality,” where the diverse religions are all considered “true” and are called to dialogue with each other.  He uses the metaphor of “bridges” to illustrate the means by which people of differing faiths can meet and connect either philosophically, mystically or ethically. Knitter says:
Given the present pain-ridden and crisis-strewn state of the world, the religions have a job to do, a job they all share.  Taking up this job together will enable them to get to know each other better.  For this bridge, ethical issues and ethical responsibility are the pillars that will sustain a new kind of interfaith exchange.  A pivotal term in this approach to pluralism and dialogue, therefore, is global responsibility:  in being responsible for our endangered globe and all its inhabitants, the religions have new opportunities to understand both themselves and each other.[1]

That is exactly what we are seeing right here in the Susquehanna Valley.  Our hope is to raise consciousness and offer education about eco-justice issues so that citizens may be better informed, advocate for eco-justice issues in the public arena, and offer a positive, creative vision for our planet based on our collective interfaith dialogue.

This is not to say that there are no points of tension in our work together.  Issues of race, gender, power, and theological discord are always part of our discussion.  But we don’t see them as excuses to shut each other out, as John wanted to do with the exorcist.  We see them as opportunities to learn from each other, and find points of commonality that allow us to build these eco-ethical bridges. 

Today we’re going to see another instance of bridges being built in protection of our area.  This time the bridge is going to include music.  At 4:00 there’s going to be a concert at Oak Heights on Rt. 15 called “Songs from the Sacrifice Zone.”  Musicians from all over the region are going to be performing songs celebrating the beauty of Pennsylvania and raising awareness about the threats to the area from natural gas drilling.  I’m going to be playing the harp as well.  There are going to be all kinds of people there – people with long hair, people with short hair.  People wearing “hippy clothes” and people wearing jeans and t-shirts.  Young people, older people.  Religious people, non-religious people.  University professors and factory workers. 

We’re all outsiders to each other in some way.  But we all live inside the same atmosphere threatened by the climate crisis.  We all live inside the same state threatened by powers that see our land only as a profit-making venture and our residents as nothing but a sacrifice.  We all live inside the same planet whose sun comes out “like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.  Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hidden from its warmth,” (Psalm 19:5-6).

“Whoever is not against us is for us,” said Jesus.  And, I would add, whoever is for the planet, is for all of us.  Amen. 

[1] Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions, 134-5.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Natural Gas is Not God’s Gift to Humanity

Natural Gas is Not God’s Gift to Humanity
By The Rev. Leah Schade
September 23, 2012
“Natural gas is a gift from God for us to exploit,” is an argument sometimes used by politicians, the gas industry, and those who are benefiting from fracking.  But this a dangerous and inaccurate rationalization based on a perverted understanding of a theology of nature.  And it is easily debunked with a reading of Genesis, Chapter 3, often known as the story of the “fall” of Adam and Eve.

Why does God curse the ground in this passage from Genesis 3?  It’s because Adam and Eve ate fruit from the tree of knowledge.  Most people see this story as the  explanation for the concept of Original Sin.  But there is another way to view this story. 

The myth of the “fall” of human beings has specific application to the current environmental crisis.  This story shows us that God set limits for human beings in how they were to exist in the garden. For the good of Adam and Eve, for the good of the tree, for the good of the entire garden, God essentially said:  “This far and no farther.”  God established a boundary for the mutual protection of the relationship between humankind and the created world.

Did the original humans respect these boundaries?  No.  They did not obey the limits God set for them.  They ignored the warnings, flouted the rules, and crossed the line.  There’s almost a feeling of entitlement you sense from Eve and Adam’s rationalization of their disobedience.  It’s as if they’re saying, “This is our garden after all.  God gave it to us.  We should be allowed to do anything we want with it. Look, the fruit is good to eat.  It will make us smarter, better, richer.  God just doesn’t want us to be like God.  God’s afraid we’ll know what God knows.  And why shouldn’t we?”   

And because of this arrogance, there is an immediate cascade of events that shatters the relationships of paradise.  The humans hide from God, and are not honest with God or themselves.  They blame each other, and they blame one of God’s creatures for the temptation.  They refuse to accept responsibility for what has happened, but the consequences are unavoidable.  From that point on, their relationship with the earth is cursed:  "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life." (Genesis 3:17b , RSV).   All because of human beings’ insistence that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it, no matter what the cost or the consequence.

Psalm 19 tells us that the laws, decrees, and ordinances of God are about respecting the boundaries of relationships.  This includes the delicate balance of our ecosystems and being mindful of our impact on them.  And yet we continually cross those lines and insist that we can and should pluck the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, rationalizing that we have the right to become like God. 

But just because we can does not mean that we should.  The warnings are clear, and they have direct bearing on the arguments against fracking.  Do not continue to pollute the air, water and soil.  You’ll learn good and evil the hard way when your children die from strange diseases and you can’t swim or eat fish from the poisoned waters.  Do not continue drilling for fossil fuels.  You’ll learn good and evil the hard way when the gasses trap heat within the atmosphere and melt your icebergs and flood your islands and coastlands and whip up catastrophic weather events. Do not continue to clear-cut the earth to make way for one more frack pad or industrial waste land.  You’ll learn the good and evil the hard way when species die out and invasive plants and animals prey on your weakened natural habitats. 

There are limits and boundaries that God has established which need to be respected.  God created the best carbon-sequestering system that could have ever been devised:  that shale and oil is buried thousands of feet beneath the earth's surface because it was meant to stay there!  When we release it into the atmosphere it disrupts the delicate balance created over time to sustain life on this planet.

So we have done more than just cross the line.  We have decimated the entire garden.  We are not just plucking fruit from the tree anymore.  We’re cutting the whole tree down – indeed entire swaths of forests - to drill down to gas that tempts us with its illusory promises of power and wealth. 
Natural gas is not a gift from God, any more than any other fossil fuel is.  Any fuel that requires or results in the large-scale industrialization of what was once beautiful woodlands, farmland, meadows and rural communities, the poisoning of billions of gallons of water, the destruction of contiguous forests, compressor stations threatening explosions and emitting poisonous gases, and the ruination of communities and public health is certainly no gift from God. 

What is a gift from God is clean water and air, intact forests and natural lands, and the ability of human beings to discern how to live within the natural boundaries God has set for us.  God’s gift to us is not natural gas, but the capacity to discover forms of fuel that do not threaten the planet and human health.  And it is a gift from God to have communities valued for their protection of God’s creation rather than their willingness to sacrifice for it.

Sometimes there is great blessing in establishing boundaries and protecting them.  Sometimes the benefits of changing your lifestyle or business practices to live in accordance with God’s designs in nature outweigh the assumption of entitlement.  Sometimes foregoing profit in order to preserve God’s natural legacy reaps rewards far beyond monetary wealth.  And sometimes the real gift is trusting that there is a reason why the forbidden fruit is placed so far out of reach.  It’s better left alone – for our sake, for the sake of the planet, and for the sake of our relationships with each other and God.

Sermon: Welcoming Children into God's Creation (The Rock Run Sermon)

Sermon, The Rev. Leah D. Schade
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
Sept. 23, 2012
“Of Lambs and Limbs” Part One:
“Welcoming Children into God’s Creation”
Texts:  Jeremiah 11:18-20; Mark 9:30-37  
“Jesus loves the little children.”  We sing that at the time of our children’s sermon.  Because it’s true!  Just in the Gospel of Mark alone, children have a prominent place in 5 different stories.  Why do you think this gospel focuses so much on children?  Well let’s think about children a little.  What do we know about kids?

Helpless; Without status; Vulnerable; High mortality rate; Small view of the world, but big imagination; Inquisitive, curious; Know nothing but have everything to learn; Love affection, love to be held; Freedom to explore without fear.

So why does Jesus care so much about us welcoming children?  Certainly, all these things we listed are true.  But there’s another reason.  Jesus says that when we welcome children in his name, we are actually welcoming God into our midst. 

Remember Jesus is all about having God’s kingdom established on earth.  And God’s kingdom is all about caring for those most vulnerable.  They say you can tell a lot about a society by the way they treat their oldest and youngest members.  So if we are like the disciples - so concerned with who is the greatest that we ignore the needs of our children - then we are not following God’s will. 

And I would add that it’s not just how we treat the most vulnerable in the human society that reveals our values.  It’s also how we treat the most vulnerable in God’s creation.  How we treat fragile ecosystems, how we treat God’s earth in general, says a lot about how we treat our fellow humanity.  For example, if we look at a beautiful forested mountain, and only value it for the coal or gas or oil beneath its surface, and are willing to sacrifice it for our short-term needs, then we are, in fact, not following God’s will for ourselves or our children. 

The well-being of children and the well-being of God’s creation are fundamentally linked.  And throughout the next several weeks, that’s what our sermons are going to be exploring.  The preaching series is entitled “Of Lambs and Limbs” and will address the need for justice for children, trees, and other living things.  Today I want to make a specific connection between the need to welcome children into God’s creation, and the need to protect one particularly beautiful and fragile part of God’s creation right here in Pennsylvania.

There’s a book I love called The Last Child in the Woods by child advocacy expert Richard Louv.  He writes about “nature deficit disorder,” where he directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today's children to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.  We keep kids inside, wired to their computers and televisions, which not only deprives children of important relationships with nature, but will result in generations of humans who have no interest in protecting or caring for God’s creation.  Because “children will not save what they do not love,” he writes.  And so he encourages giving children direct exposure to nature because it’s essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. 

Where this connects with our land right here in Pennsylvania is in a place called Rock Run.  [start video:]  Rock Run is an enchanting, beautifully wild area of Pennsylvania tucked away in the Loyalsock State Forest just north of Williamsport.  And it is under threat to be destroyed by natural gas drilling.  An oasis of 20,000 acres surrounds a 27-mile hiking path called the Old Logger’s trail.  All around the area drilling is proceeding at full force.  But Governor Tom Corbett could direct the DCNR to protect this still pristine area from natural gas development.

Now what does this have to do with you and me?  What does this have to do with the church?  Well if we do not speak up for the land and speak out for the needs of our children to be able to inherit this land as citizens of Pennsylvania unsullied by the drilling industry, then we will be shirking our responsibility both to protect God’s creation, and preserve the very land into which God wants to welcome them.
As one blogger wrote:  “It is an area which, once encountered, leaves a lasting impression of serenity, unspoiled nature, and tranquil other-worldliness that is almost unknown in our modern world. To despoil this paradise with gas drilling or any other industry would be nothing short of ungodly. The surrounding area has suffered enough, leave the people some refuge.”

As a Christian, I would add:  How can we welcome the children into these places God has created if there is nothing left to welcome them into?  Or if we have turned these sacred places into industrialized zones that are no place for children to play?  Or if we have so poisoned, and compromised the integrity of the area, that we have left our children with nothing but a memory and an internet video reminding them of what it used to be like? 

I invite you after the service today, to sign a letter to our governor, the head of the DCNR, and the company that wants to drill in this area urging them to protect Rock Run and the Old Logger’s Path.  This is one way to put our faith into action.  We have an opportunity to witness to our faith, and make our voices heard, reminding our leaders that the despoiling of the Rock Run area would be nothing less than the degradation of God’s gracious gift of creation. Scripture witnesses to God as creator of the earth and all that dwells therein (Psalm 24:1). Our leaders need to know that we, as Christians, believe all of creation is worthy of protection, especially those areas that are particularly sensitive and whose ecosystems are fragile.  Rock Run is one of those areas.

The Holy Bible gives us several examples of mountains and waterways being special places in which God reveals God’s self.  This area of Loyalsock State Forest is a place where God’s presence in creation is experienced deeply by those who hike, swim, and fish there.  A natural area such as this is not a domain to be conquered and exploited for short-term gain, but to be enjoyed, preserved, and explored as a wondrous, sacred trust.

Do we really want to cut down the tree with its fruit, as we heard in the Jeremiah text?  Or do we want to uphold what Genesis 2:15 puts forth as our role within creation: to serve and to keep God’s garden, the earth? 

The letter will be downstairs with a sheet for you to add your name if you wish remind our leaders that they have an opportunity to leave a legacy for this state and future generations that preserves the pure water, native fish populations and unparalleled beauty of the forest.  It is their responsibility as leaders in government and industry to protect this ecologically and aesthetically sensitive area.  And it is our responsibility as Christians to ask that they do so.

God’s presence is infused in all of creation.  And when we take our children into God’s outdoor cathedral – into the woods, the river, the streams, the meadows, even just the backyard, and show them the wonders of what God has created, that it is God who made all this, and that it is our job to love and protect what God has created – we are indeed following Jesus’ example.  We take our children in our arms, by the hand, and welcome them into this beautiful sacred world, and we do it in Jesus’ name.  And when we do this, we are, indeed, welcoming God.  Amen.