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.

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