Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sermon on Psalm 23

The Rev. Leah D. Schade
Feb. 27, 2013

“The Lord is my shepherd . . .” I only have to say those first five words, and, almost everyone to whom I give pastoral care can join with me in reciting this most precious psalm.  This is, of course, the most famous of all the psalms.  We hear it most often at funerals.  But Psalm 23 has such poignant imagery, it could be used in many more varied contexts.  Today I want to explore that imagery, and then talk about why this Psalm is so significant for our lives today.

Let’s start with this first verse, where God is referred to as a shepherd.  Now, we’re not an agrarian nation anymore.  And most of us don’t know any sheep herders personally.  But back when this psalm was written, herding sheep was a common profession.  Sheep, as you may know, are not the brightest animals on the farm.  They have to be led where you want them to go.  It is up to the shepherd to find suitable pasture for the sheep to graze.  And the shepherd must find water for them.  Not just any water - but still water, so that they won’t be swept away by currents that are too fast for them.  When we think of this image of water, as Christians, we can’t help but think of the baptismal waters when we hear these words.  In the still waters of our mother’s wombs we were created.  In the still waters of the font we were baptized Children of God.  And this water sustains us all our lives. 

On a spiritual level, this psalm so beautifully expresses our need for God.  I don’t know about you, but my personality is Type A and driven to hard work.  So I actually have to be led to places that replenish my spirit.  And I often have to do that in green meadows and by still waters.  Only by reconnecting with nature can my soul be restored.  God knows that, and often leads me down those paths. 

And speaking of paths, this line about being led down right paths for his namesake echoes a theme we heard two weeks ago in Psalm 1.  Remember the grandfather talking to his grandson about staying on the right path and being like the tree planted by the water?  Psalm 23 makes reference to this same kind of imagery. 

But like the grandfather warned his grandson, there will be difficult times in life.  And this psalm does not shy away from that fact.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  For you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  What is this - rod and staff?  Well, this is again having to do with the shepherd.  A shepherd always carries a long stick to beat away any predators that may attack the sheep.  And the staff is the crook, a long hook used to reach out and pull the sheep back that are wandering close to danger.  The psalmist is saying that just the sight of the rod and the staff are a comfort to him.  It says to him, “God’s got my back!  God’s looking out for me.”

Then the imagery of the psalm changes from a shepherd to that of a host of a welcoming household.  He’s saying that God has laid out a banquet before him, even with enemies lurking around.  He knows that God will keep danger at bay while he feasts at the table.

That’s often the way I think of communion. Here we come to the table to partake of the bread and the wine.  A whole world of worry awaits us outside these walls.  But in here, at least for an hour or so, we’re safe. We’re invited to the banquet of Jesus Christ to feed on the spiritual food of forgiveness. 

And then the psalmist says that God has anointed his head with oil.  I read this one time to a group of teenagers, and they said, “Ew, that’s gross. I don’t want oil poured on my head.”  Well, again, we have to understand the cultural and historical context.  In the desert of the Middle East, their hair and skin would get very dry.  So they would pour fragrant oil on themselves to keep the moisture in and smell nice.  It’s the same as washing your hair with conditioner, or putting aftershave or fragrant lotion on yourself after a bath or shower.  Think of it as God putting baby lotion on you - smoothing out the rough spots.

And then we come to the promise of abundance.  My cup runs over.  Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.  You’ve heard of the phrase:  “being pursued by the hounds of hell.”  Well, this is just the opposite.  The psalmist is saying that he is being pursued by the angels of goodness and mercy.  God is so good to him, blessings just overflow in his life. 

Finally we come to our journey’s end, our heart’s desire, our soul’s rest - the house of the Lord.  There are different ways of translating this.  Traditionally, we say, “I shall dwell”.  But it can also be read as “returning” or “coming home.”  In any case, it tells us that when all is said and done, we will be with God.  We came from God, God was with us through the journey, and we will return again to God.

Those are comforting words.  What we have is an intimate reflection on the grace of God.  
It is the psalm of the sacraments - baptism and communion.  It is the psalm of life and death - the dark valley and the house of the Lord.  This psalm touches on every important aspect of our lives.  And it is the psalm that each of us should know by heart.  Just as we say the Lord’s Prayer from memory, so should this Psalm be right at the forefront when we are going through both the joys and sorrows of life.

I’ll tell you why I think it’s so important to have this psalm memorized. Nine years ago my daughter, Rachel, who was a year old at the time, and her daddy had a nasty fall down the stairs in our home.  She slipped from his arms and her head banged against the wall at the bottom of the steps.  As I held her in my arms sitting in the emergency room, I went numb when the doctor told us that she had a fractured skull.  We waited for the ambulance to take us down to Children’s Hospital, and with all my seminary training, all the scripture I had read over the years, all the experience I had with pastoral care, only one phrase would come to my mind:  “The Lord is my shepherd.” 
I just kept repeating it silently to myself.  I needed something to cling to - something to get me through that dark valley, if that was indeed where we were headed - and at that point we just didn’t know what was ahead.  I prayed those words frequently in the days that followed, when they put the neck brace on her, when she screamed as they did the CAT-scans and x-rays, and during the two long nights we spent in her hospital room.  Thankfully, it turned out that her fracture was not life- or brain-threatening.  She was going to be okay.  But Psalm 23 and I developed a very close relationship during those days.  And I will always be grateful to it for getting me through that very difficult time.

I had that Psalm because it was ingrained in my brain from the time I was a young child.  I learned it in Sunday school.  I heard it at funerals.  And I repeated it so many times to parishioners in this church.  When I have visited people with Alzheimers who have difficulty remembering even their own children or what they had for lunch that day, there are always two scripture passages that they can repeat - The Lord’s Prayer, and the 23rd Psalm.  Even when the rest of their memory has failed, even when their minds are being whited out by that terrible disease, they still retain those precious bible passages.

We need these words to give shape and meaning to our lives.  To frame our experiences within the larger picture of God’s loving will for us.  Psalm 23, when we learn it by heart, can be the very presence of God shepherding us, restoring us, protecting us, guiding us, and blessing us with abundance.  If you have children or grandchildren, I would like you to help them learn this psalm, memorize this psalm - because it will be one of the greatest gifts you can give them for their lives.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.
He makes me to walk in right paths for his name sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me. 
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil. My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 




Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jesus, Mother Hen

The Rev. Leah Schade

Feb. 24, 2013
Gospel reading: Luke 13:31-35

King.  Warrior.  Father.  Mother bird.  It seems odd that Jesus would refer to himself this way, doesn’t it?  We’re not used to hearing feminine images when thinking about God.  In fact, some people get really angry if you dare use a female pronoun to refer to God. 

“God is great, God is good, and we thank Her for our food. Amen.”  Does that ever give people pause and raise eyebrows when my children and I pray that prayer at restaurants or in the presence of other family members or friends. 

“God is not a woman.  God would never be a female.  It’s just not possible.  It’s not natural.  It’s not right.”

And yet . . . here is Jesus referring to himself as a hen, a mother bird.  And this mother bird is facing some very vicious foxes – Herod and the Pharisees, who seek to have Jesus killed for the way he is causing trouble throughout Galilee.  Filling people with thoughts about God as accepting all people, loving the unlovable, unclean, the contaminated, the annoying.  It’s not enough that Jesus is saying that all these undesirable individuals should be allowed into our churches, into God’s kingdom.  Now Jesus has to go and call himself a mother hen.  That’s downright offensive.
Nobody likes a mother hen.  Mother hens are overprotective, interfering, overbearing.  They cluck and pick and watch constantly.  Nobody likes a mother hen. 

Unless . . .  you are a vulnerable chick in need of protection.  Unless all your life you’ve been deprived of a mother’s care.  Unless all you’ve known is the feeling of being abandoned, left to your own devices, stranded to face the fox all by yourself.  Then maybe a mother hen would not be so bad after all.

Margaret Cundall is a retiree who offers sick children from Chernobyl an incredible gift - the chance to boost their health. The 9-and-10-year-old children, from Belarus, in Russia, which suffered 70% of the fallout from the nuclear disaster in 1986, take to Margaret like chicks running to a mother hen when she welcomes them in the summer.  She is caring, physically demonstrative, and exudes warmth that draws the children to her.[1]

When your life is filled with suffering and pain, it’s nice to have a mother hen.  Caring, welcoming, warm.  I think those are qualities I would like in the God I worship.

Did you know that mother hens have the ability to feel their chicks’ pain?  “The ability to feel someone's pain or see their point of view was once thought to be uniquely human.” This is a quality called empathy.  But recent studies suggest that animals may also experience empathy. “A new study has uncovered, for the first time, that mother hens are such attentive, caring parents that they 'feel' their chicks' pain.  In experiments, female chickens showed clear signs of anxiety when their young were in distress.  [They] found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy - the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.”[2]  

Empathy.  The ability to feel my pain.  Being moved to protect me from pain.  I think those are qualities I would like in the God I worship.

Delmer Chilton, a Lutheran pastor and writer, tells the story of going to get eggs from his grandmother’s chicken yard one evening and hearing a racket.  “A sudden raising of dust, flurry of feathers and scattering of hens and chickens, much screeching and squawking, and then, just as suddenly, things calmed down and an old gray hen emerged from the bushes with a large black snake in her mouth.”[3] 

Strength.  Courage.  Non-nonsense.  A bold female, risking all to protect her chicks.  I think those are qualities I would like in God I worship.

Like that old gray hen, Jesus is not afraid of that fox, King Herod.  He’s not afraid of dying, and he sends a message back with Pharisees that Herod doesn’t even have to come after Jesus.  Jesus will go to him, right in Jerusalem.  Because that’s what a prophet does – goes bravely into the spaces of danger to confront evil.
 
But when he mentions Jerusalem, suddenly the tone of Jesus’ brave words shifts.  They turn to words of sadness.  He laments that the people of Jerusalem are like chicks that refuse to be cared for, looked after or protected.  “You were not willing.  Your house is left to you.”

Says Chilton:  “All too often, we have failed to understand or respond to God’s love. All too often, we have turned God’s word of love into a life of hate; all too often, we have turned God’s call to repentance into pointing fingers and a call to arms.  The sly fox of the world turns us away from that which is good and eternal and pulls us in the direction of those things that satisfy now but do not linger and live with us for an eternity with God.”[4]

The mother hen sat crying in my office, sharing with me the pain she felt knowing that she could not protect her daughter from the drugs and alcohol that had taken over her life.  Her tears flowed as she recounted the many times she tried to bring her daughter back into the loving embrace of her family, away from the fox of addiction.  But every time the daughter made choices that pulled her farther and farther away.  Instead having the protection of those holy wings, the daughter served time in jail, wasted away in strangers’ homes, and wandered the streets of the city.  But the mother looked me in the eye and said, “Pastor, I know God understands that I have done everything I can.  I have to let her make her own decisions.  I am at peace.”

Knowing what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t want protection.  Knowing the pain that comes in realizing that you can’t save them, you can’t make them change, you can’t make them choose a different path.  Knowing a mother’s pain and yet giving her peace.  I think those are qualities I want in the God I worship. 

After a moment, the mother added these words.  “No matter what happens, my daughter knows my arms are always open to her.” 

Arms open.  Heart exposed.  Wings spread.  Feathered breast exposed.  The mother hen, like the mother bird who fluttered over the nest egg of the world in Genesis; like the dove that fluttered away from Noah’s hand over the receding flood waters; like the dove fluttering from heaven, hovering around Jesus as he emerged from the baptismal waters . . .

Like mother bird, wings pinned to the cross, still sheltering us from evil. 
You can have your king-god.  You can have your warrior-god.  You can have your father-god.  Today, I’m opting for the Mother-Hen-God.  The God who welcomes all her children under her wings, no matter how they behave, or how they look, or what annoying and inappropriate things they do.  The God who opens her heart of healing.  The God who feels what I feel, who validates me as a mother, who assures me that when I have made mistakes, when I have wandered from the right path, and when I have been overwhelmed by the foxes, those holy wings are still spread over me, protecting me, sheltering me, keeping me safe, loving me. Amen.




[1] (“She's like a mother hen; Nominated for caring nature,” Mark Welford, Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England), August 15, 2009; http://www.thefreelibrary.com/She%27s+like+a+mother+hen%3b+Nominated+for+caring+nature-a0205904357. Accessed Feb. 23, 2013).

[2] (Copyright 2011 Asian News International (ANI) - All Rights Reserved. Provided by Syndigate.info an Albawaba.com company.  http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Mother+hens+'can+feel+their+chicks'+pain'.-a0251104710. Accessed Feb. 23, 2013.)

[3] (“The Fox in Our Henhouse,” Delmer Chilton, 2013; http://www.livinglutheran.com/blog/2013/02/the-fox-in-our-hen-house.html#.USk5ZqUsmSo. Accessed Feb. 23, 2013.)

[4] Ibid.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Cancer of the Fossil Fuel Industry

The Rev. Leah Schade
Feb. 23, 2013

Yesterday I had the pleasure of appearing on WKOK Sunbury/Selinsgrove 1070 AM’s radio talk show “On the Mark” (co-hosted by Mark Lawrence and Than Mitchell) with Dr. Wendy Lynne Lee, Professor of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University.  (The full broadcast, complete with webcam video, is available at http://wkok.info/on-the-mark/. Click on Friday 2/22/13 which will be available until 2/28/13).  One of the callers asked about the way the money from Koch Brothers has influenced the political debate on climate change.  I used the analogy of cancer in the human body to explain the ways in which the fossil fuel industry has infiltrated all aspects of business and politics and debilitated the health of the planet. 
Cancer cells seek only their own self-perpetuation and growth.  They channel the body’s resources into their own self-serving mission of expanding and taking over the surrounding cells, tissues and organs.  The tentacles of the cancerous mass reach out in all directions and, in the end, kill the body.  They don’t care who suffers as long as they are protected, comfortable, and growing at exponential speed. 

The greed for cheap, dirty fossil fuels is fed by our country’s excessive and unchecked desire for “growth.”  There are underlying questions we need to raise about our refusal to give the land and people rest (Sabbath), and unrelenting demand we make to have “more” without consideration of the consequences. These questions undergird the moral and ethical issues of extreme fossil fuel extraction and the climate crisis.

Those of us who have been trying to resist and fight back against this cancerous ideology and fossil economy that is threatening the lives of so many and health of the planet are like the “white cells” of the body politic.  But, as Dr. Lee pointed out, hundreds of well-paid operatives are deployed to neutralize the white cells by constantly casting doubt on the science behind climate change and discrediting the reputations of activists.  Even more frightening is the fact that for nearly a decade millions of dollars from anonymous conservative donors have been secretly channeled to groups whose sole mission is to cast doubts about climate change (as reported by Suzanne Goldenberg for The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/14/funding-climate-change-denial-thinktanks-network.).

This would help to explain why so many people still doubt whether climate change is real.  Social scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, in an interview with Bill Moyers (http://billmoyers.com/segment/anthony-leiserowitz-on-making-people-care-about-climate-change/. ), explained that there are actually six Americas when it comes to climate change:

 16% know that climate change is real, caused by humans, and is having a devastating effect on the planet and population.  They are alarmed and want to do something.

29% are concerned and believe it's happening, but see no need to act because it doesn’t seem to be affecting them personally.

25% are cautious, still on the fence, and wonder if climate change is happening because of the so-called “doubt” among scientists (which is simply false – the science is settled.  Climate change is real and human-caused and gravely serious.).

8% are simply ignorant about climate change.

13% have serious doubts that climate change is real, and believe that if it is, it's not human-caused and there’s nothing we can do.

8% are dismissive and claim that climate change is not happening, that it is part of a plot to take away American sovereignty.  While this is a small percentage, it’s well-organized, well-funded, and loud.  And it’s causing 85% of Americans to be stuck in a state of inertia.

So what do we do with this cancer of the fossil fuel industry that is overcoming the body of society and the planet?  Jesus observed to Nicodemus that “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:19-21).  Thus we must continue to expose the industry to the light of truth.  More investigative reporting, more speaking truth to power, more sharing of stories about those who are suffering.

Second, surgery is needed.  We must aggressively cut out this cancer that lies to us and says we need this oil and fracked gas to survive (the way the cigarettes lie and tell us we “need” the nicotine to survive). Treatments for cancer in the later stages are difficult, draining, and often debilitating.  But if aggressive steps are not taken, there is no hope for the body to survive.  Yes, cutting out addiction to oil and gas will be difficult, draining and temporarily debilitating.  But the only way to ensure the survival of life on our planet that gets sicker with every well we drill, every gallon of gas we burn, and every compressor station that spews methane into the air, is to take aggressive steps NOW. 

Surgically remove the cancerous mass of the fossil fuel industry, use chemo and radiation against all the rogue cells that are lurking around the body looking for another secret place to take hold, and channel all resources into a renewable-energy economy to restore health and vitality to the ecological and economic systems of our planet. 
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” said Jesus (John 8:32).  That’s true.  But before it will set us free, it will hurt like hell.  It will be painful.  But hope and health are promised when we undertake this road to healing together. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Psalm 1 - Be the Tree


Sermon: The Rev. Leah D. Schade
Psalms Sermon Series
Psalm 1 - “Be the Tree”

When I think of the writer of this Psalm, I think of a wise, old grandfather - someone who has lived a long life, learned some painful lessons, and wishes to share what he’s learned with the younger generation. And I picture this grandfather taking his grandchild for a walk in the woods. He watches his grandson running to catch a toad, skipping after a rabbit, and hopping up to touch a butterfly. When the child comes back to his side, he puts his arm around the young shoulders and they walk and talk quietly together, hoping maybe to spot a shy deer along the way.

And as they hike along the trail, the grandfather says something like the words in the beginning of the psalm, “Son, I want you to know that I love you, and that God loves you and wants you to be happy. And I also want you to know I’ve learned a thing or two about what makes a man happy, and what makes God happy. Now I’ve learned these lessons the hard way, and I don’t want you to have to make the same mistakes. So listen carefully to me. Don’t go hanging out with bad kids who want to get you in trouble. Don’t follow the wrong crowd down the wrong road. Be careful the company you keep. If you’ve got friends who make fun of you for going to church and believing in God, well then they’re not friends worth having. No, son, I’m proud of you that you actually read your bible, and you’ve learned the Ten Commandments in your Confirmation class.”

The boy listens carefully. He didn’t know that his grandfather had noticed these things about him. And he also wonders how he knew about his friends, the ones that sometimes tempt him to do things he knows he shouldn’t, and tease him for having to get up on Sundays and go to church. While he is pondering this in mind, they come upon his favorite spot, where big willow tree grows along the babbling brook. Many times he and his grandfather have come to this spot to catch minnows and crayfish, build dams with big wet rocks, and float sticks down the stream.

The old grandfather looks up at the tree and says, “Son, when I think about you, I think about this tree growing alongside the brook. You see how tall and green this tree is? Its roots grow deep, and it’s always watered by this stream. It always sprouts leaves in the spring, and gives you these long branches to swing from. It’s a strong tree. Storms come and whip it around, but it’s still standing. And it’s going to be here for a long time.”

Funny, thinks the boy. That’s how he’d always thought of his grandfather - like an old tree. Always there, always strong, always fun to play with, and always willing to provide a shady spot when you wanted some peace and quiet. And now his grandfather is telling him that he sees him like this tree?

His grandfather explains: “When you plant yourself in God’s word, and follow his commandments, and keep yourself connected to a church, it’s like being planted next to a stream. You’ll always be fed by the waters of your baptism, son. Your roots will grow deep, and you’ll be the kind of tree that grows tall and strong. People will admire you and look up to you. You’ll be able to weather the storms of life because you know that God is always with you.”

The boy nods. He picks up a few stones and skips them across the water, just the way his grandfather had taught them. Then they continue their walk. They emerge from the woods and climb up into the field. The grasses grow tall around them. His grandfather pauses and reaches out to grab some of the heads of the grasses.
 
“Looky here, son,” he says, and crushes the seed heads between his fingers. He throws them into the air and they blow away. “You’re not like those kids. They’re nothing but chaff in the wind. They get blown by whatever impulses come by. And when the storms come, they’ve got nothing to hold onto. Be the willow tree, Son.”

They continue their walk, the boy mulling over his grandfather’s words in his mind. And suddenly up ahead they see a doe standing just off the path. They watch her, and she watches them, until she moves off quietly into the underbrush. And they continue walking. The path brings them to the other side of the field where it intersects with another little trail. Here they stop again, and the grandfather asks, “Remember where that trail goes?“

“Sure,“ says the boy. “It veers off down a steep slope, down to the rocks where the snakes are.”
“That’s right,” the old man says. “And if we stay on this path, where does it take us.”
“Well, it’s the high road looking over the rocks. And then it circles around and takes us back through the pines, down through the little valley, and then back to the hard road to your house.”
“Very good. And how do you know about the snakes?”
“Well, I remember you told me about the time when you were a boy and you went down there and started poking around and a rattler bit you.”
“And then what happened?” the grandfather asks.
“No one knew where you were because you went off the path. You almost died down there.”
            “And how I worried my mother and father and sister. They thought they’d lost me.”
The boy, being a sharp one, says, “Let me guess, Grandpa. You want me to keep on the right path and stay safe in life, right?”
The grandfather laughs, “You got it, boy. What I’m trying to tell you is that there is a right way to live life, and it matters what you do and the choices you make. It matters to God. And it matters to the people in your family, in your school, in your church, and in whatever you do in your job when you grow up. I want you to choose your friends carefully. Choose your heroes carefully. And choose your actions carefully. Like I said, God loves you, and I love you, and I don’t want to see you stray from the right path that God has set out for you. If you do, you’ll get hurt, and people who love you will get hurt.”
“I understand Grandpa. You want me to keep God at the center path of my life, right?”
“Boy, your talking like you just came out of your pastor’s confirmation class.”
“I did, Grandpa, just this morning.”
“That’s my boy,” he laughs, putting his arm around his grandson again as they make their way through the pines.
            “Just stay on the right path, son. And be like that willow tree. Be the tree.”

Amen. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dirt People: An Eco-Sermon for Ash Wednesday

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Text:  Genesis 2:4 - 7; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

If you're longing to be centered and grounded in this time of divisive, soul-fracturing politics, an ancient Hebrew text from Genesis unearths an important reminder. Your Lenten journey can bring you closer to God when you connect to God's Creation, even the very dust from which our bodies were created.   


Consider this verse:  "Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7 NRSV)

Now try saying these Hebrew words in Genesis 2:7 aloud as you read them and see if you recognize any words:
  
Va.yi.tser   a.do.nai   e.lo.him   et-ha.   a.dam   a.far   min-ha.    a.da.ma   va.yi.pakh   be.a.pav   nish.mat   kha.yim va.ye.hi   ha.a.dam   le.ne.fesh   kha.ya


Did you notice the words “adam” and “adamah”?  This is a Hebrew pun.  “Adamah” means, “dust of the ground.”  Adam means “human.”   Adam was made from the soil.  So we are, literally, “people of the dirt.”  We are “dirt people."

We don’t like to think of ourselves that way, of course.  “What do you mean, I’m just dirt?”

But the Bible is very clear about the stuff from which we are made: adamah, soil, hummus.  And when God breathed life into the nostrils of this dirt-being, life entered into it and it became human. 

“Be-a-pav  nish-mat” -- literally,  God blew the breath of life.  God breathed the breath of life into the mud-man, and the man became a living soul.  You are "Adam-Nishmat."


So basically, the equation of life is this:


Dirt + Breath = Life.  

And when we die, the reverse is true:

Life - Breath = Dirt.

This is why we repeat these words when you come forward to receive the ash cross on your forehead.  We say, “Remember O Man/Woman that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Our death is as basic as our birth.  Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s a somber thought, I know.  This is a somber service.  Ash Wednesday is not the time to be whimsical and happy-go-lucky.  It’s a time to reflect on the fragility of life, the brevity of our existence.  And in light of that finitude, to take stock of our lives and see if we are making the most of these “jars of clay” we inhabit for only a few decades.

If we are, indeed, just mud-people, with the “nishmat,” the breath of life, flowing through us, how might this have an impact on our Lenten journey this year?  This
 is a time to return to that from which we were made -- earth and the breath of God.  It is time to get back to our center, to return to ourselves, to return to God.  And make no mistake - this return to God through earth and breath is a radical, prophetic act.  When so many powers attempt to deny the sacredness of Earth, to demolish all legal protections for the health of Creation, and thus the health of human beings - our return to earth and breath is a form of resistance in and of itself.

And so during this time of resistance, finding ways to reconnect with the earth from which you were created is so essential to finding wholeness and being at rest in God.  What might that look like for you? 

Perhaps you will decide to garden this year.  Maybe you will put your hands into the earth, feel the rich loam in your fingers, gently place some seeds into it, and watch in amazement as the plant is able to grow in this soil. 

Or maybe you will take daily walks each of these forty days.  It’s a wonderful time of year to do that.  Because as we watch winter recede and spring begin to take hold, it can be a very renewing experience.  We immerse ourselves in the rhythms of the earth, the lifecycle, the God-cycle.  And we feel ourselves being swept up into the ebb and flow of life.  Things die.  And their dying allows other things to live.   Things live, and cause other things to die.  It’s all part of the cycle.  Our little lives are like a shard of the mirror, reflecting the larger truths of universe.

But it’s not just the earth that we need to return to.  We also need to return to the “nishmat,” the breath of God.  What is this breath of God?  How does it manifest itself in us?  Think of the associations of God’s breath in the Bible 
 the “ruach” at the beginning of creation moving over the waters; the breath of God coming down in the form of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; Paul describing how the Spirit intercedes for us in our prayers with “sighs too deep for words.”  There it is – prayer!  We reconnect with the breath of God by praying – breathing – to God.  

In the book, Real Faith for Real Life, by Mike Foss, the first chapter is all about prayer.

“Daily Prayer is the first Mark of Discipleship.  This is the habit of our living in relationship with God in Jesus of Nazareth . .  . One of the most incredible truths of Christianity is that God desires a real relationship with us.  This is the desire of God’s heart. . .  Daily prayer affirms the relationship between Creator and humanity, bringing heaven to earth in the life of the disciple of Jesus.” (Foss, p. 15).

In his book, Foss challenges the reader to a thirty-day experiment.  He says, “Set aside and use this special time of daily prayer for just thirty days.  Take note of what happens within you – your response to stress, your outlook, your response to others.  You may want to make a prayer list and check it to see what has happened in response to those for whom you have prayed, for those things you have asked for yourself.  Understand that you will only get a glimpse of what God can do.  And ask God to help you see the working of God’s goodwill.  Then be spiritually alert.”  (Foss, p. 21). 

I would expand that into a forty-day experiment.  Use this season of Lent to realign yourself with the earth from which you came, and the breath of God which gives you life.  “What matters,” he says, “is time 
– time for you to grow in your knowledge and trust in the loving God to touch your life and help you grow deeper in faith; time to be connected to the eternal will of God.” (Foss, 37.)

Ah, but there’s the tricky part 
– finding the time!  Where will you find time for these wonderful walks in nature?  Where will you find an extra fifteen minutes a day to devote to prayer?  Your schedule is already so crammed full.  You already have so much to do – how are you going to add one more thing?

That’s where our Gospel lesson comes in.  Jesus speaks of fasting in this 6th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  How can fasting be helpful for us in our quest to return to the earth and prayer?

Fasting doesn’t just mean abstaining from food.  It can mean practicing abstinence from any chosen thing or activity as a religious discipline.  That’s where we get the tradition of giving up something for Lent, like chocolate or red meat.

What if we gave ourselves a fast that allowed us to more easily return to the earth and the breath of God?  From what could we abstain in order to make room for these spiritual practices?

One of my favorite books is called, Margin:  Restoring Emotional,Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Dr. Richard Swenson.  He says, “It is healthy to periodically separate from the things of the world and do without.  In traditional thinking, such fasting pertains to food.” (Swenson, p. 147)  But there are other kinds of fasting that are more appropriate for our modern world.  Try fasting from shopping for a week or longer.  Use that extra time to take a stroll along the a local waterway instead of bustling through the stores of a shopping mall. 

Try fasting from television.  “For the average adult, this would gain twenty to thirty hours a week.  No single effort will secure as much time margin as this simple, nearly impossible action.  Even Billy Graham, asked if starting over he’d do anything differently, said, ‘I’d watch less TV.’ 

“Seminary professor Douglas Groothuis says, ‘I routinely require my students to engage in some kind of ‘media fast,’ in which they abstain from an electronic medium for at least one week.  The results have been nothing less than profound for the vast majority of the students.  Having withdrawn from the world of TV, radio, computers, and cell phones, they find more silence, time for reflection and prayer and more opportunities to engage family and friends thoughtfully.’ (Swenson, p. 123).

This kind of fasting means saying no to what is draining to our lives in order to say yes to what will renew us, fulfill us, and make us whole. 

Your life is so short.  Last year’s green, luscious palms quickly dried and now are nothing more than the black ash that marks your skin.  What have you done with your life this past year since the palms faded?  Have you become closer to God?  Closer to the earth?  



Hear, O “Adam-Nishmat” 
– dirt people filled with God’s breath:  it is time to return.


Amen.


Sources:
Foss, Michael W., Real Faith for Real Life, Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 2004

Swenson, Richard A., M.D., Margin:  Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives; 2004, Richard Swenson, NavPress

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I Had a "Green" Dream: Major Oil & Gas Company Announces Conversions to Solar, Wind, Geothermal

I Had a "Green" Dream:  Major Oil & Gas Company Announces Conversions to Solar, Wind, Geothermal
By The Rev. Leah Schade
February 2, 2013

[The first part of this post is not an actual event... yet.  It is a recounting of a very vivid dream I had on Feb. 2, 2013, written in the style of a news story. A reflection on the dream immediately follows in the second half of this post.]

In an unprecedented move within the oil and gas industry, one of its major players has announced that it will suspend 80% of its oil and gas production and begin the process of converting the majority of its operations to solar, wind and geothermal energy production.  In a press conference at one its largest oil fields, the company unveiled its plans to fast-track the training of its workforce in the deconstruction of oil rigs and natural gas drilling sites to be replaced with solar panels, windmills, and geothermal wells.

“We have seen the future of energy production in this country, and we wanted to be the first to get ahead of the curve and take advantage of this opportunity to invest in clean energy and truly put our country on the road to energy independence,” stated the company’s CEO.  “We believe we’ve got the best workforce to train for this conversion process, and we’ve been conducting research and development on how to best implement this massive, positive change over the last few years,” he said. 

That research had been conducted largely unnoticed by the industry, though several smaller solar, wind and geothermal businesses had been consulted and enlisted in the project of clean-energy conversion for the company.  The owners of those businesses flanked the company CEO at the press conference and expressed their enthusiasm for the new venture. 

“We are pleased to partner with the company to offer our expertise in exchange for the capital needed to grow our sustainable business.  Together we can build America’s energy future that will slow down climate change and minimize the negative effects on the environment and public health,” stated the owner of the largest solar firm in the new conglomerate. 

Response from the environmental community has been mixed.  Many leading ecologists expressed surprise that the company would make such a sudden turn away from fossil fuels which have been their cash cow for nearly a century.  “I’m guardedly optimistic,” said the director of one of the country’s largest environmental groups.  “Given their history, I have to be a bit suspicious of their motives and wonder if there is a hidden agenda.  But if this is truly a move to convert their operations to non-fossil fuel energy production, I will be the first to endorse this new clean-energy conglomerate,” she said. 

“Only time will tell what the result of this undertaking will be,” said another leading environmentalist.  “I know the profit motive is still the underlying driver for the company, so I’m a bit cautious.  But they certainly have the capital and technical know-how to make this happen.  I want to watch and see if they truly make good on their promises.  It will be interesting to see how the rest of the fossil fuel industry responds,” he added.

The CEO’s of the company’s leading competitors were not immediately available for comment. 
*******************
A fantasy news story, yes.  But this is the dream that woke me up this morning, clear as a news headline on my mind’s inner screen.  Over the years I have learned to take dreams seriously.  In them are often planted seeds that, given the right soil of consciousness, may sprout into a fruitful harvest.  The Bible is replete with God communicating to people through dreams and visions.  Abraham, Jacob, Joseph (OT and NT), Ezekiel, Daniel, Mary, Peter, and John are just a few examples of those who received divine communiques in the shadowy world between sleep and rousing.  Those are the in-between times and places linking possibility with reality.  The prophet Isaiah’s vision was this: 

“And many people shall go and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and we will be taught God’s ways, and we will walk in God’s paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Holy One from Jerusalem. And God shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. — Isaiah 2:3-4
An ecological vision of following God’s ways would involve converting the “swords” of drill rigs into the blades of windmills; the “spears” of fossil fuel pipelines into solar panels.  The industry will no longer lift up its weapons against the earth, the atmosphere, and human health; neither shall they learn war against life any more.

Pessimists and “realists” will scoff at such a vision.  Impossible, they will say.  The powers of the fossil fuel industry are too entrenched, too curved in on themselves to ever see beyond their immediate profit margin.  Our society is too consumed with consuming to support such a drastic move.

But just as I have learned to take dreams seriously, so have I learned not to discount the often surprising work of God that operates under the radar of expectations, behind closed doors at wedding feasts, converting water into wine.  After all, it was in the shadowy in-between time of the Saturday following Good Friday when the surprise of the resurrection began to germinate. 

Further, how can we expect to live in a different world if we are not open to imagine a new one?  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this.  His dream of equality between the races and a society built on justice helped to inspire the civil rights movement that, while in no way finished in its work, has made huge leaps in realizing God’s vision for humanity. 

Today we need a “green” civil rights movement that insists on the fundamental rights of all children, women, men, and earth-kin to live peaceably with the basics of clean water, clean air, sufficient habitat for healthy ecosystems, and protections for public health.  If this is God’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom as well, then God will find a way to inaugurate what Thomas Berry called the “ecozoic age.”  And we just may be surprised how quickly and efficiently it happens.

Call me overly optimistic, but the more accurate description would be “hopeful.”  And this hope is sustained by the God of Surprises who never ceases to amaze me with the power of life, laughter and love that overcomes fear and despair.