Monday, December 29, 2014

Interview with The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade: Religion and the Environment

An 11-minute interview conducted by Stacy Hinck and Zoe Meras, students of Dr. Brantley Gassaway's class History of Religion in America at Bucknell University.  Their questions are well-thought out and generate a great discussion about:

* how religion and the environment intersect
* Lutheran theology and biblical interpretation influenced by and addressing care of Creation
* the rationale for Christians being advocates for ecojustice issues
*  the model of public theology provided for us by Jesus' ministry
*  the connection between climate change awareness and preaching
*  the calling to initiate a "green" civil rights movement.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Pastor brings ecology to art of preaching: article on Leah Schade's upcoming book

Pastor brings ecology to art of preaching
by Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — A Valley pastor has blended two passions, preaching and nature, for a ministry that focuses on the spiritual aspects of caring for the environment and a book that will show other clergy how to do the same.
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, 43, of Milton, just finished her book, “Creation/Crisis Preaching: Ecological Theology and Homiletics,” which will be published and released by Chalice Press next fall.
The book is a reworked version of her dissertation, which she successfully defended in August 2013 for her doctoral program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Schade graduated in May.
Schade leads United in Christ Lutheran Church in Lewisburg, now in its fourth year, and founded the Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition of the Susquehanna Valley. Many people here know Schade from among leaders of a grass-roots effort that helped bring an end to a proposed tire-derived fuel plant in Union County.
“The work in that was incredibly helpful” to the book, she said, as an example of how as a faith leader one engages the public. “How do you talk to constituents who are different from your religion or not religious at all? Where can we find the bridges that enable us to do this work together?” Her dissertation focused on preaching and ecological theology, and “I knew I wanted to turn it into a book for more mainstream audiences,” she said.
The seeds for the blend of church and ecology were planted when Schade was a child. Her father was a landscape designer, and the family had a hunting camp in Huntingdon County, where they spend considerable time, she said. Schade recalled hunting and fishing with her father and spending countless hours in the local creeks, just immersing herself in nature.
“There were a couple formative experiences that were defining for me as a young person,” she said, “seeing many natural places destroyed by development, pollution and feeling helpless as a kid, thinking there is nothing you can do.”
Schade’s first congregation was in Media, where she started an ecology ministry. Also during that time, she decided to get a doctorate in preaching.

“Through the application process, it became apparent this is where I need to focus, this is what is missing in homiletics,” or the art of preaching, she said. “I wanted to be someone to help pastors learn how to preach with the voice of Earth at the table.”

With the tire-burner proposal, “the threat to public health was really a unifying factor there,” Schade said. “We had a great time with people working on that and learning social movement theory,” that is, what is the role of religion in these movements?
Taking cues from the civil rights movement, Schade calls such ministry “a green civil rights movement, and pastors need to be part of it. ... From my perspective, one of the things pastors are called to do is confront the powers that are oppressive.”

Schade also is an adjunct professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, where she’s teaching a course on ethics.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent Sermon: Embracing New Life in Darkness

Sermon Series:  Learning to Welcome the Dark, Part Three
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
Dec. 14, 2014
Isaiah 7:13-17; Psalm 139:1-18; Luke 1:26-38

A few weeks ago I did a children’s sermon where we talked about the phases of the moon, and I handed them a calendar that showed what phase the moon would be in during this month.  Starting today, that glowing orb in the sky is waning toward “new moon,” which will be on Dec. 22, when the moon’s light disappears.  Interestingly, Dec. 21 is Winter Solstice – longest night of the year.  So the darkest night of the year will have not have any moonlight either.  This is a dark time.
We sometimes hear people use that phrase to describe their lives or the state of our world.  If someone says “this is a dark time” – what do they mean?  I posed this question on Facebook and invited people to respond.  The question sparked nearly 30 comments.  Answers I got were:  a valley of grief, tyranny and destruction running rampant, confusion and fear, lack of knowledge and wisdom. In movies, whenever a war or battle is about to start, someone says "dark times are coming." It’s a time of negativity, injustice, oppression, overwhelming challenges, and depression.  For some, this time of year reminds them of losses they have suffered, especially loved ones who have died, with whom they are no longer able to share the holiday.  When people say “it’s a dark time,” it can mean what is absent - not much hope or joy.  

Lester Johnson, Three Transparent Heads, 1961
By these counts, I think the argument can be made that we are in a “dark time.”  Racial tensions in our country are as high as I’ve ever seen.  We hear news about rapes on college campuses, threatening the safety of our daughters.  There are debates about the value of using torture as a means by which to extract information from our enemies.  News about worsening pollution and climate disruption from fossil fuel extraction processes.  As a friend said in one of her responses to my post:  Watch CNN or the local news and it paints the picture of darkness. Current affairs that we are confronted with daily: Police Brutality, ISIS, War, School Shootings,” the list can seem endless. These are, indeed, dark times. 
But as we’ve learned in these past few weeks on this sermon series about learning to welcome the dark, it’s important to unpack the stereotypes people have about darkness.  Especially since people with darker skin are unconsciously or even consciously demonized simply for their skin’s pigmentation. And when it comes to the feelings of anger, grief and depression that arise in response to these personal, national and global injustices, let’s not push too hastily for people to “get over it,” to swallow their pain and anger and “move forward,” as the saying is so often reiterated. 

Because as Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, “The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread.  The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, ‘Tell me about it.  I have all day.’” (Taylor, Barbara Brown, Learning to Walk in the Dark, HarperOne, New York, NY, 2014; 86). But we have to do this without expecting all this to magically cheer us up and whisk us out of our dark emotions.  By listening to their words, hearing their stories, and holding those powerful, violent emotions as best we can, we are at least acknowledging that, yes, this has happened, and it is worthy of healing. 
But of course, many would disagree.  You may have noticed the kind of rhetoric that has arisen in response to these events, the kinds of insensitive, offensive remarks jumping off of blog posts and blurted by political pundits that seek to blame the victims, downplay the seriousness of the issues, and divert our attention from the work that needs to be done.  Our culture basically pushes two options for us in the face of these massive injustices:  fight or flight.  Toss nasty verbal grenades into the fray, or turn away and shop shop shop for the best holiday deals.

It is understandable to react to these strong feelings of those who cry out against injustice with either dismissive acidity or detached numbness.  Because some of us have never experienced this kind of suffering.  We build walls between us and those who suffer a thousand micro-aggressions over the course of their lives due to their skin color.  Between us and the ones whose suffering is distanced from us.  Between us and the woman who has been raped.  We cannot bear such suffering, so we express outrage that such intensity of pain is even voiced.  Yet these words of frustration and rage are found throughout the Bible, in the Psalms, in the mouths of prophets like Jeremiah and Habbakuk who says: “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” (Habakkuk 1:3)
Here’s what we must do with those enraged by Ferguson, and those standing in oil-slicked soil on their farms, and those whose bodies have been abused and assaulted:  we must listen to them, and hear them in the context of prayer.  We all know we live in a world marked by violence and revenge - wouldn’t it be prudent to put those feelings into a prayerful context?  Wouldn’t it be wise to invite God into these feelings? 

That’s just what Mary does in the Gospel of Luke. Mary was a woman who lived in “dark times.” Because the days leading up to Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary were filled with many of the same things identified by the Facebook observations.  Her people were oppressed by the Romans and despised in much the same way as people of color are in this country.  They lived under military occupation and the soldiers often used violence in their patrols of the villages and cities.  Diseases were common, poverty was nearly universal outside of the homes of the wealthy elite, and crime was a constant.  Hopelessness and depression could easily settle into one’s heart, and even take hold of an entire community. All this could lay open a person’s mind to the creeping suspicion that perhaps God has finally abandoned us, left us to our own devices, given up on us. 
The world holds its collective breath, waiting to see if and how God will respond.  Will God punish us for these feelings or mutely turn away?

Neither.  God chooses a third way.  God listens and responds.  God responds by effecting a transformation in the darkness.  Despite all of the negative stereotypes about darkness, Mary instinctively understood that God works in darkness differently than in light, but God still works in those dark places.  It is within Mary’s womb, as dark a place as can be found, that the Messiah is conceived and grows.  There in the secret, dark place of a young unwed teenage girl’s shame – there you see, is Mary’s God, the God of our raped daughters, the God of our murdered sons, the God of our desecrated earth.  This is the God who sees that things must change, and creates in her a future that causes Mary to burst forth in song:  “My soul doth magnify the Lord and rejoices in God, my savior!  For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
There in the midst of hopelessness is where God does Her best work.  Darkness is as useful for God as light.  Because it makes us slow down, rely on our ears to hear, and our hands to feel.  Darkness helps us to dismantle those things that keep us from hearing and feeling God.  I did an exercise with a group of preachers in a workshop a few months ago where I blindfolded them and guided them into a room of darkness.  They lined up, putting hands on shoulders, and became acutely aware of what the floor felt like beneath their feet as they shuffled slowly one step at a time.  Without their sight they learned to rely on hearing each other’s voices, and my voice, to tell them where to turn, what was on their left and right.  They had a shared experience of smells and textures and sounds that gave them new insights into how God works in darkness. 

In what ways might Darkness be trying to effect a transformation in you, in us?  What voices are we supposed to hear in the Darkness?  Whose hands can we reach for?  Especially during this period of waning moon and approaching winter solstice, what Taylor calls “endarkenment,” let’s not be too quick to run to “the light” and miss what Darkness is trying teach us, trying to dismantle in our individual and collective egos.
The Darkness is trying to show us that we can do better, that we need to reach out for the hands and shoulders of God’s sons and daughters - no matter their skin color, sexual orientation, culture or economic level – and see them as having inherent dignity, value and worth.  The Darkness is urging us to sharpen our senses to God’s created world and recognize that our earth and its precious waters and biotic communities have inherent dignity, value and worth.

So how do we take those first, shuffling steps into the darkness?  This afternoon some of us will be taking gift bags and singing carols at Country Comfort Assisted Living.  We will be going to what some people think of as a “dark place,” where the elderly wait for the final shroud of death to enfold them, a place where few people go to visit because it’s uncomfortable, and they do not want to be reminded of their own mortality.  But we will go and see that even in that dark place, new life grows in unexpected ways. 
Two days ago I went to another place that people might call “dark.”  I went to Haven Ministry, the homeless shelter for our tri-county area.  Few people would want to be there, a place where poverty throws its victims, where domestic violence tosses its abused women and children, a place where people only go as a last resort. I only went because I was sent there with the gifts bought by our youth with money from our Rich Huff Fund.  So I arrived with clothes, a toy and some diapers for a 5-week-old infant who was there with his mother.  I don’t know what her circumstances were, but I could imagine the pain and humiliation she had endured, the hopelessness she must have experienced, the “darkness” that surrounded her.  But I asked if I could see the child – and she took me back to her little room.  There on the bed the little baby boy was sleeping, as perfect and holy a child as I’ve ever seen.  New life in this place of darkness. 

In a few minutes, I will hold Laylanya and Koda in my arms and stroke their soft hair with the baptismal waters, a reminder of the dark birth waters of our planet, the dark waters that pillowed them in their mother’s womb.  And I pray that when the day comes when they feel lost and abandoned in the darkness, they will be reminded of the words from Psalm 139:
Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

God is calling us in the dark to listen and learn and lend a hand even more at this difficult time. Because, as Mary reminds us, God is at work in ways that are not immediately visible to us, but are nevertheless powerfully moving among us:
49 For the Mighty One has done great things for [us], and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
God has not abandoned us.  God is at work as much now as in the beginning of our dark-shrouded world, as when God’s people cried out for justice and mercy from the depths of the biblical texts.  The God of Mary’s womb, and the God of Jesus’ tomb – both places of darkness – is our God: the God of our broken bodies and hearts and communities who comes to bring healing and new life in the darkness.  Put your hands on God’s strong shoulders, listen for God’s voice guiding you in the darkness.  And take your first shuffling step.  Amen.

Shadows of children with hands on shoulders in a line Stock Photo

Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Advent Sermon Preached as the Character of Darkness

Learning to Welcome the Dark, Sermon Series, Part Two
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
December 7, 2014
Matthew 1:18-25

Watch the video of this sermon:

Some call me Nyx, the daughter of Chaos.  Some call me la noche, the night.  You may call me Darkness.  I am the bringer of sleep; I usher in the hush of slumber.  I was with God from the beginning, choshek, covering the face of the deep out of which God burst forth with all of Creation.  I was given equal time with my twin sibling Light.  In my body I hold the stars and moon.  Within me are the hidden places where life begins.  I am the keeper of sacred secrets.
I touch each of you every night with my soft caress, gently pulling you down to your pillow.  You may think that your brain shuts itself off when I pull the curtain over your eyes, but what I see is something very different.  I watch your neural cells clean away the toxins of all your thinking during the day.  I see your body healing itself, all the organs and systems realigning to the order set for them by God’s hand. 

And yet I am given so little time to do my work with you.  You chase me away more and more with your addiction to light.  How I long to embrace you and fill you with my life-giving, life-restoring power.  But every night you poke holes in me with the little red lights from your machines, the blinking dots by your bedside, the flickering screens that confuse your brain and damage your body’s ability to rest.   You pride yourself on your ability to fight me, to resist my pull over you.  But you only hurt yourself when you refuse the gift of sleep I offer you. 
You think you must push me away.  But what you do not realize is that I am the escort of God’s angels to you.  Angels are the messengers of God, and they work best when you sleep.  After your brain mops up all those stress chemicals in your brain, sweeping away the detritus of your mind, only then is there room and space for the dreams.  The angels bring you the dreams that contain God’s messages to you. 

I remember a night many moons ago when I was the angel’s escort to a man named Joseph.  This man had always fought against me.  He did not like darkness.  He slept with a candle lit in his room every night.  He preferred daylight when he could see to pick up his carpenter’s tools and work the wood of his trade.  He was a strong man with splintered and rough hands.  But his heart was gentle and kind, sanded down smooth by the love of his mother and father. 
All his life they had faithfully brought him to synagogue, taught him the Torah, and on the evenings of the Shabbat, when I have the joy of bringing the day of rest, they gathered as a family to keep this holy commandment.  God’s Law, God’s history with the people, the stories gathered and retold over centuries of God’s saving love for them – these are what shaped and refined the wood grain of Joseph’s character week by week, month by month, year by year.  His mind and his morals were as sturdy as the furniture he and his father fashioned in their shop, glistening with the fine oil they applied to the surface of the wood to make it shine.

It was this shine that caught the eye of the young girl who would one day become his betrothed.  Mary liked the sureness of Joseph, his dependability, his steadfastness.  She liked the idea of being married to a man who could provide for her and her children – not just the means to raise a family, but the faith in God that would keep them joined to their people and their history, as sure as the legs of the tables he made were fitted snug to the top, supporting it without fail.   
And Joseph was drawn to this young girl who seemed to have a wisdom from depths he could not fathom.  She thought deeply and looked at you with eyes that saw beyond your own thoughts.  Certainly she was unlike the other young women who were suggested to him as prospective mates.  Mary was a woman who welcomed me, invited me in willingly every night.  She needed no candle.  She made me her friend, shared her prayers with me in her under-the-blanket voice. 

It did not surprise me at all when I learned I was to escort an angel to her one night.  He came with the message that the Messiah was to be born to her, Mary.  The Hope of the world had found the one in whom he should incarnate.  I watched her closed eyes move rapidly beneath her lids as she spoke to the angel in her dream, wondering how she would conceive if she and Joseph were not yet married.  You may wonder the same thing.  All I can tell you is – I am the keeper of sacred secrets.  Within me are the hidden places where life begins.
She could have waited to tell Joseph until the roundness of her belly began to show, but she did not.  She could not.  She loved Joseph, trusted him with her secret as much as she trusted me. 

But Joseph does not like mystery.  He likes surety, security. This news was heart-rending for him.  Night after night I tried to bring sleep to Joseph, to soothe him.  But no sooner had he laid his head into my bosom did he bolt upright again, pace his room, murmur to himself, pray into my hands and ask for God’s mercy.  By day the dark circles under his eyes grew deeper.  His work in the shop became shoddy and he injured himself because of his tiredness.
He knew that by rights he could have dragged Mary into the street to have her stoned for carrying a child that was not his own.  But as I said, he was an honorable man.  He resolved to quietly end their betrothal and leave her to her parents who would certainly send her away, such was the shame she had brought to them.  It was that night after he had made that decision, when I brought the angel to Joseph.

He was so exhausted by then, he could no longer resist my pull on him, and he laid down to sleep after lighting his familiar candle.  I brought in the night breeze to extinguish it just before I escorted the angel to his bedside.  He came with the message that the child growing in Mary was the Messiah and that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife.  I watched Joseph’s closed eyes move rapidly beneath his lids as he spoke to the angel in his dream, wondering how he would withstand the shame, the ridicule of their neighbors.  You may wonder the same thing.  All I can tell you is - within me are the hidden places where life begins.  I am the keeper of sacred secrets.  And that night Joseph rested better than he had his whole life.  From that night on, Joseph and I became good friends.  He learned to trust me.  And I would bring the angel to him many more times with even more important messages.

I long to befriend you, too.  Every night, even as you try to diminish my power with your electric, artificial lights, I still wait to soothe you with sleep.  I will always be here, waiting for you to lay down into my arms.  I am patient to hear your prayers, catch them in my hands and bear them up to God.  And I wait at the edges of your room for you to turn off the blinking dots, extinguish the rectangular screens of flickering lights, and allow me to enfold you with my healing power.  I will stand guard over you, listening for your even breathing, your relaxing sighs.  I will wait steadfastly for you to let go of your need to be in control, to work your body and mind past the point of exhaustion.  I will never abandon my post of bringing in the Sabbath, and the restorative rest at the end of each day.  And you may find that one day I may bring an angel to your bedside with a holy message from our God.  How will this happen?  When?  Why?  You may wonder.  All I can tell you is - I am the keeper of sacred secrets.  Within me are the hidden places where life begins.