Even the Shore Crab


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

April 22, 2018

Earth Day

Texts: Genesis 1; Psalm 19

      In his book The Lorax, Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has his little creature called a Lorax state, “I speak for the trees” as the creature called the Once-ler chops down the Truffla trees to make a “Thneed, a fine something that everybody needs.” As the story progresses, it becomes clear that chopping down one tree is too slow, so the Once-ler invents a machine to do the job even more quickly. And, after all the buildings have deteriorated, and the water polluted, the Lorax gives the one last Truffla Tree seed to be planted with care.

       This book, first published in 1971, was immensely popular during the early days of the environmental movement of the 70s. Like many of Bill Peet’s books, it contained a message to children about the importance of the preservation of the wild, to quote John Muir. And what has happened to that movement so many sup-ported in those days? How is it that we have come from those days to these with politicians heralding a supposed resurgence of fossil fuels and coal?

       Part of that answer lies in the movement leader-ship that did not take into account the effect of shut-tered coal mines and the need to invest funds in the coal counties of Appalachia. Part of the answer lies in the fact that we have not developed a solid theology of creation care that takes on the power of money.

        The Psalmist addresses not just the beauty of the natural world in this piece of lyrical poetry that has been set to music by Haydn and Beethoven among others. The Psalmist here also addresses the import-ance of following “the law of the Lord,” as it is phrased. For the ordinances of the Lord are to be desired more than gold, “even much fine gold,” for they are “sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”  

        The ancient Hebrews did not view the universe as anthropocentric but rather theocentric. This means that God was the absolute owner of the universe and cre-ation, and that no one had the right to misuse the creation given to humanity. In the ancient Hebrew world, nothing existed without God. This worldview, this belief is expressed even today in a prayer of the High Holy Days: “The soul is yours and the body is your handiwork.”

       The Hebrew word translated as dominion that God gives Adam in the creation story is better translated as management. Humanity is to manage and care for God’s creation. But we certainly know how easy it is to fall into the trap of putting any kind of action off be-cause there seems to be some need more pressing.

Most, if not all of us here, are committed to what has come to be called “creation care.” That is, we believe that it is important to care for the environment; we’re just not sure sometimes the best way to do this.                   Certainly, following the effects of Hurricane Sandy, many of us were concerned about the rebuilding along the shore and what might happen when the next big storm comes, and it will, to be sure. Unfortunately, many towns along the Jersey Shore see the destruction caused by Sandy as an opportunity to reinvent them-selves.

         Look at Ortley Beach, for example. All but 60 of the town’s 2,600 houses had been destroyed or dam-aged by the storm. Now, people are paying exorbitant sums for land and even more for building 2,000 to 3,000 square-foot houses right next to the water. The town officials, of course, looking at property tax revenue, are delighted. The problem is that the pre-Sandy residents of Ortley Beach have not been able to rebuild as have the new carpetbaggers who can afford to raise the new houses which may cost as much as $100,000. And Ortley Beach is not the only town look-ing only at increased tax revenue. It’s all about the money.

        Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers did a re-evaluation study of flood risk management of Raritan Bay. That study looked at Monmouth County in light of potential population growth, estimated to be over 25,000 more between now and 2030. The county has already seen an increase since 2010 of almost 25,000.

         The community of Middletown is the least dense or populated per square mile of any town in the county, and in terms of the towns with shoreline space, was the least damaged with the exception of Red Bank because of the storm’s path. Union Beach really got hit and many buildings have still not been rebuilt.

          The marshland along the shore had been devel-oped beyond its capacity to absorb stormwater. And there is still pressure to continue building even close to the marshes. Those areas of Middletown were hit the hardest. What to do? Should the shore towns yield to the pressure of builders for more property tax revenue? Some towns along the Bayshore region already have.

         But as we all know, human beings and their new enormous building sprees are not the only inhabitants of our shoreline, marshes, and wetlands. Every Sunday morning as I come down the Garden State Parkway, just before the Route 35 exit, I see a great egret in the marshlands on the right. My temptation is to stop and take a photo but I usually have someone barreling along behind me so close that it’s really not safe to do that.

        As our marshlands become filled in, the birds and crabs are driven into ever decreasing spaces. Although there are protections against intrusion in certain areas of the shore, usually on state and federal preserved land, it’s really not enough. Our frenzy with over-building and getting more and more tax revenue can destroy what is really left of the shoreline, and the lack of cushion space will yield even greater damage with the next storm.

        But our concern should not just be for the shore birds, the horseshoe, fiddler, and hermit crabs on our shore, but also for the displaced who now have seen their old tiny homes razed away to make space for the bigger more expensive homes.

        The early environmental movement of the 70s and 80s failed to really take hold in the American consciousness for a number of reasons. I think much of the problem was in the fact that it was a movement of the elite, and by that I don’t mean the moneyed elite of Wall Street. The  preservationists did not take into account the impact on people directly affected by preservation.

        We – and by “we” I mean those of us who wanted to eliminate fossil fuels and our dependence on oil – did not look far enough into the future to plan for how we would care for those displaced by our reliance on the new technologies we now use for sustainable energy. You can’t just shutter a coal mine and expect the miners to be understanding when it has been not just their work but a way of life.

        Other countries, such as Germany and Great Britain face the same kinds of divide as do we here in the United States. One approach in Germany was to get farmers to install solar panels and sell the excess electricity to city dwellers. Think of what that could do for our Midwestern farmers struggling to survive as more and more agribusiness supplies our food products.

        How we as a society pay for the cleanup of hazardous sites is just another issue. The EPA has lifted certain waste-water flow restrictions from mining runoff claiming it will help the miners. Well, remember the debacle in West Virginia just two years ago when no one could drink the water? Moving beyond the short term is what we need to consider, because in the end, it is the people who suffer.

        Creation care is human care. Our theology, which is really how we frame our response to the world in the light of our faith, has too long separated the world outside our experience and the world inside our exper-ience. Rethinking and reframing our response to Scripture is not an abandonment but actually what should be our response in our time.

       The struggle has always been between the promises of wealth and things and living faithfully. I once had the great honor of meeting and having a conversation with Indonesia’s great literary figure Pramoedya Ananta Toer. I asked him what he con-sidered to be the primary religious issue of our day. I expected him to cite the divide between Islam and Christianity, a serious issue in Indonesia. He said that the primary religious issue was consumerism and the desire for things. And then he quoted 1 Timothy 6:14:  The love of money is the root of all evil.

        We’ve lost touch with the idea that the world is not for us but for those who will follow us: the children and grandchildren of future generations. We need new approaches toward care for the earth, for care for the earth is care for the future. We need to protect not just our shore for the small hermit crab but for the  gener-ations who will follow us.

        As we think ahead on this Earth Day, let us remember the old Cree statement: only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish caught, will we realize we cannot eat money.

         Let us pray: Creator who has given us so much, help us to care for the earth and all who dwell therein, from the coal miner to the hermit crab on the shore. In the name of him who told us to consider the lilies of the field, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.