Mother Earth and Ours


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

May 13, 2018

Texts: Psalm 24; Matthew 6: 24-33

      Just in case you thought the NRA only sanctioned murder in our high schools, just consider the resolution passed last year in the U.S. House of Representatives urged on by the NRA and the Safari Club to permit the murder of wolf cubs in their dens and hibernating bears. What courageous people they are! I mean, it’s really ridiculous to expect hunters to take on adult wolves or bears that have a chance to get away. And this brave behavior of great hunters was to be on our federal wildlife refuges.

        Sort of matches what we do with mothers and their children fleeing violence in Central America: Wrench the children from the arms of their mothers; throw them into some so-called foster care situation so that when –or if – the mother gets asylum, she’ll have a difficult time trying to find her children. This comes, of course, from the government that claims it supports family values.

        And the hypocrisy of so-called family values doesn’t end there. It extends to our churches. This past week several thousand Southern Baptist women signed a letter to Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and former denominational President who told victims of domestic violence to pray rather than leave their abusers. After all, divorce not violence is a sin.

       The Psalmist tells us that the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it. If those who hold themselves out to be religious, wouldn’t they act as if these words were true? The climate change deniers are the very people who are assaulting the earth and all its inhab-itants, everything from fox cubs in their dens to coal miners who will contract black lung disease and die because of the cuts in health care, prevention and treatment for such illnesses.

        However, self-righteousness just does not belong to the Paige Pattersons of this world. It’s easy, to be sure, to be appalled at a man who told a woman coming to him with facial bruises and black eyes that her suffering had at least brought her abuser to church – although, by the way, he was continuing to beat her. We also need to look at ourselves.

        Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord, we ask. Those who have clean hands and a pure heart. Certainly, we try to have both, but in many ways our hands are not clean for we participate in the structures that cause suffering. Now, do not get me wrong. It’s simply – or, more accurately, complicatedly—the result of an interwoven global market structure that we cannot escape.

        Back in the 70s—remember them?–– people trying to live pure lives went off to communes. They tried to live in self-contained communities, growing their own food, school-ing their own children, more or less living apart from the world. But it was that very world that enabled them to do just that.

         The drive to live pure lives unadulterated by the demands of the world emerged in the third century – ob-viously a complicated time. Men and women withdrew to the desert, primarily in an area known as the Scetes area of Egypt. They became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers and produced a host of interesting writings.

Anthony the Great, who lived from 251 to 356 CE was known as the father of all monks. This is the same Anthony who endured the temptations, paintings of which by Renaissance painters hang in many galleries. But even in their solitude, they organized into communities, the beginning of monastic life. And, even as they tried to live apart from the world, they were part of it.

        Look, in reality, none of us have pure hands or clean hearts. The very nature of our society and world forces us to be intertwined with forces that result in poverty as well as the destruction of what we consider to be nature. A number of scientists have written about the impact of human beings on the “natural world” as if we are separate from it. Human beings are part of the natural world. We just need to decide the best way to have a beneficial impact on it.

        How is it that we can live in the world, recognize our relationship within it and still have a minimum impact on the ecosystem? The naturalist Barry Lopez asks this question in another way: How do we imagine the place between nature and culture? How are we to act when so many in political and corporate power regard nature as “inconvenient, an ineffi-ciency in their plans for a smoothly running future?”

         Lopez noted that there are two areas of “discomfort” for naturalists. The first is to keep spirituality free of religious commentary; perhaps even in 1990 Lopez realized how the religious right would subvert religion into ideology. He noted that the second issue was how to manage emotional grief and moral indignation in “pursuits so closely tied to science with its claims of historical objectivity.” I know I’m guilty of that.

        Bill McKibben takes a different approach. Baptized a Presbyterian and now a Methodist even teaching Sunday School, McKibben advocates for a true faithful response to questions regarding climate change and the environment. In a recent interview he pointed out how God confronted Job at the end of the book, calling it the first piece of nature writing in the Western canon.

        In that last chapter, the Lord asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth. And the Lord con-tinues for three chapters indignantly noting that Job was nothing when the Lord determined when goats give birth, ostriches flap their wings, and Leviathan swims in the seas.

         Although we may not consider ourselves as nothing, with the Psalmist we recognize that it was the Lord who, in the lyrics of Leonard Bernstein in his theatre piece Mass, through the Word, “was at the birth of the beginning, set the heavens and the earth and set them spinning. and for several million years has endured our forums and fine ideas.” Al-though these lyrics were composed referring to the Vietnam War, we can certainly apply to how we treat the world around us.

        Most of us like to think we live in a way that supports the endangered of the earth – animal and non-animal alike, but in so many ways we cannot avoid being part of a world that results in environmental damage. This does not mean like our spiritual ancestors in the desert we should all try to be hermits. Even the desert hermits found they needed a community. We are not solitary beings.

         What this does mean is that in both our individual lives and through our community life we need to take action to prevent as much destruction as possible. There’s a statement attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can in all the ways you can in all the places you can at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as ever you can.”

         It’s not a bad way to consider how to live. The Psalmist tells us that we can ascend to the hill of the Lord by not lifting up our souls to what is false. This part of the Psalm was originally written as a liturgy for entering the temple, or the hill of the Lord. The temple was built on the hill known as Jerusalem.

         The last part of the Psalm, so beautifully rendered through the music of Handel, seems to be added as an afterthought. Most scholars believe this portion of the Psalm was originally a separate poem added as a liturgical statement. Here the term “the Lord of hosts” refers to the supremacy of the Lord over other gods for it is the Lord who created the heavens and the earth, creating order out of chaos, including all that dwell therein. We should know, of course, that the process of “delisting” endangered species is an insult to the Creator, the One who is our Source of being.

        And if you investigate the species that are being delisted, you will see that many of the interests wanting to eradicate such protections have financial interests in the lands where such species live. Oil and gas companies have thrown a bill as a subterfuge, one that would shift the protections to the states rather than keeping such protection under the federal government.

         Claiming that funds from oil and gas would go to protect such species under state law, these companies know they have more clout in the individual states targeted for so-called development. After all, money is clearly more important than any lilies of the field.

         Doing all the good that we can means not just agreeing that it’s a terrible idea to remove certain species from the endangered list. It means calling all our members of Congress and finding out where they stand on this issue. There’s a list in Fellowship Hall with names and contact information. And after you get the contact information for your member of Congress, remember the mothers who have had their children wrenched from them. Make Mother’s Day real for all.

        Let us pray: Eternal Creator, who has given us the variety of life on our earth, help us to protect your creation from those who care only for wealth and power. May we remember all mothers, including the salamander who lays her eggs, the wolf and fox in their dens, and those women who seek refuge in this land established as a beacon for freedom. In the name of him who told us to care for the lilies of the field, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.