Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized

Come to the Water

Text: John 4:3-30, The Samaritan Woman at the Well

 

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

God invites us to come to the water. And Lord, we are thirsty.

The Samaritan woman is thirsty too. She lives in the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, the traditional place of cultic worship for the Samaritan people. There is a well at the foot of the mountain. People say it’s the one that Jacob started, where he met Rachel; where Rebekah was asked to become Isaac’s wife. It is a place where families are combined and flow together into one future of possibility. The woman brings her clay jar to this well in the middle of a hot day. She can’t bear to bring it in the morning, when the other women come to draw water for cooking and for bathing their children, so she comes in the middle of the day, at noon. She carries pain in her jar, she carries pain to the well today. When she arrives, she thirsts. She meets Jesus at the well.

Jesus meets the woman at the well and asks for some water to drink. I always think this is a little bit rude of Jesus, asking the woman to pause in her daily duties to give him a drink. But in the conversation that ensues, it becomes clear that Jesus sees her as more than someone with a bucket, more than someone who can fulfill his physical thirst at this moment. Jesus truly sees the woman as a whole person, sees beyond entrenched ethnic divisions and variations in religious practice, sees an opportunity to make a new relationship possible. He sees her as someone to whom he can offer living water.

What is this living water?

Living water is that which quenches our thirst, both physically and spiritually. Living waters are available to everyone, no matter what their life experience and geographical context. Living waters flow from the spirit and can empower and equip people to persevere in the midst of oppressive and unjust situations. Living waters are the gospel. Living waters are the waters of justice.

And the woman is not the only one at the well that day who is thirsty for these living waters. Jesus is thirsty for the waters of justice as well. He sees the injustice in the world, sees the blind beggars and the hungry people on the highways and byways and the tax collectors living greedy, half-fulfilled lives. He sees the women like Rachel, weeping for their children crushed under the state-sanctioned violence in Rome, or perhaps in Ferguson, or Baltimore. He sees the Samaritan woman, longing for community and thirsty for just treatment. And I believe he sees the thirst of those in Flint, Michigan as well.

Ever since hearing the news out of Flint, I have been heartbroken. Growing up in a town about an hour’s drive from Flint, I know the shared economic history of this area, shaped by the auto industry. I also know the Pure Michigan tourism ads with actor Tim Allen’s voice narrating rich descriptions of the “hidden treasure” of Michigan while showing pastoral images of Michigan’s land and water juxtaposed with the harsh reality of Flint’s water crisis, primarily affecting people of color living in the inner city. I see Flint residents toting gallons of smelly, yellow water everywhere they go in an attempt to prove they are being poisoned. As the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche said, “They muddy the water to make it seem deep.” And that seems all too true in Flint right now.

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Over a period of 18 months, between April 25, 2014 and August 2015, the government of Flint sanctioned the use of water from the Flint River for the city’s water source, instead of a pipeline from Detroit, which had been in use for the past fifty years. Government officials hoped that this would save money for the struggling post-industrial city. This decision was made even after research by the Department of Environmental Quality warned against this choice. What ultimately happened was that the city did not properly treat the Flint River water, and the level of chlorides in the water corroded the city’s ancient lead pipes, leading to water laced with lead flowing into people’s homes.  

Doctors in Flint report that the proportion of children with above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled since 2014. The medical conditions associated with lead poisoning range from skin lesions, hair loss, and increased reactions to asthma to chemically-induced hypertension, vision loss, depression and brain damage. The World Health Organization writes that “the neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.” We won’t know for years what the consequences of this budget-tightening response measure will be for the children of Flint.

“We’re like disposable people here,” one resident told the Toronto Star. “We’re not even human here, I guess.” Another resident told the Detroit Free Press “we get treated like we don’t matter.”

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Ryan Cumming, writing for the Huffington Post in an article titled, “Finding Faith in Flint,” says, “It is impossible to miss the sacramental volatility of water, that medium that gives life and takes life. It encapsulates the irony of living in the Great Lakes State without clean water to drink. It symbolizes both the life-giving grace of the created world and the death-dealing abuses of power that come when we silence and marginalize our neighbors. It is the touchpoint that knits together people across the spectrum of faiths and no-faith. It has become a rallying point for a community to come together.”

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

When I think about the lack of justice in Flint, there is a sad irony that points to the contamination of more than just H20. In crises, we often are willing to extend spiritual living water to those experiencing oppression or injustice, saying with good intention and a willing heart: I’ll pray for them. But why do we hurry to offer spiritual living water without literally giving our neighbors and siblings a drink of fresh, clear H2O? Why is the idea of fixing the systems that prevent people from accessing their right to clean water so outrageous?

Friends, it is US who are spiritually contaminated because we hesitate to do what Jesus did with the woman at the well: we hesitate to truly SEE the situation. We hesitate to see people as fully human, too steeped in our own lives, own problems and our own narrow view of the world to see across differences and cultural divides. We look away from those in the poorest areas of our state and country, we look away from our neighbors, and our ignorance lets this catastrophe continue. All the time, we put up barriers that divide the world into categories of us and them, or maybe it’s white and black, rich and poor. Whatever these divisions and binaries, when we live in a way that divides us from being aware of the basic needs of our neighbors, we are reducing each other to us and them categories. We are consenting to see each other as less than human, not deserving of the same health and wellbeing.

As Jesus in the gospel of Matthew says, “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Mt 25: 42-43 NRSV) When we support systems that deny access to a basic human right such as clean drinking water, we are denying Jesus. And we are denying spiritual living water to ourselves at the same time.

Lord, we thirst for justice.

Jesus gives us an example of how to see the injustice present in the world and take action. Speaking to her present context, Jesus truly sees the woman at the well and knows what she needs. Though she is thirsty and has come to the well to draw water, the Samaritan woman is so overcome with Jesus’ knowledge of her past, so overwhelmed with the feeling of truly being seen and valued as her own person and not just as her ethnicity or marital status, that she runs into the city to tell everyone about the man “who knew everything about me.” The text tells us that the woman leaves her jar behind, the jar with which she had planned to carry precious H2O back to her home, the jar whose emptiness prompted her to come to the well in the first place. Why would she leave it behind? Who will fill this woman’s jar?

Leaving jar, the woman must have had a deep trust, not only that she would receive that living water, but that her physical needs would also be met. Perhaps this woman knows that she will enter into the beloved community, similar to the community of Acts 2, where each person’s material needs are provided for in a kind of sharing economy. By drinking from the living water, the woman is no longer shamed within her community for her past relationships, a patriarchal reading of this scripture that denigrates her sexuality and assumes her multiple past partners must be a source of grief for her. By drinking of the living water, the Samaritan woman at the well becomes part of the community who experience Jesus firsthand–including those he healed, those who appealed to him for healings of their loved ones, and those to whom he revealed his true nature as the messiah of God, no matter if they are Jews or Gentiles–or Samaritans. She must have known that Jesus performs physical healing which then makes spiritual healing possible.  Jesus was always healing people’s physical needs without first asking proof of their religious pedigree; just ask blind Bartimaeus and the man who sat near the pool of Bethsaida. She must have known somehow that becoming part of the community of Jesus followers would bring not only living water for her soul, but also living water to drink.

The question now before us is this: Will we fill each other’s jars with the waters of justice? Will we stand in the way of systems that oppress, and help each other gain access to this living water?

If you want to say, “Yes!” And commit to working with your neighbors to help spread the gospel of living water by taking action concerning the Flint water crisis, we must listen to the voices of those directly impacted by this situation before rushing in with our own ideas of how to fix things. Consider these suggestions from Flint’s Woodside Church on how to help (http://www.woodsidechurch.net/flint-water-emergency/):

  1. Send donations of money to help fund re-filling stations in the church. Don’t just send bottled water.
  2. Volunteer to distribute water around vulnerable neighborhoods.
  3. Show up at public demonstrations in solidarity with Flint residents.
  4. Read, learn and share information. Discern how you can be a part of a gospel-centered response.
  5. Be aware of your privilege and use it to support residents. Don’t assume you know how to help. The pastor writes, “We know what we need.”
  6. “Consider the difference between justice and charity. Charity is about donations (like water and money), but justice is about building relationships, hearing the voices from the community, and changing the systems that got us into this in the first place.”
  7. Advocate. Examples of this are making sure resources are distributed to those enduring the most hardship first; voting against racialized policies that redistribute resources from inner city areas to more affluent suburbs; advocating for a return to democratic government in Flint, instead of Emergency Managers not elected by the residents and put in power by the Governor; advocating for better infrastructure and jobs.

O Let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

Beloved community, we have been taught to care for each other after the example of Jesus. Instead of giving in to the categories with which people usually divide themselves and their communities, Jesus draws the woman into a new relationship and into a community which provides for each other’s needs. He meets her at the well to co-create a new way of living and being God’s people by offering her living water.

Living water does not value profit over people.

Living water does not validate power-over relationships.

Living water does not obscure the true story in favor of an easy one.

Living water values equity over equality.

Living water reinforces the imago Dei, encouraging each person to see themselves in the image of the divine.

Living water knows that justice is a prerequisite for peace.

O let all who thirst,

Let them come, let them come to the water.

 

This sermon was originally preached for a class at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Prophetic Preaching and Social Justice Ethics.

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

Easter: Risen Bread, Risen Lord

Mark 14.12-31; Matthew 26.17-29; Luke 22.7-20

The first time I served communion was on Ash Wednesday 2015 in a beautiful service at Vanderbilt Divinity School. After accepting the invitation to traverse the small all-faith chapel, reminiscent of a cave carved out of the rock, and become anointed with oil, water, soil and ashes, the worshippers arranged ourselves in a sacred circle and offered the sacrament to each other. As a younger person, I had passed the silver tray holding tiny cups of juice to the person seated next to me in the pew, but I had never held the bread in one hand and the wine in the other and offered it to a neighbor. I had never said, “the bread of life, given for you” and “the cup of grace, given for you” to another person.

As the bread and cup approached me, I found myself trying to swallow my tears, hoping no one would see the characteristic reddening of my nose as I realized that this was going to be the first time I served the Lord’s Supper to anyone. In a way, I had dreamed about this moment, when I’d be a good enough person and minister to offer something so sacred to be partaken of by a fellow human. When my neighbor offered me the sacrament, I met her eyes and smiled, accepting the grace. I turned around to offer it to the next person in line, a friend of a friend and a United Methodist pastor, and I felt the eyes of everyone in the room on me. It wasn’t a scary feeling, ebing watched–rather, it was comforting and warm, being held all together in this holy space.

“The bread of life, for you.” “The cup of grace, for you.”

Just like that, the moment passed as the receiver of my blessing accepted it, turned and offered it to another. But in my heart, in the core of my being, something had shifted. What did it mean for me to be able to offer the sacrament to another person? Some cosmic meaning had attached itself to my hands, the hands holding carefully kneaded and baked bread, lovingly pressed grapes, my holy hands, the ones God gave me, the ones God created for this purpose of offering myself, and the holy, to another person.

Henri Nouwen writes,

As we recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread, we recognise him also in our brothers and sisters.  As we give one another the bread, saying:”This is the Body of Christ,” we give ourselves to each other saying:  “We are the Body of Christ.”  It is one and the same giving, it is one and the same body, it is one and the same Christ.” (Nouwen, Henri. “Christ’s Body, Our Body,” in Bread for the Journey. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006.)

In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and farmworker organizer César Chávez shared the eucharist (literally meaning “thanksgiving” with a connotation of shared grace), the first meal that Chavez ate after fasting for 25 days in protest of the treatment of farmworkers in California. It was appropriate to break a fast in honor of justice by the sacred meal of bread and wine, the same meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his death. In sharing this meal, Kennedy and Chavez together recognized the presence of God within the current struggle for justice for migrant farmworkers. In partaking of this holy symbol of love and community, they recognized Jesus’ witness of love for the poor, marginalized, oppressed and exploited people in this world. In eating, they witnessed the sanctity of the earth which produces food and sustenance.

Dr. Jennifer Ayres writes,

“As God in Christ has entered into the human situation, so eucharistic liturgy is near to the concrete and particular situations of men and women.”  (Ayres, Good Food, 61.)

Consider how you will partake of the Eucharist on Easter morning. How will you, in your acceptance of the bread and wine of the earth, remember those who don’t have enough food or drink? Make room to witness the radical abundance of God in the fruits of the earth into forms which humans partake. Come to the table and share the grace with your neighbor.

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday: Last Suppers

Luke 22-23

As we near the time when Jesus was betrayed and given over to be killed by capital punishment, I encourage you to think about the Last Supper in a new context. Two artists, Henry Hargreaves and Julie Green have created artistic depictions of last meals requested by incarcerated persons on death row before they were executed. What is significant about these requests? What is significant about how Jesus spent his last meal and last night before being killed? What do these diverse Last Suppers communicate about human’s relationship to food and the role of food in cultural memory?

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

March 20: Sixth Sunday of Lent and Holy Week: Faith into Action

 

Luke 6:20-26

So what can we do about this, for those of us who do not face the same struggles as some of the folks we have learned about in this season of Lent? First, stay woke. Pay attention to where your food comes from and why some people don’t have the same access that you do. Second, keep being informed. It can be scary to see inequality and injustice, but it’s scarier to live it. And, if you are a person who carries a lot of privilege with your identity and through your body, you have a Christian responsibility to stand up for the good of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Third, create a ritual or a liturgy that expresses the thoughts and feelings you have about this situation of injustice. Ritual often helps process emotions and events in constructive ways, committing events to memory without robbing them of their significance for the future. I’d like to suggest some ritual styles to try.

Some Christian communities do “stations of the cross” during this time of year. These stations are the multiple actions Jesus took from after the Last Supper until the time he is taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. There are traditional and Biblical stations of the cross, helpfully laid out in this chart from Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts’ article on Patheos.com, from the 2004 Pope’s Stations of the Cross.

In Nashville, Amos House Community, an intentional community made up of folks dedicated to eradicating homelessness in the city, organizes a City-Wide Stations of the Cross, where faith leaders gather together and witness the modern places in our city where Jesus continues to be tortured and crucified, such as the Criminal Justice Center, the State House, the downtown prison and the Justice Department. I propose adopting a food-centered version of this practice, focusing on places where there is inequality in food access: visit a corner bodega, a grocery store frequented by low-income folks, a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, where only certain interests are served, a school garden, a soup kitchen, and other places in your city where Jesus’ is betrayed by the powers that do not invite all people to the table of justice and community.

 

Posted in Lent 2016, Spiritual Practices, Uncategorized

March 13: Fifth Sunday of Lent: Hunger and Thirst: Contemplations on Food Access and Environmental Racism

John 6:35

If I were sharing a classroom with you, I would step to the front and ask: “How many of you have ever been hungry in your life?” You would raise your hand, remembering that time that you were at practice late and forgot to eat dinner, or your mom packed a lunch for you that was a little too small for your adolescent body. Then I would ask: “How many of you have been hungry for days on end, or have ever had to live without eating three square meals a day?” Fewer of you would raise your hands. Maybe it would be only people of color, or children of immigrant families, or people who were raised by a single parent working a minimum wage job. Maybe it would be someone who was emancipated at 16 and had to work full time to afford rent while finishing high school. Maybe it would be your classmates who are single parents themselves. It might even be the children of farmers who don’t own the rights to the produce they grow but sell it to larger companies to ship cross country or use it to fatten animals. But the point is: food access is not the same across the board.

What do I mean by food access? I mean: how reliably can you regularly gain access to healthy, fresh, affordable food that is close to where you live? You’d think, wouldn’t you, that having access to fresh, healthy, affordable food that is within a reasonable geographic distance would be a right guaranteed to everyone in the United States of America? But the reality is far from that.

Have you ever heard of a food desert? The USDA defines it as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.” Have you ever lived in a food desert? Check out the USDA’s map here to see where the food deserts nearest you are. Food deserts exist in most major cities and in large swaths of rural areas, and are invisible. Watch this short film that follows a woman throughout her day getting her groceries and preparing a meal in Cleveland, Ohio. Watch this 46-minute film about food deserts in rural Virginia or the movie “Food Deserts” about hunger and access in Chicagoland.  

So, there’s a lot of information there. It’s all about how some folks are denied easy access to food because of where they live and what’s available in their neighborhood, which often has something to do with race and class. That phenomenon has another name: environmental racism, defined by the US Legal Department as “Environmental racism refers to intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities or the exclusion of minority groups from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies. It is the racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities.”

These ideas are big, and they can be overwhelming. You might be asking, what can I do? I’m just one person! But there are many ways for you to learn more and get involved in food justice. Here are some ideas to try out this week:

  • Walk a labyrinth, concentrating on the way in on the inequality present where you live. On the way out, contemplate how you can be part of a solution by using your resources to live in solidarity of the belly.

  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen.

  • Host a screening of the films mentioned above, as well as take any of these steps listed on the Interfaith Power and Light’s Cool Harvest webpage.

  • Help with any mobile grocery markets or Meals on Wheels in your community.

Also, here is a series of questions from a retreat called “Becoming Bread for the World” at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Ohio. Use this poem as a meditation on food access and inequality. [Gunilla Norris, Becoming Bread. New York: Bell Tower, 1993.) in the Becoming Bread retreat materials from John Knox Presbyterian Church.]

Hunger

In this place hunger is our guide.

What shall we find here to nourish us?

We have nothing of our own…

nothing but need.

Reflective Questions:

  • Think about how it feels to be hungry—hungry in your stomach and hungry in your soul. For what do you hunger?
  • What food do you have access to because of where you live/where you shop/where you get your food? How might this be different for other people? What affects your access to these food resources?

 

 

Posted in Sermons

My Neighbor, the Mountain: Earth Day Sermon

As you might have heard…last Wednesday, April 22, was Earth Day. Founded in 1970 and leading to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, Earth Day began in part as a desire to raise as much awareness about the deterioration of the natural environment as was raised by student demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War. Earth Day was born out of a struggle for justice in its many dimensions, and has seen worldwide movement after being founded in the United States.

As expected, my Facebook newsfeed was chock full of folks posting about climate activist art and 350.org and ways to abolish extractive industries and people planting trees and everything you could ever think of that is related to care for the Earth. The obligatory post quoting the Native American proverb “We don’t inherit this planet from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” showed up about every other minute. Pictures of folk spending sunny days in their garden (highlighting the pastoral) and hiking huge mountain ranges and steep canyons (highlight the sublime) were ubiquitous. [But only for one day]

What was I doing on Earth Day? Not gardening or hiking or planting trees.
Naturally, having a Facebook argument with a dear friend, who also happens to be a climate change denier.

My friend had several points to make. 1. The Earth has had ice ages before when humans weren’t around­­and who caused those climate changes?; 2. Scientists are grant­funded and keep claiming that climate change is real to keep the money flowing to think tanks that do climate research; 3. That ice melting being a problem doesn’t make sense because when you melt ice cubes in a glass of water your glass does not overflow; and 4. That it is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change.

As far as the first three go, I will let the majority of climate scientists who study greenhouse gases, geologists who know all about cyclical environmental disruptions, and chemists who understand that ice melting in a glass is different from ice melting on an always­changing and eroding Earth, explain for themselves why some of my friends’ ideas are a little less than informed and play into some dominant political ideologies.

But I want to focus in on the last one: “It is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change.”
I actually agree with this, but probably for different reasons than my friend wrote it.

It is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change because i​t is already happening. It is all around us.​Agriculture is changing because of billions of bees that are dying­­there go our pollinators that help us grow our food. Extreme weather events such as droughts and flood­inducing rains are becoming more common­­symptoms of Earth’s HVAC system being out of whack. Rates of species extinction are happening at the fastest rate EVER (yes, in the whole entire history of our planet). The Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its coral due to ocean temperatures rising causing coral bleaching­­basically killing off the bacteria that cause the vibrant coral rainbows. Islands are becoming inundated with water as ocean levels rise, submerging exotic locales such as the Maldives, Fiji and, in recent news, the island chain of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. Environmentalist and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben suggests that we need a whole new name for this planet which we are inhabiting: “Earth” but with two As: “E­a­a­r­t­h,” because it is somewhat like the old planet, but irrevocably changed, and with an uncertain future.

However, all ego and desire to be right aside, there is something hugely wrong with my Facebook argument. It’s not about the science. It’s not about “believing” or “not believing” in climate change. It’s not even completely about politics and money at this point.

Communities all over this world, both human and nonhuman, are suffering, are being constantly harmed and degraded and pushed to the brink of what we recognize to be living well.​ Folks are suffering, even here in the United States of America and in Nashville, and we are beyond the point of no return. We are beyond the point of blaming each other and playing partisan politics. We have long passed by the possibility of keeping our tunnel vision focused on our own backyards, and are now faced with the reality that everything on this planet is interrelated and decisions and actions made on one side of the globe can be distinctly and intimately felt on the whole other side of the world.

The task ahead of us is this: We need to figure out a way to enhance each other’s flourishing in light of a changing climate. It’s here. It’s now. It’s up to us.

This is a daunting task, figuring out how to mitigate the destruction that is coming down the pipeline to a habitat near you, courtesy of years of industry and exploitation of resources and people and urbanization and a whole host of other causes. This is difficult, figuring out how to support communities who are losing their families, their food, and their sacred spaces because if the ocean rises any farther, their homeland will simply​cease to exist.

As people of faith, we know that there are resources in our sacred texts about creation care.
Hear words from Genesis 1:
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that was made and indeed, it was very good.”

The psalmist writes: “God makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. God waters the mountains from God’s upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of God’s work. God makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for humankind to cultivate­bringing forth food from the earth.” (Psalm 104:10­14)

From the prophet Isaiah: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)

We also know that there are texts that do not paint such a rosy view of the creation, instead focusing on a far­off (or perhaps close­at­hand) eschatology of the end times and Judgment Day. The books of Daniel, Isaiah, Joel, Revelations, and even the letters to the Thessalonians in the New Testament all speak of lakes of fire and God’s wrath against those who turn away from God, rendering them to an eternity of unspeakable pain. B​ut d​on’t worry about your physical body or our degraded Earth, there will be a “new heaven and a new earth because the old earth had passed away and there was no sea.”
­­­­
But where are the texts that speak to the need to build community, to restore us to each other and make new our relationships, to understand the power structures that are exploiting our neighbors and damaging our collective dignity?

I suggest we take another look at the parables.

I believe the parables of Jesus (short stories told with the purpose of being surprising and alarming; stories that not only f​lip over​the status quo but s​hatter it c​ompletely) are underutilized in Christian Biblical discussions of environmental justice. Some folks believe that parables are rather literal, serving only to set examples of ideal social interactions between humans, which sadly keeps the interpretive reach of parables in the human realm alone.

However, if we widen our definition of environmental justice, we can understand how parables may be useful. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” I often like to talk about environmental justice as incorporating, and thus necessitating, all other justices, (as well as being very Biblical).

For example: Without economic justice, there is no environmental justice; Economic justice involves people being able to feed their families by working for a living wage; a case study would be the Coalition of Immolakee Workers in Florida, who are fighting to push major grocery stores like Publix to pay workers more for the tomatoes they pick. Here’s another example: Without racial justice, there is no environmental justice; a case study would be the development of toxic waste sites and garbage dumps in neighborhoods with high populations of people of color, such as in Dixon, Tennessee, a mere 42 miles west of here. I​t even happens here in Nashville.

So, if environmental justice is concerned about the race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, sexuality, income, health and education level of all people, then environmental justice is not just an ecological issue. It is also a social issue, concerned with the way that people separate themselves and assign value based on differences. The parables can help us with this.

Take the story of the Good Samaritan.

The frame story for Jesus’ telling of this parable is important. A lawyer (or rather, a scholar of the law) was trying to test Jesus to see if Jesus truly knew the Torah Law. He basically asks Jesus what kinds of deeds he needs to do to get into heaven. Jesus turns the question back on him, forcing the lawyer to respond with the correct Torah portion “Love the LORD your GOD with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Yep, you did a good job memorizing that…” and turns away, but the lawyer persists: “But WHO is my neighbor?”

So Jesus tells this story:
There is a person walking down the road minding his own business, by all accounts a Jew, based on the audience who was listening to Jesus tell the story. He falls into the hands of robbers, who beat the person violently, rob him of all his possessions, and leave him for dead in a ditch on the side of the road. A few people come along (members of the clergy, no less!), and instead of having mercy and saving the poor soul (as members of the audience listening would hope they would do), they cross over to the other side of the road, wanting nothing to do with this helpless figure. But t​hen​who should come along but a S​amaritan,​a member of a group that the Jews detested at that time because of a long history of violence and persecution. And what does the Samaritan do but upon seeing the lifeless figure in the ditch, lifts him up and puts him on his own donkey, takes him to an inn and pays for his care. No amount of social segregation based on race, class, birth sex, or gender identity could change the fact of the mercy shown by the Samaritan towards the Jew. Jesus, while telling this story, asks his audience “Who acted as a neighbor to the person in the ditch?” and they rightly reply “the Samaritan.” Thus the word neighbor is given an exalted status, is shown to mean a person who defies barriers with grace and mercy.

But notice, also, that while the lawyer in Jesus’ audience was trying to figure out who his neighbor was so he could decide how nice he had to be to get to heaven (do I have to walk his dog? invite his family over for dinner? clean his car?), Jesus turns the word neighbor around, giving it a dual meaning. Not only is the neighbor the object of the help, but it is also the person bestowing the help­­there is a mutuality of being neighborly. Neighbors are in constant relationship, both giving and receiving at all times.

As are we​with this planet we are riding on. As many of us here are Westernized USAmericans, we have been born into a culture based on capitalism, which is upheld by the over­utilization of natural resources and the exploitation of people all over the world. Our very way of being has been based on being able to take­take­take from the land…now we have to figure out how to give back to our home the Earth.

What if we treated the Earth as the Samaritan treated the person who lay beaten, violated and bleeding in the ditch? What if we looked around with our “neighbor goggles” on, and saw everything around us as being enlivened by the Spirit of the Divine, just as we ourselves are?

How would our lives be different if we lived seeing a mountain as our neighbor?

And so I’m not here today to school you on climate science, tell you the true meaning of the Good Samaritan, or make you feel bad about your lifestyle. (Really). I’m here to suggest a constructive way of reading our changing world that will open our eyes to environmental justice issues around us, and so that we might be able to think up a way to address these issues as a community.

Every time we demonstrate for fair wages for low­income workers, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.

Every time we write letters and call our senators asking them to support free and reduced lunches for Tennessee students, many of whom are food insecure, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.

Every time we paddle the Cumberland River or hike the Appalachian trail and stop and experience awe at the beauty and grandeur of creation (including cleaning up after ourselves), we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.

Every time we refuse to see the world in polarities, but instead see not only shades of grey but a technicolor universe of powerful and diverse people, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.

Friends, our good Creator has blessed us with a beautiful Creation to care for, and, when we have not done such a good job of it, has used the words of the apostle Paul to remind us that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…f​or the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”​Let us go forth to be partners with God in the renewing of Creation, in the redemption of our human relationships so that we can enhance the flourishing of all life on this beautiful, this one and our only, Blue Planet.

*Sermon originally preached at Scarritt Bennett Center, Nashville, TN April 28, 2015

Posted in Sermons

How would your life change if a mountain was your neighbor?

This is a sermon I preached on Friday, October 25, 2014 at the Nashville Regional Festival of Young Preachers.

Luke 10:25-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

In late January 2012, I found myself in a little tiny car driving up Black Mountain. Black Mountain is in southeastern Kentucky on the border with Virginia, and is known for its black bears, cougars, and coal. It is also the highest peak in Kentucky. As I drove up that mountain, the January fog got thicker and thicker, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to see anything but clouds at the peak. Up and up and up I drove, around breakneck bends with no guardrail on the side. Up and up and up I drove, until I rounded the last bend and pulled over into a gravel parking area.

What I saw when I stepped out of the car made me weep.

What I could see over the border into Virginia was Mountain Top Removal. Mountaintop removal is the process of using dynamite to blast off the top ridge of a mountain to expose coal seams; in many places it is used instead of deep underground mining. The phrase “laid waste” took on a new meaning. Where there were supposed to be endless parallel ridges of Appalachian glory, there lay only the long ropy scars from the naked coal seams. Where there had been vast forests, there lay pits excavated by dynamite blasts. Where there had been a skyline that humans had born witness to over thousands of years, there lay only the flat triumph of human power and greed over the breadth and beauty of God’s creation.

This sight moved me deeply. Black Mountain was also in line for Mountain Top Removal.

Right there on that mountain, I decided that I could not live in the way that I had been before—namely, in chosen ignorance about the destruction of extractive industries. Standing there in the cold on top of that mountain, I vowed that my children and grandchildren would see mountains. Right there on that mountain, the paradigm in which I saw my life shifted, and I was faced with a choice—to pass by or to act.

Do I have an obligation to help this mountain?

It was a cool and lonely evening as the Samaritan man walked down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The road he walked was known for being dangerous, full of breakneck bends and merciless robbers. The sun had already set and the man was tired from his travels, a merchant heading home to Schechem, a city in Samaria. Down and down and down through the valley he walked, leading his donkey. Down and down and down through the valley he walked, until he turned his head and looked to the side of the road.

What he saw in the roadside ditch made him pause.

Just visible in the ditch beside the road was a human figure who had evidently been brutally beaten, lying naked, exposed to the elements. The person’s face was bruised and bloodied, barely recognizable. No clothing or identification or possessions accompanied the man, who had been robbed of all he must have carried with him, valuable or invaluable, on this dangerous road. Only long ropy scars marked this man’s back.

This sight moved the traveler deeply. He also knew the despair of being robbed of his dignity, of living in a world of oppression, and of being seen as unworthy of anyone’s assistance because of the walls people set up between each other.

Right there on that road, the traveler had to make a decision. What if this person was a Jew? What if they didn’t want to be helped, seeing only danger hovering above them in the form of an oppressive Samaritan? What if other Samaritans found out he had shown mercy to a member of a hated ethnic group? What kind of world did he want to leave for his grandchildren?

The traveler didn’t even know that he was not the first person to pass by the man in need, that others had seen and not taken action. But that night on that road, he didn’t ask the wounded man’s name or country or station before he tended the man’s injuries. Instead, he decided to offer an extravagant grace, a radical hospitality, in caring for someone in need by virtue of them being a fellow Creation of God.

Who is my neighbor?

In the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer at the beginning of this passage, Jesus does something really cool. The lawyer, like many of us today, is looking for instant gratification; he simply wants to know how to gain eternal life by doing something simple, by crossing something off his to-do list (AJL). He is wondering, “Whom must I treat as a friend? Whom do I have an obligation to help? How far do the limits of my responsibility extend? Where can I draw my borders?”

Jesus, however, turns these questions around, asking, “Who in the story acted as a friend?” He includes action in his rephrasing, changing the conversation to one about verbs—gaining eternal life is not about believing one thing, but it must be combined with actions. In this back-and-forth, “Jesus changes the definition of neighbor from one who is the object of kindness (in need and receiving the compassion and mercy) to one who bestows it.” There is mutuality in the word “neighbor”: it is a two-way street of loving “your neighbor as yourself.”

Many of us are good at this. We volunteer in soup kitchens, deliver water to people whose water is contaminated, donate clothes to the needy, visit folks in prison, and (sometimes) we even welcome the stranger. Jesus does not only expect us to bless others with our privilege as a community service project, but he paints a picture of a society in which there is mutual benefit from assisting and accepting assistance from each other. Scholar Amy-Jill Levine recalls Martin Luther King, Jr.’s interpretation of this parable: “[King] said something like: ‘I don’t know why [the priest and the Levite] walked by the man in the ditch, but here’s what my imagination tells me. Perhaps these men were afraid. The priest and the Levite say to themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? There are bandits on the road.” And the Samaritan says, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” So the Samaritan asked the right question.’ King goes on to say: If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers in Memphis, what will happen to them?’ And we know what happened to King.”

So: no more can we view ourselves simply as the givers and distributors of aid. No more can we simply view ourselves as waiting for someone to haul us out of the ditch and fix the world for us. And certainly, no more can we wear our tunnel vision through our lives, missing the stranded travelers and people in need along our path. Gaining eternal life is living into a beloved community over time—being a “neighbor” is an ongoing process of being fully engaged and committed to community. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a simple story about just one person showing compassion to one other person in need. It is about different ways of being in a community, and how we should treat each other as neighbors.

What if a mountain was our neighbor?

Knowing what we know about human-enabled climate change, we cannot continue to pass by on the other side of the road. No matter how much differing views say humans contribute to environmental issues, if we are part of the problem, then we can also (and should also) be part of the solution. We cannot continue to think that recycling our plastic-ware and planting a tree every Arbor Day are going to fix everything. We cannot watch the Appalachian economy suffer while coal companies shut down, without having another solution ready. We cannot watch people going hungry when there is enough healthy food in the world and not do anything. There must be a verb enacted so that we can truly be neighbors to our fellow created beings. How far does our responsibility extend? Whom and what must we love in order to be true neighbors?

Philosopher William James writes, “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” Though humans find many reasons to separate ourselves from each other and from nature, we must realize that we are all part of the same Creation, the same dream of God. Environmental justice is not just about saving a tree for a tree’s sake, but it is about the health and wholeness of all the beings that share this planet. It stretches across race, class, gender, sexuality, geographical location and even time. Many indigenous cultures emphasize understanding all actions we do as affecting the world even to the 7th generation from now. All things—you, me, a tree, water, animals—we were all formed intimately by God’s own hands, raised out of the dust and given the breath of life. And God loves us extravagantly. It is our job to reflect that love back—around our neighborhoods, in our communities, and throughout the whole world.

Right here and right now, I challenge you to live into a beloved community of creation. Support school gardens. Help reduce your church’s waste. Listen to children’s stories. Get to know your neighbors. Share a meal with friends. Witness the season’s change. Reflect the extravagant grace and hospitality that God showed the world—even to the 7th generation.

The radical hospitality that the Good Samaritan showed the Jew lying in the ditch–that Jesus showed the Earth by coming to us incarnate in human flesh—that radical hospitality is the cornerstone of a community that upholds justice and love of neighbor—that radical hospitality is the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God, the community of all Creation.

Theologian Sallie McFague writes, “Once the scales have fallen from one’s eyes, once one has seen and believed that reality is put together in such a fashion that one is profoundly united to and interdependent with all other beings, everything is changed. One has a sense of belonging to the earth, having a place in it along with all other creatures, and loving it more than one ever thought possible.”

Imagine you are traveling up a mountain. The air is cool. You see your surroundings clearly—every rock, tree, animal, and person gets your attention. You see the homeless person and the river contaminated with coal dust. You see the endangered woodpecker and the children living in food deserts. You see the mountains lying naked, scarred from demolition–their dignity ripped away by extractive industries’ violation. What do you see? What do you do? What kind of world do you want to leave your grandchildren?