For River Sunday
Year A, Proper 21
The reflections on this page are part of a request from David Rhoads,
Professor of New Testament, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago,
for MEESC members to offer ecological sermon notes for the alternative
lectionary lessons for Creation Season Sundays in 2005 for use by
pastors. This is the fourth of the selected Sundays, September
25, 2005, which corresponds in the Lectionary used by the Episcopal
Church as Proper 21.
In the "alternative lectionary lessons" of the Revised
Common Lectionary, the readings are from the following:
78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians
2:1-13; and Matthew
18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm
25: 1-8; Philippians
2:1-13, and Matthew
Psalm excerpt for today (Psalm 65:9)
The river of God is full of water
Rivers of Water
The Gulf Coast catastrophe has shocked us all. From northern Minnesota
where I type this, as throughout our nation from all our communities,
however remote from scenes of that disaster, widening circles of
shock and empathetic bewilderment extend outward from hearts broken,
minds at high alert, and in some cases from faith shaken.
No first day of September was ever in our experience like this.
At this moment when I am writing on September 1, some wonder about
our vulnerabilities being magnified by such close proximity to the
4th anniversary of 9/11. What will happen this September 11? Will
there be another record-breaking hurricane next week or next month?
What will be the social and economic consequences across the nation
of gasoline and heating-fuel prices far above the capacity of millions
to pay? How will the ten thousands of survivors be fed, clothed,
housed, given water, be wrapped around with new communities, and
warmly challenged to hope again?
To be sure, valiant and sometimes very sacrificial actions have
already been undertaken to relocate those who can be moved, and
to bring aid and comfort to those who are trapped amid the ruins.
Alarmed notice has been taken, statewide emergencies declared, federal
assistance summoned, voluntary contributions made. All these bespeak
the national sense of community that remains alive among us for
our common good. For that we all need to be thankful and supportive,
At the same time, irresistible currents of catastrophe have all
of a sudden laid bare for all to see some systemic deficiencies
in American life. Those structural injustices cannot be addressed,
much less transformed, by ad hoc reactive emergency aid.
Look at your TV, and see what structural injustices have arisen
among us, injustices that hold humanity and landscape in common
bondage. Floodwaters and howling winds not only of that hurricane,
but also of our human folly, have assailed too many of those who
Displayed in living color on our TV screens hour after hour are
evidences of our racism, our economic injustices, and our ecological
insensitivities. However many white folks have been grievously damaged
by that hurricane, even to the point of death itself, within the
inner city predominantly black people stand stranded behind open
windows, on rooftops, or in flood waters up to their necks. Who
can deny it?
The poorest have been hit the hardest, for their shelters were
all along the weakest, and "savings" have for as long
as a lifetime been a dream impossible for them to secure. Who can
Wetlands that used to protect New Orleans have been depleted by
the very engineering that was supposed to save the city, all in
defiance of ecological realities. Who can deny it?
The evidence comes in deluges from our TV screens, evidence that
screams for us to change. We are not responsible for disasters that
come upon us, but we must be responsible for our reactions to them,
not only today and next week, but long-term for years to come, and
for the common good. Indeed, our reactions must be displaced by
proactive planning and enacting. That means: we must change, and
eco-justice must be done.
Formerly "mainline" churches have for too long been AWOL
about these matters at local levels, no doubt fearing reprisals
from those who have vested interests in this or that oppressive
status quo. Nevertheless, we must change and eco-justice must be
done. For understandable reasons we within progressive Christianity
have been cautious about taking prophetic stances so long as politics
is the art of finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems,
as Reinhold Niebuhr used to say. Nevertheless, we must change and
eco-justice must be done. Knowing that leaders who get too far out
ahead of their people cannot be effective, and cautioning ourselves
to "go slow" on that account, we have understandably pulled
our punches. Nevertheless, we must change and eco-justice must be
done. We refrain, too, from rushing in where the angels of expertise
fear to tread. Nevertheless, we must change and eco-justice must
Eco-justice? What is That? It is wholeness and health in relationships.
It is "wellness" or balance in relationships within humanity,
and between humanity and the whole earth. It is pristine peace from
God, peace that "passes all understanding" when it reshapes
our economic institutions to produce "bottom lines" not
only of trans-national wealth, but much more "bottom lines"
of human rights and living wages for all. Eco-justice is God's peace
built into our banks, our stock markets, our social services, our
community infrastructures, our communications media, our departments
of natural resources, our federal, state, and local governments.
Eco-justice does not favor labor over land or land over labor, but
embraces both in sustainable equilibrium.
Eco-justice is human development that the ecosystem can sustain
across the centuries and millennia of our history. Eco-justice is
a set of sustainable relationships between human communities and
the environing eco-communities of flora and fauna upon which we
all depend, and which we must preserve, tend, and husband.
Eco-justice cares as much for a thousand years from now as it
cares for today. Eco-justice is pro-active for the future. It exercises
foresight. It builds for the long haul those kinds of social and
economic institutions that sustain the earth. It respects the "good"
that God put into air and water and all created living beings.
Eco-justice tries to get out in front of natural and human-caused
disasters. It does so by building those kinds of economic and social
structures that leave no child left behind in poverty and ignorance,
that condemn no race or color of people to substandard housing,
that enable all persons and families to look ahead and save for
their future, that encourage us to work together for universal health
care, and that respect the forces of nature and build accordingly.
If you ask, "What is the text for this sermon?" I answer
that the thrust of the Bible as a whole portrays God's eco-justice
and calls us to make it our own. From the sagas of creation in Genesis
to the visions of new creation in Revelation, God's People are expected
"to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with
[their] God" (Micah 6:8). Nothing else is as "good"
for us as that. Only doing justice, loving kindness, and walking
in humility with God brings the "common good" to suburb
and inner city alike, to black and white and yellow alike, to red
states and blue states alike. Why? Because doing justice changes
us, loving kindness changes us, humility before God
changes us, and not only us but also whatever world we build,
whatever institutions we construct, whatever civilization we envision.
This was supposed to be a sermon on the fourth Sunday of Creation
Season that focuses on "water" and "rivers of water."
But we had to start where we are, feeling often overwhelmed by winds
and waters of hurricane force on our Gulf coast. Starting there,
we see earlier hurricane forces of our own making, of our own neglect,
and of our own failures to change for the common good. By God's
grace we can make those changes in lifestyles and in institutions
that will bring to others "a cup of water to drink because
[we] bear the name of Christ" (Mark 9:41).
What a change it will be in us and in our society when the "living
water" that Jesus offered to the oppressed Samaritan woman
at a well (John 4:7ff.) shall transform us and all we build and
hope for until systemic injustice is overcome, and eco-justice is
accomplished for the good of us all.
"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God"
(Ps. 46:4) That legendary sacred river flows from God's throne until
the salty waters of the Dead Sea become fresh, and fruit trees flourish
in desolate desert (Ezekiel 47:1-12). Because "the river of
God is full of water," the earth is "greatly enriched"
(Ps. 65:9), and redemptive change is possible for all of us.
Loving our nation enough to see her misdeeds and work for her change,
we remember that "river whose streams make glad the city of
God," we partake of its "living water," and we share
it with our neighbors on the Gulf coast and anywhere else. The river
of God does not stand still.
G. Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologian, attends Trinity Episcopal
Church, Park Rapids, MN. He originally wrote these notes in 2005.
John and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or
additional reflections to John
Gibbs or any MEESC
member, or mail them to:
c/o C. Morello
4451 Lakeside Drive
Eveleth, MN 55734-4400 USA
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