Episcopal Church, USA Environmental Stewardship Commission
(MEESC)
Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota

Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota

Lectionary Reflection
Year A, Easter 7, Sermon

Readings for this Sunday:
(from the Lectionary Page)

Reflection on Mothers' Day and today's readings:
by the Rev Dcn Helen Hanten

One morning this week I opened our  blinds in the bedroom to see what kind of day we had, and saw two herring gulls walking down the edge of Brainerd Avenue. in front of our house.  We live on the hilltop about half way between the land fill where many gulls go for the winter, and the harbor where they are present in big numbers all summer.  I have seen flocks moving in the spring, but these two were walking, one behind the other, going the right direction.  Cool!  This week we set up our bird bath in the back yard and filled it with water, and while I haven’t seen any birds bathing, the crows come to sit on the edge and drink water. I’m glad somebody is using the facility.  In the last several years we have had many deer in the yard and in the patch of woods behind our house, but this year we often see up to four at a time.  One that has caught my attention appears about to give birth.  She grazes slowly and rests often, lying pretty much concealed by shrubs, with a small deer, probably last year’s fawn, at her side.  I keep a camera ready, and wonder if there is anything I can do to make it better for her, or if the best I can do is let nature happen, without interfering.  And I did get good pictures of the boreal owl that sat on the bird feeder in our back yard for hours at a time during the winter.  This is Mothers’ Day, and  we think about our mothers, honoring them, perhaps with a card or letter, or a meal out somewhere, or we remember mothers who are no longer with us. Some of us may reflect on our own experiences as mothers.  In nature, it is the time of year when in most species, some will be giving birth.  We will soon be seeing fawns, and birds building nests.  I have been thinking this week about human mothers, and also other mothers.  And about the earth as Mother.
 
Most (so-called) primitive religions as well as early Christian Church incorporated rituals of celebration for the natural order. The Celtic Christians in the earliest introduction of Christianity to the northern British Isles included observance of the daily cycles, the monthly moon phases and the yearly solstice and equinox events.  Much of this influence was lost in about the 7th century when those practices of Christianity were blended with those introduced from Rome through Canterbury in southern England.   Scripture has many examples, both New and Old Testaments and particularly in Psalms of writers seeing God’s activity in creation.  Through the years some writers, continued to speak and write about this. Hildegaard of Bingen was one – St. Francis was another, known for his reverence for all life, not just human life. But for most of its life the early Church  focused on the relationship between human life and God.  The incarnation had occurred years before.  God had been present in Jesus of Nazareth.  In the life of Jesus, God had been present on earth!
 
Beginning about 60 years ago In our society there began to be a  serious concern for people in need.  One president described his vision for the Great Society.  People joined the efforts to house the homeless, feed the hungry, provide medical care for those who couldn’t afford it, and treat those with addictions.  The 1964 Civil Rights Act provided for non-discrimination based on race, religion or national origin in schools and public accommodations.             
     
So the Church began to teach and preach what has been called a Social Gospel – to follow Christ by doing what Jesus himself did on earth –.   We have been called to be peace makers, and peace keepers.  To end racism.  To fight the causes of poverty.  The historic diaconate as an order of ministry in the Church was  restored, with the particular focus of the deacons’ ministry to be concerns for all people, particularly those who are powerless and marginalized.  Our Christian understanding of ministry became walking with others in both their physical and spiritual journeys.
 
I remember receiving a letter from a woman parishioner at Church who thought the Church should stay out of such controversial issues and go back to just worshiping God in God’s House.  It was not the business of the church to be political.
 
For the first time many of us heard of an indwelling Christ.  Jesus had told the disciples, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, or my sisters, that you do onto me”.  Our baptismal covenant as it appeared in the 1979 BCP asks us to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  God incarnate, not just back in Jesus life, but here and now in each of us.  The same covenant asks us to respect the dignity of every human being.
 
In 1962, a book called Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, took many by surprise.  Silent spring was the theoretical time when no birds would return due to the increasing use of insecticides which poisoned their food.  Her book was well documented with case studies.  I think she was a prophet in our time, and following the appearance of her work and that of others, the environmental movement took off.  We developed a concern for future human needs – our children and grandchildren, onto the 7th generation as taught by the Native American Indians.  Society’s reason for environmentalism was and is to conserve the earth resources for future human life.   
 
Those who thought politics and the social gospel should not be the churches’ business, now said environmentalism should definitely not be the churches’ business.  The Bible doesn’t say a thing about ozone layer, global warming, or fish advisories due to mercury in the waters.  Of course it doesn’t.  None of those was an issue at that time. But there is a line from Luke’s Gospel , Luke 12:56 , in which Jesus says: “How is it you do not know how to interpret the signs of the times?”
 
The reading from the Gospel according to John we just heard is a part of a long prayer by Jesus to Creator God, on the night before Jesus died.  This part of his prayer is specifically for the small group of men who had been his followers.  He prayed that they would stay united and that God would protect and keep them strong.   The message of Jesus life and work would only be carried forth after his death if this group remembered what he had been telling them, and went on to teach others.  They hadn’t appeared to understand much along the way.  Some had strived for position in the group.  One defected and betrayed him.  There was no other apparent plan for keeping the faith alive.  On Thursday past we observed Ascension Day, the last time there were resurrection appearances where Jesus seemed to still be with them, and when he disappeared this time, they are described as standing looking up into the sky.  I can imagine them saying, “Now what are we supposed to do?”  Feeling abandoned, I would guess.  Like the baby birds pushed out of the nest, or the year old deer whose mother no longer provides its food.  And before Jesus left he told them they would receive power by the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost – that will be the next season we celebrate.  What a small group it was, to start!  But Christianity did spread, and has survived. None of those original apostles was well educated.  They weren’t writers, philosophers, theologians, business men, and they didn’t have a source of funding for their program. We don’t even know what they had for their livelihood.  But after they recovered from Jesus’ death and received the gift of the Holy Spirit they were energized.  Inspired.  Think of that word:  stimulation of the mind or emotion to a high level of feeling or activity.  We all know examples of people who have been inspired to a high level of activity.  Those who climb Mt. Everest, cross the Arctic ocean, run marathons.  The kind of thing where you have to want to.  You can’t not do it.  I think we can describe people from this congregation as inspired in starting out to build a Habitat house.  Lots of meetings, fund raisers, hands on work, donations and sweat equity.  I heard a hockey coach who is very good as an inspirational speaker , tell about the process of building the team to trust each other, trust the coach, work to be the best they can be, and to believe they are winners, even before the game.
 
I know I am rather easily inspired.  I avoid going to some organizational events because I almost certainly will sign up for a task force that will become a committee that will, at some point, elect me chair.  I hesitate to open and read mail asking for support for causes.  If I choose to read the letter, I will probably support their cause.  And for the church’s present day concern about the earth itself, I feel great concern, and really inspired to make this a  focus of activity.
 
While the Church has done well in its prayers, teachings and good works, in the areas of human-to-divine and human-to-human relationship it has not always done well to remember the relationship of human life with the created order  as a spiritual and theological issue.  Not just teaching concern for the environment as good sense and the need to conserve what is here for future generations, but the compelling reason to love – to care about and care for what God has made.  We are part of it, not above it.  We are creatures, not the creator.  We have a place in the ecosystem of all life on our planet, and we could not exist without all else that came before, and all that continues to sustain human life.  There were people who were surprised to see an Episcopal Church display at the Living Green conference in March at Peace Church in Duluth, and again at the earth day celebration two weeks ago at the Farmers Market.
 
For me as an Christian environmental steward (steward is one who is charged with the care of something that belongs to someone else) the overriding issue is sustainability.  Part of what is needed is learning what sustainability requires.  Among the species alive on the earth there is a web of interdependence.  It was created that way.  God’s gift came packaged that way.  In terms a biologist uses, a community is formed of all the populations of species, both animals and plants, present in a place.  Together with the factors of landscape and climate, this is called an ecosystem.  An ecologist studies ecosystems.  The ecosystem can be large, as the whole Boreal forest, or more specific as the Pine forest at the end of park Point, or small as a drop of pond water – whatever is under consideration as a system.  And when an ecosystem forms, it eventually arrives at a balance  so that everything present, plant or animal, has what it needs in habitat, food, and regulation of its population size.  Predictions can be made, usually quite accurately, as to what will happen if a new species is introduced, one is eliminated, two are too closely related and competitive, or if factors such as climate are changed, or there are disturbances such as prairie land brought under cultivation or wildfires taking out old growth of forests.
 
What is happening around us now?  “How is it you do not know how to interpret the signs of the times?”  Have you heard  of habitat destruction, the disappearance of wetlands, what happens to dunes along a coastline when beach grass is destroyed?  Do you know about the imbalance in ecosystems when natural limitations for species aren’t present?  Have you figured why we have too many crows, so many herring gulls, and deer in our backyards? Bunnies on Park Point?  Bunnies as a threat to the pine forest at the end of the point? Boreal owls out of their range, hunting in broad daylight.  Are there invasive species of animals as well as plants?  From natures point of view, is human life an invasive species?
 
Humans lived in tune with the land at first. For probably about 2 million years.  Using their wisdom, they learned to save food, save water, build shelters, and bury the dead.  Foot trails gave way to paths for carts, then roads for automobiles, and then highways for trucks and motor homes so people, goods and food could be transported to wherever wanted.  Medical advances have changed human lives by technology, by medicines from herbal remedies to new chemical formulations, and by changing the environment by draining swamps, spraying insects, treating drinking water.  We all know that communication, transportation, and food production have all changed drastically in our own lifetime.  So where will it end?  Where is the limit where the planet as an ecosystem no longer supports the populations.  Species have already become extinct.  Evolution of species in itself results in some extinctions, but the rate and number in recent years is known to be many times what would occur naturally.  And do we only care about the possibility of such a limited time for human life?  Our codes of ethics for treatment of people is expressed by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in their promises, by the promises we make at a baptism, and by the ways we expect humans will be treated as prisoners and captives.  We speak of human rights.  Human rights are dealt with by organizations and by commissions, at various levels of government.  Duluth was a long time in getting a human rights’ commission, and still doesn’t fund the work it does.  We probably all believe in human rights.  But this is not a concept naturally arrived at.  There is nothing in nature that says humans can or should make rules for how they want to be treated and make those rules apply to all humans ,and fight wars about it, while other things alive don’t have any rights.  It is the way we tend to see the creation.  Human life matters.  All else is the scenery for the human drama to unfold.  What would Jesus do?  What does God want?  We call ourselves a people on the way to knowing, loving and serving God.  What are sources for wisdom in thinking about God?  I think of four.
1.  In Scripture, as a written record of the experience of people alive long ago.
2.  Through the writings of people who lived since then,  including those alive now.
3.  Through the Church as it attempts to live out what Jesus taught and modeled.
4.  Evidence as seen in the creation, of God’s goodness and presence in all living things. God incarnate, not just in human life, but in all that is.  
 
Sallie McFague is a writer and theologian who wrote The Body of God several years ago in which she talks about the mind and Word of God as God’s intent, and creation itself as the body of God.  In a later book, Super Natural Christians, she talks of our tendencies to objectify other things, including living things, as though they are all here for our use.  Cindy wrote about this in the recent newsletter.  A friend of mine named Mary Jo told of a time her husband was at home, shortly before he died, and enjoyed sitting out on a deck or balcony of their apartment.  She told me a bird often came to sit there on the railing, and she mentioned to him that God had sent a bird for him to enjoy.  He responded that he and the bird were there sharing the outdoors together.  Subtle, but different.
 
In the Genesis story of the creation, humans are created last.  Those writers did well, I think in sequencing the events and recognizing that on the earth there were land and water, and light and dark, and then came plants, and then animals and then human life.  Humans came late.  All else was in a balance that could have been sustained for a long time.  Humans were not needed to work out the plan, like some industrial design plan.  The plan was in operation when we showed up.   The earth was, indeed our mother.  The same atoms of carbon and nitrogen that are part of our tissues have been cycled through countless numbers of living things before us, and were part of the rocks and waters before life on earth. The egg or whole wheat toast, or orange juice you had for breakfast were very recently a part of something else alive on earth.
 
It is indeed the business of the church to teach and practice Christian stewardship of the environment.  Some of us are inspired to work on this, to make a commitment to keep at it with the energy and resources we have.  It sometimes seems to be just a handful of people,  but look at what the apostles did!  There were only 11 of them to start, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit, they succeeded  In their own lifetimes, they were persecuted, some killed with torture and gruesome deaths.  But others like Luke and Mark and Paul had joined them, and within about 60 years , the Gospels had been written,  Luke had written the book of Acts which describes the continuing work of the apostles.  Paul had founded churches in other countries, letters called epistles had been written to those churches and were later adopted in the canon of Scripture.  Those original 11 men did OK.
 
Now, the need for sustainable living is a message that concerned Christians need to hear.  Jesus prayed, before entrusting the message of his life work to the hands of those eleven men. He prayed they would stay united and that God would strengthen them.  My prayer now is that God, Creator, will help those who respond to the messages of environmental concern, to keep them united, and keep their commitment strong.  Amen
  
Copyright
Statement

To Reflections on other Readings for this Sunday:

Old Testament
Acts 1:(1-7)8-14
or Ezekiel 39:21-29
 
Psalm
68:1-20 or 47
 
New Testament
1 Peter 4:12-19 or Acts 1:(1-7)8-14
 
Gospel
John 17:1-11
 


The Rev Dcn Helen Hanten is deacon emeritus at and an active member of St. Andrew's by-the-Lake Episcopal Church, Duluth, MN. She originally wrote this reflection in 1998.  Helen and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to the Rev Dcn Helen Hanten or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
 

MEESC
Holy Trinity Church
Box 65
Elk River, MN 55330-0065 USA

The MEESC assumes that all correspondence received is for publication on this web site. If your comments are not for publication, please so note on your correspondence. The MEESC reserves the right to decide which items are included on the web site.


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