Prison Earth Day

sermon on Acts 16:19-34 and on Earth Day

 

Earth Day and a prison Bible reading, with an edge of economic impact. It begs the question of how we assign the roles. Where are we in this story? And where is Earth?

I want to start with clarifying what I believe is not the answer, and hope to pry you free from this faulty faith. For too long, too many loud voices have asserted a view that metaphorically Earth would be the prison in this story, and God’s salvation would be to spring us free, unleash from this mortal coil, to escape the bonds of the flesh and soil, to make an eternal getaway and fly away to the sky. Over and over I’ll remind you: that is not Scripture’s story. We are not imprisoned on this planet or in our bodies or with this life.

Yes, there may be much we lament—maybe even feeling like too much—from natural disasters to a slow spring for greening growth, from wars and corruption to prison to cranky relationships, sore muscles to diseases, death or small blemishes.  We’d like to be free of those.

But God isn’t trying to get us away from here. God is trying to fulfill life here. On earth…as it is in heaven. It is GOOD, God sees over and over, daily in the creation story in the first chapter of our Bible. That goodness wasn’t because it was special paradise so different from now. It’s because God delights in what God has made, including this world, and including you.

God so loves this good world that God longed to be with you, couldn’t bear to be separate, and so came rushing into our arms as Jesus, to love us not only when things are in the cheery honeymoon of life, but through all the hurt and sorrow and difficulty.

And God was so in love, so in favor, so enamored of life on this Earth that God not only was born here, to live here, but raised from death as well. In this Easter season, we celebrate continuity of the new creation. After crucifixion, God certainly could’ve said, “Pfft! I’m outta here! To heck with that place!” (Or, being God, I suppose could’ve directly meant it in saying, “To Hell with them!”) Instead, the resurrection puts an exclamation point on God’s insistence for life in this world, in existence we already know, of Jesus’ commitment to how things go here in this place, not in some heaven lightyears away.

So if we’re looking for the location of our Bible story, the prison break cannot be understood as God liberating the select set of Christians or the humans or whoever from the jail Earth.

What if we reverse it, then? What if, instead of the Earth as the prison, it’s the Earth in prison?

There’s plenty I like about that notion (even while disliking what it means). First of all, that it upends the troublesome theology of the other. It refuses to see creation as bad and further recognizes the bondage that our ways place on Earth. We humans want everything under our control, or enslaved to secure our selfish benefit. We limit nature as resources for us to use. We seek to tame wilderness, or else to exterminate it.

This employs the wrong reading of the creation story in taking permission to be domineering, to dominate and subdue as brutal masters, to ignore wellbeing of all else while presuming we preserve our own isolated me-first advantage. That model is nothing we’d associate with Jesus as loving Lord, who willingly laid down his life for the good of others. It is not the character of our God, and is not what God would intend for us.

Yet our rampage is rampant. It’s plain in mountaintops removed and groundwater poisoned by fracking, in these ecosystems detained entirely under our control. It’s evident with polar bears and coral reefs and elephants captive to our whims and shortsightedness, with birds whose migration and mating is malfunctioning because our actions have managed to keep them from their natural rhythms. Birds may be mobile. But trees can’t run away. They are locked in place to face the emerald ash borers and pine bark beetles. It’s the white nose syndrome that means bats won’t be flying free from hibernation caves this spring.

As our children readily recognized for us, our persecuting power over the earth is clear in clearcutting forest, drying out evergreens into deserts, plowing up prairie, pumping out aquifers, changing the chemistry of our atmosphere, and every project where we constrain the livelihood of life and ridiculously refer to it as “development.” We might as well see each and every as expansions of the prison industrial complex for the incarceration of creation.

The condemning death sentence of such tendencies is summarized in a saying from a native American* woman that was on a poster I had in my bedroom growing up: “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that you can’t eat money.”

If we’re following this parallel reading, if the Earth has been imprisoned by our human society and culture, maybe our role for a positive change could be associated with the jailer from the Bible story, as God’s Holy Spirit is converting us, calling us to new life, from the waters of our birth. Maybe we hope to be among those of a new perspective, who don’t extract and deplete the planet, don’t trap it under the threat of death, who don’t claim maximum security while minimizing actual life, but recognize that God’s salvation is to liberate, to free, to release from captivity to fears and diminished existence, not only for human benefit but on behalf of all life and we heed the call to serve as caretakers.

Maybe there’s still more. Maybe that possibility for us as jailers-turned-caretakers could lead us to a third consideration. Not that the Earth is bad and good people are stuck here. Not that humans are bad and Earth is stuck with us. What about the apparent notion that sin and abuse are bad and God is striving to liberate us and all creatures from what would inhibit life, to give us freedom to live together well?

Our hint of this may be that in the Bible story the jailer’s life is bound to the inmates. God’s work wasn’t just to free Paul and Silas, but also to free the jailer. They, then, could share in new relationship—not of hierarchies of fear and oppression and inevitably leading to death on the one side or the other (either execution for the prisoners or suicide for the guard if they escaped), but a relationship of blessing and celebration and company of rejoicing—joy that spreads among the other prisoners and to the jailer’s family and on from there—a relationship of binding up wounds and healing and caring and striving for life.

This is God’s abundant Easter work for you, among us on this Earth Day, and—indeed—every day. It is striving to break you free from your individual prisons that confine you into thinking you’re not good enough, that your wrongs are inescapable, that your existence is worthless, that you’re too harmful for life around you, whether the broader planet or closer relationships. That captivity to sin from which you cannot free yourself keeps restricting you and holds you trapped in the negative. In forgiveness and holy inspiration full of creativity, right now Jesus is liberating you from that prison cell, undoing your lock and those chains that have stifled your wellbeing and sense of yourself.

And this is also how God is operating in systems that ensnare us. God is mutually working to free humans and the planet when systemic oppression often overlaps—that people with darker skin are apt to live closer to pollution, that lesser developed nations will suffer worse effects of climate change, that the little guys trying to do the right thing can’t fund fake corporate science reports, that those who have done less harm and can afford less opportunity to purchase the get-out-of-jail free card are caught, and that really such situations are no good for any of us, even those who think they’re winning.

From Pope Francis to secular organizations now recognize these systems are interconnected, that none of our projects stand alone. Environmental work is bound to racial justice,

which is tied to economic wellbeing,

which is part of the body of health care,

which interfaces with your body image,

which stands against capitalist propaganda,

and is united with sustainable agriculture,

which is part and parcel with the global peace movement,

which attends to school systems,

which confronts gun violence,

which is linked with immigration and refugee relations,

and relates to those actually physically in prison or trying to re-enter society,

which is amid your daily life,

which is of course constrained with politics,

which is wholly related to our religious practice,

which must be a congregation of every creature, from small to large, near on these grounds to original stars.

In the old image of a food chain, all creatures would suffer if any link were broken. Well, we now know that’s a web of creation more than simple chains, that my wellbeing is dependent on your wellbeing which is connected to Earth’s stability, that everything is hitched to everything else (as John Muir said) and we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality (as Martin Luther King put it, for a very different reason, but with a very similar end result).

And for the purposes of our Bible story on this Earth Day, Martin Luther said** that you have been set totally free and are obligated to no one, which also means you are totally captive and obligated to all. Your chains are gone, and that has served to reinforce your connection to everyone and everything else. The life-sucking bonds that imprisoned you have been released. Now you are free for the life-giving bonds that tie you to live faithfully and lovingly with God, your neighbor, and creation.

That is the good news of life this Easter season, breaking free from tomb and gloom, and resurrecting you with Jesus and with all that God so loves.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

* actually First Nations filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin
https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/10/20/last-tree-cut/

** “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” – see “Freedom of a Christian”

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The Good Shepherd, Sheep, and a Sty

4th Sunday of Easter (John10:11-18; Psalm23; 1John3:16-24)
Two images for this sermon and this Good Shepherd Sunday. First, John Muir began seeking to protect Yosemite first because it was being over-grazed by sheep, eating the place bare. Second, at the Leadership Retreat a week ago, while Tim was teaching, a small voice came from the back of the room: “Big Tim! Big Tim! I just used the potty!” (Three-year-old Ned Redmann)

Let’s clear this up straightaway: We are the sheep. And that means you are not the Shepherd.

That’s a reminder because we tend to picture ourselves as take-charge folks, as independent thinkers, as self-made men (and, indeed, this is too often the dominant, domineering, sexist, so-called “manly” way of thinking and self-made women somehow don’t even get a category). We imagine we know best in looking out for our own interest or think we are generally pretty caring and kind.

But when Jesus says, “I AM the good shepherd,” it means that you are not. We are at best bad shepherds. That gets reiterated all too frequently through scripture, where shepherding was the symbol of rulers, and those rulers tended to be bad shepherds, neglecting the flocks in their care. We’d quickly admit, biblical precedent is right and it’s not just an ancient problem to have self-interested leaders lacking concern for their constituents.

Opposed to bad shepherds, then, we might presume it’s good to be a sheep, at least being fluffy and cute. But the more defining characteristic of sheep is that they go astray following their appetites. Sheep continue grazing, face in the ground, and end up getting lost while they’ve been focused only on filling their bellies. The prophet Ezekiel uses this imagery to accuse us of butting each other out of the way and muddying the waters with our feet, damaging it for those who come after us. We trample and foul it up for others, he says. (see Ezekiel 34) We’re greedy.

This is where we are really sheepish, not to use that term for being shy but for being self-absorbed and ravenous and inattentive to our surroundings. It’s bad enough that we’re making a mess, or to use a good crass version, we’re defecating where we eat; we pollute the place that supplies our wellbeing. The larger systemic ecological problem is that our selfishness also causes harm to the poor people of the planet and to other life trying to survive and future generations of our families and any other creature. We sheep are messing up the place and making it unlivable.

While we’re hanging around these thoughts of the tail-end of a sheep and noticing just how much this all stinks, this is a perfect time to re-examine a word that, I think, gets misinterpreted or elevated to sound more special than it should. The word is “stewardship.” It seems to me that we picture being a steward as something holy, church-y, trying to act like God, which we mistake to mean being important and in charge.

Yet this word begins with a very specific context, and that’s where the meaning of our faith also dwells. See, the word “steward” comes from the Old English “sty-warden,” meaning one who kept the sty, spending their time cleaning up after sheep and pigs and all the livestock filth. So a steward isn’t a big boss or nice maître d’. Stewards cared for crap, and hung out amid the stink, knee deep in it.

So your holy and pious vocation, the noblest calling from God, isn’t to elevate you above the mess, but to get a shovel and get to work. Though you may notice that my main expertise only involves a pooper scooper, that I haven’t done a whole lot of barn work, I’m going to continue speaking authoritatively on “duty.” With that, I can tell you that Martin Luther looked at your lowly life and identified it as a highly important role, stamped with more divine approval than being a clergyperson dressed in fancy robes.

This amazing job? Doing diapers. Luther wrote that, if we were trying to be rational, we’d turn up our nose and say, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my spouse, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery life involves?” But, he continued, Christian faith “looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as [if] with the costliest gold and jewels.”* That’s a different image of a filled diaper—to regard it as if covered in gold and jewels! We can also apply that to other stinky situations of your life, where you’re up to your neck in it, things that aren’t glamorous but sure are held dear and important to God.

In spite of this prevalence of poop, we shouldn’t presume that stewardship is perpetually serving on that literal clean-up committee. The sty where you serve is found in all kinds of nitty-gritty details of life. So mostly we think of stewardship related to finances, those tedious kitchen table-type talks of sorting out where money should go and what you can or can’t buy.

But, again, this isn’t just about how extravagant of a vacation you can afford this summer. With stewardship, we recognize that the calling from God isn’t only about how you satisfy yourself but also how you care for others, how you invest yourself in spreading wellbeing; not just making your own mess but attending to others’. Again, it may not seem all that rational. You may think that if you’ve worked hard for your income you should be able to play hard and make your own choices and not have to sacrifice. You may think you’ve earned it, that you deserve a reward, that you’re entitled to a treat or a new purchase or some luxury time.

But that brings us back around to the appetites of sheep, right?, and imagining yourself to be a better shepherd in charge and in control, and back again to ecology.

The glimpse I hope you’re getting is that God isn’t a God to lord it over you. God is not the highest and mightiest, the most in control, fancy and luxurious, with the biggest palace up in heaven, most removed from the struggles and vulgar stink of everyday life. Our God is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who gives himself and lays down his life for you. Jesus your Lord is sty-warden, hanging out here amid what’s disgusting and insignificant and despised in our world and of your life, simply out of devotion to you, for love. So Jesus wasn’t looking out for numero uno, or if he was it was because he didn’t count himself first. He wasn’t pushing others aside to try to get ahead. He didn’t sacrifice the well-being of others to make a place for himself, but offered himself to make a place for you.

This is the model of our faith, the shape of our lives. In our gospel reading Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep” because he cares for and knows them. Our 2nd reading took that word of good news and invited you to live into it saying: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

That “ought,” though, is tricky there. The struggle I have in putting these words together, and I think the Bible writers faced the same struggle, is that it can sound harsh or difficult. Telling you to love and to lay down your life, you may feel like arguing that you can’t be forced to love, that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices. Just as Luther realized, you can’t approach this by reasoning through it, or you’ll just turn up your nose. We show our sheepishness is much too inherent.

But what Jesus the Good Shepherd is doing is changing sheep into shepherds. In his care and devotion to you, he is converting you from being self-serving sheep to expand your awareness that you may know others in the flock. In laying down his life for you, he is giving you his life, making you to be a good shepherd like him.

So while parents may grumble and be worn out by changing diapers in the middle of the night, they also don’t need to be forced into caring. Even the disliked and disagreeable tasks are transformed by love. And the love of Jesus is transforming you from being a hungry sheep only looking at your own appetite and taking whatever you can instead to lay down your life, to realize that life’s fulfillment is not found in having more than others but in what you share, what you can offer. This comes so naturally (at times) in our families, this love and willingness to offer ourselves.

But these days present an urgency of tending to our larger family, for the care of the earth around us. During this week of Earth Day, we again pause to recognize that we have been takers, thinking that we had every right and no problems in claiming bigger houses and new cars and countless electronic gizmos and a country with the largest military and unnecessary plastic objects and whatever we wanted for lunch.

In a time of ecological crisis, led by the Good Shepherd, we are called and invited to love, to lay down our lives, to see what we can do without, so we don’t foul up life for others but promote our shared wellbeing. It is in asking what we can sacrifice, and, if we really care, it may be in laying our lives on the line.

When that seems too frightening, too unpleasant, too unreasonable, then turn again to the Lamb of God who fills you with all joy and peace in believing, the God of life who lays down his life for you, and takes it up again, that you may enjoy his blessing and live with his life and abide among his flock forever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us (ELW #789)

* Luther’s Works, vol45, pg39

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