Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Occasionally there is an overlap in the theological writing I do and my professional life. I wrote a sermon recently on the water resources conflicts in the Klamath Basin. Those of you with a spiritual, religious, or theological viewpoint might want to take a look. I welcome comment.
The Scripture Readings
Genesis 1: 9-12, 20-31; 2:8-9, 15
Exodus 17: 1-7
Mathew 13: 3-9
The reading from the gospel of Matthew seems a fitting place to start today for it is a parable Jesus told about the sower – and this church is filled with sowers -- of both seed and word. Jesus said sometimes seed fails to grow because it falls on a hardened path, rocky ground, or among the thorns. But when seed falls upon good soil, it brings forth grain. As with most of Jesus’ parables, we are left to ponder exactly what Jesus was trying to say to his followers. The gospel invites us to that inquiry with the charge “Let anyone with ears, listen!”
The people of the Klamath Basin have been divided and torn apart by the conflicting claims of farmers, fishers, tribal peoples, and endangered species for scarce water resources. These groups have attempted through non-violent direct action, litigation, mediation and negotiation to resolve those claims. But they remain divided and the water resources problems remain unsolved. Often, mediators remind us of one truth that resonates with Christians: people in a community can best resolve conflicts by listening to one another and attempting to address each person’s interests to the greatest extent possible, with creative and loving solutions. But, today, I want to hold up other truths the people of the Klamath Basin must not only hear, but listen to with their hearts, if this region is to find lasting, sustainable solutions to its water resources problems.
One thing we know as Christians is that any lasting solution must grow from the seed, the seed that Jesus sought to sow in all of us, the seed that is deep, abiding love for God – and its fruit: love of one’s true self, love of neighbor, and love of all God’s creation.
As Christians, we are called to care for all of God’s creation. Humans were placed on Earth in the garden of Eden to till and keep it -- to care for the plants, trees, birds, sea life, wildlife and people God created. As Genesis 1:31 says, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. As the United Methodist Church instructs in the Book of Discipline, Social Principles, Paragraph 160:
All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect.
We must confess that have fallen far short as faithful, loving stewards of creation. We pollute the water and air so that they injure both humans and other life. By watering suburban lawns and by using outdated irrigation techniques, we waste half of our precious water. We condone the death of entire species by destroying their habitats through profligate waste of water and unsustainable logging and ranching practices. And, as we have belatedly recognized, by relying on oil and gas and coal to fuel our modern, spendthrift lifestyles, we are now endangering the very climate of our planet upon which all life depends.
Why has the good seed of stewardship and sustainability failed to bear fruit? As the gospel of Matthew explained the parable of the sower:
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart: this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the world, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
When we fail in our duty as stewards of God’s creation, the seed sown by Jesus has fallen on poor soil. But, what makes us hardened paths or rocky ground or thorny bramble?
Hardened paths are those who do not understand. Some of us are hardened against recognizing our duty of stewardship and sustainable living by misreading the gospel. Humans anxious for biblical sanction to destroy creation misinterpret Genesis 1:28 in particular. That verse reads in part: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Some turn the words “subdue” and “dominion,” the English words we have used to translate the Hebrew scriptures, into a right to annihilate nature. But the Hebrew words suggest the human role as mastery over earthly creation. A master may use earth’s resources to create worthy products, but a good master does not abuse those resources nor misuse them for trifling purposes. Indeed, the statement “God’s Earth is Sacred,” drafted by an ecumenical group of renowned theologians – including Methodist theologians – speaks directly to this issue. It condemns and refutes the “false gospel” which proclaims “that God cares for the salvation of humans only and that our human calling is to exploit the Earth for our own ends alone.”i
Some of us may have been hardened by misreading John Wesley, especially his practical essay on the Use of Money. Wesley indeed encouraged Christians to be diligent and productive, to “gain all you can,” but recognized that gain must not be at the expense of another. When we gain by injuring the whole of creation, we transgress that limit. We also violate Wesley’s injunction to “save all you can”: by wasting much of what we gain. We indulge in extravagant lifestyles – to the expensive apparel, epicurean food, expensive furniture, costly pictures and paintings, and elegant gardens condemned by John Wesley, we modern Christians add a host of acronyms, SUVs, MP3s, HDTVs, and ATVs – at the cost of the Earth and other creatures that inhabit it.
Some of us may have been hardened because secular society encourages us to do whatever we want with our money or land – we have money and hold title to land and water and therefore possess inviolable “private property rights.” Charmed by the siren call of those who make fortunes litigating our “rights,” we sometimes forget that Christians never own what society calls “private property.” As John Wesley said in his Use of Money essay:
When the possessor of heaven and earth brought you into being, and placed you in this world, he placed you here, not as a proprietor, but a steward: As such he entrusted you, for a season, with goods of various kinds; but the sole property of these still rests in him, nor can ever be alienated from him.
And then, there is rocky ground. Rocky ground is those of us who hear and understand the word, but fall away when trouble comes. I have stood on this rocky ground. I come from a family of miners and carpenters, who loved both their work and the outdoors. But when mines shut down and the price of lumber skyrocketed because of environmental requirements, many of my family lost faith. They were tied to their way of life and were unwilling to sacrifice it. Rather than trust in God and the gifts God had given each of them, they worried and became frightened about how they were going to take care of their families. For at least awhile, they became deeply resentful of those who reminded them of our obligation to protect the many wonders of God’s creation. They became the rocky ground I loved and stood upon.
They became rocky ground because, at some fundamental level, they did not trust God to provide for their needs. Remember the story in Exodus where the people of Israel are thirsty and resent Moses for bringing them into the desert. They are grumbling, quarreling, and have lost faith. In desperation, Moses cries out to God and God allows Moses to strike rock with his rod and miraculously bring forth water. Exodus 17:1-7. After this, God grows impatient for he has provided manna and water to feed the people time and again, yet they do not trust God to provide. Psalm 95 reminds us of God’s impatience with our refusal to trust and counsels us to remember that:
The Lord is a great God and a great King above all gods. In his hands are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed….listen to his voice! “Do not harden your hearts, as at Mer’i-bah, as on the day at Mas’sah in the wilderness when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.”
The Psalmist implores us not to harden our hearts to the cry of Creation and stray from God’s call to stewardship out of fear. We must trust that, through the Spirit and the body of Christ, God will provide. Luke 12: 22 – 31
Some of us become rocky ground because we forget that discipleship is costly and requires sacrifice. Jesus told the rich young man that he must give away all of his property and follow him. Jesus told another that he could not delay in following him by professing other duties such as burying the dead. Jesus warned his disciples that they must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him, for those who lose their life for his sake will find it – but those who seek to save themselves will not. Matt 16:24 – 25.
And finally, some of us are thorny brambles. Thorny brambles hear the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and the seed sown there yields nothing. We worship wealth and power, instead of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Mark 12:29. We worship wealth -- even though we know the fate of the rich fool who planned to build storehouses for his wealth so that he could live in luxury the rest of his days. He, of course, died the same night. We worship wealth – even though we know that Jesus' metaphor of the camel and the needle. It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to pass into the kingdom of God. We worship wealth, though we have heard the word. Our fate in ignoring that word may well be like that of the rich man who dressed in purple robes and fine linen and ate sumptuous feasts. Poor Lazarus longed for the scraps from his table. In the end, Lazarus ended up with blessed with cool, refreshing water of the spirit and the rich man ended up in Hades, longing for a drop of that water from Lazarus’ fingertip.
Today, let us ask God’s forgiveness. We have confused God’s call to be faithful stewards of creation with a license to use all of creation as we see fit, to fulfill our will rather than God’s will. We have lost our trust in God’s providence. We have lost our willingness to make sacrifices and follow the sometimes costly path of discipleship. We have even broken the first Commandment, worshiping wealth instead of loving God, our true selfs, our neighbor, and God’s great and glorious creation.ii
As we receive God’s forgiveness, let us be transformed from hardened paths, and rocky ground, and thorny brambles, into good soil For, as the gospel explains, “what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit…” Matthew 13: 18-23.
And, with that forgiveness, let us remember that God will provide what we need for our journey.
I pray that the seed of the word of the Lord fall upon the good soil of this congregation and that you will become sowers of that word in this community and in the broader world. Amen.
i God’s Earth is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States, drafted by Dr. James A Nash, and co-signed by Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr., among others.
iiSee Resolution 7, United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society