It was represented to me that some people like to read sermons rather than watch the video and this Sermon from Sunday got a few requests. So here it is. It is slightly altered to be made readable. However, in essence it is the same as the video in the previous post.
Knowing Nature Better
Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Fern, Bog, and Swamp by Annie Proulx
“From that family in that decade I was given a glimpse of the intricate complexities of the natural world…As I grew older and read and traveled I learned that the 1930’s were years of vile human behavior in a world that hubristically considered itself “civilized”...” –Annie Proulx
Preparing for last week’s sermon about Jonah and the whale…or the big fish…or the sea monster, my first thought, was of a children’s book that I loved when I was younger. The book I thought of is a sort of Jonah story. At least is is a Jonah story with a twist; Burt Dow Deep Water Man by Robert McCloskey. Burt Dow continued McCloskey’s trend of stories like Make Way for Ducklings or Blueberries for Sal where the wilds of nature overlap with the powers of civilization…and somehow everything works out
Now if you don’t know the story–it was his last book and not nearly as popular as the others–Burt was a lobsterman who was also swallowed by a whale, just like Jonah. He didn’t pray for assistance though, or wait for help from anyone, like Jonah did. For Burt the “big fish” wasn’t the representation of the ancient power of creation. It was an annoyance.
Trapped in the belly of the beast, Burt used old buckets of paint in his lobster boat and covered the whale’s stomach lining with that paint. The whale got indigestion. Paint isn’t good for wild animals. Then, Burt, the boat, and a random friendly seagull were vomited out and back into the ocean
When I was a kid–growing up at a time when we humans were more of a threat to the natural world than it was to us–I wondered why Jonah wasn’t more proactive, like Bert. I wondered why this Biblical prophet didn’t play the clever modern and outwit the big dumb whale. I think all my young friends did, too.
Now, living where we did, it was still relatively easy to look around and see the vast, diverse array of Creation–which is to say the interconnected ecosystem, human and otherwise–around us. Like Annie Proulx–although much later–we understood when we were very young that nature was something to be respected and at times feared. After all, we had fallen through the ice. We had cracked our ribs sledding. We had broken limbs and gotten concussions falling out of trees.
However, a great deal happened to the earth between the 1930’s and the 1970’s, so perhaps unlike Proulx we also had a sense that in the end nature could be outwitted when we humans put our minds to it. We knew it could and would be bent to human uses. We saw this in the farms next to our houses. We saw it in the municipal, state, and federal parks where we could hike and camp. We saw this human hand, too, in the Androscoggin River that ran through downtown. When I was born it was one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the country. It was where the mills dumped their dyes and their bleaches until the pillars of toxic foam rose above the banks, touching the bottom of bridges. It was a place where the “smell of money” –of the fumes from those liquefied chemicals–was a regular part of our lives.
Now, we knew we probably would have had fewer injuries if we didn’t think like Burt Dow. We were able to see cause and effect, after all. Also, the river–which was injurious to all of us–was already designated a national problem; receiving some of the first funds from the Clean Water Act when I was two years old. The time and the tide had just begun to turn. You see, the 1930’s of Annie Proulx’s childhood had helped to create a crisis that could no longer be ignored in the 1970’s and 1980’s. During our time we were realizing that Creation, as dangerous as it had been to Jonah and could be to the unwary, was being made more dangerous through our actions
But that idea–that we could and should control nature–was and is still ingrained in us at a young age. That idea contains within it the belief that human beings are at the top of the food chain. It is the unexamined assumption that we are the smartest and most creative species ever evolved and the spurious fact that we are destined–in the words of the Transcendentalist minister James Freeman Clarke to go “Onward and Upward Forever” through the strength of our minds.
Now, whether we actually believe this anymore–this manifest destiny of humanity–isn’t entirely clear. We have experienced a great deal, from the toxic river and the stench in the air, to the bizarre weather patterns, drought, flooding and increased risk of pandemics. This experience might change our minds about human superiority. Either way, though, the way we humans act as a group still implies this sense of superiority, separation, and control. Whether we are stewards of the earth, or its exploiters, we like to be in charge.
Now the way we debate the future of our environment assumes this belief; a belief that we are empowered to decide what nature has to give us...and arrange things to our liking. It goes at least as far back as Genesis Chapter 1 “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth.” If you want to dive into the implications of this theology you are invited to the forum after church on March 3.
Right now, suffice it to say that riding underneath the human practice of exploitation of the earth is the belief that it is ours and that we own it like we own a car. We think we can do as we see fit. It undergirds the thinking of those polluters of the river and the air as well as the folks who make the parks for our recreation.
The question both sides are asking is what services it can provide us. Is the river power for the mill and a dumping ground for waste or a place to fish for food? Is the mountain a source of nickel, or iron or coal? Or is it a place to go skiing in the winter time? One set of answers are better for the planet. However, in both outcomes, the basic question is the same… How can the earth, how can creation serve humanity?
Of course we could also ask a different question, namely how we can be of service to it and–through that service to the entire ecosystem–be of service to humanity. We also, as human beings, have subscribed to this question, sometimes simultaneously. We do this even though it isn’t really compatible with the dominant theology–secular and sacred–that our capitalist culture projects. This other way will be the topic of the forum on March 10.
You see, there is no requirement for us to follow a rule extrapolated from an ancient story written by people who could not conceive of the industrial “advances” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no requirement that human beings stay perched on our privileged place while creation suffers “beneath” us. Again, as I said last week, we can learn and practice not rulership but relationship.
However, that is harder to do than to keep on keeping on trodding our path to self-destruction. “Our species is not adept at seeing slow and subtle change.” Says Proulx “There is a tree, we cut it down—we immediately recognize that there is a change. Yet we see a tree and we see it again a year later without noticing the new growth tips”
This is where those few verses from the Gospel of Luke come in. As with many parables, it features a rich man who doesn’t know what he is doing. The confused rich man gets angry because he has this fig tree that isn’t bearing fruit. He demands that his gardener cuts it down because it is taking up space. You see, the tree isn’t serving the man so in his mind…it doesn’t deserve to live. It must be a faulty tree. However, the gardener, the hero in the story, stops him and says “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure in it.”
He says this, because he, the gardener, is in relationship with the soil, with the tree, with the animals offstage, with the ecosystem that actually produces the fruit and actually sustains all living things. He is being patient. He is reading the signs. He is asking not “what does the ruler require” But instead, “what can we all contribute so that we all get what we need?”
The soil needs the manure from the animals. The tree needs that fertile soil. The boss…needs that fig.
This change, as we talked about last week, doesn’t arrive right away. Annie Proulx writes that “To observe gradual change takes years of repetitive Passage through specific regions week after week, season after season, noting sprout, Bloom and decay, observing the local fauna, absorbing the rise and fall of waters.” It takes time and knowledge. It takes listening and learning but then…in a years time there is the fruit…and the cycle starts again
So let us take a moment to think of the subtle changes we have seen in creation and in our own lives as we are part of creation, too…
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.