Think Green, Act Local

April 21, 2024
Psalm 23; I John 3:16-24

It is a beautiful spring morning. I can hear birds chirping, squirrels chattering and scolding. A perfect day for Earth Day activities or to protest the vote for millions and billions more dollars toward deadly weapons or to write a sermon. While I have a hard time saying no, I choose to let others shout down the vote at the Capitol. I protest by picking up trash. And the sermon? We will see.

It is not unusual for me to pick up trash when I go walking. But on this Earth Day, I literally get in the weeds, amidst the poison ivy, along the banks of the Northwest Branch. I am determined to remove the plastic bags that I have noticed wound around the plants and trees at the edge of the water. Is it possible there are slightly fewer plastic bags this year since the Prince George’s County bag tax took effect in January? By the end of my quest, the giant trash bag contains among other things, a sweater, biking shorts, cans, bottles, deteriorating plastic bags, a whole lot of covid masks, and a new soap wrapper. I have seen people swim in this water but I guess some now also bathe under the bridge, where water flows over rocks and turtles.

As I untangle the plastic bags and empty them of river sand, I remember those at the Capitol, creating a disturbance, trying to make their voices heard. “No more weapons to Israel. Send food, not bombs.” I think about the people in Gaza and Ukraine. The majority of the land in Gaza, is decimated. There will be a lot to clean up in the near future – at least we hope it will be soon. Instead of cleaning up the excess and over abundance of plastic, junk food wrappers, bottles and cans, people in war torn Gaza and Ukraine will be searching for anything salvageable. Survivors of the war will be digging through dust and rubble, praying they do not encounter human remains, trying to find something useful or meaningful that has survived.

Beloved Psalm 23 describes how beautiful it is to be alive. We are reminded that we are not alone, even when we walk in the scary places, in the alleys and the valleys that are unknown, in the foggy mist of unpredictability. We are not alone. We are cared for in the green of nature; held and nurtured, anointed and sated, what could be better? The Presence is with us, forever and ever.

On the one hand, this text is a familiar comfort: green pastures, a full table, the cup overflowing. On the other hand, when we look around at the drought and destruction, hunger and thirst, this can feel like a faraway fantasy. Yet, we are in the season when our faith teaches that out of death there is new life. Where is that life?

Song – The Earth, the air, the fire, the water, return

I John 3 does not talk about the natural world, does not reference nature at all, yet it contains a message for us on Earth Day.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we too ought to lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers and siblings.

How do we move from the sacrificial love we ascribe to Jesus to Earth Day? The climate crisis, along with the conflicts and wars across the world which are most often driven by the need for land and water, point us to this ancient wisdom. It will take some sacrifice, some laying down and letting go of what we imagine we must have, in order for there to be life for the generations to come. The text goes on If you have more than enough material possessions and see your neighbors in need yet close your hearts to them, how can the love of God be living in you? Do we have enough love living in us? Can we open our hearts to our neighbors?

We know the Great Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. What if we expand our understanding of neighbor? Eight hundred years ago St Francis began expanding what it can mean to be in community beyond humans when he referred to ”Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” Calling this planet “Mother Earth” is an even more ancient tradition. Many of us already include animals in our lives; our dogs and cats appear in family pictures. How are these non-humans our relatives, our neighbors? How do we love these neighbors?

In the courts, neighbor is beginning to be defined more broadly. In 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was given personhood status, a recognition that the Maori people had been seeking for 140 years. In 2019, the Klamath River in Oregon was given personhood status by the Yurok tribe. In Colombia, the Amazon River and in Canada the Magpie River have received personhood status. Indigenous peoples, around the world, know how to love their river neighbors. Are indigenous people laying down their lives, letting go of their “higher” status as humans, to show their love?

Song – The Earth, the air, the fire, the water return

One of the practical first steps toward being willing and able to make a sacrifice for something is knowing it, having some relationship with it. We can do this with people that we know and love. We are willing to give up or let go, or at least delay gratification, when we feel connected. Maybe that is the problem. Too many humans have lost connection to the earth, to the land, to the waters.

How do we in the city, where we may feel so removed from the land, how do we take steps toward reconnecting with the earth?

  • Anna, who grew up in this congregation, loves coral reefs and now she helps take care of them, even create new ones. She is connected.
  • We have birders in this congregation who know birdsongs and bird habitats. There is a connection.
  • We have gardeners who know the native plants, what kind of soil they thrive in, how much water they need, what kind of birds and butterflies thrive on those plants. There is a connection.

What other ways might we be connected to the land and the waters?

A few weeks ago, Sylvia, who grew up in this congregation, called to reconnect. She began to reminisce, asking if there was still that fun area at the back of the parking lot where she and her young friends used to play after church. I laughed and said we were in the process of reclaiming it. Who knew that in the 1970s the swath of land behind the dumpster was an ideal place for children?

Kim and Mira may not have known the history but they have imagination and know-how. They, and many others of you, have “laid down their lives” or at least their Saturdays, to make that land under the trees a connecting place. We will once again connect with the land, and the plants, and with each other. We might even connect in new ways to our human neighbors on the cul-de-sac, who are grateful for the new path through the trees. Do our neighbors see the love of God in us – in new ways?

At this point, I could go all fire and brimstone, scaring you with statistics about the climate crisis. But you all probably know a whole lot more than I do about the facts and the future. You know that if we are going to get serious about climate change, our responses will need to be governmental and institutional, local, national and international. And they will need to be personal.

So much of Christianity in this country talks about having a personal relationship with Jesus as your Lord and Savior. If we are going to have any chance of preserving the earth, we are going to have to have a personal relationship with some part of the land or water. Activist theologian, Ched Myers, calls this watershed discipleship. In this watershed moment, we concentrate on our own watershed area, loving it, knowing it, learning it. We make it personal.

I remember some 20 years ago when 25 young trees were planted along the Northwest Branch. A friend volunteered to be in charge of one tree, to help it survive. She was given a bucket and instructions on hauling water from the river to water the tree. She took ownership of it, or perhaps better put, she began a partnership with the tree, maybe even a friendship. If a river can be given personhood – with inherent rights to exist, flourish, and regenerate, then why not a tree? Is that making it too personal, too personified?

Whatever we call it, a personal relationship or watershed discipleship, we stand a better chance in the future if we follow the biblical instruction to lay down our lives in some way.

Though this isn’t a fire and brimstone sermon, this may be the altar call part where people are invited to name their commitments, existing or new. It makes me squirm to be honest. But unlike other alter calls, let’s see if this one can be not motivated by guilt but by joy. What are you already doing, or what might you do, to have a personal relationship with the earth, with the waters, with the plants and creatures? What would bring you joy? It will be different for each of us, we each have our own circumstances. Seek and find the thing that brings you joy in connecting to the earth and share that with others. The hard part  may be laying down our pride and becoming public about our personal commitments to the earth. Let’s remember that a relationship with the earth is walking in the way of Jesus.

As it says in I John 3:

My children, our love must not be simply word or mere talk – it must be true love, which shows itself in action and truth.

I return to the Northwest Branch later in the afternoon. I want to see what it looks like from the other side of the river. What I see is that 90 minutes makes a difference. It gives me inspiration to go back another day and clear out more detritus. I am developing a personal relationship with the riverbank and those who live nearby. The fox and the bald eagle, the heron, osprey, kingfisher, pileated woodpecker, blue bird – these neighbors bring me such joy along the river.

On this Earth Day, I encourage us to act boldly on behalf of our neighbor the earth. And perhaps one day the next generations will live into that beautiful land of Psalm 23, in green pastures by the still waters.

Song – The Earth, the air, the fire, the water return