A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Creation Care Sunday
October 3, 2021
A few weeks ago on an early morning run along the Mississippi River I almost stepped on a coyote. It all happened so fast. The coyote was just off the path where I was running, and all his attention was focused on two ravens across the road and just a dozen yards away south of the both of us. He was stalking them, thinking only of a potential feathered breakfast, when I quietly puffing along interrupted his plans. He emerged from the undergrowth to my right moving cautiously but quickly, keeping low to the ground, about two strides ahead of me. He didn’t see me, and thank God I saw him. I was able to shout, causing both him and the two ravens to explode in opposite directions before I tripped over him. I continued on my run with a pervading sense of awe and no small amount of shock. The coyote surprised me because I did not expect to see him there. His presence, however natural, felt like an intrusion into my world. Of course, as most of us know the city is full of wild animals – we have a few flocks of wild turkeys, a small but thriving herd of whitetail deer, racoon, opossum, and squirrels in abundance, and even the occasional cougar and black bear have been spotted moving along the periphery of the city. Even as I say all of this, I feel as though I am implying still that these should not naturally occur here, in this place, when in truth, these animals have been here far longer in some cases, than humans have been on this continent.
Conservationists and environmental activists will tell you that this is one of the fundamental challenges facing our dying earth – this notion that the world can be divided and classified into parts, the wild and the developed, the human places and animal places, primitive and cultured, public and private. This is a lasting and destructive perspective brought to us as a part of the enduring legacy of whiteness and colonialism, a perspective which most indigenous cultures do not share or understand. Barry Lopez, once observing of the many Eskimo cultures of the Arctic, wrote that a fundamental difference between colonial or western culture and that of the indigenous occupants of Arctic is
“that we have irrevocably separated ourselves from the world that animals occupy. We have turned all animals and elements of the natural world into objects. We manipulate them to serve the complicated ends of our destiny. Eskimos do not grasp this separation easily, and have difficulty imagining themselves entirely removed from the world of animals. For many of them, to make this separation is analogous to cutting oneself off from light or water.”
This summer when the remains of 215 children were found at an unmarked gravesite near the Kamloops Residential School in Canada, the world was shocked and horrified. But, many in the First Nations and Native communities of both Canada and the U.S. were grieved, yet not surprised. This was but further evidence of a long and sustained effort by colonial culture to erase the original indigenous occupants from the land. As the late Native American activist, theologian, historian, and author Vine Deloria Jr. once said, “Americans wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent, and it was Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness. Yet, in order to control the landscape, they had to destroy the original inhabitants.” This was the genocidal history most of our indigenous neighbors have had to survive in order to be here today. All over Canada, First Nations peoples gathered to mourn the lives of those 215 children. One such occasion, on the shores of British Columbia was an impromptu gathering where traditional prayers and songs were offered in hopes that these would help the spirits of the children find safe passage to the spirit world. As the organizers began to sing the paddle song, their backs to the water, facing a crowd of mourners and onlookers, they noticed that many in the crowd were pulling out cell phones and cameras and were pointing toward the water. Behind them four killer whales had come in close to shore and were swimming just off the beach. In Northwest Native cultures, especially Tlingit and Haida, when someone dies, the elders and ancestors are believed to come in the form of killer whales to bear the spirits of the dead to the afterlife. For many on that sad day, there was no shaking the sense that the animal world and ours were inextricably linked, that there was power and kinship in the presence of those whales.
The power of that connection is mostly lost on we westerners who have inherited a tradition born of the very sacred texts we have read today. In Genesis, in the passages surrounding those we heard this morning, is the divine mandate, at the moment of the creation of humanity, that we would have “dominion” over the created order, that the animals, plants, indeed all that is, has been given to us for our benefit, pleasure, and need. This has given rise over the millenia to the absurd notion that the land can and ought to belong to us, that we can possess it, and take from it, by divine mandate, all that we want or need. As Aldo Leopold once wrote in the 1940’s, “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
If we are to build a good and healthy theology of creation, we will need to unlearn this broken theology of dominion in favor of one that teaches kinship with each other and the created order. Lucky for us, in the second chapter of Genesis there is another account of Creation, one that is very different from the first, which places the creation of people before the plants and animals, which places humanity in the midst of a garden, and which describes the relationship between humanity and the animals as a partnership. This story reminds us first and foremost of our creatureliness amidst other creatures, and restores a sense of kinship with the created order, the interdependence of all living things on one another. Where the first creation story gives rise to our desire to divide and classify the world, to study and assess it as inanimate, as an object, defining what can be extracted from it for our own benefit and purposes, dividing and breaking it down into useful and unuseful, the second story would seem to heal those divisions and classifications, binding humanity and creation together in community, as Lopez describes, “with love and respect.”
In many ways this second creation story also anticipates the story of Jesus, the incarnation, when God, we believe, entered into the midst of God’s creation. As the writer to the Colossians says of Jesus this morning, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”. In this way the incarnation not only demonstrates God’s care for the world, in redeeming and healing it, but also in the simple act of relating in kinship with it. Jesus spoke in a language deeply formed by his agrarian roots, and told stories deeply connected to place, drawing on image and experiences with both people but also the land on which they lived and the animals with which they shared it. Theologian Willie Jennings writes,
“The God of creation joined the creation, willingly, joyfully. How do we live into that? Could it be that we should use Jesus’ presence to let the land and animals speak through him?”
In a way this frame calls us out of an individualized response to the crisis of environmental destruction which our western mind, focused as it is on private ownership and individual agency, and which our individualized modern spirituality might call us, and back to the best image we have of Jesus, that is the community we call the body of Christ. A communal response is needed because the challenge in front of us, the distorted view of a divided and dominated creation, is a systemic problem. Ethicists would say that instead of referring to our current epoch as the “Anthropocene”, that is, defined by humanity’s impact on the world, we might more accurately call this the “Capitalocene”, defined as it is by the ever concentrating centers of power in systems of domination, commodification, and extraction. Ours is a struggle not against humanity, but rather against powers and principalities, corporations and policies. We are being called to a deeper and fuller humanity, one in which we share a communal relationship with, a kinship with, all things. The old adage undergirding the erasure of indigenous ways and peoples was that society must “kill the indian in order to save the man.” Activist and Water Protector Kim Tallbear says, in actuality, it is the settler mind, not the indigenous mind, it is the colonizing impulse that must die. She says we must “kill the settler in order to save us all.” Such dramatic language might call to mind for we Christians the language of the Apostle Paul who in the letter to the Romans speaks of the “old man” who must get crucified with Christ in order that the new might live.
Indeed as the sinful, colonizing, destructive self dies, what is born finds kinship and reciprocity, mutual love and care in the earth itself – as if the plants and animals true to the second story of creation, are partners with us, loving and sustaining us as we are called to love and sustain them. So it is that Jesus says this morning, that hope and new community, the very Kin-dom of God, springs from the ground, as a mustard plant, from tiniest of seed to greatest of shrubs, housing within it even the nesting bird. As Jennings notes again, speaking of Jesus’ own dependence on images of the land to paint us a picture of God’s reign – when Jesus spoke of the future, our hoped for restoration, “a favorite image he used was the seed. With a seed, the future arrives from the ground up, not as a force coming toward us.”
This morning as we come to this altar we are in effect practicing this new humanity, this new way of being in community and communion with all things created and made, we are leaving behind the divisions and strategies of sin, the ways of colonization and death, and finding ourselves amid the Kin-dom of God, living at peace with all the created order. Finding ourselves here, we might also find the voice to speak, as one body united with each other, with plants and animals, and the very holy ground, which God has created, to repent of what has divided us, speak out against and cast down those oppressive systems and corporations which would seek to extract and dominate, to bless, as one people and one creation, the land, the waters, and all that lives upon the face of the earth, and to heal all that is broken. As Robin Wall Kimmerer shares in her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, “Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
This morning the created world, from every blazing leaf and dew draped spider’s web, calls us to surprise and joy, a new kinship, an awareness of our creatureliness alongside all other creatures, even if we have to trip over them to see it.