Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tree-Hugging Dirt Worshipers

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Lent include Genesis 9:8-17; I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Last Sunday, we sang a wonderful spiritual with the refrain, “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.” I’m not sure if it was Monday or Tuesday before I stopped humming and hearing that heart-song.

Today’s portion of Genesis can be described as the foundation for that hymn. On the surface of things, the Bible presents this first covenant as the font from which later divine covenants flowed, including God’s promises to Abraham upon which Israel sees itself as chosen by God from among the nations to bless the nations. And, given how the Hebrew Bible has shaped the Christian faith, the case can be made that the new covenant of reconciliation in Jesus Christ has this first covenant with Noah as its cornerstone.

It’s no surprise that we 21st-century Christians may not be willing to stay on the surface of scripture, as we consider such a Bible text as this one. It is by now the standard approach to understand the Book of Genesis as a kind of archeological dig, recognizing layers of ancient stories organized and edited by later writers. While the stories speak of primordial times, they have been shaped and re-presented by writers who pressed a strategic purpose, much later than the primeval voice we’re hearing on the surface of the story.

Today’s portion of Genesis is thought by many commentators to show the signs of having been written—by which is meant the ancient stories, told over countless centuries, re-crafted by a skilled author—between 600 and 500 years before Christ, making this apparently oldest (because first) of the Hebrew scriptures actually younger than the famous books of the great prophets that we trace to some 700 years before Christ.

And what might the strategic purpose have been that midwifed the birth, the genesis, of such a story as this one about the covenant with Noah? What had happened between 600 and 500 years before Christ? The pivotal experience of the Babylonian Exile, a calamity for God’s chosen people when, in the year 587, the brightest and best of Israel’s citizens were deported to the homeland of their arch-enemy. For some 50 years, by the waters of Babylon Israel sat down and wept, until, starting in the year 538, following the miraculous edict of King Cyrus of Persia who freed Israel, those who had gone out, carrying the seed, returned again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Oh boy, I hear someone saying. We are expected to care about this? This is somehow relevant to us? Well, yes, it is. The writer’s strategic purpose is to assure the hearers that God has not withdrawn from the created order. As devastating as current events appear, God has not left us comfortless or alone. That message was urgently needed during the time of Israel’s exile, and was intensely celebrated upon Israel’s return. Hearing this story about the primeval commitment of God to Israel’s ancestors, her then-current exiles would have taken heart. And we, millennia later, can hear the heart-song encourage us in a time of our own (and our planet’s) urgent need. Increasingly, the human race is exiled from intimate loving regard for the earth and its myriad creatures. It will help us restore that healing relationship if we allow this covenant with Noah to show us that God is at work now, within the created order, to reconcile us to a stewardship, a cherishing, a respecting that is not so much a commitment we have to invent, but an apprenticeship we have to serve in faithful teamwork with God who is already committed, to us and to the earth.

It’s all there in the covenant with Noah. We know about covenants. We are united to Jesus Christ in the covenant of baptism, where God’s commitment to us is made crystal clear and, in turn, we embrace certain commitments to God and our fellow human beings. While our baptismal covenant makes no direct mention of protecting our environment, we certainly hear it in the Iona Community Creed where caring for the earth is raised to creedal status. I’d vote for making it more explicit in a revised baptismal covenant some day, to save our children and grandchildren from having to hunt for it. It’s there-- in the call to resist evil (renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God)-- and it’s there in striving for justice, peace, and dignity, which surely requires embracing a strongly green passion for safeguarding our environment.

I am grateful for all tree-hugging dirt-worshippers. I noticed that identity announced on a parishioner’s bumper sticker recently. Guess what? God—the God of the Bible—is one, too. God establishes this covenant not only with humankind, not only with every living creature, but with the earth itself. The rainbow in the clouds will remind God, God says, “of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Here is a wake-up call to return to basics. The everlasting arms we lean on are embracing not just human beings, but also the enormous range of non-human life forms, the biosphere itself, including the dirt. All of life, and all that supports life, is within the heart of God, is of strategic worth to God, is important to the mission and purpose of God in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God who has made the world of matter… matter.

Though Christian theology has yet to make enough of this emphasis, it has not been entirely missing. Thomas Traherne, Anglican priest in Hereford along the Welsh border, now recognized as one of the great poets of the 17th century, left us this rhapsody to reveal to us the ground of our being:

“Suppose a river or a drop of water, an apple or a (grain of) sand, an ear of corn or an herb. God knoweth infinite excellencies in it more than we. He seeth how it relateth to angels and to men, how it proceedeth from the most perfect lover to the most perfectly beloved, how it representeth all his attributes, how it conduceth in its place, by the best of means to the best of ends. And for this cause it cannot be beloved too much. God the author and God the end is to be beloved for all their sakes. O what a treasure is every (grain of) sand when truly understood! Who can love anything that God made too much? His infinite goodness and wisdom and power and glory are in it. What a world would this be, were every thing beloved as it ought to be!”

In the beloving expressed in God’s covenant with Noah, God takes on the unconditional obligation, the ongoing indelible commitment to the entire web of life. Remembering this covenant is God’s responsibility, and God chooses the rainbow to remind not us but God of this divine responsibility. “The covenant will be as good as God is,” observes a commentator on Genesis. And as ecumenical, interfaith, and universal as God is: for this covenant with Noah is not just with any one community of people. It is with all people. Since the story starts in Israel’s court, it is for Israel to keep this ball in play; and it is for Christians, shaped by Judaism, to spread the word that we have a very green God who has made everlasting promises to non-humans as well as humans, and humans have a responsibility to follow the divine lead.

Buddhists do an admirable job inviting this responsibility through mindfulness training. This Wednesday will be a Day of Mindfulness at Williams, as the College’s Meditation Society and the Chaplains’ office sponsor public events that will include opportunities to walk a labyrinth at the Faculty House, to enjoy a catered vegetarian lunch that will teach mindful eating, to participate in a mindfulness through movement workshop in Upper Goodrich Dance Studio, and a guided meditation sitting at Thompson Chapel, culminating in an evening talk entitled “Heart of Mindfulness” by Rebecca Bradshaw, dharma teacher. We are all invited to any and all of these events. I’m looking forward to attending several.

And Anglicans worldwide are called, this Lent, to develop a mindful approach to the environment, shaped by the mind of Christ. We launch today the first of five gatherings following the ten o’clock service to hear scripture as we enjoy homemade soup and bread, then enter conversation, facilitated by a team of parishioners, John Ladd our leader today. There has been no sign-up for this experience: simply come downstairs after worship, where coffee will be ready and, closer to 11:30, the meal will start (and there’s plenty of food). Augmenting this Lenten series, we’re encouraging participation in this year’s ecumenical Lenten carbon fast, described in today’s leaflet, a practical way to make each Lenten day count.

Two thousand years have shown us what a theology based on the centrality and superiority of the human race can do to exile humanity from its God-given capacity to hug trees, treasure species, steward resources, and confirm the worth of dirt—and of the entire biosphere of which we all are part. Do you think it’s time to recognize that, in the covenant with Noah, God has entered covenant with the earth… and wants to teach us the heart-song?

(Thomas Traherne’s meditation appears in “Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality”, edited by Richard H. Schmidt, Eerdmans, 2002. The commentator on Genesis mentioned here is Terence E. Fretheim, in “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, volume 1.)