Sermon: What or Who?
Texts: Genesis 2:4-9; Psalms 96:11-13
Date: September 10, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
The smell of ashes. We’ve had it in our nostrils more than we’d like this summer.
One of the liberators of the Auschwitz concentration camp remembers the smell of ashes and the silence that greeted his army unit when they got to that awful place. The horror of realizing that the smell of ashes was not traced to a “what” but a “who” was seared into memory.
One of my colleagues wrote on her Facebook page a few days ago when the ash from forest fires was falling that her first thought was “who or whose is this?” Her prayer that morning was for the creatures, the foliage, the trees, the homes that were the ash that fell that day. I was touched by her inclination to compassionate prayer rather than mere complaint about the air quality. I was reminded of stories of the ash of the holocaust victims, my reading about the smell and sight of human life destroyed. We lament the slaughter of those millions of human lives in World War II; they are clearly “who’s,” not “what’s.” My colleague’s query about the forest fire fallout, “Who or whose is this?”–stated as a “who” instead of a “what”– leads me to ponder my relationship to the trees that make up the majority of the ash falling around the west.
This fall we are spending a few weeks of worship focusing on a new-ish lectionary called the Season of Creation. It seems like a good idea to re-ground ourselves in the beauty of the Earth and the genius of the Creator in the midst of turmoil in the human population. The first week lifts up “Forests” as the aspect of creation to be celebrated, and points to the psalmist’s poetry about all the trees of the forest singing for joy. When I was first laying down some worship plans, I was thinking forests would be a wonderful thing to celebrate at summer’s end, particularly given the mission outreach we have enjoyed at the new Agate Passage preserve watering newly-planted trees and shrubs. I’m so pleased with the way our EHCC crew entered into partnership with the Bainbridge Land Trust to try to keep these young green beings from withering and dying during the dry months. It’s an excellent, practical embodiment of our “Living Water” mission priority, especially since the sand bluff of the undeveloped shoreline there will play a role in keeping Puget Sound’s water and marine life healthy. What a fine thing to celebrate on “Forest” Sunday!
Little did I know when I started planning that we might be picturing trees on fire as we contemplate forests, given the severity of the wildfires these last few weeks. That the smell of ashes rather than aromatic needles might be front of mind as we came to worship this week. The smell of ashes is certainly lodged in my nose after a week in western Montana. My home state has had an unusually severe fire season this year. Early in the week I was home visiting my family, we saw a new patch of smoke rising over a mountain outside Plains, where I went to high school. During the course of the week we watched that fire grow and come over the ridge to the town side, and watched it make its way down the hill slowly but inexorably. We breathed it in and peered through its smoke as it dimmed sun and moonlight. The fire got personal as plans for home evacuations in the forested areas around town began to be broadcast. It got personal as several members of my high school class missed our 40th high school reunion because they were occupied fighting fire or defending their homes from it.
It got more “personal” when it was affecting some of the human persons I know. Up to that point, I suppose I was thinking of that nearby forest fire as a loss in terms of a loss of beauty, a loss of resources. It didn’t have the same impact on me without the human link. Why is that? I found a helpful perspective in a book of essays by Wendell Berry. He cites John Stewart Collis’s book The Triumph of the Tree, which lays out a historical perspective on our human relationship to the trees. First, Collis says, there was the “Era of Mythology,” when people believed that they should venerate the world, including the grand trees, because they were inhabited by spirits and gods. In that era people were frugal and considerate in their use of the world for fear of offending the resident divinities.
Next came the “Era of Economics” when the creation began to be valued in terms of cash; the sacred groves of trees were cut down, and since the gods formerly thought to inhabit them took no direct revenge, the trees were sawed into lumber and put up for sale. This era, Collis says, built into an orgy of exploitation that has now brought us to the edge of disaster.
Now we are at a point in history when we may—if we are able to make ourselves wise and humble enough—enter an “Era of Ecology,” when we will utilize the science of achieving an equilibrium with the environment. We will realize and live in the realization that nature is not inexhaustible and that, in fact, we have already used up more than our share of its wealth. We will—perhaps—come to realize that we do not live on the earth but with and within its life.
I was born and raised in the Era of Economics. I have been socialized to see the non-human world in terms of its cash value—to think of its “what-ness,” not its “who-ness.” Some folks, I believe, are ready to turn the page on the Era of Economics and enter fully into the Era of Ecology (to use Collis’s 1950’s era terminology), if for no other reason than the increasing evidence that treating earth as mere commodity to be exploited for profit will eventually lead to our demise as a species. We’ve seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey how paving over Houston’s wetlands and absorbent prairies for the profitable and largely unregulated development of strip malls and cheap housing multiplied the destructiveness of the flooding there. Ignoring natural systems for profit is costly in the long run; that may eventually dawn even on the profiteers.
Some of us sense more spiritual reasons for living into a new way of being on and in earth. Kathleen Dean Moore writes about how some people believe that there are two distinct worlds, the sacred and the mundane. It’s an old philosophical/theological notion that there is a sacred world that exists in a place and on a plane beyond human knowing, and an imperfect world where we live out our daily lives. “The sacred may touch down on a mountaintop now and then, or reveal itself through a thin place in time, but it is not of this world. The mundane, on the other hand, is material, ordinary, mute, present, and useful. The mundane is said to have instrumental value—it’s good as a means to some other end….commodities, something you can consume or exchange for something else.” This philosophy is, in a sense, the foundation of the Era of Economics; the mundane is appraised for its cash value. Moore goes on, “But the sacred is said to have intrinsic value. It is good in itself; it can’t traded away…It is, as Robinson Jeffers described the Pacific Coast, ‘the heart-breaking beauty that will remain when there is no heart to break for it.’” The thing is, it’s all sacred. The earth is good in itself, regardless of whether it has instrumental value or profitable potential for the human creatures.
We get a sense of the sacredness of earth way back in the ancient stories about Creation preserved in our scriptures. Both our creation stories in Genesis speak of earth’s intrinsic goodness. Listen again to a bit of the story we heard earlier in this hour: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the [hu]man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” [Genesis 2:8-9] I don’t read that old, old story literally, but I love the way the trees are highlighted, trees that not only have instrumental value—“good for food”—but also are saluted for being “pleasant to the sight.” How lovely that the first words in the portrait painted of God’s garden in our second Creation account was about the sacred forest, into which the human being was lovingly placed.
The story of God’s garden draws our attention to two trees named as the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life plays a role in numerous spiritual traditions. In the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in Proverbs, it is “used to refer to anything which enhances and celebrates life…It is related to righteousness…and desire fulfilled…In Revelation 2:7, the Tree of Life refers to fellowship with God.” Maybe you can think of a tree that has symbolized the Tree of Life for you—a tree that has called up a sense of awe and wonder, a tree that has led you to contemplate the holiness and goodness of creation, a tree that has comforted and nourished you, a tree that has reminded you of being rooted and grounded in love and grace. We talked about this a bit in Tuesday’s Bible study; Anna mentioned an apple tree she used to climb as a youngster, whose apples were always perfectly ripe on her birthday. The way she spoke about it reminded me of the way someone might recall sitting in the lap of a beloved grandmother. That tree was a Tree of Life.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil appears only in this one creation story. There isn’t much said about it in the text, but gozillions of interpretations have been offered about what it was and what it means. I find biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann’s assessment about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil persuasive. He says that in God’s garden humans are given three things. The first is a vocation: to care for the garden. The second is a permit: Everything is permitted, particularly in regard to how the garden feeds and sustains. The third is a prohibition: God sets a limit God expects the humans to obey out of respect for the authority of the Holy One who speaks. Bruggemann says you can discern something about human destiny here inasmuch as vocation, permission, and prohibition are held in balance.
The human beings, so the story goes, were so-so on the vocation, all for the permission, but not respectful of the prohibition. So not much has changed in the years this story has been told, eh? One agenda of the story is how to live with the creation in God’s world on God’s terms. Bruggemann says the story “asks if there are boundaries before which one must bow, even if one could know more. It probes the extent to which one may order one’s life autonomously, without reference to any limit or prohibition.” One could say that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil isn’t so much about a particular kind of knowledge that is forbidden as it is about respecting a limit that has been set; understanding that humans are not free to run roughshod over creation in total disregard of the Creator and the rest of creation.
It seems as though, on the whole, humans are still so-so on our vocation as caretakers of God’s garden, still all for permission to do whatever we want, still incredibly disrespectful of nature’s limits and prohibitions. We are running up against limits on what the earth and air can absorb of our pollutants and our greed for commodities, and we don’t like it one bit. One pressing issue for our generation on earth is whether we can learn to respect limits that come with being part of creation, not somehow above it. Will the Era of Economics give way to the Era of Ecology? Will we, as a species, recover our vocation as caretakers and live as though there are limits to what we may do?
As people who are rooted and grounded in faith, we are called to be spokespersons for limits and boundaries. Living as we do in a capitalist economy, we must challenge, for instance, the secular gospel of unlimited and endless economic growth. That’s part of our vocation.
Another aspect of our vocation is recognizing the sacredness of earth, celebrating its intrinsic value, treating beings like trees not just as commodities but as neighbors to be loved. As John Stewart Collis was writing about entering an Era of Ecology, he proposed a new phase of spirituality that would recover something of what was lost when humans abandoned our ancestors’ belief that the trees were inhabited by spirits. He spoke not of ideas but of feelings, an “extension of consciousness so that we may feel God, or, if you will, an experience of harmony, an intimation of the Divine…the experience of unity [which has been lost in our era of exploitation].”
My colleague’s question as she smelled and saw the ash from Western fires—“Who or whose is this?” leans in this direction, an extension of consciousness. It expresses a feeling for what is lost, what is suffering, that doesn’t begin and end in the narrow confines of the fragment of creation that is human. Such a feeling is personal with or without persons. Compassion for the whole creation is stirred. And again, along with that compassion, we as people of faith who feel God’s presence and potency woven into creation recall that our life here includes prohibition as well as permission. We regard and respect limits to our use of what earth offers, feeling God’s will for the joyful flourishing of trees and oceans as well as persons.
Our next hymn invites us to pray for the trees. It may seem a bit awkward. I’ve certainly been experiencing the awkwardness of being urged to pray about weather recently [specifically, praying for rain while in Montana], something I don’t normally do. I don’t believe prayer is magic, as if rain would come or would stop if enough people prayed about it. I don’t believe prayer is a substitute for responsible action and advocacy. I do believe, though, that we pray for what we care about and what we feel something for. Prayer rises out of our feelings of compassion and connection, and reinforces our oneness. So let us pray for the forests, thirsty and ravaged, and in prayer and song remember that this earthly garden is not merely a “what” but a “who,” sacred and holy.