Sermon: Keepers of the Living Sea
Texts: Psalm 104:24-28; Ezekiel 47:6-12
Date: January 13, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
This line of poetry from a 2007 Sabbath Poem by Wendell Berry means a great deal to me, and has influenced how I have come to try to steer our church’s ministry these last few years: Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge / of what it is that no other place is, and by / your caring for it as you care for no other place. This sentence comes from a long, brilliant poem by Wendell Berry that reminds us that hope is grounded in learning our place in more ways than one. I admit I was mightily tempted to just read Berry’s poem and sit down since he says so eloquently what’s in my heart. Well, his poem and the psalmist’s poem celebrating Creator and creation. But what I want to do this morning is say something about what it means to care for our place as one facet of our spiritual journey to and with God.
Psalm 104 is a beautiful thirty-five verse hymn that ranges all over creation. We just read a few verses, those having to do with the sea, since that is my particular focus this morning. But the psalm itself (look it up if you like in the pew Bible) mentions all manner of things—clouds, mountains, wild asses, grass, storks, lions, breath, wine, even the mysterious sea creature Leviathan. One of the things I most admire about this particular psalm (my second favorite of the 150 in the Hebrew Scriptures) is that of the thirty-five verses human beings are specifically mentioned in only four of them. Human beings are put quite firmly in their place in this psalm, as one of many beings and wonders created by God. The emphasis of the psalm’s poetry is on God the creator and sustainer of all that is, which inspires praise: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.”
That phrase “while I have being” reminds us subtly that human life is short, especially as we take our place in the frame with trees and mountains and sun. All the more reason that humans ought not think too highly of ourselves as the be-all and end-all of creation. One commentary I read points out that we might notice that in Psalm 104 there is no elaboration on humanity’s status or vocation—no “image of God” language here connected to humanity. The “trees of the LORD” are mentioned in verse 16, but we hear nothing about “the people of the LORD.” Humility is in order.
It’s no great secret that humans lack humility, on the whole. Those of us descended from the traditions of Western Civilization, at least, have elevated humans to the only species that really matters, with the earth as backdrop and resource. We’re quite fond of the part of the second creation story that theoretically gave Adam “dominion” over the earth. Although one can make a strong case that even the old language leans more toward stewardship—taking care of earth as if we were God’s gardeners—on the whole we have behaved as if we own the place. We have imagined dominion to be ownership despite other notes in our religious tradition whose clear message is “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and all those who dwell within it.” [Psalm 24] Historically, our people have interpreted the instructions God purportedly gave Adam to have “dominion” over all the creatures of the earth as a 007 License to Kill—kill, extract, use up, pollute and walk away from.
Our church book group read a fascinating book in the wake of the 2016 election called Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, A Journey to the Heart of our Political Divide by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The author went to Louisiana to try to understand folks in that politically conservative part of the country. One of the things that has stuck with me from that book were several stories of environmental devastation. Hochschild listened to one family that had lived on a particular bayou, Bayou d’Inde, tell the story of how it used to be there, when the family gardened, raised chickens and hogs, and harvested fish from the thriving bayou. I want you to hear their story: “We could catch frogs at night and fish in the daytime—gar, bass. There were other fish too: crocker, menhaden, stripped mullet, and red fish, which all had once fed the great snowy egrets, white and brown pelicans, gulls, herons, spoonbills, terns and killdeer—birds that once thrived in the bayou. The frogs would sing and carry on all night long. You could drink the water [out of the bayou] then.” Family members remembered the pleasure of sitting under the shade of cypress trees with their green moss.
Then industry came in as people pursued jobs and profits above all other values. “The bayou began to stink so bad you had to leave the windows down on hot nights. It killed the cypress and grass from here clear out to the gulf. And you still can’t eat the fish or drink the water.” Harold, a senior member of the family who is a third generation bayou dweller, says, “I haven’t heard a bullfrog in this bayou for years. I heard one holler about three years ago, from inside one of them drains, but he didn’t holler long. I don’t know if someone caught him or he died.” He describes how during a “fish kill” the fish flopped about on the surface of the water and on the banks “trying to breathe.” Then he turns to the turtles. “We noticed the eyes of the turtles had turned white. They would sit still on a log and never jump off to catch and eat something. They’d gone blind and starved to death.” Then he talks about the livestock. “My dad found his cows, tipped over, lying down. They had drunk the water. And the chickens. First, they’d walk around, their wings hung down. They they’d lie down dead. And his herd of goats and sheep, all dead…My nephew used to raise hogs. And you know a hog can stand almost anything. Because of the bad water, my nephew had to cook the slop he fed them. But the hogs got out of the pen and went to drink the bayou water and died. The health unit came down on my nephew for not keeping his hogs from the bad water, but they didn’t do nothing about the bad water.”
The family goes on to talk about members of the family and bayou neighbors who got cancer. “The only one that didn’t get cancer was my daddy,” Harold says. “Everybody else—all us kids and our spouses that lived on these forty acres—came down with cancer.” Most died. None of the ancestors in pre-industry days had died of cancer, but it devastated a generation there in recent times.
I have never felt more compassion for a group of southern Republicans than when I was reading this terrible story. Compassion even stirred for one of the players Hochschild interviews, a man named Lee who was paid by one of the regional industries to go out late at night and dump tar buggies full of toxic waste into the public waterways, having been cautioned that he was to make sure nobody saw him do this errand. When Lee himself got sick from the toxic chemicals he was laid off. Terrible stories. No justice yet in various lawsuits. Hochschild notes that the folks around there take some comfort from Revelation 11:18 which promises that God will bring ruin to those who ruin the earth, “destroying those who destroy the earth.” But that’s not until the end of the world.
I wonder if the good Christians of the Bayou d’Inde are familiar with Ezekiel 47? Ezekiel’s vision of restoration of the people and planet is much more encouraging than the vengeful vision to which some of the Louisiana Christians are clinging. The text we heard today is from an account of a vision of the prophet Ezekiel which goes on for eight chapters. Most of the vision is concerned with the restored temple and renewed priesthood, but the passage we heard envisions living water running from springs beneath the temple flowing out, becoming a river, and blessing the earth. “Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there…On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food…their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” The prophet sees the river reaching a feature of his landscape, the Dead Sea, and the stagnant waters there become fresh and begin to thrive. “Everything will live where the river goes.” Revelation actually takes up this same theme in the 22nd chapter, placing the essence of Ezekiel’s vision in a vision of a new heaven and new earth God has planned.
What good are such prophetic visions? Are such images merely pie-in-the-sky, pretty pictures of what we passively hope for after history as we know it closes? The temptation of passivity is strong, especially when our economic desires clash with our ecological desires, causing the kind of cognitive dissonance that appears in Hochschild’s story of the folks she met in Louisiana. But passivity and waiting for God’s Great Clean-Up and Vengeance Project to commence are not the only responses available to us. We can absorb a vision like Ezekiel’s and creation-centric poetry like that of Psalm 104 as blueprints of God’s will, God’s hope. It’s intriguing that our Scriptures are arranged in such a way that visions of Paradise bookend the human story, and are sprinkled throughout in poetry and prophecies about restoration and healing. We begin in the good creation, the Garden of Eden, and end in the New Heaven/New Earth vision Ezekiel inspired in John the Revelator. A thriving creation with all manner of living creatures on earth and in the waters—humans creatures just being one of many—are the vital spark of these visions. This is Gods’ intention.
Between the bookends of Paradise human history unfolds. Our role is supposed to be to fit ourselves into God’s creative scheme, but in many places humans have tried to fit the environment to our desires more than we have fit ourselves into a harmonious ecological order. There is no doubt about the out-sized and often harmful impact our species has had during our time on earth. Since we humans are the ones with the most ruinous powers, we have a unique responsibility to approach creation with–in a word–humility. Ecological activist Bill McKibben says in no uncertain terms that “humility, first and foremost,” is needed before we can move toward any solutions in the environmental devastation we humans have wrought, or prevent future devastation.
As I read the stories of some of the ruined places in Louisiana I wish heartily that the living water Ezekiel dreams of could flow into those dead bayous, restoring what has been lost. I find myself profoundly grateful that we live in a place not yet completely ruined by unrestrained industry. But of course such ruin is in no way out of the realm of possibility. Our call to good stewardship is urgent in so many ways. Humility must be a top priority as we live in this place, and care for it as we care for no other place.
That’s the reason why we at EHCC are—with your approval at our Annual Meeting—going to try a new way of being good neighbors to some of the other creatures of the Salish Sea. If you read our January newsletter, this will sound familiar, but let me review the proposal for you. As one aspect of our stated “Living Water” mission priority we will be divvying the congregation up into three groups we are calling “Alliances.” These three groups will be named for important species living in the Salish Sea: The Orca Alliance, the Salmon Alliance, and the Oyster Alliance. The purpose of these Alliances is:
· To encourage people to identify more personally with our non-human neighbors.
· To encourage people to learn about the creature with whom they are allied.
· To encourage people to take action to protect orcas, salmon, and oysters through individual action (such as participating in the annual beach cleanup), through special group projects (such as working with the Puget Sound Restoration group on re-seeding native oysters), and through advocacy (such as supporting indigenous people’s efforts to restore salmon runs).
· To help folks get acquainted within the church with smaller groups with which each person is identified.
Again, the idea is to encourage members of each alliance to commit to learning and active advocacy. This might entail a field trip to an aquarium, or a lecture about the critter, or a trip to Olympia to attend a legislative hearing or to promote some governmental action. As with everything at church, participation will depend on people’s time, energy, and conscience. But we hope such an initiative will enhance our understanding of this place and our place in it, and help us grow our compassion for our more-than-human neighbors. As a side benefit, we hope being in particular alliances will strengthen our connections with each other. Teams can do that.
Will such an effort of a little church like ours have any impact? Who knows? But I believe such efforts align with God’s intention for creation. Ezekiel’s vision makes it clear that God is the source of the living water flowing from the temple, the heart of the people’s religious practice. When we strive to align our values and practices with God’s creative purposes, we reach for a power that may flow through us to do the work of restoration. We may be instruments of the kind of restoration Ezekiel envisioned, living water flowing (metaphorically) from beneath our church’s foundations.
I invite you now to listen to a few more verses of Wendell Berry’s 2007 Sabbath poem. [Keep in mind that he’s writing about his place in Kentucky, but you can think fast and adapt your mental pictures to our place.]
…Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
place that you belong to though it is not yours,
for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
and the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
in the trees in the silence of the fisherman
and the heron, and the trees that keep the land
they stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
and how to be here with them…
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
before they had heard a radio. Speak
publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
from the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination…
We rejoice that our Scriptures still have potential to light our imaginations and teach us our place in this splendid Creation. Beloved, let us hope then to belong to our place—nearby the Salish Sea—by our own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by our caring for it as we care for no other place.
 Berry, Wendell From