Every now and then I find things that are so appalling about our culture and what we take for granted (which is perhaps the biggest problem), that I feel I need to share them. The intention is not to make any of you feel bad – it is for all of us to feel bad! Bad enough to DO SOMETHING. Since I don’t know what that thing is, I will post environmental justice articles here and hope continued exposure creates change. Maybe one of you will be inspired with SOMETHING we can do! I hope you watch the videos and read the articles and also feel appalled. : ) Sharing is caring! Pr Linda
The first topic is CLOTHING WASTE.
Kind of random topic, except I’ve been reading about it for years, trying to know what best to do with our worn out, unwearable clothing. When it’s not good for anything but rags (and I’ve got plenty of rags), what then? I send our ripped blue jeans and denim to become insulation, take whatever is still ‘decent’ to thrift stores, and try to find fiber/fabric recycling collection places for the things I can’t think of a use for. I spend quite a bit of time fussing about this. We aren’t clothing consumers. I have (and wear) garments, shoes, favorite outfits older than my adult children. (did I just admit that?) I have a winter jacket I got as a sophomore in high school in 1974 – pale blue with a white fake fur edge on the hood. The dang thing is still just fine! It’s a bit stained, so I wear it to throw in wood or shovel the driveway or tromp around in the woods. I have a pair of soft leather snow boots from the same year whose soles have gotten too hard and slick to be safe, so I’m in the process of taking the boot off – and considering my options. Mike’s favorite sport coat is a classic Carmel-colored corduroy with suede patch elbows and fake leather buttons. He came to our marriage with it. I’m glad to see corduroy is coming back. It’s still good.
So, anyway, that’s the kind of clothing people we are.
And then I picture the inside of department stores stuffed full of clothing that hasn’t sold before the season changes. Multiply that image by …… (I have no idea how many clothing stores there are even in the Twin Cities). What happens to all of those clothes? What percentage is stored until its season returns? (None?) Where does it go? Some goes to GoodWill and discount stores like that. But the rest? And why are fabrics for women’s clothing so flimsy that they only last one or two summers, or made of that special cotton blend that is soft and silky when you buy it, and is completely filled with unfashionable little balls after you wash you once? How can ‘nice’ long sleeve T shirts sell for $6? The answer is obvious. We’re supposed to buy more!
But what happens to our flimsy T shirts whose lycra has failed or the garments that were just bad ideas from the beginning? Here is one solution our fast fashion industry uses.
Genesis 1:9 And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. 10God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. And God saw that it was good. 13And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
I have made a point over the years of introducing you to a wide and varied assortment of images for God. I believe that when we are presented with something that doesn’t fit our pre-conceived categories or stock images, we’re forced to consider that dissonance, to pause our rote religious expectations — and think! And that is always my preaching goal. I don’t want to be the only one thinking about this stuff! I want to coax you away from static, standard, simple images and conventions and assumptions.
I’d like you to find a connection to God everywhere you look: a gardener planting Eden, a potter forming little creatures from dust and ashes and water; God as clothing swaddling you, or a cloak warming you; God as purifying fire, as warrior, as king; God as shepherd, or lamb; God as woman sweeping her house or kneading bread, God as mother hen, God as eagle; God as dazzling bright cosmic light; God as Water. I preached a what if sermon about God being water a year ago.
What if water is the image of God in which we are created? 60% of our bodies are water! I’ve kind of kept this idea floating around since that sermon. I like it a lot. If God is water, then every living thing is sacred because every living thing contains water. It means the very fact of our continued existence requires God. Humans can live for up to 40 days without food, but each cell in our body requires water to function. Water lubricates joints, regulates body temperature, and helps to flush waste. We can live only 3 to 7 days without water. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” says psalm 42.
In the beginning was Water, and the Water was with God, and the Water was God. 2Water was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in water was life. ~a retelling of the prologue to John
The watery chaos of complex cells and gregarious genomes that the wind of God’s Spirit nursed into life in the beginning; rain and snow coming down from heaven, watering the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, accomplishing the divine purpose, succeeding in the thing for which it is sent; water pouring on the thirsty land, streams on dry ground; a new thing springing forth, a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, springs gushing forth in the valleys; still waters in green pastures, living waters of the womb; ever-flowing streams rolling down justice and righteousness in a parched and weary world; water flowing from the pierced side of Jesus; a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Come, to springs of living water.
God is water because all things – seen and unseen, known and unknown – are in God and, as water, God is in all things. It stands to reason, right? All things react to water, are acted upon by water, and new things spring forth: microbes and long dormant seeds come to life when water soaks into dry soil — like hope in despair. Water powers the climate in an eternal cycle, and will as long and heaven and earth endure.
Is water God? I don’t know. Have we anthropomorphized God, imagining the Most High in human form? Well, of course we have.
I think a case could be made for this bit of whimsy – especially after the reading I’ve been doing about soil. I had decided to begin the Season of Creation with humans and work backwards through the days of creation because I wanted to end with the highpoint of creation: earth’s story of death and resurrection. Dirt. Well, soil, actually. History is always interpreted through the perspective of the one telling it. So humans would naturally think that Day Six is the pinnacle of creation. It’s the day of mammals and mankind: the day we are given stewardship of the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and of every living thing that moves upon the earth.’
But none of that would be possible without Day Three, when the waters were gathered and the dry land appeared and when God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation.”
The way earth puts forth vegetation is through fungi. Fungi is the Kingdom that bridges the plant and animal kingdoms. Mushrooms aren’t plants. They are the matrix of life. Fungi were the first, and will likely be the last, living organism on earth. Mushrooms are the fruit of fungi, and as the image on the bulletin cover shows, the life of mycelium lies beneath, throughout every bit of soil, connecting, feeding and communicating with ‘every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit’. Mycelium are the tiny, threadlike networks of fungal cells that cluster and connect. It is the mycelium who bring nutrients and water to plant roots. The mycelium who break down dead and dying material and make it available for new life to grow from the minerals and chemicals. Mycelium work very much like the nerves and synapses in our brains. They communicate through carbon. They are literally everywhere on earth, billions of threads beneath each step we take – we breathe in spores with every breath, without fungi and bacteria in our bodies we would not be able to break down and digest food. Water, minerals and chemical nutrients are necessary for plant life, but without mycelium, plants would not be able to access their food.
So, I’m working on a trinity! If God is water, Christ is fungi! Christ is the one who brings us to God, who makes God known. That’s the role of fungi – the mycelium bring water to plants, to make it available to the roots to take up into the tree and give it life.
Okay, I’m going a little far. But there is so much beneath our feet that is life; that creates or allows life processes to occur; that break down all organic material – even oil slicks and diesel spills – to get it out of the way so that new life can thrive. And in that process of death, it feeds and supports the new life, makes it possible. This is divine mystery, divine mastery at work. Sacred soil.
I think it makes a good image for God – the earth of all the living, ground into the knees of our clothing, stuck to our boot treads, smudged on faces. If God is soil, we are laid to rest in God, enveloped, regenerated, reborn a new body. “O Death where then is your victory, where then is your sting?” I like that dust to dust.
If soil is sacred, if water is sacred, if creation and creatures, made in the image of God, are beloved from the ground up, we’ve got some explaining to do, repenting to do. Major changes to make.
The value of playing with images of God in ordinary, everyday, earthly things is to take these things really seriously, to look at each sustaining, interconnected part with wonder, to ask what if…. What if this is God, what if God is truly present here? The goal of imagining God in earthly form is to ask that of everything and everyone we see. If the ground beneath our feet bears such extraordinary complexity, carries out unfathomed activities like being the communication medium for trees, invisibly houses a kingdom responsible for all life on this planet… how can God not be present there?
Give thanks for the ground of your being, open your eyes to the wonder, and tread softly as you go.
Genesis 1:20 And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
I read this story on BBC this week. I couldn’t really work it into the sermon, so I’m just offering it as a bit of fun.
A British wildlife park has had to remove five African Grey parrots from public view because of their foul language. Lincolnshire Wildlife Park adopted the parrots about six weeks ago and put them in quarantine together. Steve Nichols, the park’s CEO, said potty-mouthed parrots aren’t uncommon in his line of work.
“For the last 25 years, we have taken in parrots that have sometimes had a bit of blue language. Every now and then you’ll get one that swears and it’s always funny when they swear at you. But, just by coincidence, we took in five in the same week – and because they were all quarantined together it meant that one room was just full of swearing birds. “The more they swear the more you usually laugh, which then triggers them to swear again – and imitate the sound of laughter.”Nichols said the cursing birds sounded “like an old working mens’ club all just swearing and laughing.” He said he decided it would be best to move the cursing birds out of view before visiting kids heard them. The birds have each been moved to different groups, with the plan to put them in separate areas of the park, “so at least if they do swear it is not as bad as three or four of them all blasting it out at once.”
He said he also hopes the cursing parrots learn nicer words from their new enclosure mates ― because he dreads the alternative. “If they teach the others bad language and I end up with 250 swearing birds, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
From God’s perspective, I think Day Five must have been a blast! Creation began by organizing energy and mass and matter, then light and darkness – all very cool cosmic stuff, to be sure! And then on day three the water above was separated from the water below – an atmosphere was created – and waters gathered together as dry land appeared – and then soil and water and sunshine brought forth vegetation … day three was a loonnngggg day! Day four seems a bit out of order. Sun and moon and the stars in their courses. But maybe not. God tilted the earth a bit and gave it a spin, and twirled the moon, and behold! – day and night, seasons and hemispheres, jet streams and tides that really got things humming.
And then, Day Five! “Let the waters bring forth…” The waters of the deep, the waters of ponds and streams and bogs, became co-creators with the divine word bringing forth swarms of living creatures – the gelatinous goo of frog and fish eggs, starfish and snails and eels and leeches, schools of fish, and the great sea monster Leviathan, just for the sport of it.
Though the text doesn’t say, I put whales and seals and dolphins in day five – because of the joyful commotion of their praise! Great whales blowing and breeching and whomping down their flukes. Seals clapping their flippers. Dolphins laughing and leaping in and out of the wake. And penguins. I remember a penguin exhibit when I was a little girl. One after another, the little guys came flying beak-first down a stone waterslide into the water right at my 4-year-old eye level with streams of bubbles all around. The penguins popped out of the water, waddled around flapping their little wings and squawking, and bobbled back up the rocks to do it again. How birds became creatures like penguins and ostriches is a bit of a head scratcher. But they fit with day five. There was an ostrich – the Arabian Ostrich – that was native to Palestine and Israel until its extinction in 1966. The Bible lists a lot of birds by name – hundreds of them – and animals and plants. But, for all the talk of fishing, they don’t divulge the names of the fish they caught.
In Luke, Jesus says, 26Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Back then, they would have had a lot of birds to consider. Israel lies at a bottleneck along one of the world’s most important migration flyways. Twice a year, 500 million birds funnel through Israel; most are on their way back and forth from their nesting grounds in Europe and Asia to wintering grounds in Africa. Israel is vitally important to their successful migration. It is the last food source before crossing the Sahara desert – a 5 day flight with no food or drink. On the return trip, birds land exhausted and need to eat. Without the trees, bushes and ponds that these migrating birds need — tens of thousands of birds would not be able to complete their annual migrations to Asia, Europe and Africa. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel works to protect both the migrators and native birds by directly protecting them and their habitats.
There, as everywhere, extinctions, endangered species and habitat loss have diminished the number of native raptors and nesting birds since Jesus pointed his disciples’ eyes to watch them in flight. About 65 out of 206 species of native nesting birds in Israel are currently endangered.
World wide, more than 150 bird species have gone extinct over the last five centuries. Without human influence and interference, the expected rate of extinction of birds would be around one species per century. Some reports say we are losing ten species a year. More than 1,400 bird species are threatened with extinction today. That’s 14% of all birds.
A bit later in the passage Jesus continued: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I wonder if he was still considering the birds at that point.
I’ve been doing a lot of my reading on the back patio this summer. My presence there unnerves the birds who fly in for the feeders. They do a double take and U-turn and land instead in the safety of the lilac. They perch there and sing at me, or fuss, or warn their companions about the monster. Eventually, a chickadee will make a move and the others will take courage from its success. But sitting there and looking up at the treetops or into the raspberry patch or back edge of the yard, I’m aware of so many little birds that never come to the feeders. I suppose they are warblers. And when I’m really quiet, when I quiet my own mind enough to listen, I am aware of such variety of bird song. So many little flickerings among the leaves and tweets and chirps and melodies half begun, then sung back from another tree.
Considering the birds – or fish, for that matter – is a very good exercise of being present to, connecting with the animal that we are, the equality we must recognize. Trying to really use our ears to guide our eyes, observing the incredible being of that ordinary chickadee or yellow warbler in the raspberries, or feeling the flight muscles of an eagle riding air currents, angling a feather or two to catch the updraft. We will be so much poorer for the loss of another species.
‘Considering the birds” – considering anything besides ourselves, actually – is a wonderful use of our human attributes. A positive thing. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” You’d think we’d be desperate to keep that hope alive.
I realize that I’m preaching to the choir in this. West Denmark is an environmentally aware group of people. Most of you spend time with your hands in the dirt and have a favorite parcel of woods or patch of sky or shoreline that brings you peace. You might consider ducks and pheasants and turkeys from a hunting blind, and be more invested in chickens and fish as practical food sources than interested in my flights of fancy, but you know what I’m saying. We have a deep appreciation – even love, of nature. We don’t really need a season of creation to bring the plight and joys of wild things to mind. It is a source and object of deep contentment and love and concern.
So what exactly am I hoping this sermon series will do?… I’m not sure, but it has to do with salvation. Now, this earthly repentance and redemption. It all needs protection. The water with its swarms of living things, the birds of every kind soaring in the air we need to protect, nesting in trees or shrubs or grasses of the ground we need to protect. It all seems obvious and natural in small, personal ways, and devilishly difficult in communal, political ways. How do we get anywhere? How do we do our little bit in ways that mean something? What’s the point of a sermon about nature and birds and fishy things?
To the first part, columnist David Roberts writes, “Each person views climate change from their own idiosyncratic angle — and that could be the key to making progress in fighting the problem: less like a movement and more like a federation, of groups that are climate-aligned.
“Climate is everything”, he continues, “which means everyone touches only a tiny piece of it. Let people care about their birds or their pipelines or their mountains or their tech startups or their research clusters or their permaculture farms. Everybody needs a Climate Thing, a close-by proxy through which they can express their climate concern in a way that has local effects and tangible rewards. It is these proxies, these rich anchors in our lived experience of nature and culture, that inspire us. The important thing is that we’re all moving our pieces in the right direction.”
Churches like this, where members practice gratitude for creation are retrieving things we lost along the way. We’re learning our place in the natural world. There isn’t another world like this within reach of human travel. The moon, Mars, everywhere else we could possibly escape to, wouldn’t measure up. We can’t use up the earth and discard it.
When we thank God for this world, our home, and all its creatures, we let go of our self-preoccupation and discontent; we set aside greed; we focus less on what we want and more on all that freely comes to us every day. We tell our own story in a different way. And the things we become consciously grateful for, we cherish more dearly, we value more conscientiously, and we protect more fiercely.
This home of ours is not indestructible, but under favorable conditions it is resilient. In the daily actions that gratitude inspires we find our resilience, our hope with feathers, as well.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
And day followed night, bringing forth new forms of life day by day.
24 [On the sixth day] God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’ And with the specification of humans as animals, day six comes to a close.
God continues musing,“30 to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And 31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Since I’m preaching the order of creation backwards, last week was humankind – God’s after lunch creation of day six – accompanied by my confessed unhappiness about being a human, and that the image of God in us seems to have tarnished. I am not alone in this. Just a few chapters later, in Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—for I am sorry that I have made them.’ That was last week.
This is animal week and I’m quite a bit happier about it.
I admit that I have a ‘child of the forest’ relationship to animals, which allows a lot of whimsy and explains why I name and talk to the chipmunks in my back garden and feel that we have a relationship of mutual support. They eat from my hand and let me stroke their soft stripes. I grew up in the woods, not on a farm. Food came from the Save More grocery store, the best Christmas pears from Harry & David sent by my aunt and uncle, and summer vegetables from Altenburg’s farm wagon that came up from central Wisconsin twice a week. There were no hunters or fishermen in my family. The forest animals I watched and talked to were all alive. And that’s the way I like it.
God likes them to be alive, too. The Mulligan attempt of re-creation with the flood wasn’t for the sake of humans. I think it is our hubris to assume so. Noah was the best helper God found. Noah was the animal with opposable thumbs that could use hand tools. And, clearly, humans needed to be reminded that they shared day six with cows and chipmunks and hedgehogs and creeping things of every kind. God told Noah, (Genesis 618 )“I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him…. And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark.”
Eventually, as we know, the flood subsided and dry land appeared.
8:15Then God said to Noah, ‘Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.’ And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.”
I like that line. They went in two by two, and come out as families. Especially the mice and bunnies.
I think this story is told – was told around the nightly fires for generations and generations and placed into the cannon of scripture as a reminder and a corrective – because it is important to remember that we are animals, and that human animals were given gifts of thumbs and pre-frontal cortexes so we could better fulfill our vocation of tending and tilling. That’s it. That’s what we are to do. Tend to the ones without thumbs, tend to the trees, tend the water, till the soil for food, but tend to the habitats of God’s animals and bugs and birds and fish and everything that creeps on the earth or swims its waters or soars above it – “to keep them alive with you” so that they may abound and be fruitful and multiply. The animals were on the ark as equals to Noah and his small family. They ate the same food as each had ability to digest. They were not on the boat for fresh meat for Noah’s BarB. Maybe the humans got some eggs. But we are all of the same creation, all from the same creator.
Day six in my second resource for these weeks of creation, provides this poem by Christopher Smart (1722-1771). It is selections from his longer poem, from Jubilate Agno.
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself…
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life…
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.…
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion…
I like the idea from this poem that God and animals have a language, an understanding between themselves to which we are not privy. I think humans need to be reminded regularly that we are not better than animals, not more deserving of the earth’s resources. We are an invasive species, largely out of place within the natural cycles and sustainable processes of the earth because we have chosen domination over tending. Hubris was the sin that lead to the flood – false pride, arrogance – and as the tower of Babel story proved, hubris survived the waves. Humility is the opposite, and empathy, listening more and making less noise.
Which brings me to dogs and back to the summer edition of Plough. In The Book of the Creatures, Peter Mommsen writes,
“Dogs evolved “expressive eyebrows” to trigger feelings of affection in humans, according to a 2019 study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that in the thirty thousand years since dogs separated from wolves and began consorting with us, their faces have changed so that their eyes “appear larger and more infant-like” and are capable of mimicking human expressions. When they look at us, we feel the same tenderness as when we’re face-to-face with a young child. Put more cynically, dogs have managed to hack into our most primal emotion.” You know that look.
“Is it then instinctive manipulation when my Brittany hound gazes at me with his sad and eager eyes? No doubt, but that’s not the whole story. By analyzing hormone levels, the same study showed that dogs feel a pleasurable rush when their masters show them affection. Their masters feel the same, thanks to the same chemical, oxytocin. Evidently, we have learned to communicate as fellow creatures who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.”
The cattle of the field have the same response.
Cow Cuddling is a thing, and became quite popular during the pandemic when loneliness and longing for physical closeness and touch was so deeply felt. This unique pastime began in rural Dutch provinces more than a decade ago, and is part of a wider Dutch effort to bring people closer to nature and country life. Today, farms in Rotterdam, Switzerland and here in the US are offering cow-hugging sessions and promoting the joy-inducing, stress-reducing experience. The practice is centered on the inherent healing properties of a good human-to-animal snuggle. Cow cuddlers rest against one of the cows for two to three hours. The warmer body temperature, slower heartbeat and mammoth size of the animal makes hugging them an incredibly soothing experience, and giving the animal that backrub, reclining against them is believed to promote positivity and reduce stress by boosting oxytocin in humans, the hormone released in social bonding. The calming effects of curling up with a pet or emotional support animal, it seems, are accentuated when cuddling with larger mammals. The cuddling experience seems to be pleasurable for the cows as well. A 2007 study in the journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, states that cows show signs of deep relaxation, stretching out and allowing their ears to fall back when massaged in particular areas of their neck and upper back.
So, why can’t we be one among the many, a co-equal with the other creatures of day six? God said it was all good… what happened? How can evil exist in a good creation? Peter Mommsen again, “Darwin was hardly the first to notice the existence of natural evil; it’s addressed in the Book of Job, likely the oldest book in the Hebrew Bible. This question has also had a long history of Christian reflection, going back at least to the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Romans, he wrote that creation is “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay,” “groaning in labor pains.” It’s a passage that seems remarkably apt as a description of the realities of natural selection – or indeed, of the Covid pandemic.
The answer to the riddle, for the early Christian authors, lies in the nature of reality itself. All creatures, they believed, are words in the book of nature; but that book’s preeminent Word is the Logos, the Word made flesh. Maximus the Confessor, who died in 662, wrote that when we read the book of nature, what we are really reading is “the words of the Word.”
When we forget how to read the book of nature, we forget how to read ourselves. Mommsen writes, “One great gain arising from our civilization’s crime of global environmental destruction is the growth of ecological consciousness. We’re slowly – far too slowly – realizing what it would mean to lose the natural world from which we arose and to which we belong.
“Environmental activists bolster their cause by citing statistics showing the costs of climate change in habitat loss, economic and social disruption, or perhaps the disappearance of specific species. But underlying these rhetorical tools is a more basic conviction: That nature in all its intricate diversity has an inherent dignity and beauty. That ecosystems and landscapes are goods in themselves that ought not to be destroyed, regardless of any effects on GDP. That blue whales, African elephants, and the Amazon rain forest have a value of their own that we are bound to respect.
“The pandemic has created a new moment of millions of people worldwide re-learning to read the book of nature, even if only partially and imperfectly. Perhaps as we learn to read again, we’ll find that human nature, too, becomes more clearly legible. And perhaps too, as we read more deeply, we’ll again learn to decipher the signs of the Goodness behind nature – the one who is both author and subject of the book of the creatures, and who, in the words of our final hymn, “gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.”
Dear Lord who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a faithful donkey, bless all of your wonderful animals, give them shiny coats and full udders, swift legs and strong backs, cozy nests and cuddles. Keep us mindful of their rightful place as siblings of a different species, with us in this ark of your earth, to keep them alive with us. Compel us to share the resources of food, fresh water, clean air and safe homes not only with our fellow humans (which is more than we do now) but also with them, who are not lesser creatures nor less deserving. Amen
Stories of the battle between the forces of good and evil have been around forever. In a story that circulated at the end of the first century, the antagonist was a fierce dragon named Python, and the protagonist a woman named Leto, who was the mother of the god Apollo. When Leto became pregnant by the god Zeus, the dragon pursued her in order to kill her and her child. The north wind rescued Leto by carrying her away, so that she found refuge on an island in the Aegean sea. There she gave birth to Apollo and Artemis. Four days later, Apollo set off in pursuit of the dragon, slaying the creature to avenge his mother. Roman emperors used this story by associating themselves with Apollo, whose defeat of the evil dragon was said to have ushered in an age of peace and prosperity: Pax Romana. Caesar Augustus was hailed as a new Apollo. His reign was said to mark the beginning of a new golden age. The Emperor Nero also liked to present himself in the guise of Apollo, his image on coins bears the radiant beams from his head that were Appolo’s trademark.
When, in the book of Revelation, John tells the struggling and at times persecuted churches about a pregnant woman and a dragon, Christians in the seven churches of Asia Minor would have heard echoes of the familiar story of Leto, but they would also find that John’s version reverses the usual expectations. Instead of being the hero, Nero would have found himself as the dragon. He wouldn’t have been pleased.
Chapter 12 of the book of Revelation begins when John sees a great portent in heaven – almost like a constellation coming to life in the evening sky: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4He is so large his tail swept a third of the stars from heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river.… 17Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children… 18and the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.”
So, we have come to the last book of the Bible and another unnamed woman. She is Eve and Mary, Mother Nature, Israel, the Church – some combined image of the maternal, spiritual, co-creative essence of the people of God.
The Dragon symbolizes the powers and principalities that stand between humans and the divine presence. He is the reality of evil – complex and concrete, institutionalized, social and personal. Seemingly inescapable. He is apartheid, genocide and war, hunger and poverty, sexual violence and patriarchy. He is the enemy of community and compassion and justice; the destroyer of peace.
There’s a story of a four-year-old who had learned the Christmas story by heart. He was to open the Christmas pageant. Speaking clearly and reverently into the microphone he started strong, but when he got to the part of the shepherds and the angels proclaiming “glory to God in the highest,….” he forgot what came next. Just as his mom was about to coach him, he started again. “And the angels appeared to shepherd’s and said, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” It’s a funny story, but it feels more like the truth than “on earth, peace, goodwill toward all.” We can feel the dragon breathing down our necks.
What I like about this story in Revelation, what I find so interesting, is that it’s a woman about to give birth who stands face to face with the dragon. I know it’s not a real woman, but that’s not the point. It is the choice of a woman at absolutely her most vulnerable, in excruciating pain, and at her most powerful – pushing new life – a new being – out of her body and into the world. It’s the same dynamic as the incarnation (almighty God a human baby), as the last being first, of the self-emptying power of Christ that Paul describes in Philippians. It’s the life force of a dandelion cracking cement. (Well, sort of)
Think of the kind of power that women wield in our lives and that we’ve read about this summer in the Bible. There are warriors like Deborah and Jael, field workers like Ruth, wealthy merchants like Lydia, influencers like Naaman’s slave girl, deceivers like Rahab, the power of compassion like Mary Magdalene – they all exert power that can change the course of history, but birth is different. It is power where power is not expected. This woman, clothed in sun, upheld by the moon, crowned with stars – is swathed in the power of Creator and creation. It’s not a wimpy, sniveling cry she makes – this is not the little woman, the weaker sex. Birth empowers as much as it exhausts. This woman giving birth is a power that befuddles the dragon. He has to wait, and just as he’s about to pounce, the child is snatched away to God and the woman disappears, taken – like the Israelites, like Hagar, like Jesus – into the wilderness to be provided for, comforted, nourished. There is something about the creative life force represented by birth – Isiah’s new thing about to spring forth – brimming with life, possibility, mystery that is greater than evil. We need to be reminded of that. Death and destruction and deception are so powerful, so pervasive.
But so is beauty, so is the community and joy of making music together (Fiddle School took place here this week), so is the ordinariness of friendship, of kindness, of consideration. There is a greening power of growth and life and hope even when it’s hard, like giving birth. I’ve been waiting for this Dahlia. I’ve never grown a dinner plate variety before and it has taken forever for that little bud to grow and grow finally bloom. The flower stalk has gotten to be a small tree. Other plants in my little garden have come and gone in the time this one has taken. There’s also a new hatching of finches at my feeder this week. The babies land awkwardly having misjudged their intended landing or they hover not seeming to know quite what to do. They perch near on the feeder, in the seeds shivering their wings and screeching until mom feeds them from the seeds they’re standing on. I’ve also discovered a new bug this year. It’s a flying fuzz ball. Some kind of aphid, I read but it’s vey whimsical and makes me smile. I don’t really know where I’m going with these little spots of life and nature and fiddle school, except that they bring joy. They are worth paying attention to. Not many of us can change the world in a noticeable way, we can’t defeat evil – we can’t seem to defeat this virus – but we can influence and we can help within the realm of our own worlds. And we can try to trust that God is still at work.
[The remainder of the sermon is a reading we can’t republish here!]
How the past is remembered, how power seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authority, how fallibility or vulnerability is reckoned with and exploited, how gender is equated (biblically) with morality — all of this shapes the story of a woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth in the first third of century, 2000 years ago, in Palestine.
I want to devote one Sunday to Mary Magdalene because it all happens with her. All the patriarchy we’ve been seeing, the agendas of the first three centuries after Jesus’ death as a new religion separated from Jesus’ Jewish faith and context to form Christianity, the fascinating/frustrating twists and branding that the male church of early Christianity used to minimize and deny the presence of a women in Jesus’ inner circle – all the gifts of what might have been if Jesus’ and Paul’s treatment of women as equals in life and ministry to God’s word had taken root – all of that can be seen in Mary of Magdala. And also, all that has been lost from recorded history. That interests me, too. Because we can’t know more than what was written down. We’ll circle around to that in a bit.
We begin in Luke, at the end of chapter 7:
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and
took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’
44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water to clean my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss of peace, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’
48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Soon afterwards, [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
A story of a woman anointing Jesus is told in each of the four gospels.
In Luke, it happens early in Jesus ministry. In the other gospels the anointing takes place in Bethany in the last week of Jesus’ life. In Luke, it was a woman in the city who was a sinner. In Matthew and Mark, an un-named woman showed up at a dinner held at Simon’s house, but Simon was a leper, not a pharisee. One couldn’t be both at the same time. Nothing is said to describe the woman except that she had an alabaster jar of costly, fragrant ointment with which she anointed Jesus’ head, not his feet. The male disciples reproached the woman for the waste – the money could have been given to the poor. In Luke, as we heard, she was sinful and Jesus was added to the reproach – not for failure of stewardship, but for allowing her intimate, inappropriate lavishing of the ointment and her tears and her hair on his feet. In John’ gospel, the anointing is in Bethany, during his final week, but takes place at the home of his close friends, Lazarus (whom Jesus raised from the dead), and his sisters Mary and Martha. While Martha is serving them – the same word as ministering to them, Mary lavishes the nard on his feet and wipes them with her hair. Here again, it is wastefulness and concern for the poor that Judas (this time) aims at Mary.
So, one event (probably), remembered and told in three lightly different ways. The differences are important —- and a bit confusing, and easy to conflate into one story.
The two main differences are anointing his head or his feet (which we don’t really need to go into now), and the woman. Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t give her a name, Luke is the only one to say she was sinful and the only one to whom Jesus offered forgiveness and healing. The other’s all did it for Jesus’ sake, to minister to him. The only name is Mary, specifically identified as Mary of Bethany.
In Luke, the next episode begins with Jesus leaving that place and traveling on, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. His twelve male disciples were with him, as were several women who had been healed of their infirmities and spirits – including Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. Luke names two others – Susanna and Johanna, and adds “many others, who provided for the men out of their resources.”
We don’t hear about Mary Magdalene again until the passion narrative. The women stand as witnesses to the crucifixion. It is much less dangerous for them to be there (invisible as women were) than it would have been for the male disciples – who had already fled the scene anyway. Each of the four gospels has a slightly different list of women who had followed him from Galilee; Mary Magdalene is the only one common to all and is listed first, indicating her relative importance among them.
She is witness to Jospeh of Arimathea placing Jesus’ body in the tomb, and she is present in each of the gospels in the pre-dawn light approaching the tomb. She is the first to witness the result of resurrection in each gospel – the empty tomb – along with other women or alone. The gospels vary at this point with what they see and what do. John’s gospel has extended the story with a tender meeting between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she
turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
So that’s what the gospels say about Mary Magdalene – not much. She is mentioned fourteen times between them, in eight of the fourteen passages she is named in a collection with other women.
And yet, in 591, Pope Gregory I, also known as St. Gregory the Great, launched a campaign to redefine the legacy of Mary Magdalene. Mary, he said, was the unnamed sinner woman with the alabaster jar who appears at Simon the Pharisee’s house to anoint Jesus’ feet: not only was Mary the sinner woman, but her greatest sin was lust. “It is clear,” he added, “that the woman previously used the ointment to perfume herself for forbidden acts.” In his depiction of her, Pope Gregory I interpreted Mary Magdalene’s seven demons as representing the seven deadly sins. This was around the same time he standardized the list of cardinal sins, so perhaps he thought this would be a good chance to offer a concrete example. Whatever his reasoning, no scripture supported any of Pope Gregory’s assumptions, but that didn’t matter. In two sermons, he laid the foundation for a version of Mary Magdalene that would overshadow everything else. Gregory was not the first man to try to diminish or alter the story of Mary’s relationship with Jesus, but his words sealed her fate for the next 1400 years.
It starts with the multiplicity of Marys. Mary the Magdalene is not the only one, of course, there is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany – the sister of Martha and Lazarus. There is Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary the wife of Clopas.
The various accounts of anointing didn’t help either: in one place it is the act of a loose-haired weeping sinner, in another of a modest stranger preparing Jesus for the tomb, and in yet another of a beloved friend named Mary.
And the side-by-side mention in Luke’s story of the woman with the bad name, the alabaster jar, the loose hair, the “many sins,” the kissing of feet, over time became associated with Mary Magdalene who appears in the sentences that follow – even though the two women have nothing to do with each other.
Out of these threads a new character was created for Mary Magdalene.
While some early Christians sought to downplay Mary’s influence, others sought to accentuate it. The Gospel of Mary, a text dating from the second century A.D. that surfaced in Egypt in 1896, placed Mary Magdalene above Jesus’s male disciples in knowledge and influence. She also featured prominently in the Gnostic Gospels, a group of texts believed to have been written by early Christians as far back as the second century A.D., but not discovered until 1945, near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.
One of these texts, known as the Gospel of Philip, referred to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s companion and claimed that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. Most controversially, the text stated that Jesus used to kiss Mary “often on her ____.” Damage to the text left the last word unreadable.
It was not until the fourth century that the list of canonized books we now know as the New Testament was established. This amounted to a milestone on the road toward the church’s definition of itself precisely in opposition to Judaism. At the same time, the church was on the way toward understanding itself in opposition to women. Once the church began to enforce the “orthodoxy” of certain books of Scripture and the official creeds, the rejected texts were destroyed. But there was also a philosophical effort at work, as Christians, like their pagan contemporaries, tried to define the relationship between spirit and matter. Among Christians, that argument would focus on sexuality—and its battleground would be the tension between male and female. I talked about that last week.
Gregory the Great’s overly particular interest in the fallen woman’s past—what that oil had been used for, how that hair had been displayed—brought into the center of church piety an ideal of the virtue based on celibacy.
So, Mary of Magdala, who began as a faithful woman at Jesus’ side, became the model of a loose woman and of repentance. I had a difficult time finding an image that did not include a jar of nard, for example, or a woman scantily clad, shall we say. The artistic imagination – through the ages – completely bought into Gregory’s version, rather than the gospel’s.
So, what do we take away from this?
I began by saying we’d look at the fascinating/frustrating twists and branding that the male church of early Christianity used to minimize and deny the presence of a women in Jesus’ inner circle – and think of the gifts of what might have been if Jesus’ and Paul’s treatment of women as equals in life and ministry to God’s word had taken root. Mary Magdalene was a female disciple. She followed Jesus from the beginning and stayed loyal through the end. She was close to Jesus and then was “disappeared” by the church. We can only imagine what might have been different if her leadership – and that of the women Paul named – had been allowed to stand as equally inspired, valuable accounts of discipleship and service. But, because we can’t know more than what was kept, we have these introductions and the holes or gaps in scripture into which we may let holy imagination play. We can play the “What if, then what” game. How might it be different, and what is keeping us from making it different? If, in Jesus ministry and Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ meaning, all are one, all are equal, no longer divided or ranked or judged by gender or economic status or race… then what? If we take seriously what we read, and let go of the limitations imposed by tradition and culture, what might change? What might improve? How can that open, loving, welcoming, equalizing vision of Christianity
be raised in the often judgmental, toxic Christian image of our culture? In what ways do we each and together live it and share it?
There is a way in which these hints at faithful, powerful women whose stories we weren’t allowed to know are similar to the empty tomb. We are left peering in, wondering, imagining, fearful and joyful – knowing at some point that there’s nothing more to see there. And so we turn around and face the world knowing that emptiness, those gaps and rips in the story are meant to be filled with our lives.