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Ecology
James Hudnut-Beumler
Opening Worship
August 25, 2010


Psalm 24 and Job 38: 1-7

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.


That
is a big thought.

You see, my friend Walter Brueggemann says that the portion, “and the fullness thereof,” is not just a throwaway line. Instead it is an intensifier.  It might be best translated for our ears as “the earth is the Lord’s — and that means all of it!”

That is a very big thought indeed.

And this is the place we gather each week that school is in session to think big thoughts, and to pray big prayers, and to make big commitments. Welcome to Wednesday community worship at the Divinity school.

This morning I wish to consider prayerfully with you these words from the Psalms, together with God’s question in Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” in the context of a big commitment the school made before any of us joined it as faculty, staff, or students. The commitment found in our catalog reads this way:

The school is committed to active participation in the struggles of individuals and groups for a healthier, more just, more humane, and more ecologically wholesome world. It has special concern for the oppressed, for prisoners, for the poor, for victims of warfare and militarism, for the effects of environmental destruction, and for the securing of equal opportunity for all individuals, peoples, and creatures to enjoy God’s gifts.

 So then, let us consider the ecology commitment; not because we’ve achieved eco-nirvana, much less done so while raising the living standards of the poor,  but because our commitments — all of them — constitute a moral yardstick by which we measure ourselves against our theological convictions and aspirations as a community.

 You may remember from reading the catalog that the entire commitments section begins with these words “The Divinity School is committed to the faith that brought the church into being, and it believes that one comes more authentically to grasp that faith by a critical and open examination of the Hebraic and Christian traditions. It understands this faith to have import for the common life of men and women in the world.” That preamble has always spoken to me for several reasons. Foremost, it puts faith first. That is, unlike a lot of other schools, it doesn’t say it exists to serve the church; which implies that whatever the church wants, the church gets. Instead it says that we are committed to the faith that brought the church into being. On the one hand this is a way of saying that the faith in the one true God was around even before Jesus arrived on the scene to proclaim it in a new and distinctive way. On the other hand, this phrase “the faith that brought the church into being” points God-ward  in a way that I don’t always hear around either Vanderbilt Divinity School,  or in 21st-century churches. The ecological commitment also points toward God, as it commits us to secure equal opportunity for all individuals, peoples, and creatures to enjoy God’s gifts.

The faculty who put together this commitment back in the 1980s were pretty sharp theologically. They included outstanding Biblical scholars and theologians, one of whom, Sallie McFague,  would increasingly turn to themes of ecology in her theological work. I commend her book, God’s Body, to you and I’m going to return to her central metaphor from that work at the end of my reflection. But for now I ask you to contemplate with me what the ensuing two decades have brought forth on our watery and green planet.

In the 1990s and the 2000s we saw water wars in the southwestern United States in the Colorado watershed and accusations directed toward Atlanta that that metropolitan area had used up too much clean water that should have ended up in the Florida Panhandle, and then in the Gulf. During the same years we saw ever larger dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico caused by Midwestern farming fertilization upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi.

We have fought three wars attributable, in no small measure, to our addiction to oil. Defending Kuwait from bases in holy Saudi Arabia led to Al Qaeda attacks on the United States, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How did our oil get underneath their lands?

Globally these decades have been ones of upward creeping average temperatures, desertification, crop failure famines, and bickering over the human causes of global warming. Meanwhile coral reefs bleach out and die, and schoolchildren begin to worry about the fate of the polar bears.

And then this April, going on into this summer, we human beings failed again and again close to home. We failed to stop mountaintop removal in Tennessee, and we failed to curtail ozone danger days right here in Nashville, where sending the vulnerable indoors is our only solution.  And then, of course, there is the BP explosion and spill off the coast of Louisiana.  Perhaps, for me, the final straw came when community leaders were more concerned about getting back to drilling, than they were about people who made their livings in the fisheries, or about the pelicans or the turtles or the fish themselves.

 Now as never before, it is time for people of faith to hear the earth moaning in travail.

 So we turn our eyes to the hills from whence does our help cometh, and though those hills be depressingly shorter than they used to be, our help comes from the Lord. That’s the testimony of the Scriptures. Indeed the whole Hebrew Bible seems to be one long reminder that God is eternal, is our Creator, is our redeemer, and that our salvation lies in accepting that news and adjusting our expectations. Genesis begins with not one, but two creation stories to tell us in different ways that it is God that has made us, and not we ourselves.  When it comes to the exile, it is God who liberates the slaves, not Pharaoh, not even Moses. Then, when the people of God mess up and ask for kings (who will treat them badly), it is God who speaks through prophets to remind them that there is but one God, who desires only that they love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.

 Most of the book of Job is taken up with speculation on how God works according to ways that we might understand. Job’s friends believe that you got to pay the piper; that what goes around comes around; that if you’re sick you must’ve done something to deserve it; and if you are poor you didn’t work hard enough. After all the moaning and speculating, chapter 38 breaks through as a breath of fresh air, even if that fresh air startles us. God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Hearing no response, God goes on, “Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, [take that Tony Hayward!] or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? [Take that Army Corps  of  Engineers, take that Nashville, you who built upon the floodplains.]

One observer has put it well, we human beings live upon the earth, but we don’t live within the earth very well. Our problems, both ecological and in terms of human justice, have everything to do with  a case of mistaken identity. We think that we own the earth. We behave as though its fruit, and its fate is ours alone. Man, the animal that makes things, always lives in precarious relation to idolatry. We constantly think that we make the things, and sell those things, that constitute the means of life. Like Tony Hayward, when things go awry, we want our life back, when it’s not really our life. The truth is that we have been given our lives, and the means to one another’s lives, the means to every creature’s life, by God.

Into this world we came with nothing, out of this world we will go with nothing. When will we learn that we are guests in God’s world, and not act like people who choose to let God into their lives?

Sallie McFague asked us to think of the earth as God’s Body.  I suggest that this year we spend some devotional time with that metaphor and see where it leads. Clearly, giving lip service to God while pretending that the earth was our plaything has led to the worst sort of religion and the worst sort of societies human beings can manage.  When I was a child and someone swore in class, it was not uncommon for someone else to say: “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” I suggest that we explore the meanings of ecology and justice between creatures and that we ask ourselves: “Would you do that to God’s  body?”

 I hope that you came to Vanderbilt Divinity School at least in part to change the world. Yet I tell you this: we will not change the world until we change the way we think about the world. We will not lead our fellow creatures to change the way they treat the earth until we learn in our bones that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.

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