Wednesday, October 18, 2017

God's Midwives

Wilderness Sunday 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Chatfield UMC
October 15 2017

Romans 8:18–27
Indeed, I consider the sufferings of the present to be nothing compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. All creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the children of God. Creation was subjected to transience and futility, not of its own accord, but because of the one who subjected it—in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slavery to corruption and would come to share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that from the beginning until now, all of creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth. And not only creation, but all of us who possess the first fruits of the spirit—we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free. In hope we were saved. But hope is not hope if its object is seen; why does one hope for what one sees? And hoping for what we cannot see means awaiting it with patient endurance. 26 the spirit, too, comes to help us in our weakness. For we don’t know how to pray as we should, but the spirit expresses our plea with groanings too deep for words. And God, who knows everything in our hearts, knows perfectly well what the Spirit is saying, because her intercessions for God’s holy people are made according to the mind of God.

Wilderness is one of those places that I seek out. Not the true untamed wilderness like the arctic circle or the Sahara Desert. Although if someone wanted to sponsor a trip to one of those places I might take them up on it.
But I seek out places where you can hear the trees and feel the water and see the stars.

Even if all it is a hiking trail in a state park in Missouri 2 blocks from the modern toilet facility. If you look carefully enough and pay attention to the details, you will find a whole wilderness of adventure right under your feet.

I will never forget the day, down under Parsley Bridge just outside of Chatfield. One of the Project Go kids stood looking around, knowing she had driven over that bridge many times without seeing the wilderness below the bridge. As she proclaimed, there is so much to see if we just look for it.

And isn’t that, ultimately, the reason to go into the wilderness? To see. To see deeply.

Jesus went into the wilderness before his public ministry began. In a vision quest to see if the path to Jerusalem and the cross was really his destiny. Was really of some redeeming value.
He cam out of the wilderness, determined. Determined that his life was going ot count for something, That the salvation of the world depended on his life.

Our own wilderness experiences are not often quite so dramatic. Thankfully, there only need be one savior of the world. And we aren’t asked to be it.
Nonetheless, encountering a wilderness experience can lead us to change the world, to bring about a little more decisively the saving of the world.

In our Romans scripture this morning, (Romans 8) Paul tells of the groaning of creation as it is waiting for its own full salvation. Paul likens it to the pains of childbirth. Creation awaiting a new birth in the throes of labor.
I was so sad this week when I realized that one of my favorite TV shows has come to an end. Call the Midwife from the BBC is such a good period drama exploring the ways midwives were so important in a poor community in east London. In each episode one or more women gave birth in their poor, humble, bug infested homes while midwives guided them through very real, very painful births.
This is the way Paul’s hearers would have understood the pains of birth. Not the clean well lit birthing rooms of today with drugs to dull the pain.

Wilderness childbirth is messy and hazardous. But glorious!
Isn’t that why we love to watch nature documentaries? Seeing great and small beasts of the wilderness giving birth against all odds to amazingly cute little wild beasts.
The wilderness and all creation is groaning, like it is in child birth because it is being destroyed and needs to be rebirthed. For all that humans have been given stewardship over creation, even Paul recognized way back in the first century common era, humans were not doing a very good job of it. Creation was suffering and needed human beings to step up and do our job of protecting and caring for this gift God has given us.

You see for Paul and our early forbearers, it was recognized that human beings both had a responsibility to care for creation and a hand in the destruction of creation.
Before climate change, global warming or even Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, our sacred texts were very clear: human beings were the cause of creation’s groanings. Which God heard from the heavens with despair.

Way back before Christ, before Paul, the Biblical Prophets made it very clear that the political, military, and economic decisions of governments and empires directly destroyed the harmony of God’s creative order.

Creation has been groaning for a long time as a result of human beings’ decisions. In the biblical book of the prophet Joel in chapter 1, we read words that sound very contemporary
The fields are devastated,
        the ground mourns;
    for the grain is destroyed,
        the new wine dries up,
        the olive oil fails.
Be shocked, you farmers;
    howl, you vinedressers,
        over the wheat and the barley,
    for the crops of the field are destroyed.
The grapevine is dried up;
    the fig tree withers.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
    all the trees of the field are dried up.
Joy fades away from the people.

To you, Lord, I cry,
    for fire has completely destroyed
        the pastures of the wilderness;
    and flames have burned
        all the trees of the field.
Even the field’s wild animals cry to you
        because the streams have dried up;
    the fire has completely destroyed
        the meadows of the wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but that pretty much takes my breath away. Northern California, Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, Liberia. Desolation not just of buildings and cities, but of the very ground and the wild animals…the wilderness crying out needing rebirth.

And the reason the wilderness/creation is crying out is because human beings have not done what was right before God. They had not cared for their neighbor. They had not honored the Creator. They have turned their passions and allegiances to military might and the accumulation of wealth. They had sought to strip from the land, from each other and from their neighbor everything they could for their own personal gain.

And the land couldn’t handle it. It burned. It was consumed. It was laid waste.
It groaned…

900 years before Christ, when Joel was written, and a hundred years after and now 2000 years later, creation groans because those of us who are charged to care for her care more for ourselves.

Do you, like me, tire of these doomsayers like the prophet Joel, Like the Sierra Club and Al Gore? Do you want to just make it all stop and hope that, at least in our life time, the world does burn away into ash?
Even I, great lover of the wilderness, get tired of it.
But that is exactly what the evil one
Evil wants us to tire so that we don’t hear the groanings, so that we don’t listen deeply anymore.
On our own we become complacent and numb.

Which is why it is important that we come together, regularly, with others who can encourage us and strength us and remind us that we are called to be the midwives of new birth.
Gather the people, Joel cries, prepare a holy meeting.
Even children and elders were invited to gather together to speak and to witness on behalf of God’s creation and the land. Speak up, Joel cries, let the world know that you believe in God and that you care for God’s creation and God’s people. That you will follow the commands of God. That you will no longer profane God.

Like the ending of a good novel, Joel writes: Then the Lord became passionate about this land, and had pity on his people.

The Lord responded to the people:
See, I am sending you
    the corn, new wine, and fresh oil,
        and you will be fully satisfied by it;
    and I will no longer make you
        a disgrace among the nations.
Don’t fear, fertile land;
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things!
Don’t be afraid, animals of the field,
        for the meadows of the wilderness will turn green;
    the tree will bear its fruit;
        the fig tree and grapevine will give their full yield.
Children of Zion,
        rejoice and be glad in the Lord your God,
    because God will give you the early rain as a sign of righteousness;
        he will pour down abundant rain for you,
            the early and the late rain, as before.

The wilderness is reborn. The pangs of birth have subsided.
May our gathering together as people of God keep us from complacency and fatigue.
May we, together, continue to seek out ways to bring healing and restoration to our places.
May we be co-creators with God, midwives of a rebirth of a concern for all God’s creatures.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Bacteria, Bugs and Being: God of our Soil

Psalm 139:7–12
Season of Creation—Soil Sunday
October 8, 2017
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Where can we go from the presence of God?
The psalmist is very clear…nowhere. God is ever present everywhere.

This is probably ones of the psalms that brings us great joy and some consternation. I mean it feels a little bit like a toddler who won’t leave her mother alone, even when she wants a little privacy in the bathroom.

Knock, knock on the door, are you in there? I know you are in there and I won’t leave until you come out. And I won’t be quiet about it either.

God is ever present everywhere.

But there is even more to this passage than that. If you would be writing this in a tweet or in an email letter to someone you would write the words in capital letters, like you were shouting. GOD IS EVER PRESENT EVERYWHERE.

Even, all the way up to the heavens…To the ancient people this represents that farthest away they could ever imagine.
Before telescopes, microscopes, Einstein and Galileo people all around the world, and this is what I find so fascinating, all ancient cultures…from the mid-east to the Himalayas, to Peru, to Egypt imagined the world as a three-tiered system. 

There were the heavens, the dome of the sky. In the mid-east, they actually imagined a barrier of some sort. Like the dome of a cake plate. 
The stars were arranged on this dome and anything beyond that was non-existent.
So, to go beyond the heavens, was to go to oblivion. You didn’t go to heaven after you died. That concept was a later concept. You returned to earth. So going into the realm of the Gods was extremely risky and didn’t end well for most human being, who were, after all, earth creatures, created from the earth.

But even in the places were the gods dwell and humans shouldn’t attempt to enter, the Psalmist assures us, the God of Abraham, Sarah and Moses, is there! As our protector. From every scary thing the gods could do to us.

And even more, God is present in the other tiers of the universe, even the other scary ones, like the waters that surrounded the earth. Where the beasts of the deep dwell and wreak havoc on the ships that sail too far into the outer depths. Never to be heard from again…Even there, God is present guiding, comforting, being.
So, in a 3-tiered universe, we have the heavens, scary place, the underworld or sea, another scary place and then we have the land. The place where humans are most comfortable. The place from which we came.

Land, the place of human habitation, has been very, very, central to God’s people from the very beginning. Erets Israel is how modern Jews will often refer to the land of Palestine/Israel, the holy land. But even before modern times, erets, land was an important word. And important place. The word occurs over 2500 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. And it can refer to anything from the whole of the earth to the dust of the ground.

For the ancients, even with their  limited scope of the size of the earth, the land, there was still a sense, in ancient mythology that you could go to somewhere in some distant corner of the land and be hidden from the presence of God.
You could do something or go somewhere or be something so horrible that God would abandon you.

And then the psalmist sings the song into this fear:
If I say, “the darkness will hide me,
and night will be my only light,”
even darkness won’t be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day
darkness and light are the same to you.

You see, the land, even the land is covered by the presence of God. By which we mean, is a place where the presence of God can dwell.
It isn’t hard for the ancients to understand that a protecting, loving God could dwell above or even below.

But with them?? On the land on which they walked? The land that they built their cities and cultivated their crops and grazed their animals?
That would be hard to imagine.

Somewhat like it might be for us. God is up there but not really down here. Getting hands dirty.

So, this land, that God dwells within and on, what could it teach us about the presence of God in our own lives? What could land, dirt, dust, teach us about God and us?

I am on a Facebook page for perennial gardeners. There are a lot of newbie gardeners on the site who post questions and concerns about their gardens. Many of them desire a garden that looks like something out of a magazine spread, so lots of photos of bugs and weeds get posted with the emphatic question: WHAT DO I DO ABOUT THIS THING….

Sometimes there is a legitimate concern. We in the southeast have been spared the invasion of the Japanese beetle which has destroyed many gardens in the metro area. And there doesn’t seem to be much to do to control those buggers.
But for many of panicked questions about bugs and insects, the answer is leave them alone, they are actually good for your garden. They are what pollinate your buds and what feed the birds who control the bad insects. They are what aerate your soil and bring nutrients into your dirt.

I remember being in Victoria Gardens in BC, gorgeous gardens. It was breathtaking but also disconcerting. With all the acres of flowers and plants, very few pollinators and insects were active. I thought at the time, between the lack of weeds and insects they must use a good deal of chemical control.

But you know what, it is more than just the insects that roam around on the top of dirt that are important in the life of our gardens and planet, it is also the stuff in the dirt. The microbes and bugs and micro-organisms that live below the surface and infuse the soil with amazing things.

We are learning, that sterile soil is not good soil for our planet. That just as we need pollinators and birds and fungi and insects above the soil, we also need to nurture the life below our soil.
All those things that we say ewww over, and want to step on when we see them emerge from the ground, you know worms, snakes, beetles, springtails (which creep me out a little), nematodes slimy and scaly things, we are finding that they are so important to the health of the planet. And to the production of our food.
Even and maybe even especially, those things we cannot see, the microbes, the bacteria, protozoa, the nutrients that require a high-powered microscope to make out, but are visible to the eye of God. These are so incredibly important to the life on this planet.

Bacteria, particularly, that word makes us go ewww and want to get out the Purell. They are important in this thing called eretz, dirt, land.

And we are learning that our fear of these tiny beings, have created places in our lives where healthy crops can’t grow, where children are more susceptible to birth defects, where adults contract cancer at higher rates.

We are learning that sterilizing our planet is not the way to walk with God. Not the way to see God with us, walking with us on our land.

I am so thankful to be in a community that honors the land and the dirt that God has blessed us with. I am so thankful to be in a community where the ditches are not filled with dirty snow from top soil wind erosion. I am so thankful to be in a community that continues to want to learn about ways to walk with God and all of God’s creatures, even the ones that are a little creepy

Land Stewardship Project has been doing quite a bit of work around soil health. And they are promoting this little experiment which I think sounds fun and enlightening. It is called Soil your Undies. I know, it is a little crude. But also a little cute.
And the reason I thought we might want to try this is to give ourselves a better appreciation of what is going on in the land around us. What will happen to our little undies? Will they get eaten? Will they show us that there is more to life than meets the eye? Will we be better able to appreciate that God is everywhere, all the time, creating and sustaining life? That there is no where we can go from God’s presence. And we will have the undies to prove it.

Well, sort of.

I have undie packs available as you would like, the directions are in the pack. It would be fun if in six weeks you would bring your undies back and we could display them. I would love to send a photo to LSP.