15 Pentecost, Season of Creation 2
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
By the Rev. Kim McNamara, Ph.D.
I am delighted the Episcopal Church decided to create a Season of Creation; a season where we focus on protecting and restoring the beauty and integrity of all creation. While the new liturgy is beautiful, it is the action that matters most to me. I want to belong to a church that is committed to caring for our little blue and green planet. The task is daunting, to be sure, but the message of commitment and the effort to discover, learn about, and try solutions, models the one thing each of us can do to help, which is to change something in our life that makes a difference to the health of our planet. For example, here at St. Hugh, we have planted over 100 trees this past spring. (Thanks to Edward for watering and keeping the baby trees alive all summer!) We reduced our use of disposable eating utensils with the investment in new dish washers. (Thanks to Robin for not giving up.) For the coming year, we have already begun the process of researching ways we can reduce waste. Bill is asking us to pay attention to plastics with a goal of reducing the amount of plastic we use. So next year, I am confident we will be changing something else as we attempt to care for creation.
Creation Care has a deeply personal meaning for me as I have been working on environmental initiatives of one kind or another since I was in grade school. For the past 25 years, my husband, John, and I have planted (and watered) 100 native trees a year. We recycle everything allowable and, as a result, keep our landfill waste down to one garbage can a year. We research, and purchase organic foods, as well as earth-safe, recycled, and recyclable goods whenever we can. While horses are tough on the environment, our horse ranch management practices incorporate environmentally-safe techniques. Yes, we still contribute to environmental problems here on earth with our driving, water consumption, and waste issues, but we are trying to learn, change and become better stewards of God’s gift to us.
Activity: Ask people what earth-friendly changes they have made.
For many years I taught college business classes. One of the classes I taught was about ethical business practices, which included environmental responsibility, as well as human justice. When businesses make a decision to ignore the value of creation, the consequences can be devasting. History gives us many examples of lives lost and earth destroyed by bad business decisions. The topic was so interesting to me, I studied environmentally sustainable business leadership when I completed my dissertation to earn my doctorate degree. Doing this project, I had the amazing experience of interviewing industry leaders about sustainability. What I learned was that, despite the complaints from businesses having to comply with environmental regulations, most successful business leaders were aware of many reasons why being a good steward of the environment is good for business, as well as customers. They also knew many reasons why violating environmental regulations is as bad for business as it is for customers and entire communities. Business has long been seen as the enemy of the environment, yet many innovative and successful companies have actively sought ways of making improvements to their environmental impacts. What I learned from these business leaders gave me hope. As they concluded, now we just need to convince consumers they want to do business with earth-friendly companies.
As a species, humans are creative and innovative. The past 100 years of technology have changed how we live with each other and with the earth in amazing and unpredictable ways. It seems obvious that we need to pay attention to the way we are living and working, study and learn from our mistakes, and find other ways of living and working as needed. When we learn which of our inventions have been helpful and which have been harmful, we have the opportunity to improve systems and products to make them less harmful. This seems so logical. I am surprised, then, when I meet resistance to environmental thinking. It turns out some humans really can be arrogant, greedy, self-focused, fearful, and resistant to change, especially when they are profiting from the way things are.
Another challenge with environmental problems is that humans prefer to simplify situations, find quick answers, and apply fixes. However, our living and working has very complex impacts on our little planet and on every one of our 8+billion people. We are just beginning to understand the complex impacts of environmental destruction on our animal neighbors. Let’s hope we figure it out before they all go extinct. Our continued understanding will come from asking questions and listening to those being impacted.
I have always seen Creation as a gift from God; a gift of joyful, tender, and miraculous trust and abundance. Thus, I respond to my responsibility of caring for creation from a perspective of deep reverent love and hope. The bulldozer operator we hire to do some of our land work sees the earth differently. He rolls his eyes and sighs when I ask him to avoid harming the stump with the chipmunk family in it or the dogwood sapling over there. (Actually, I found out he likes dogwoods.)
Unfortunately, politics has gotten thrown into the middle of our environmental issues and have created stereotypes to turn us against each other. If I am a tree hugger, I must be a liberal, and hate business. If you are bulldozer operator, you must be willing to kill chipmunks and dogwood trees. Based on our stereotypes of one another, it is easier to point fingers at each other; blaming each other for the problems, rather than working with each other to tackle the issues. However, those working in the environmental world have learned that real solutions can only emerge when we work together. From my business research, I learned that change requires working together with others using highly effective communication skills; skills that emphasize asking questions about perspectives and impacts, then listening to and not arguing with the perspectives of others. Working together to discover underlying problems and researching, applying and assessing solutions is essential to change and, if there is only one thing I have learned from my efforts to save the planet, it is how important it is to communicate with others who may have different perspectives than I do. Out of listening will come understanding; from there, mutual respect and trust can grow, which will then lead to mutual problem solving as we brainstorm, create, and improve together.
A couple of weeks ago, some of us stayed after church to practice the first step in a discernment process. Our goal for this first step was to brainstorm ideas for reducing the waste we generate here at St. Hugh. The exercise was hard to do. We kept wanting to criticize each new idea and explain why it would not work, rather than simply listening and writing down all the ideas. It was a valuable learning opportunity and a reminder that we will continue practicing the discernment process in an intentional way as we move forward with our ideas for improving the way St. Hugh cares for creation, as well as a variety of other issues.
In our Gospel reading from Matthew today, Jesus offers us important advice about communication, especially when dealing with challenging issues and people.
Unlike some of the parables, which can be difficult to understand, this selection from Matthew’s Gospel is a practical lesson in getting along with others. Jesus gives us step-by-step instructions for how to navigate an interpersonal challenge with another person. Although it sounds a bit like a formal mediation or arbitration process, Jesus assumes our highest priority is to manage our relationship with others in a trustworthy manner. He tells us how to approach the other person sincerely, authentically, and honestly, and how and when to explain, to ask, and to listen. We are to begin this difficult discussion by having a private conversation with the person involved. In this setting, our goal is to share our perspectives with one another quietly and calmly. We are to take turns speaking and listening. If this initial conversation does not go well, then we are given instructions for how to escalate the matter; not by taking the situation into our own hands and attempting to solve it by force, anger, or threats, but by following a process of getting witnesses to listen to and confirm the issues and offer suggestions. Again, the primary goal is to regain a positive relationship with the other.
I recently attended a clergy conference hosted by the Diocese of Olympia. While there, we were invited to create small groups to talk about issues of mutual concern. Several of us formed a Creation Care group and were joined by a couple of other priests from the diocese. One young priest, recently employed by the diocese, had moved from another part of the country and was surprised to see how much we cared for the environment. He asked us how trying to save the planet had anything to do with living in the way of Christ. Although part of me, the defensive part, was triggered by his question, the relationship-building part of me won out. By listening to him and asking him more questions, we found that he was asking a really important question and was sincerely seeking answers. He had come from a church community that did not value the environment and he did not know how to approach the issue. He was willing to include creation care in his ministry, but his faith was Jesus-centered and he had to be able to tie the concept of creation care to Jesus. He knew the Gospel well. Jesus never once talked about saving the planet.
I shared the story of my first environmental studies class professor with my small group. When I asked my professor what we could do to save the planet, he scoffed at me. “The planet? Saving the planet is not the problem! The planet will live on!” he said. “The problem is figuring out what we humans will need to change so we can still live on the planet!” Environmental issues are, without a doubt, human survival issues. Recognizing this fact changed our perspective. From that point on, our small group discussion took a decided turn towards Jesus and how to care for God’s people in today’s world. We recalled how Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, which would definitely mean keeping the environment healthy. Jesus knew people needed food and he fed thousands. He knew how important food and water issues were to the lives of the people. Certainly, Jesus would call out those who were intentionally destroying the land and the water, precious resources given to the people by God. Those of us in the group finished our discussion by sharing some resources for preaching about Creation Care and talked about some creation projects each congregation might consider working on. Because of our conversation that day, a few small changes were made; small changes with the potential to grow much larger because we shared our ideas with each other. These are exactly the kinds of conversations and the changes we hope the Season of Creation will generate all around the world.
As Jesus concludes our Gospel reading today, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Amen