Every year on the fourth Sunday of the Easter season we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, giving thanks for our good God who loves us and cares for us as a shepherd does her flock. And each year we read a favorite psalm, the 23rd, one to which we turn over and over in times of grief and loss, such as weeks when children have been shot - again - in their classrooms and we lament for the lost lambs and rage at our seeming inability to be good shepherds for them.
Today is also Mother’s Day, and this too is a day of mixed emotion. Many of us have complicated relationships with our biological mothers. Whether or not you yourself are a mother, this day might bring you joy and fulfillment or it may bring bitter sadness and regret. Celebrating Mother’s Day institutionally is a pastoral minefield. But what if we broaden our concept of motherhood? Can we celebrate all those who have mothered us, regardless of gender, blood relationship, or family configuration? Can we give thanks for the opportunities to be mothers for each other and for the nurturing, maternal love of God? Six centuries ago Dame Julian of Norwich wrote that, as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother. It’s not exactly a new idea.
Our third celebration today is Creation Care Sunday, celebrating Mother Earth and all that God has given us in the natural world, even while we grieve the damage done by our exploitation of natural resources and our sinful habits of waste and excess. Perhaps you read this week about the report that one million species are heading towards extinction because of human activity. Think of the continuous destruction of natural habitats perpetrated in order to provide stuff we crave: rivers dammed and valleys flooded for electricity, forests - the lungs of the earth - wiped out by clearcut logging, ocean life decimated by destructive fishing practices, the melting of continental ice and the increase of desertification through climate change.
Scripture offers us images close to the earth: sheep and shepherds, fields and harvests. In the time of Jesus, herds and flocks were driven through city streets, animals were ritually sacrificed in public ceremonies, food was consumed where it was grown; there was no way to isolate human existence from that of other species. Israel practiced a faith that honored the earth and the lives nurtured by our island home. The faith we have inherited is a faith of connection, of relationship, of Jesus one with the Father, each human being belonging to the community of the church and to the body of Christ. Our continued healthy existence depends on our connection to each other, to our loved ones, to our neighbors, and to the earth.
The opposite of this connectedness is the destructive impulse that drives someone to shoot students in their classrooms and people of faith in their sacred spaces. This disconnect develops when we allow our children to become detached from the web that is all of life. We have failed our lambs in allowing a culture of death to prevail, in promoting a philosophy of individualism and competition over community and the good of the whole. When reporters can credibly claim that the number of children killed in schools exceeds the number of soldiers killed in combat in a given year, something is terribly wrong.
It’s a depressing story, one that should make us weep for the enormity of what our species has wrought. But Scripture gives us a vision of a time and a place where nobody will hunger or thirst, where there will be no scorching heat, where springs of the water of life will be in abundance and where God will wipe away every tear.
How will this vision come about? Will it take the great ordeal mentioned in Revelation to turn things around? Will our children and grandchildren suffer hardship, hunger, and the implosion of western culture before their descendants - those who survive - demonstrate resilience and build a healthier world?
There are hopeful signs. The Episcopal Church in Cuba plants gardens to provide fresh produce. The community around a church is encouraged by the congregation’s efforts, and soon more gardens spring up. The church is working with the earth to create healthier lives for her people.
A Swiss-born billionaire, Hansjörg Wyss has pledged $1 billion to protect nature preserves around the world. Closer to home, our own endowment committee recently voted to move about 26% of our invested reserves to a fund that doesn’t include fossil fuel stocks.
Some years ago Gabriel Hulbert’s eagle scout project converted the south margin of our campus to a xeriscape, in keeping with our dry climate; and our city provides grants to convert thirsty lawns to plantings of native species.
After generations of human beings trying to eliminate diversity in the name of efficiency and bacteria in the name of hygiene, we are now learning that we need to find ways to live in community with other species. The food chain, that natural balance between predator and prey, the incredible variety of microscopic life forms that live inside our bodies, all these tell us that we are part of a great web of life. The tree that exudes a certain chemical to attract pollinators or deter predators. The carrion eaters that clean up the environment after a death. The worms that turn kitchen scraps into rich compost: all are vital to the earth’s natural economy. How shall we fit into this web? As good shepherds, caring for God’s creatures, or as wanton destroyers, breaking the vital relationships, tearing the web?
As I was thinking about today, a childhood memory arose - riding my bike to a large park near my home in Belfast, and foraging in the woods for items of interest - a tiny eggshell, the seed pods from a beech tree, the giant mushrooms that flourished in the shadow of the old oaks; bringing one of those mushrooms home - diameter of at least six inches - and keeping it on display in my bedroom until my mother made me throw it out. 50 years later I remember the smell of those woods and the feel of the bark.
Our children need such experiences. Studying biology and nutrition in school isn’t the same as encountering the natural world. When we behold the ocean or the Grand Canyon or the intricacies of a beehive we learn reverence, because there is life and power in these things that is completely beyond us.
We are human beings. We come from the earth and we return to the earth. We are made from the humus, the soil, and we are meant to be humble, another related word - close to the earth. The Rev. Nancy Roth, a theologian who teaches body prayer and environmental reverence, writes, “When we acknowledge our place on earth and celebrate our unity in God with the creation that surrounds us, we take our place in the community composed of all living things, and it feels like a homecoming.”(1)
|Life abundant on our Cathedral campus. ©SLForsburg|
On this mother’s day and creation care Sunday, the last word will go to the 12th century scientist, mystic, and artist, Mother Hildegard of Bingen, who coined the term viriditas, or greenliness to express that lifegiving quality that we experience when we are communing closely with the natural world. Here’s part of her prayer to Mary, the Mother of God.
Hail to you, O greenest, most fertile branch!
You budded forth amidst breezes and winds
In search of the knowledge of all that is holy.
When the time was ripe
Your own branch brought forth blossoms...
In you, the most stunning flower has blossomed
And gives off its sweet odor
To all the herbs and roots,
Which were dry and thirsting before your arrival.
Now they spring forth in fullest green.(2)
May we all be blessed with grateful hearts for the viriditas of God’s good creation.
May 12, 2019
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
1) P. 22, Organic Prayer, by Nancy Roth. Boston: Cowley, 1993.
2) Hildegard, as translated by Matthew Fox and quoted by Nancy Roth in Organic Prayer.