Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Green Faith


“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein.” These words open Psalm 24, and, as one of the psalms, we know that these words would have been sung and/or read in worship--certainly at Solomon’s great Temple in Jerusalem and maybe at other gatherings where people came together to praise God as their faith presuppositions would have motivated them to do.

As is often the case, however, we need to check up on translations and see which words were available to the translators in bringing specific words into English. We also have to see if the word chosen speaks with clarity and precision to a contemporary society in which the verse is used for inspiration and/or instruction. The internet makes these tasks possible for non-seminarians and for those who haven’t studied the original language in which a verse or passage was passed down to us.

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” or we could say “...and all that fills it”; “...the world and they who dwell therein.” Undoubtedly, we read that excerpt and hear it as if written by people and for people in our time; this is certainly not the case. The original Hebrews who heard this read and sung in worship were not planetary people in their understanding of the world. They knew little or nothing about the possibility of other planets. When we hear the word “earth,” except for a few instances where we might dress up the word “dirt” by trading it out with “earth,” we think Planet Earth. The ancient Hebrews didn’t hear that at all, and as far as we know had no real notion of what a planet is so let’s change the word “earth” in this verse to “land.” Keep in mind that the land was all gathered into one place according to their worldview and was an island, held up by columns that went down into the watery abyss under the land, the island-earth, to hold the land in place.

The land is the Lord’s and all that fills the land, the world and all who dwell therein. We have exactly the same challenge with the word “world.” We might think of the word, “world,” cosmically; the ancient Hebrews certainly did not. “World” in this stirring verse means “the inhabited land” or, perhaps, “the inhabitable land.”

The role of those who inhabit the land is not detailed here; that is not the subject of this verse. Here one of the several psalmists is making a faith affirmation about what she or he believes makes God praiseworthy. The land is the ground on which we walk; it belongs to the God who created it as does everything that fills the land. Similarly, the inhabitable land and all the inhabitants themselves belong also to God.

In order to make the Hebrew scriptures readable by those who long ago read Greek instead of Hebrew, and this was many years before Paul was busy trying to evangelize the Greek world--in fact, more than a hundred years before Jesus was born, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. That famous and important translation of the Hebrew Bible came to be called “the Septuagint.” In the Septuagint, the word chosen to translate what the Hebrews called “land” is ge, ground. It’s the Greek word from which the first part of our English word “geology” derived. Ge plus logos referred to the study of the ground and eventually much more than the ground alone. What the Hebrews had called “inhabitable land,” the Greeks chose for the Septuagint a word best translated as “economy,” meaning order, but obviously not economy in the sense of money, salaries, investments, and financial wellbeing or lack of same. If you read far enough down in the list of definitions for the word “economy” in your dictionary, you will eventually come to one like this as an option for defining the word: “the arrangement or mode of operation of something.” Thus, “The ground is the Lord’s and all that fills it, the divine economy or order and all who inhabit God’s order.”

One scholar says that modern science, knowing what it knows today about our planet, the planetary system, and the cosmos could legitimately look back and contemporize for today’s readers the word the Greeks translated as “economy” (oikoumene) as “biosphere.” In this scientific era, God’s order, where living entities live, is a or the biosphere.

It is our privilege and our responsibility to care for the biosphere and all who dwell therein on behalf of God, the owner--if you will. We are temporary tenants, and our responsibility is to pass along to those who take up our jobs after us a world that is at least as good as we found it and hopefully better. Having stated that, I will say out loud what many of you are thinking, “It’s been a long, long time since one generation of humans passed on to the next generation a healthier world than the one they inhabited.” This is to say, we in the human family have typically passed on to our descendants a biosphere whose health is significantly more compromised than it was when it fell to us to serve as its caretakers. Not good. Not sensible. Not forward thinking. Not logical. Not caring.

Words from the prophet Isaiah:

The earth dries up and withers, the world languished and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth lies under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.

And similar words from the prophet Ezekiel:

As for you, my flock... Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?

Very powerful, very penetrating questions put in the mouth of God Godself by the prophet. A paraphrase, mine: “As for you, my twenty-first century flock, ‘Is it not enough for you to have the most and the finest food available to any group of people yet to have lived in the divinely created biosphere? Must you have so little regard for those who will be left to provide food for themselves after you that you rob good and healthy food and provisions for food from them by trashing what has been so good to you? Is it not enough for you to drink pure water if you’re careful enough to find it? Must you leave no unpolluted water for those who will come after you?’” It’s astounding that these questions were first asked thousands of years ago, and we’re just about to make what they anticipated as responses reality by answering yes to all the earth-abuse questions asked so long ago.

All the way back in 1923, Havelock Ellis wrote a book titled The Dance of Life. What he wrote was prophetic in the same sense that biblical prophecy is prophetic; it’s a commonsense statement about what’s going to happen, usually something not good, if the people to whom the prophecy is directed refuse to change their ways. Havelock Ellis: “The sun, the moon and the stars would have disappeared long ago...had they happened to be within the reach of predatory human hands.” That was hardly high praise for beings created with the capacity to care for their environment. We have so much potential, we humans, and we have done such amazing things. Why is it that we keep ourselves in such a mess?

Gandhi who understood humanity extraordinarily well said, “There is a sufficiency in the world for humanity’s need but not for humanity’s greed.” Ouch!

It’s nice to remind ourselves from time to time that not all of our entertainers have the mentality of Charlie Sheen, and if Charlie’s behavior is related to a disease or disorder, I apologetically withdraw my barb. I am sick of hearing about Charlie, however. Some of our entertainers, and I really have no idea what the percentage is, make tremendously positive contributions to our nation and our world. They use their celebrity to better life for people in need and an environment in need. Robert Redford is one of those good guys. This is what he said about our environmental crisis, and I think it’s profoundly insightful: “I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend?”

Here’s a poem worth knowing and memorizing. The poet is Alan Eddison:

Modern technology
Owes ecology
An apology.


Two and a half months ago, the City of Brotherly Love, good ole Philly, was named by Forbes as the most toxic city in the United States. Lovely huh? Here’s a quote from Rhonda Abrams writing for “USA Today”:

Philadelphia, a U.S. capital during the Revolutionary War, is often known as the City of Brotherly Love. Yet it gets another, much less flattering moniker in a new scorecard of U.S. cities -- the “capital of toxicity.”

The Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area, which includes parts of four states (Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland) ranks No. 1 on Forbes’ 2011 Most Toxic Cities list. The reason? It has more than 50 Superfund sites, which are unused areas containing hazardous wastes.

The second most toxic US city is Bakersfield, California. Third, Fresno, California. Fourth, New York, New York. Fifth, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sixth, Los Angeles, California. Seventh, Houston, Texas. Eighth, St. Louis, Missouri. Ninth, Salt Lake City, Utah. Tenth, Riverside-San Bernardino, California.

I’m pretty sure George Carlin never expected to be quoted in an abundance of sermons, but this is Silverside Church! The poetic George Carlin:

Oh Beautiful for smoggy skies, insecticided grain,
For strip-mined mountain's majesty above the asphalt plain.
America, America, man sheds his waste on thee,
And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea.

I’m sure you want to know who’s at the other end of the spectrum, who’s getting this environmentalism thing correct. The LEAST toxic city in the United States is McAllen, Texas. I have no idea where that is. Maybe most people don’t know where it is, which would be why it’s so clean. The upstairs part of my house is the cleanest part of the house because my dogs and I don’t go up there. When we find out where it is, McAllen, Texas, I mean, I think we should give serious consideration to establishing a satellite Silverside out there, Silverside II. The pastor, that would be me, would spend a month here and a month there. There would be so many advantages. Just think! During the months I’d be gone, you could sing only those hymns you love to sing. Actually, that would be the only advantage. So few advantages to having me elsewhere; not even worth thinking about. Forget I mentioned it. So, to quell your curiosity, I looked up McAllen, Texas. It’s right at the southern tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley.

The second least toxic US city is Little Rock, Arkansas. Third, Raleigh, North Carolina. Fourth, Orlando, Florida. Fifth, Las Vegas, Nevada. (There are several different kinds of toxicity!) Sixth, Nashville, Tennessee. (I can’t believe it! Three hours from my home town!) Seventh, get this: Scranton, Pennsylvania. Eighth, Bradenton, Florida. Ninth, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (You go, Oral Roberts!) Tenth, Wichita, Kansas.

Let’s put this in a world context. Here are the top ten eco friendly cities in the world, but this time we’re going to count backward from 10 to 1. By the way, slightly different scorecards and a separate panel of evaluators determined the list of the world’s most eco friendly cities so none of the US cities on the “good” list I’ve just read appear on the list I’m about to present to you.

The tenth most eco friendly city in the world is Sydney, Australia. Ninth, Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. Eighth, San Francisco, California. Seventh, London, England. Sixth, Copenhagen, Denmark. Fifth, Vancouver, Canada. Fourth, Malmoe, Sweden. Third, Curitiba, Brazil. Second, Portland, Oregon. First, the most eco friendly city in the world: Reykjavik, Iceland.

Thankfully, this is not hand-wringing Sunday. Next Sunday is hand-wringing Sunday, just in case the predictors of Judgement Day were a day late with their projections. Just kidding, of course. What I want to say, seriously, is that there are many steps we can take to heal our damaged and much abused habitat. insists that the most important step we can take is to fight global warming, and the very best way to do that is create tree plantations wherever we can. The dramatic reduction of forest space is one factor that has allowed the greenhouse effect to have such a negative impact on our dear Mother Earth.

In order to do something constructive about the increasing average temperature on Planet Earth, creating tree plantations takes the lead in combating the multiple problems of global warming for several reasons. One is that trees reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in our living space. Forests play a vital role in regulating water supplies; they help prevent water shortages during draught times, and they help control damages caused by floods. Trees help prevent soil erosion. Within a plantation of healthy growing trees, other plant life as well as animal life can flourish to the advantage of the environment.

Obviously, ditching our dependency on oil can help to revitalize the health of our environment in a big way--and as a side benefit, oh, get rid of one of the primary causes of war that few people in power will admit to. People don’t have to acknowledge a fact to make it true, though. It’s true.

Recycling is essential. We have to reuse everything we possibly can, and we should make our preferences known by how we spend our money. Don’t buy products that are sold in eco-damaging wrapping materials. David Wann wrote: “The packaging for a microwavable dinner is programmed for a shelf life of maybe six months, a cook time of two minutes and a landfill dead-time of centuries.”

Humorist and satirist, the late Art Buchwald, wasn’t trying to be funny at all when he wrote:

And Man created the plastic bag and the tin and aluminum can and the cellophane wrapper and the paper plate, and this was good because Man could then take his automobile and buy all his food in one place, and He could save that which was good to eat in the refrigerator and throw away that which had no further use. And soon the earth was covered with plastic bags and aluminum cans and paper plates and disposable bottles and there was nowhere to sit down or walk, and Man shook his head and cried: “Look at this Godawful mess.”

The Greenhouse Crisis Foundation in DC began publishing a list of 101 ways to heal the environment back in 1989. You can look up the whole list if you wish, but I’ll tick off the top 20 suggestions:

Number one. Become an active, permanent part of Silverside Church. Oops. Wrong list, but still a GREAT idea.

1. Insulate your home.

2. Buy energy-efficient appliances.

3. Caulk and weatherstrip doors and windows.

4. Install storm windows.

5. Close off unused areas in your home from heat and air conditioning.

6. Wear warm clothing and turn down winter heat.

7. Switch to low-wattage or fluorescent light bulbs.

8. Turn off all lights that don't need to be on.

9. Use cold water instead of hot whenever possible.

10. Opt for small-oven or stovetop cooking when preparing small meals.

11. Run dishwashers only when full.

12. Set refrigerators to 38°F, freezers to 5°F, no colder.

13. Run clothes washers full, but don't overload them.

14. Use moderate amounts of biodegradable detergent.

15. Air-dry your laundry when possible.

16. Clean the lint screen in clothes dryers.

17. Instead of ironing, hang clothes in the bathroom while showering.

18. Take quick showers instead of baths.

19. Install water-efficient showerheads and sink-faucet aerators.

20. Install an air-assisted or composting toilet.

The Health and Environment Alliance headquartered in Brussels has released this statement: “From asthma and allergies, diabetes and reproductive problems to cancer and obesity, environmental degradation plays a role.” Shocking! In an interview with “The Ecologist,” Genon Jenson, the executive director of the Health and Environment Alliance, said:

I think we would move a lot more quickly and do a lot more on environmental problems if we engaged citizens and the health community on the health side of the issues. That is why I set up the Health and Environment Alliance. It’s not about saving the planet. It’s a question of saving our health. I think the planet will continue to exist, the real question is what kind of quality of life humans will have.

Since money talks, let’s look at the financial benefits of a healthier environment. Ms. Jenson again:

If we commit to a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the current 20 per cent, we can save almost 60 per cent more in healthcare in the EU. That, in a way, speaks very loudly to those involved in climate change--not only environmentalists, but also to the climate negotiators who need to detail how much it will cost to commit to emissions reductions. We are saying it will cost much less, because of the public health savings that the government--and the people--are going to reap.

Whatever would benefit the EU in this regard would benefit us too!


From a Unitarian clergyperson by the name of the Reverend Fred Small:

Automobile fuel economy is an environmental issue. But when our dependence on cheap gasoline drives a tanker aground and the spreading slick deprives an Inuit family of seal meat, that's an issue of justice and compassion.

Recycling is an environmental issue. But when a Chicago woman who's never smoked cigarettes gets lung cancer from breathing fumes from an incinerator burning recyclable trash, that's an issue of justice and compassion.

Deforestation is an environmental issue. But when tree root systems no longer hold soil in place and a mud slide sweeps away a peasant village, that's an issue of justice and compassion.

Energy conservation is an environmental issue. But when our tax dollars subsidize prison construction instead of green job training that could keep at-risk teens out of prison, that's an issue of justice and compassion.

Climate change is an environmental issue. But when people on the island nation of Tuvalu must abandon their homeland before it's swallowed by the sea, that's an issue of justice and compassion.

As we awake to the dangers of global warming, we realize that our profligate use of fossil fuels offends our most fundamental religious precepts.

Every religious tradition teaches us to hold sacred the wonders of creation, yet wantonly we desecrate them.

Every religious tradition cautions us to temper our cravings for sensation and material things, yet we pursue them addictively, vainly hoping to fill our spiritual emptiness.

Every religious tradition forbids theft, yet global warming steals from our children and our children's children. Its victims are and will be disproportionately poor and of color—those least able to contend with or to flee the storms, droughts, famines, and rising sea levels to come.

People of faith take the long view. We know that a community survives and thrives not merely in space but also through time, extending backward through memory and tradition and forward through vision and legacy.

When I was a young preacher, I was intrigued (I guess that would be the best way to describe how I felt) with the man who called himself “the Chaplain of Bourbon Street,” the Reverend Bob Harrington. With that title, you might well expect that the guy was on the flamboyant side of things ministerial. At that point, I had absolutely no hint or desire ever to live in New Orleans--though I surely did love it once I got there!

During my years in New Orleans, Harrington had fallen into disfavor with a large number of people, including many of his former supporters, because he was traveling around having debates with the famous atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair. He, of course, was speaking for Christian believers and she for atheists. I don’t recall how the beans were spilled, but their debates were exposed as staged. It was all a sham, and both of them were making money from their fake debates. In reality, they’d become buddies. He lost his high public approval rating, and the debates were only parts of what was really going on. No one is perfect, except for several members and friends of Silverside Church of course, but “Brother Bob” was shown by the press to be doing everything he preached against. Many years later he got his life back on track and went back to his work in the French Quarter.

Before he fell from grace, as it were, I got to hear this famous preacher in person at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium. He had lots of jokes, mostly canned stuff, but funny enough if you’d never heard them. He asked the packed auditorium if anyone there had a red Bible; anyone who had one, he asked that the person hold it up for everyone to see. No one raised a Bible; nowadays, many folks get colored Bibles. Back in those days, they were rare. Anyway, he said, “No red Bibles here? Not a one of you have READ your Bible? Shame on you.” Ha. Ha. Ha.

Now, there is such a thing as a GREEN Bible. It isn’t all green in color, but it is made of environmentally friendly materials; some editors have gone through the whole Bible, and every passage that they regarded as related to environmentalism was printed in green ink. I bought one the second I heard about it, and I really enjoy it. Sad to say, many copies of the Bible printed since Gutenberg are neither earth nor animal friendly. Ironic huh? Why did it take so long for someone to notice and to care?

Solar energy is a wonderful thing, and I’m so proud of our church’s spiritual and financial investment in it. It seems like such a new thing, but the truth is it was around a long time being ignored. Going all the way back to 1980, Ralph Nader said, “The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.”

This is how a fairly new translation of the Bible, the Common English Bible, renders the story of the creation of humanity in the first chapter of the book of Genesis. The second chapter of Genesis, as you may know, has a different order for the creation process, but our concern for today is with the teaching of chapter one--a very beautiful selection from Hebrew mythology. This is a record of God’s activity on the sixth day of creation:

God said, “Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened. God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground. God saw how good it was. Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground--to everything that breathes--I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. God saw everything [divinely] made: it was supremely good.

Not only is there a wonderful equality between female and male the way Genesis 1 tells the story, but also there is a wonderful circle of life theme in the whole of creation. There is absolutely no way to read acceptability of environmental abuse into this vitally important passage from the Hebrew Bible. Marye Mannes, “The earth we abuse and the living things we kill will, in the end, take their revenge; for in exploiting their presence we are diminishing our future.”

God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish and the birds, land animals, crawling things, and the earth itself.” Remember that “earth” in the Bible doesn’t refer to the planet, but to the land.

This business of “taking charge” of all living things and the land itself has nothing whatsoever to do with being the big bosses whom everything else exists to serve. “Taking charge” in this context would have a meaning similar to “taking charge” of caring for a child; there is no suggestion that if the child displeases you, you have the right to abuse her or him. Certainly, there is no suggestion that if the child fails to do what brings something selfishly good for you, you have the right to neglect the child. “Taking charge” is taking charge as in stepping up to the plate and exhibiting the care, protection, and growth needed by all parts of the created order including the earth, the land, itself.

Same thing with this imperative: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it.” “Mastering” the created order isn’t showing it who’s the boss; it’s mastering the skills needed to provide the nurture required so all parts of creation are sustained. They last, and they pass into the hands of caring future generations.


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