Words from a saint, words from a pope and ways we can care for our earth and for one another. A new encyclical sets off a debate and offers challenges to us as followers of Jesus. A few thoughts from Sunday’s reflection.
June 21 texts: Psalm 107-1-3; 23-32 and Mark 4: 35-41
In the year 1225 – almost 800 years ago – a man named Francesco di Bernadone was nearing the end of his life. He was a poor man, living in a little hut made of reed mats. It was late in the winter, not a good season for someone in fragile health. His eyesight was failing. The mice had a great time running through the drafty hut snacking on the man’s food. It was not a happy time. The world around him must have seemed awfully harsh and he knew his life was coming to a close.
But Francesco di Bernadone – we know him better as Francis of Assisi – even with his failing vision and his deteriorating health – could see past all that. He wrote a poem – the first great poem in the Italian vernacular. It was a hymn praise to God revealed through the sun and the moon, the wind and the water, the fire and the dirt of the earth. We’ll hear Francis’ words during our time of prayer. They were also the inspiration for our opening hymn and our closing hymn today.
The first words of that poem are “Laudato si, mi Signore” – “Praise be to you, My Lord.” They are the first words of the powerful letter on humanity’s relationship to God and to our planet that Pope Francis sent out this past Thursday.
I’d like to spend some this morning reflecting on our role in caring for this planet, in caring for our lives on it and for the lives of our children and grandchildren and those who will come after them.
I’m going use some of the words from Pope Francis’ letter – it’s called an encyclical in church speak – and I’m going to look at some of things we do in our community and our congregation that are good steps forward.
And I’m going to challenge us to keep taking those steps we need to be good stewards of the common home we all share, this beautiful blue dot in a vast universe. It’s up to us, after all, to use our own two hands, as Jonathan reminded us from Ben Harper’s song, if we are to make a difference in our world.
This matters, because as Pope Francis noted, “Our common home is falling into serious disrepair.”
Drawing on some imagery from the story of the creation of humanity in the Book of Genesis, Pope Francis writes: “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”
Pope Francis, of course, draws frequently in this encyclical on the spirit and the life of St. Francis. Let me read a bit from one section, where he writes that Francis of Assisi lived with a wonder and a joy that “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”
Pope Francis continues: “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”
Let me introduce you to Steve Yuhas. A piece from The Washington Post earlier this month described him this way: “Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average.”
And Steve Yuhas is not exactly channeling the spirit of St. Francis when he posts on social media: People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful.” Then he told the reporter for The Washington Post: “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live. And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”
What set off Steve Yuhas is California’s new rule in the midst of a deepening drought in that state that will ration water in his enclave starting July 1.
Brett Barbre lives in another wealthy enclave in Orange County, California. He likes to quote that famous slogan from the NRA about guns, applying it in his case to his watering hose: “They’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
Steve Yuhas and Brett Barbre may not have read the words of St. Francis recently. They are probably not big fans of this new letter from Pope Francis. But they represent the tensions we face as a global community in trying to come to grips with the acceleration of destructive environmental trends.
Pope Francis directly addressed the consumer impulse in our world and how that can lead any one of us to narrow our focus.
He wrote: “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs.”
It takes both individual and collective actions to reverse those destructive environmental trends in our world. And people with money and power are in positions to escape – for a while at least – the impacts of pollution and global warming and water shortages. So the impact of all this hits first and hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable.
It seems to me that’s particularly important for us in a place like Wisconsin to think about. We are in a wonderful area of the earth – lots of water, variable temperatures, rich land, abundant rivers, lakes, forests. Yes, it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but we have the infrastructure that enables us to live with that. And most of us here have the financial resources to adequately heat and cool our homes, we work in places where the interior climate can be kept reasonably comfortable.
This past week, NASA – the space agency – released data about the condition of the world’s aquifers – those underground water basins that provide water to hundreds of millions of people around the globe. It said that 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers have passed their sustainability tipping points. More water is being taken out than replenished.
The most threatened aquifer in the U.S. is in California. The southern Atlantic and Gulf Coast aquifers are also in trouble. Those aquifers in the middle of the country – where we live – are doing fine.
Globally, said NASA, those aquifers facing the greatest stress are in poor, densely populated regions, places like Northwest India, Pakistan and North Africa. Once again, it is the poor of our world who are the most vulnerable.
All of this can make the issues around threats to our planet, to our common home, seem rather remote to those of us in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, on the first day of summer.
So an entry point for us can be an appreciation of the wonder of nature – and then a recognition of our role in protecting the lives of all.
The two scripture readings that we heard today talk about the power of nature in our world.
Psalm 107 describes stormy winds throwing ships this way and that, the story from the Gospel according to Mark describes another storm threatening to sink the fishing boat being used by Jesus and his disciples.
In both of these, there is a sense of fear when facing the power of nature and the sense of relief when God comes to the rescue.
For some, these passages could offer a sense of false hope. We don’t need to do anything about the changing climate of our world – God will take care of it.
Pope Francis offers an answer to that way of thinking. He wrote: “The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”
In other words, God is at our side, within our beings. God has given us the tools we need to rebuild our common home. But it will not happen by magic. It will happen because we make the effort, because we use our own two hands.
The good news for us here is that people in our community of Fitchburg, people here at Memorial are already making that effort.
Fitchburg was an early leader in recycling, it is a community identified with bicycling, it has worked on the planting and preservation of trees, it has a growth plan that is attentive to protecting natural resources. This is a city that encourages people to turn off idling cars, that nurtures prairies, whose new library meets very high environmental and sustainability standards.
And Memorial has paid a lot of attention to sustainability issues over the years, from using mugs instead of Styrofoam cups for coffee, using and selling fair trade coffee, replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs or other energy-saving bulbs, turning down the thermostats in unoccupied areas of the building during the week, installing low-flow toilets, motion-sensitive lights at the entryway, having an energy audit by MG&E.
There is continual attention here by our Building and Grounds Committee to ways to care for our facilities in sustainable ways and we need continually look at ways to improve on what we have already done.
I know that people here are also doing a lot of individual things aimed at sustainability – buying food locally, driving fuel-efficient autos, looking at ways we can reduce our individual carbon footprint, paying attention to the global issues that affect the sustainability of our planet.
Some are also doing it professionally, like Dean Baumgardners’ work with wind power or Jay Johnson’s work with a team in Antarctica drilling out ice cores to understand the past and the future of climate change.
All of these efforts are vitally important, not for what they do signally, but for the impact they have collectively. Pope Francis wrote about what he called “ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”
“All of these,” he said, “reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings.”
As we do these things, we become more attuned to the broader issues. And that’s where the tension returns. When a homeowner in an exclusive enclave in California resists efforts to control water consumption, it’s easy to rail against government rules that restrict individual freedom.
But none of us lives alone on this planet. As the English poet John Donne was famously wrote in 1624, “No man is an island.”
So the challenge before us is threefold –
to deepen our own spirituality around the richness of nature,
to find additional ways we can live more sustainable lives and
to be part of the global movement to set standards that will slow down the destructive things humanity is doing to our planet – standards that mean those of us who are better off are going to have to give up a bit of what we are used to in order to protect those with fewer resources.
In our faith tradition, we have the resources to draw on to live into the realities of a planet in peril. One of the things Pope Francis did so eloquently in his encyclical last week is to connect the multiple layers of our relationships. He wrote: “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.”
Because of that, he wrote, “The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”
He even got a bit poetic about this, writing, “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.”
As I end this, let me invite you into a moment of reflection offered by Jo Turner in an email to me this week. Last Sunday, I talked a bit about the distinctive design of the cross in our sanctuary, its longer arm reaching out to the world, as John Hilliard suggested.
Jo said that as she has sat here on Sunday mornings, she has been contemplating the rock wall behind the cross. And over time, some of the rocks have taken on the shape of creatures – the head of a bear in the roundish black rock on the lower right, an eagle in the reddish rock on the left side, a fish under the right arm of the cross – creatures representing land, sea and air.
She spotted other images as well – she can elaborate for you. But as we sing our way toward the time of prayer with hymn #569 – “Touch the Earth Lightly” – let those images calling us to care for the land, the water, the air be with us as we commit ourselves to our relationship with God, with each other and with our common home, the earth.
The Canticle of the Sun
By Francis of Assisi
Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor; and bears a likeness of you, Most High.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through whom you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water, who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and produces fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks and serve him with great humility.