September 5, 2021
The Very Rev. Penny Bridges
The Episcopal Church offers an option for churches to observe a short Season of Creation in the early fall, and today we begin that season. We aren’t deviating from the regular Scripture readings, but we have special prayers and a blessing for the season. So, one of the lenses through which we will look at our Scripture this month is that of how the Bible interprets God’s creation, and how we are doing in our stewardship of that creation. Scripture is full of allusions to the natural world, often using images of nature to convey God’s power or as allegories for the spiritual health or otherwise of the nation.
Isaiah describes the blooming of the desert. Was it only two years ago that we were all stunned by the superbloom in our local desert? That was a transformation worthy of Isaiah’s prophecy. See how the prophet goes directly from describing the beauty of creation to the majesty and glory of God, and from there to the vision of a world where disabilities will be healed and all people will be empowered to praise God and enjoy the bounty of nature. There is a direct line from the wellbeing of creation to the wellbeing of humanity, and the Psalm continues that theme, connecting God the Creator of heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them, to the call for justice and equity and health for all.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that God’s call for justice includes environmental justice. Evidence of injustice and inequity is easy to find in the exploitation of the earth’s resources in the service of the wealthy and powerful. We do not serve the poor by stripping their lands of valuable minerals, by polluting the ocean, by deforestation. It’s the poor who suffer most from environmental degradation and climate change. They live on the margins, vulnerable to flood and fire. They have substandard housing that cannot withstand a storm. They have no resources to fall back on when misfortune hits, no rainy day fund, no plan B, so, when the wildfire comes or the hurricane takes their home, they are quickly left destitute. They have no choice: freedom of choice is a luxury reserved for the privileged.
I received an object lesson in how first world demands degrade our environment when I visited South Sudan in 2013. In the fast-developing capital city of Juba, crowded with NGOs and international speculators, the streets were literally paved with flattened plastic water bottles. Plastic and concrete were everywhere. We traveled to the extreme southwest of the country, to a remote Episcopal diocese called Ezo. The people of Ezo lived in harmony with the land. Their homes were made of straw; they were building a cathedral out of bricks made from the local dirt. Their principal mode of transport was on foot, or perhaps bicycle. Each homestead was surrounded by a small planting of cassava, a local crop which provides the starch in their diet. They had very little, but they gave thanks to God all the time, for the smallest of blessings – arriving safely at someone’s home, food on the table, the news that friends across the world were praying for them.
The bishop’s compound where we stayed included a newly constructed outhouse with a large, ugly, concrete commode. There was no water supply. It had been built especially for first-world visitors like us and it was a monstrosity: highly insanitary, an eyesore, representing an expenditure they couldn’t afford and couldn’t easily dispose of. The simple holes in the ground I used in other locations on our trip were much more sanitary, easily dug and easily covered up when their useful life was done. We could learn much about creation care from our brothers and sisters in South Sudan.
This month we hear each Sunday from the Letter of James. This letter almost didn’t make it into our Bible: it seems to have been written later than the other books, and the early Fathers of the Church were dubious about its authorship. It also holds up good works as a crucial component of the Christian life, whereas St. Paul was adamant that we are saved by faith alone. Martin Luther famously wanted to expel James from the Bible. But we still have it, and it contains a lot of helpful and practical advice for living a virtuous life, both as individual Christians and as a church community.
James condemns snobbery, pandering, and favoritism. We are not to give special attention to the celebrity parishioner or ignore the needy one. We Episcopalians have a history of favoring the well-to-do and the privileged, with our pew rentals and slave balconies. The first church I served as a priest was founded in Alexandria, Virginia in the 1860’s by the two other Episcopal churches in town, so that the working poor would go there and not bother their wealthy neighbors. Some of our most historic black Episcopal churches were founded as a protest against being segregated in worship.
James says that God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith. If you are among the poor you have to be rich in faith, because you’ve learned that you cannot depend on the goodness of other people. You understand how dependent you are on God’s goodness and mercy. Worldly wealth and success traps us into thinking we can do it all ourselves; we forget that all we have is the free gift of a generous God. James reminds us that the only acceptable response to God’s goodness is good works: to share what we have, to care for our neighbors, to live out our faith. And our Collect today reflects on the same theme, praying for the grace to trust in God with all our hearts and make our boast only of God’s mercy.
Today’s Gospel story paints a picture of Jesus growing in his humanity and in his mission. The conversation with the Gentile mother makes us uncomfortable: how can Jesus be so rude? It’s as if he is so focused on his mission to the people of Israel that, at first, he can’t even see this Syro-Phoenician woman as fully human. But her courage and wit get through to him and something new opens up in him. Her unlikely prophetic voice opens his ears to the need of the world beyond Israel, and we can imagine the doors of the Jesus movement swinging open to embrace all people, Jew and Gentile alike, who put their trust in him.
And the following verses, when Jesus opens the ears of the deaf man and restores his voice, continue this theme: Jesus’s ears have been opened and he pays it forward. The prophetic voice calls him to his broader mission and he immediately performs a healing miracle that recalls Isaiah’s words about the flowering of the Kingdom of God, and the new creation where the ears of the deaf will be unstopped and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
We long for the day when God’s Kingdom will bring about a new world of justice and plenty; when all people will have the freedom to live their best life; when the earth will be healed; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. In this Season of Creation we will have plentiful opportunity to dream of that new world, and God’s word in Scripture will remind us to do our part in bringing it about.