Our Scripture reading is a paraphrase of the opening words of Genesis, pieced together by David Blementhal of Emory University from the commentaries of Rashbam, otherwise known as Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (1083-1174). Click on the link to read.
If you want a glimpse of some of the worst of global warming, scientists suggest taking a look at U.S. weather in recent weeks. Horrendous wildfires in Colorado. Oppressive heat waves, droughts and all-time heat records. One observer described our D.C. heat wave as “being in a giant wet mouth, except six degrees warmer.” And then there was that powerful freak wind-storm-for-the-ages that blew through last Friday. First there was the roaring wind --blowing dust, and debris and tumbleweeds -- followed by an explosive display of thunder and lightning that left hundreds of thousands of people without power.
As terrifying as that storm was, the aftermath reminded me of my younger days. The next morning, my street had no electricity, and therefore not as much of the noise that comes with power consumption. There were no whining generators, no a/c units, no humming of transformers. The chirping birds, singing in the morning heat and humidity brought me back to my childhood experiences on my family’s farm in Jerico Springs, Missouri, population 259. Many summers we would visit my great grandfather on the farm. Missouri summers are hot and steamy. Grandpa Hudson had a few antique desk fans to cool the kitchen – the kind that would lop off a limb if you got too close. My grandmother would set up shop in the kitchen frying hearty meals for family farm workers over the kitchen stove. She suffered through those visits to Jerico Springs. For her, a visit to Missouri meant a week of hard labor and sweat. As for me . . . I remember trying to sleep on the downstairs couch in the old farmhouse, waiting for a breeze as I checked in with the jar of fireflies I had caught and kept near my pillow.
The morning after our D.C. storm brought me back to Jerico Springs, MO. It also got me wondering what might happen if these weather events become a regular feature of modern life. These are, after all, the kinds of extremes scientists predicted will come with climate change. In the days following the wind and heat, I’ve heard more people wondering whether this is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. As one scientist noted, "The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about." The head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in fire-charred Colorado said these are the very record-breaking conditions he has said would happen, but many people wouldn't listen. So it's I told-you-so time.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that just 18 percent of those polled name climate change as their top environmental concern. Maybe we hear about it so much, it’s becoming too easy to tune the message out. As one woman told the Post, “I really don’t give it a thought.” We don’t always think of ourselves as intertwined with our environment. It’s as if we humans are no longer part of creation. We stride the earth as gods, and the ground beneath our feet serves our desires. In the wake of yet another weather-related calamity, we face the same lesson once more: short-term advantages can be gained by exploiting the environment. But in the long term we pay for it. When we consume the natural world as a commodity, we alienate ourselves from the earth, from each other, and also from God. I don’t think this is the relationship God intended.
Martin Buber was a rabbi, philosopher and social activist. In 1923 he came out with a groundbreaking book called I and Thou. He talked about two different types of relationships. Some people have I-Thou or I-You relationships. An I-You relationship is a true dialogue. A person relates to another with mutuality, openness, and directness. There are also I-It relationships. In an I-It relationship, a person learns about another, and experiences another, but never enters into a relationship. I-It relationships are entirely objective. I have an I-It relationship with my doctor. We don’t get together and enter into one another’s profound hopes and fears. He doesn’t really know me. He looks me over and objectively compares my health to other males of my age.
Or, take the example of a tree. You see a tree in the middle of summer – a rigid green pillar in a flood of light. You can feel its movement and sense the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core. You can sense the sucking of the roots and the breathing of the leaves. You can name put the tree in a category– call it a maple, an oak, a birch. You can tell with some predictability how it will grow and when it will lose its leaves. But, up to this point the tree remains an object – an It. You have only experienced the tree.
But, it can also happen, when will and grace are joined, that as you contemplate the tree you are drawn into a relationship. The tree ceases to be an It. All of the sudden you notice the unique features of this tree. It is not just a maple. It has original features that make it different from other maples. It still has a predictable form, color, and chemistry. But now, it’s as if you are confronting this maple as an individual. As the breeze tickles its branches, the leaves shake and the limbs sway, and all of the sudden this tree is dancing with you. You are in a relationship. And relation is reciprocity.
Many of us have I-It relationships with creation. We think that if we have enough objective knowledge and experience and science and can pour it all into new technology, then we will be saved. Many of us feel stuck in a cheap and impotent synthetic world. Our ability to enjoy one another, and the rest of creation is dammed up by greed, corruption, fractured relationships, boredom, and injustice. But God’s creation will not be tamed. Leonard Bernstein reminds us of this in some words from his Mass:
You can lock up the bold men,Buber plays on the words of the creation story and writes, “In the beginning is the relation.” This is one lesson of creation. If we want to recover health and harmony, our broken relationships need healing. The process begins when we can see the image of God around us. I’m not talking about pantheism here. Pantheism is when you look at a rock and think, that rock is a god. So is that tree. So are you and I. Pantheism states that everything is God and God is everything. But, the lesson I’m learning from creation is to add one word to this formula: God is in everything, and everything is in God. That includes you and me. Creation reveals God to us and allows us to experience God’s presence.
Go and lock up your bold men,
And hold men in tow.
You can stifle all adventure
For a century or so.
Smother hope before its risen.
Watch it wizen like a gourd.
But you cannot imprison
The Word of the Lord.
No, you cannot imprison
The Word of the Lord.
I’m talking about I-You relationships with creation – transforming every experience into a unique connection. I-You relationships draw us closer to one another and to God. Nature’s abundance and beauty reveals God’s generosity and majesty. Creation’s healing, nourishing and life-giving properties reveal divine love.
The question is whether we can relate back to God. Martin Buber says, “Relation is reciprocity.” A new relationship with God and creation means being vulnerable to God’s Word-- the ongoing, creative energy of God. Our spiritual task is to get out of the way enough so that we might be filled and renewed with God’s Word so that we can go about our work of healing, celebrating, and co-creating.
What I’m really talking about today is the power of love. I’m asking us to love creation and to love one another, and to love God. The love I’m talking about involves some risk. Think of a two people who fall in love. In a moment of passion, one partner says, “I love you.” And the other partner says, “Wow, I love you too.” I see it in the movies all the time. One partner might say “I love you” and mean it with all of her soul. But she is only into experiencing the moment: the rush of excitement. A partner might say, “I Love you,” but he might really mean, “I love how you look,” or “I love how I feel right now.” If that’s the case, then what he calls love is really using the other person as an object to fulfill his so-called “needs” at that moment. How many people do you know who have heard the words “I love you,” and then left the relationship feeling cheap and used? We might call it love, but it’s not a relationship.
Think of what happens with another couple when they say “I love you.” They look, and listen, and touch one another, and they know that what they see, hear, and feel has been kissed by God. This is not just any person. This is not just MY Partner, MY wife, or MY husband, or MY lover. This person represents the kiss of God.
We can do the same with the natural world. We can say, “I love the earth,” but really mean, “I love how we can take what’s around us and make our lives comfortable.” But think of what happens when we feel the breeze and sense the kiss of the Divine Spirit, when we dig our hands into the dirt and realize that the elements that make up the topsoil are the same elements that compose human life. This is not just air, soil, and water – these are images of God.
There was once a traveling rabbi who had the ability to answer every question he was asked. One day he arrived at a town where thousands came to hear him. A little girl in the crowd raised her hand. "I have the question you can't answer," she said. "I have a bird in my hand. Is it alive or dead?" Whichever answer the rabbi chose, the girl knew she would prove him wrong. If the rabbi said the bird is alive, she would close her hand and kill it. But if he said the bird was dead, then she'd open her hand and let it live. The rabbi was well aware of the trick behind this question, yet still found himself stumped. Perhaps this truly was the question he couldn't answer. Then suddenly the answer hit him. Tears came streaming down his cheeks, even as his face broke into a smile. Looking at the girl in the midst of the huge crowd, he said, "My precious, precious child. You hold in your hand a bird and ask if the bird is alive or dead. I can only tell you one thing. The fate of this bird lies in your hands. You can let it live, or you can let it die."
We can let creation live or we can let it die. Her fate is in our hands, yours and mine. Sure, we can suck the life out of our earth, and its resources, and inhabitants until we are bloated and satisfied while others are tossed aside like second-hand remnants after they’ve served their purpose. There is another way.
We can approach one another, and the creation around us with reverence, realizing that that we see, and hear, and touch is a single unique being, interconnected yet unique. The very least we can do is look -- really look. And listen. And touch. And know that what we see, and hear, and feel, has been kissed by God.
Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner, 1970), 56-58.
“The Call of Creation: God's Invitation and the Human Response,” http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/resource/GreenText.
Some ideas in this sermon were freely lifted from Original Blessing by Matthew Fox (New York: Putnam, 1983).
Avraham Weiss, Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World. Kindle Edition.