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On Trees and Consequences
Today is the second Sunday in the Season of Creation, a short liturgical season that runs from September 1 to October 4 attending to the spirituality of creation and a theology of the environment. During this time, Christians and those of other faiths are encouraged to read the Bible with our hearts attuned to the Earth and its inhabitants and our hands ready to participate with God in co-creating the future.
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You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
When I was ten, my parents moved from Baltimore City to the county. For years, I thought they’d moved in the rush of White Flight following the riots of 1968. That may have been part of their rationale, but I’ve come to believe that they had a much more mundane reason: to distance themselves from family, especially a particularly awful relative who lived next door.
They found a piece of property hidden in a thick wood, a parcel in a new suburban development of acre-plus lots on rolling forested hills. My mother designed the house; my father insisted on a pool. When we moved in, it seemed we’d come to our own Maryland Shangri-La.
A few months later, a huge summer rainstorm released a deluge on this little paradise. After we settled in, another family had purchased the lot uphill from ours. They’d begun building a house. But the project wasn’t far along. They’d cleared the hill and dug a foundation.
As the rain poured down, we heard a terrible noise. The hillside, denuded of its trees, gave way and slid toward us. A torrent of mud washed into my father’s beloved swimming pool. Now I know that we were lucky. The house was untouched. But the side yard was buried with muck and debris from the construction zone above.
My mother wailed, “I begged them not to cut down the trees!”
And so, when I was still a little girl, long before anyone spoke of climate change, I learned about environmental consequences.
Today’s lectionary texts are all about consequences: “If. . . then. . .” In Ezekiel, the prophet receives an “if . . .then” instruction regarding his own ministry. And, at the end of the passage, God promises that “if” the wicked turn away from evil, “then” they will live. In Romans, “If” the day of salvation is near, “then” God’s people should live in love and light. And, in Matthew, Jesus gives an entire series of “if. . .then” guidelines for living in community.
We might call this Consequences Sunday.
In recent weeks, consequences have been in the news. With each Trump indictment, we were reminded that the former president got away with breaking rules and bad behavior “because he never faced any consequences.” Pundits assure viewers that his luck has run out — and the Department of Justice and local prosecutors are meting out the consequences Trump’s parents never dispensed and he has long avoided. He never faced repercussions for his actions.
We often think of consequences in parental or legal terms — if you break the rules, then you will be punished. When it comes to faith, we believe that God dishes out consequences. This, of course, leads to images as God-as-judge, God-as-lightning-bolt-thrower, God-as-killjoy, and God-as-mean Parent: God the Finger-Wagger in Chief.
Despite the negative spin we typically assign to them, “consequences” are only “effects” or “results.” It is actually a pretty neutral word. Consequences are those things that are caused by certain actions. They might be bad. Or they might be good. This is one of the simplest philosophical principles learned by schoolchildren: causation.
Consequences aren’t necessarily punishment — they are the outcome of actions and dependent on relations between things. In other words, consequences are about connection.
The readings remind us that we are connected. Bad choices lead to death; moral choices lead to life. Loving one’s neighbor results in honorable relationships and unity. If you hold one another to responsible accountability and forgiveness, then a community embodies both justice and mercy. Consequences arise from the interconnectedness of community. Pull one thread of a web and the whole thing moves. Everything is connected.
During these September Sundays, Christians are asked to think about God as Creator and Creation itself — to reflect on the astonishing relationship at the heart of biblical faith. And understanding that this interdependence holds consequences is an important dimension of creation spirituality and climate justice.
We tend to think of environmental disasters as “Acts of God” (blame both bad theology and the insurance industry), random and unpredictable events of mysterious origin. There’s nothing much one can do about such things. Some Christians eschew this perspective and insist that natural catastrophes are God’s judgment on human moral choices — like blaming hurricanes on gay people.
Both of these interpretations are wrong. There are some — but probably not as many as we think — completely unanticipated, arbitrary environmental events. But “Acts of God” are rarer than the insurance industry would have us imagine. And believing that weather disasters are divine punishment for politics you don’t like is both silly and dangerous.
My mind goes back to my mother: “I begged them not to cut down the trees!”
She knew the trees stabilized the hill. Without them, something bad might happen.
God created a world that is connected, where all things depend on all other things for health and life. Natural disasters usually result from some tug on the web of creation in which we all live. A drought on the opposite side of the planet may warm the oceans and intensify storms that crash onto far-off shores. Fires in one nation spread toxins that are breathed by those who live thousands of miles away. Casually discarded plastic waste creates giant trash vortices in the oceans where microplastics enter the food chain and wind up poisoning fish — then animals and people.
Consequences. If. . . then.
Of course, in this frame consequences are a result of God’s judgment. But this isn’t God shaking a finger in our faces saying, “Hate gay people or you are all going to Hell!,” and sending an earthquake to make sure we get the point.
God created this luminous web of creation — and we are part of it. When we strain it, abuse it, violate it, or break it, there’s a response. That’s part of the way things are. We are not separate from creation or above it. We are within it. Our actions — like cutting down trees — have consequences on our very lives.
This is both bad and good news. The bad news is that we’ve long thought ourselves as superior to creation, not part of it. We could do what we wanted to the world, mistreating and misusing its resources and upsetting its balanced systems of causation. This past summer — with the massive fires, huge storms, and unbearable heat — we saw the consequences of past actions. We are reaping what our ancestors sowed.
The good news is that actions can be changed — and those changes will have their own consequences and alter the future. And that’s the point of all of today’s biblical text. We can change. We have agency. We aren’t victims of either past deeds or a capricious, angry God. (As an aside, I once preached a sermon entitled “Earth in the Hands of Angry Sinners.”)
If we choose differently and well, then we will live.
We can turn from our transgressions against creation; we can embrace the reality that caring for the Earth (our shared neighborhood) is loving our neighbor; and we can loose healing for the creation instead of destruction.
The prophets are calling. The night is far gone even as day draws near. God is with us. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
It works for community. And it works for trees.
Creation is such that there will be consequences.
Leave a comment about today’s Musing. You can also share a news story that gives you hope for addressing climate change or inspires wonder about creation.
When we violate, abuse, exploit, or even simply ignore non-human creatures, we are rejecting a core dimension of our humanity and of God’s calling for us. We are crucifying the earth. We are interrupting, speaking over, or bickering with God’s gentle language of love, in which each creature is like a syllable of the living Word. Each creature is an instance of Divine Gift, God’s gift to Godself, the love language of the Trinity. We believe God became a Creature in Jesus Christ and redeemed Creation from the inside out so that we creatures can participate directly in this infinite pattern of God’s giving-and-receiving.
— Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.
Use; do not misuse; so, too, Paul teaches you. Find your rest in temperate relaxation. Do not indulge in a frenzy of pleasures. Don’t make yourself a destroyer of absolutely all living things, whether they be four-footed and large or four-footed and small, birds, fish, exotic or common a good bargain or expensive. The sweat of the hunter ought not to fill your stomach like a bottomless well that many men digging cannot fill.
— St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395)
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
— Wendell Berry
FLORIDA: COMING YOUR WAY!
September 15-17, 2023
I’ll be at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clearwater next weekend — Friday night lecture at 7PM: “Jesus and the Living of These Days,” Saturday learning event 10AM-noon on “memoir theology,” and Sunday sermon at 10:30AM: “The Debts We Owe.”
Free and open to all. Book signing after Friday presentation.
SOUTHERN LIGHTS IS BACK!
January 12 -14, 2024
And our theme is Reimagining Faith Beyond Patriarchy and Hierarchy
Last January, almost 700 people gathered at St. Simon’s Island in Georgia for a packed weekend of poetry, theology, and music.
WE’RE GATHERING AGAIN!
YOU ARE INVITED to join me and Brian McLaren as we reimagine our faith beyond patriarchy and hierarchy in our interior lives, in our communities of faith, and in the Scriptures. We’ve asked three remarkable speakers to take us through this journey: Cole Arthur Riley, Simran Jeet Singh, and Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader Polczer.
Please come and be with us in Georgia. Or, if you’d rather be with us online, you can choose that option as well.
My deepest gratitude to the many readers in this community who renewed their YEARLY subscriptions in August and early September. These weeks are the largest renewal period for Cottage subscribers in the entire year.
There aren’t enough ways to say “THANK YOU” for your ongoing support. (Don’t feel left out, monthly subscribers! I really appreciate you too!)
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It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.
We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied into a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.