With Jesus, life-changing things happen around tables: acts of service, eye-opening teaching, prayer, and sacramental transformation. Boundaries get broken for the sake of justice. Community forms and dignity is restored to those once excluded. The “table” might be on a hillside or in an upper room, but wherever the people gather with Jesus, people are nourished — body and soul. The well-known Psalm 23 paints a picture of the table that God, our Shepherd, prepares for us. It reminds us that God provides for us, even in times of challenge and danger. God prepares and invites us to the table, nourishes and connects us there, and anoints us as beloved and called. We are part of the family, part of God’s work of love and mending in the world.
“More Green, Less Noise”
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, October 17, 2021, the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost. “Prepare the Table with Justice and Joy” series.
Texts: Psalm 23:1-2, Mark 10:35-45
“…one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…” This line from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit has inspired a refrain in the Gaines-Cirelli household over many years, a phrase that is invoked like a prayer or a prophetic rebuke in moments when surroundings are harsh or grating on the nerves. “More green. Less noise.” I suppose one could say it’s nostalgic or naïve. But regardless of that, it is what I so often desire. More green. Less noise.
And so I love the line from Psalm 23 that is our focus today as we journey line by line through that Psalm in this series.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures;
and leads me beside still waters;
The landscape traversed by the Hebrew people from which the Psalm emerged is diverse—from rocky desert to mountain to seacoast. And there are lovely broad valleys and places where green spreads out like a blanket. The good shepherd knows the terrain, knows when and where we need to be guided from one place to another—and chooses to bring us to green pastures and still waters.
Rabbi Harold Kushner begins his reflection on verse two by telling an amusing story of a boy who asks his father why the sky is blue and the grass is green.
Of course there are those in this congregation who could answer the boy’s questions quite precisely from a scientific perspective. But even if we don’t know those answers, Kushner goes on to suggest a fairly simple answer from a theological point of view, namely, the reason the sky is blue and the grass is green is because God made a world God knew we needed… Not just a world that produces sustenance for our bodies, but a world that provides suitable habitats for different creatures, a world that gives comfort and delight.
But what do blue and green have to do with any of that? Kushner spends a bit of time talking about how different colors evoke different emotional responses. “Remember that light is a form of energy. Light reaches our eyes in waves of different frequencies per second, creating different levels of intensity. For bright colors, red and yellow, the waves are longer and hit the eye with more strength, even as taller, longer ocean waves hit us more forcefully…Darker colors, the blues and greens, emit shorter waves and strike the eye more gently.” And then makes this observation, “God has colored [the] world in predominantly calming colors, blue sky, green leaves, blue-green water, brown trees, colors that calm rather than excite.” And for our siblings who don’t see colors, there are other aspects of creation that are similarly delightful and calming…the feeling of a breeze or a warm body snuggled up to us, the sounds of birds, a purring cat, water flowing, the rustle of leaves, the smells of fresh cut grass, wet earth, flowers, wood smoke.
We know that the elements of our planet can be harsh and dangerous as well. But there’s a reason people yearn to be outside in nature—any nature! I remember when I lived in New York City, after a long, cold winter, I took a walk on the first warmish, sunny day of spring and was astonished to see that Central Park’s Sheep Meadow was literally covered with people. The Lord (or something!) had made all these humans stumble out of their city-dweller hobbit holes and lie down in that green pasture—and you could barely see the green of the pasture for all the people! God made a world God knew we needed…
And have you ever noticed that line in the Psalm, “[The Lord] makes me lie down…”? I think I’ve always thought of verse 2 as mostly about food and water, as a shepherd leading the sheep to pastures and streams for nourishment. But what I’ve come to appreciate is that it’s not only that God has created a beautiful planet to nourish us with food, but also to help us rest, to find calm in what can be stormy waters of life. One translation of verse two reads, “You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water.” (CEV)
Many poets and other writers have the created world as their primary inspiration and study. One of those is Wendell Berry, farmer, poet, philosopher, prophet. Berry writes these words in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
God has given us this beautiful creation, not only as a source of food, as raw materials to manipulate and consume, but as a doorway into rest, delight, grace, and peace. //
Several things converge around this Sunday when it just so happened that these lines fell open for our reflection… October 4th is the traditional Feast Day of St. Francis, who is known for love of all creation and creatures, climate and environmental justice legislation is a centerpiece of current debates in congress, and preparations are underway for a UN Climate Change Conference happening in Glasgow the first couple of weeks of November. Some fail to see any connection between Christian faith and the climate crisis. I remember back in 2015 Pope Francis was catching all kinds of grief for his “green agenda.” Some of those opposed to the Pope’s environmental justice advocacy believe “that climate change is being overhyped or that human activity is not a factor and that remedies may do more harm than good…Others simply believe that Francis…should not [weigh] in on issues that touch on technical and scientific matters that some contend are still debatable.”
Of course the fiercest debates around environmental issues often come to a head when there is a lot of money to be made and/or the promise of jobs. I have had conversations with close family members (remember I come from Oklahoma and Texas, after all) who argue that careful engineering and maintenance of things like off-shore drilling and fracking are not necessarily bad for the planet, but rather it is only when companies try to do things on the cheap or without care that harm is done. My goal is to keep an open mind and to try to see things from a variety of perspectives. I know that my family members (and others like them) want to care for creation even as they advocate for practices such as those mentioned. But when we add up those things together with mountaintop removal coal mining, deforestation, polluted groundwater, loss of wetlands, greenhouse gas production, paving everything in sight, and Lord knows what else, I can’t help but think that we are, collectively, being driven first and foremost not by a balanced sense of forward looking stewardship of both human and environmental needs, but by the short-term money to be made from coal, development, oil, agribusiness, and more.
There are folks here today who have a much more nuanced and complete understanding of the environmental, economic, social, and political issues involved in all of this than I do. But I simply want to remind us of a very simple truth. Regardless of your views about particular practices, our Judeo-Christian faith specifically calls us to a deep and intentional connection with all of creation. To focus on environmental stewardship is not to insert some ideology into Christian faith that doesn’t belong, it is to honor the very heart of our calling as followers of Jesus. God has created a beautiful world to provide for all we need, body and soul, and has given us as the human creature a place and role within the interconnected beauty and order of things. We, like Jesus, are called not to be served, but to serve. Christians are not only called to be caretakers of the world, its earth, air, water, and creatures, but to remember that we are, ourselves, part of the creation. The Christian understanding is not different from the Native American wisdom reflected in the words of Chief Seattle: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” The truth is that the human creature has harmed the web. God has given us green pastures and still waters, but as we have seen, droughts dry up the pastures; waters rise and overwhelm as a result of our lack of care. We cannot assume that green pastures and still waters will always be there.
Last week, Foundry Board President Todd Mullins mentioned that environmental justice (which, by the way, is intersectional justice) is part of our vision and agenda for 2022. It’s not new—we have solar panels, a rainwater garden, we recycle, and have drastically reduced single use plastic and paper consumption, but we are committed to taking things to another level of sustainability through projects in our physical plant, consciousness raising for practices in our personal lives, and advocacy in the public square.
More green. Less noise. With God’s help and our shared commitment and generosity, we’ll do our part in mending, sustaining, sharing, and enjoying the gifts of green pastures and still waters so that all might be nourished by the good gifts of creation, so that all may “rest in the grace of the world and [be] free.”