Thursday, September 8, 2016

A sermon about water by J. Mark Davidson

The Spirituality and The Ethics of Water

by J. Mark Davidson


J. Mark Davidson: Pastor, The Church of Reconciliation, Chapel Hill, North 
Carolina; This is his sermon for the annual Earth Sabbath at New Hope Camp 
and Conference Center, May 8, 2016.

Augustine’s 4th c. classic The City of God drew a contrast between the human city and the city of God. The human city was human civilization, what we human beings have made of the earth, how we have arranged our life, our glories and our failures. The city of God, on the other hand, was God’s original design for human life, a blueprint for sustainable human flourishing, so often not followed. The whole message of Christianity is the ongoing redemption of the broken human city until it comes under the sway of the city of God... much as Jesus prayed... “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Two phrases from this morning’s scriptures – from Psalms and from John – help us understand: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God;” that river is Jesus Christ and the streams are the true followers of Jesus spreading out into the world like thousands of tributaries of life and hope... as John put it: “Out of their hearts shall flow streams of living water.”

Just as Augustine went back and forth in his mind between the broken human city and the city of God, between the way things are and the way things ought to be, we too go back and forth between the damaged earth and our call from God to “tend the garden” of creation; between toxic waterways and the amazing gift of water, between the tragic Flint water crisis and the baptismal waters of healing and abundant life. You could say we go back and forth between “there is a river whose streams make sad the city of Flint” and “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.”

The basics of the Flint water crisis are well-known. Over 8,000 children under the age of 6 have been exposed for a prolonged period to unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water. A few parts per billion of lead is all it takes for a child to suffer permanent neurological damage, irretrievably lost IQ points, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, developmental delays, nervous system damage. The full cost of this exposure will not be known for years. We know this tragedy happened because state-appointed emergency managers switched from the Detroit water system to the unsafe Flint River in order to save money. It was a bewildering decision, since the Flint River had been badly polluted for nearly a century. It was considered one of the country’s most polluted rivers. Millions of gallons of raw sewage, industrial waste from paper mills and General Motors plants, pesticide runoff from agriculture, road salt runoff had been dumped into the Flint River. So polluted, in fact, it could not be chemically treated to make it safe enough to drink. It had been abandoned as a drinking water source decades before.

But, really, the root cause of this tragedy goes back to the decision of General Motors to abandon Flint. In other words, harmful economic policies poisoned Flint before lead did. The filmmaker Michael Moore took out a second mortgage on his home to tell this story. In his first documentary, Roger and Me, in 1989, Michael Moore showed the economic impact of GM CEO Roger Smith’s decision to shut down auto manufacturing plants in Flint. In 1978, GM employed 80,000 people in Flint with good- paying jobs with benefits; by 2015, it was down to 5,000. I remember visiting Flint on a family vacation in the 70’s. It was an “American success story,” one of the most prosperous small cities in the country; a thriving middle class, civic pride, good schools, bright horizons. But with the loss of so many jobs, home values plummeted, the tax base collapsed, the population shrank, and was followed before long by urban blight, high crime, rising alcoholism and drug addition, poverty, failing schools, and deep municipal debt. It became what Chris Hedges has called, “a capitalist sacrifice zone.” He documents how large corporations cut loose from long-term social contracts with their communities in search of cheaper labor overseas, where they often have a freer hand environmentally, fewer restraints, and higher profits. The cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair they leave in their wake are a direct result of capitalist greed. Personal enrichment at the expense of destroying environments, families, and communities. Taking a hard, painful look at “sacrifice zones” like Flint shows us what unregulated capitalism does and the inherent violence in this system. The same forces responsible for creating these “sacrifice zones” are responsible for destroying ecosystems. Obsessions with growth and profit at all costs have put our planet in serious jeopardy. Hedges says prophetically, “either you obstruct through nonviolent civil disobedience, or you passively enable monstrous evil.”page1image25408

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, let us keep in mind this back-and-forth between the human city and the city of God. What we’ve just now been doing is reflecting on the human city, sinking down into the brokenness of the human city. But let us rise up to remember the vision of the city of God – God’s design for sustainable flourishing for all of creation – we need to spend some time by the river whose streams make glad the city of God.

I have a friend in Texas who is a spiritual director. As part of her work, she asks her directees to visualize their special healing place and go there often in their interior life and prayer... when they are in distress or have lost hope, when they need to experience the presence of God. She and I were remarking on how fascinating it was that many of the special healing places, these inner refuges, involve water – one spoke of a summer lake house, another of waterfalls, another of the ocean, one woman remembered a stream behind her grandmother’s house where she spent hours playing in the water. In her work with this particular woman, she invited her to imagine Christ speaking to her: “Go to your special healing place, your refuge, sit by the stream, put your feet in the water; I will be there with you... Be still, and know that I am God!” How interesting that at soul-level, in our deepest selves, we gravitate toward water to find our safety and be spiritually restored.page2image25696

Thomas Merton, mentioned by Pope Francis as an exemplary American Christian, in the mid-20th c., left the rush and the hustle of the human city and retreated to the slow and the quiet of the Kentucky woods. There he reconnected with the God and the natural world he found it hard to know in the blur of modern life. In a deep, lyrical moment, he writes about the simple, profound experience of watching and listening to the rain:
“Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By ‘they’ I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something real is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen... it is the voice of the present moment, the present festival... think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking in the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water... this wonderful, perfectly innocent speech, ... the most comforting speech in the world.”

There is enough concern and dread about climate change and all the costs it is bringing... and enough weariness with the brokenness of the human city – that it might seem to be enough to simply minister spiritually to our souls – remind one another of the city of God – God’s original blessing, God our refuge, even as the nations rage and kingdoms totter and the mountain shake in the midst of the sea. It might seem to be enough simply to help each other go to our special healing places, those water refuges, in real time and space while they still exist, and within our souls, where they will exist as long as we exist.

But my digging into the tragedy of Flint – and there is much more that could be said about it – taught me that if we are to be tributaries of hope, if the streams of living water flowing from our hearts are to make a real difference, in the human city then we have to demand an end to business as usual. We simply have no choice but to work and keep working to stop the damage. We have to work to change harmful economic policies which put profits ahead of people, efficiency ahead of children, greed ahead of sustainable futures. I know it’s easy enough to say, and so much more difficult to do.

But the tragedies of Flint, and the many other sacrifice zones throughout the world, require us to keep stretching beyond our comfort zones, resisting harm, and promoting in our own lives and in public spaces ideas and best practices that contribute to the long-term common good and sustainable futures. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. May God give strength, wisdom, and courage to those streams, those tributaries of life and hope, and may they make glad the human city... while there is still time.

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