(Sermon given by Executive Director, Jodi Rose, at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, June 22, 2014)
There is a saying that is Aboriginal Australian in origin and it reads:
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.
But, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
My liberation is bound up in yours, and yours in mine. We must work together to bring about God’s Kingdom – that is how our Creator intended it.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was a Christian martyr who spoke out against poverty and social injustice in El Salvador and was assassinated in 1980 while leading service. I want to read a few excerpts from a prayer he wrote:
He says: The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
He goes on to say: We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
Recently I shared dinner with a group of Muslim men before they entered the period of Ramadan and we talked about common ground between our beliefs about how we interact with the environment. Where we refer to ourselves as stewards of Creation, they see themselves as travelers passing through and that they need to be responsible visitors during their time here. There will be travelers after us, just as there were travelers before us. Much like Oscar Romero’s prayer, our work here is but a step along the way, a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
We know God calls us to be Stewards of the Earth – we hear this in Genesis 1. We also know that God calls us to love one another – that the greatest commandment of all. But how do these two things intersect?
Global climate change is real and is happening before our eyes. Global climate change manifests itself as extreme weather, which we are seeing all the time now. Extreme weather consistently challenges human resiliency and our ability to adapt. A few examples close to home this past spring were the landslide in Bowie, the sinkhole as long as a city block in Baltimore, and the CSX train derailment due to severe flooding. When flooding and landslides happen, the poor are affected the most – unable to pick up the pieces and put life back together as easily as the affluent.
Our food chain is often compromised by big industries with no moral compass. We hear about food recalls all the time. How is it that lettuce gets tainted with bacteria? How does that happen? We invest so much time and money making sure our grass is green, rather than growing food; and then we allow big agricultural conglomerates grow our food very cheaply without asking questions about how it is grown and what are the impacts of that process. When we get sick from a food recall, we’re laid up for a few days. When the poor, vulnerable, and elderly get sick, it could mean hospitalization because they are already impaired physically. Hospitalization might mean medical bills that are too difficult to pay. A web of life grossly out of balance.
Our rivers and streams are not safe for swimming or fishing. While some of us can cool down in the heat of the summer in our neighborhood or backyard pool, others rely on our natural streams. Yet those streams and rivers are not safe to wade in, and certainly not safe within two days of a rain storm due to polluted runoff. While most of us can buy our fish at the store without thinking twice about it, many forgotten neighbors must fish for their food. The Anacostia River is one of the most toxic rivers in the world with six toxic hot spots along its path, one of which is a Superfund site. In our Nation’s Capital, we have one of the dirtiest rivers in the world. Yet studies have shown that roughly 17,000 people consume fish from the Anacostia River each year…and they do this to survive.
Right now, we can trust the water that’s coming out of the tap in our kitchens. Still some people prefer to buy bottled water – it’s more convenient. Well this need for convenience drives the concept that clean water is a commodity to be bought and sold. Major corporations are buying up aquifers in other countries in order to pillage the water resources for our plastic bottles – often with little regard for fair wages for workers in those countries. In parts of the U.S., water is NOT clean coming out of the tap – in California, as many as 2 million people face significant challenges with water contamination and availability. According to a documentary about this struggle entitled “Thirsty for Justice,”(i) some communities spend upwards of 15-20% of their income to buy bottled water for drinking and bathing. This is real and it is happening. And when we can’t trust the water coming out of the tap, people will be driven to the stores to buy their water in plastic bottles. And who will be left out of that? Who will not be able to buy their clean water? We don’t realize it, but we are propelling this story line right now, right here, every time we buy bottled water out of convenience.
In each of these examples, there is much more involved than just taking care of nature, preserving our natural resources, or “saving the bay”. This is about our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. This is about WHO will be affected by environmental degradation. And, it is clear, that the affluent will not feel the effects until long after the poor are affected. The least among us will bear the brunt first.
So what are we thirsty for? Are we getting “thirsty for justice”?
In the Genesis story of the slave woman Hagar (Genesis 16), after angering the master’s wife, she and her son are banished from the property and head into the unknown with a few supplies and some water. Eventually their supply of water runs out. And when this happens, and she’s lost all hope, she weeps for the impending death of her son. She begs the Lord for mercy. To the slave woman the Lord answers her cry for mercy with a well of fresh water – life-giving water. He doesn’t judge her and ask her why she didn’t work harder to find her own water, or walk further each day to get through the desert, or tell her if she hadn’t angered the master’s wife she wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place. No. The Lord listens to her plea, comforts her, and gives her water, the basic component of life. So who are we to judge why the poor need help the most? Who are we to judge who gets to buy clean water and who is banished to the desert? Who are we to drive the story line of “I am not affected by environmental degradation yet therefore I will continue with my life the way I want to until it begins to affect me?”
I used to work as an environmental consultant – I ran my own small business as a consultant to lawyers and bankers who made deals on large commercial properties. I was the one who was hired to go to the property to determine if the buyer would be assuming any environmental liability – and if so, how much. For example, if someone was buying a gas station, I’d be the one to assess whether the gas station had a history of leaking, how much pollution was associated with that property, and who was responsible. After a while, I began to see that my work was not really about cleaning up the property or the groundwater. It was about creative leveraging of regulations to minimize responsibility. No moral compass – driven only by the bottom line and regulatory requirements.
I began to really struggle with this conflict of what I believed was right, and what I was getting paid to do. Many of these sites I would go and visit were in urban neighborhoods with complex problems of poverty, joblessness, limited green spaces, no outdoor gardens to speak of, depressed. One morning on my way to one of these sites I was sitting at a stoplight surrounded by dilapidated buildings and grappling with the stark divide between where I live and where these people lived. A pedestrian crossed in front of my car as I sat at this stoplight - an old man, struggling with a cane, walking slowly in front of me, obviously disheveled and un-showered, perhaps hungry or even homeless.
I started to weep right there in my car. I thought to myself, “I am working for the wrong people. I want to be working for him.”
In order to trust God’s plan for each one of us, we must first begin in prayer – we need to be in conversation with our God in order to hear God calling us. The next step is to understand the cross and responsibility we must carry – that God needs us to carry. In God’s time, we learn how to carry our cross and we are joyous that we have carried the burden.
So, again, what are you thirsty for? Is your cross heavy enough to make you thirsty?
Jesus talked about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but why didn’t he say anything about the environment? Because it wasn’t the crisis of that time – leprosy and other ailments were. Today we suffer from chronic diseases like asthma from air pollution, obesity from cheap food full of refined sugars derived from corn, cancers, some of which are directly related to environmental toxins. I think if Jesus were here today, he’d add one more line to those instructions and it’d be – “protect the least among you from devastating environmental impacts, and you will have protected me.”
As people of faith we can be leaders in this conversation and catalyze a return to balance, on behalf of the least among us. We answer to something greater than “the bottom line.” We can push ourselves to act out of moral imperative rather than convenience. We can begin to see how protecting the environment is intertwined with caring for our brothers and sisters. And, once we connect the dots, it’s really hard to see it any other way. And, it’s hard not to act. I know at least one person who walked this earth and carried a cross out of love for others – and we are called to live in His likeness.
So, let us get started with what we can actually change – our lives, our surroundings, our community. Let us trust that in God’s plan, these small changes will bear witness to our convictions and others will see this, be inspired by this, and will begin to think about their own lives, too.
As Oscar Romero said in that prayer, “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.”
Let us not be overwhelmed with the magnificent work ahead of us. Let us remember to trust in God’s plan and to hoist up the cross we are called to carry. Let us be reminded as the Psalms instruct us that it is okay to beg for mercy and to plead for help. And let us never forget the lesson of the slave woman that water is life-giving and God’s gift to us – God’s gift to everyone even those banished to the desert.
Let us work together to bring about God’s Kingdom where there is clean water for all.
Be thirsty for the magnificent enterprise that is God’s Kingdom.
(i) “Thirsty for Justice” was produced by The Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry of California, in association with: Environmental Justice Coalition for Water and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.