Care For The Earth – Chuck Rush (4/30/17)

Care for the Earth
April 30, 2017
Genesis 41:15-24; Genesis 41:27-36

I put on a tie recently and noticed that it was covered in gunk… Looking closer, I made out the image of two hand prints from my grandson Michael’s yogurt covered hands…
Apparently he thought I had tied a napkin around my neck for his personal convenience. I turned to my wife, pointed to the tie, and said “one of your grimy grandchildren’. I’ll come back to little Michael in a moment.
Professor Harvey Weiss has been excavating Tell Leilan in Southern Syria for over a decade now. It was a city that was on the edge of the Akkadian empire from 5000 b.c. until 2200 b.c... It was a city with 3000 years of history that you’ve never heard about. This was the cradle of civilization, the area of the world where we first cultivated wheat and other grains that made possible domestication of animals that led to the development of other technology that eventually produced our first city states.
We have many archeological examples like Tell Leilan. Professor Weiss excavated it, found that it was a small farming village that grew over the next millennia and by 2200 had walls, a developed commercial life, and probably supported 30,000 people. [That made it the Manhattan of the ancient world- huge] Then suddenly, it is abandoned. After 3000 years of occupation, it is abandoned. Why? There is no evidence of war. Was it disease? What was it?
In the past decade, we have developed the ability to analyze soil samples better and in some cases, like that of Tell Leilan, we have determined that the cause was sustained famine. Professor Weiss determined that Tell Leilan had such a sustained drought that all the earthworms died right around 2200. It turns out in the ancient world, the operative number was 5. If you had 5 years of drought, everyone fled and civilization as you knew it there came to an end.
You may know that similar speculation has attended the sudden end of the Maya civilization in South America, and there are half a dozen other examples around the world, several of which I’ve visited.
I suspect that this explains the symbolism of Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dream in Exodus. Pharaoh dreams that there will be 7 years of feast followed by 7 years of famine. He is greatly perturbed. I would assume that, based on bitter history, 7 years of famine means that God (or Nature) is going to wipe everything completely out.
I have to tell you that it is very sobering to stand on these sites, to see all of the intricate stone carvings and the fine temples that adorned these cities. You see how big they are, and it is pretty easy to re-imagine the marketplace open for business and people socializing, children playing in the alley ways. Day turns to week turns to century 3000 years and then they flame out completely.
We don’t have a very good record of seeing catastrophe coming ahead of time and doing something about it in advance to mitigate the social impact. No, we have dozens of examples of civilizations that just disappeared because for a variety of social reasons that died with them, they just weren’t able to change in time.
Vladimir Romanovsky in Fairbanks, Alaska where the permafrost line is in alteration. Romanovsky worked for the Russians when they were building the Gulag on the permafrost in Siberia and he has been studying permafrost ever since. Permafrost, just so you know, is ground that has been permanently frozen for two years or more. There are places in Russia where it runs a mile deep near the Arctic circle and even in Alaska it ranges from a couple hundred feet to a couple thousand. What is happening in Fairbanks is that sections of the permafrost are thawing and when that happens gashes open up in the earth, sometimes rending homes and creating impassable crevasse in neighborhoods.
Romanovsky illustrates his latest findings by comparing measurements of the ground temperature from the lower regions of the permafrost line to the surface. Usually what you find is that the bottom of the permafrost line is the warmest. There is a natural geothermal heat that radiates from the center core of the earth, and the temperatures get steadily colder as you get to the surface. However in the past few decades, he has been getting warmer temperatures on the surface which strongly suggests that the atmosphere is actually generating increasing heat.
Romanovsky explained that this melting may actually contain within it a multiplying effect as the thaw continues, particularly in the active layer, that region of the permafrost that has melted and refrozen annually for thousands of years. The active layer supports rudimentary vegetation such as shrubs, lichen, and some spruce trees. But because the temperatures are so low, when the seasons end, the detritus doesn’t actually decompose but is frozen, and it slowly gets pushed down into the permafrost. If this layer were to permanently thaw, it contains a deep sediment of material that would rot and release methane gas into the air in large quantities.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that is actually more powerful than CO2. This principle of a “multiplying effect” appears to be important in understanding climate change in our world. Because of the complex multiple factors that interact with one another, slight changes here can set in motion a chain of other resident reactions that can accelerate a trend that is already happening.
You probably know that the United States has researchers on the Artic that are being sponsored by the National Science foundation. In 1979, Satellite imaging done by NASA estimated that the size of the Arctic ice mass was roughly the size of the United States. At present, the perennial sea ice has shrunk approximately 250 million acres or an area the size of New York, Georgia, and Texas.
One of the main researchers on the project, Donald Perovich who works for the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory or CCREL whose area of interest is in solar radiation and sea ice. Professor Perovich uses a device called a spectroradiometer - you don't need to know that I just like saying the name… It reminds me of the movie "Back to the Future" where the eccentric scientist invents a flux capacitor… the spectrodiameter measures incident light (directly coming from the Sun) and reflected light (bouncing back). Dividing the later by the former he factors the albedo (literally the whiteness from Latin).
Hard pack ice is intensely white. As such, the color itself tends to reflect back light keeping temperatures on the surface cooler. Conversely, ocean water is blue, a color that absorbs sunlight and thus heat. The two are nearly opposite of one another. So as the ice melts into water, you are replacing one of the best reflectors of heat with one of the worst reflectors of heat.
Again, there is a compound effect to the system as a whole. As ice spreads, it reflects more and the temperatures on the surface drop adding more ice to the system. Conversely, as ice melts more heat is absorbed by the water which raises the ocean temperature and melts even more ice.
You probably know that the overall temperature of the earth has varied quite a lot in our long history. I was surprised to learn that the majority of the earth's history has had no ice on either pole. However, there has been continuous ice through 4 glaciations that have lasted just over 120,000 years. We do not understand all of the factors as to why we have seen these dramatic shifts in climate, but the principal single factor is thought to be small orbital shifts in the Earth’s rotation around the Sun.
It was in 1859 that the concept of Global Warming was first conceptualized by John Tyndall, the British physicist. He noted that oxygen and nitrogen were transparent to radiation but that carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor were not. These gases act like an insulating band trapping and storing heat. He, in fact, coined a term we are now quite used to hearing the "Natural Greenhouse Effect". As you know, the principal Greenhouse gas it Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide is a by-product of burning Coal and Oil, which we have increasingly done since the middle of the 18th century. Carbon Dioxide itself is a "persistent gas”. That means it doesn’t dissipate. Instead, “it lasts for about a century." That means that as it accumulates, it has effects for the future that we will not see for decades to come. The concern about the planet is that forces could be set into motion that will activate resident forces and accelerate a pattern, such that by the time we will actually see the first consequences of these changes, it will already be too late to do anything about it.
As you probably know, we can do some rough measurement of greenhouse gases by studying the ice cores in the poles that have small air pockets trapped that can be analyzed. When you look back over the past 5000 years you see a remarkable consistency in the concentration of greenhouse gases from the beginning of civilization (3500 b.c.) to the 18th century. Then greenhouse gases begin to rise towards the end of the 18th century with the Industrial Revolution.
In 1780 CO2 was approximately 280 parts per million
By 1930 CO2 was approximately 315 parts per million
By 1970's CO2 was up to 330 parts per million
By 1990's CO2 was up to 360 parts per million.
The rise is steeper with more advanced burning of fossil fuels.
It is precisely this steep rise in Carbon dioxide and our responsibility for it that led Paul Crutzen, the Dutch Chemist and Nobel Prize winner, to write an article in Nature a few years ago suggesting a change in the name of the present era. At present, scientists refer to our era since the last glacier as the Holocene era. Crutzen says we should give a new name to the era since 1780 or so as the Anthropocene era, the Human period, because, he argued, humans became the single dominant force that shaped and influenced the total climate of the planet from then on.
As you know, there is no consensus about what happens in the future. We are simply entering unchartered territory and it is far from clear what implications actually follow. In her discussions with climatologists, Ms. Kolbert summarizes a couple areas of concern that they have identified.
One of them is our general findings from the ice cores on the polar caps. One of the things that they make clear is that our present era has been exceptional rather than normative for Earth's history. In the Holocene era, we have been blessed with exceptionally regular weather and exceptionally predictable weather patterns. Over the long term of the Earth's history, dramatic shifts in weather have been the norm and stable weather patterns the exception. Why this has taken place is a matter of speculation, but this paradigm may well be significant for our thinking on the subject of the implications of global warming.
I come back to the notion of complex interacting factors that reinforce and escalate a trend in a direction. One of the scientists that she interviewed used the analogy of a boat. It may be the case that the total systems of the Earth's climate work like tipping a boat. You can tip it and it will swing back, tip it harder and it will swing back harder, but if you tip it beyond a certain point, it flips over. It may well be the case that in the aggregate, when enough resident changes take place, that you have a complete reconfiguration of the total weather system. The study of the ice cores suggest that such a reconfiguration is not only possible but probable.
How would this happen? No one exactly knows. But the scientist Konrad Steffen gives a simple explanation of how weather patterns presently work around Greenland and how they might be altered for the weather over the East Coast.
As you know our Gulf Stream pulls water up from the equator that eventually runs into Greenland and then pushes it down and back south again. As you also know, the weather pattern over the Eastern part of the United States is interdependent with the Gulf Stream.
Professor Stefen explains that there are actually two forces that create the sea lane that is the Gulf Stream. Part of it is what is happening on those major ice masses like Greenland. In the process of salt water freezing, the salt is actually pushed out of the ice towards the exterior of the ice mass. That salt is heavy and it makes the water heavier as it dissolves and this saltier water sinks to the bottom of the ocean. That is one force.
The second is related to the general drift of the warm water to cooler regions. As warm water drifts northward, it cools and evaporates, which means it becomes denser. Again, as it gets towards its northern terminus at Greenland this water too is sinking.
As it does, it creates its own pull on the warmer lighter waters in the Caribbean, so that the overall process resembles a delicate but very powerful conveyor belt of ocean currents.
Now what happens if you add heat to this system? In the first place, the oceans would warm in the south, only slightly, but as they did, this water is lighter and slightly less dense, so it sinks less.
Secondly, if the ice melts then again, only slightly, but you are dumping a large quantity of fresh water into the oceans. They become less salty. They are not as heavy and do not sink as much.
At some point, if these trends continue, it could have the effect of turning down the pump at both ends at once and the sea lanes slow. But as they do, the weather above them also changes. Theoretically, if the sea lanes actually came to a stand still, some people speculate that what would happen is a complete reconfiguration of the weather patterns… That would be something of a tipping of the boat over.
So our cute little story from the Bible might actually speak fairly powerfully and directly to our situation. We keep going along on the same path without actually seeing the ‘signs of the times’ before us and we are quite likely not to see them until it is too late.
And this is one of those rare times when it might not simply be the case that our civilization comes to ill, but my very grandchildren might quiz me late in life, “Papa, why didn’t you do something about this before the seas started to rise and all those poor people that live on the coast were forced to rebuild their lives with precious few resources? Papa, why didn’t your generation think about what they were doing?” Literally, in their life time, the consequences of our collective inaction today will have a material impact on our children’s children.
The earth is a precious and delicate instrument. In former eras, it was understandable that people could think our actions couldn’t have material impact on the environment. The earth, they thought, is just too big.
But now that we are many- the population of the earth has doubled in my lifetime from 3.5 billion to 7.5 billion people… Now that we can measure and compute forward complex models. We have more and more signs in our dreams, with greater specificity than any era of human history. Which makes us more responsible.
And it is personal. We think of stewardship, we all think of providing our immediate families with a better world than the one we had. We all want to take care of these people and that is a large part of why we ‘give back’, we are investing in creating a world of care for them. It is the right thing to do, the loving thing to do.
And I don’t want to answer to these kids questions of incredulity, questions of disappointment. Neither do you. We’ve put this off for too long and now we are about to burden our grandchildren and great grandchildren with our own inattention.
We can do much better than that. The solutions reside inside of us, even as they did for Joseph. Let us pray that we break the cycle of not responding until the end has arrived. Then as now, it is not just about knowledge but about moral purpose too. We may only have an educated guess that we can make, but we need to make one and we need to err in that direction. As Jesus would say, ‘those who have ears, let them hear.’ Amen.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.