(A sermon preached this morning at St. James Anglican, Beausejour)
Texts: Exodus 3:1-14, Luke 13:1-9
The first tree in this homily, the one Moses encountered in the wilderness, made me remember an encounter of my own.
I was just crossing the river, coming back from the neighbours, when a bald eagle flew close over my head, heading downstream. I could hear the air pushing through his great, dark, outspread pinions. For a moment, his nearness made him so solid that the fact of his gliding through air seemed pure sorcery. It is easier to believe that eagles are real when they are far off than when they come close. And then, in one sharp intake of my breath, he was gone again, around the bend of the river, and I was suffused with joy.
And I was struck, struck that this place of reverence is exactly where I try so hard to take people as a worship leader or preacher. I can spend hours poring over songs and scriptures, crafting prayers and poetic turns of phrase to construct the road that will lead the faithful exactly here: Awe. Self-transcendance. Holiness. Joy.
And here I had been waylaid by it, entirely without human contrivance or effort.
We are reminded today that Moses' most profound encounter with the Divine was in the wilderness, with a voice speaking out of a strange and burning bush. Moses did not meet YHWH in the sacred shrine where his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, attended. He met YHWH in the wilderness.
Mark McDonald, our Anglican indigenous bishop, talked about this story at the sacred circle last summer. The Anglican indigenous elders he grew up with taught him to understand that the miracle in this story is not something that God does to the bush, but something that God does to Moses' eyes. What Moses sees in the bush is the holy indwelling of God's power and spirit in every living thing in the creation. The bright and living divinity in which we all live and move and have our being.
I am glad to have an indigenous bishop. It gives me hope that this church that came over from jolly old England so many years ago is finally landing, here. Hope that our faith is finally being indigenized, finally making a home, here, in this place, finally recognizing that right here in Canada, we are walking on holy ground.
The Poet Kathleen Raine has noted that, "the holy places of the Bible...to the Jews are real places on earth" whereas to the Christians the Holy Land is remote...The holy land should be the place we live on."
I've been thinking about the difference between thinking of holy land as the place I live on and someplace faraway. I think this is a basic difference between an indigenous theology and what I would call an imperial theology.
Indigenous theology sees holiness in the land and in the living things to which we all have access. It encourages a kind of spiritual democracy.
Imperial theology assigns holiness to objects and places and rites that are owned by religious authorities. It concentrates power in the center.
Moses was very familiar with imperial theology. Raised and educated in the house of Pharoah, he has grown up in a religious system that celebrated a god-king who sat atop a pyramid-shaped society, a society that thrived at the top and deprived at the bottom.
Moses' great revelation at the burning bush is that YHWH is with the slaves, and not with the Pharoah. God is not the guarantor of human pyramid schemes, but the spoiler of those schemes. YHWH is the one who hears the cries of the slaves, and the one who will lead them out of the house of slavery.
And I think we can see a pretty direct connection between Moses' revelation that the Holy One is in solidarity with the commoners rather than the kings and his revelation that the very ground under his feet is holy.
A theology that hallows the human being – that says that not only the Pharoah is made in the image of God – but that every single human being is so dignified, so holy; such a theology will also reveal the holiness of the land on which we humans walk, the land out of which, as the Bible tells us, God makes us.
The biblical word for the human being is Adam. The biblical word for the fertile soil, the earth, is Adamah. The Adam is that strange and sacred combination of God's breath and good earth.
A theology that enslaves, exploits and oppresses the Adam will be a theology that enslaves, exploits and oppresses the Adamah, the humus out of which God forms the human being. (Interestingly the wordplay is the same in Hebrew and in English. The words Human, humus and humble interplay as closely in our language as Adam and Adamah do in Hebrew.) Hallow the one and you will tend to hallow the other. Enslave the one and you will tend to enslave the other.
Canadians don't enslave people anymore. Or at least, if we do, we don't call it slavery. Canada is flirting with something close to it in its guest worker program, where last year we brought over a record-setting 30,000 low wage workers from foreign countries to do the jobs that we don't want to do, cutting chickens apart or picking apples or building pipelines, workers who are easily shipped off when they get injured or try to organize for a better deal or simply when they try to switch to a preferable employer. That's the pseudo-slavery we allow inside our borders. I'm not even talking yet about degraded workers doing miserable jobs for us outside our borders.
The writer Wendell Berry has a comment about this in his essay “Racism and the Economy” Berry, a Christian farmer-poet is someone else who has helped me a lot in indigenizing my faith to this land. I will quote him throughout the rest of this homily)
About slavery, and whether or not it is still going on, Berry says,
“as long as there are some people who wish to believe and are economically empowered to believe that they are too good to do their own work and clean up after themselves, then somebody else is going to have to do the work and the cleaning up. In an exploitive economy, there is what we might call a “nigger factor” that will remain more or less constant. If some people grow rich by making things to throw away, then many other people will have to empty the garbage cans and make the trip to the dump.”
In another essay Berry carries this idea to an inevitable conclusion: “If we began by making niggers of people we have ended by making a nigger of the world.” Just as we have done with human beings, now “We have made of the rivers and the oceans and the winds niggers to carry away our refuse, which we think we are too good to dispose of decently ourselves.”
We have made, as Berry says, with a word that is shocking and ugly, a nigger of the world. We could be be offended by his language were it not so apt. What we have done to the earth is shocking and ugly. Scientists tell us that “nearly two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on earth is being degraded by human pressure.” To pause to parse the meaning of these rather technical words is to contemplate horror, atrocity. We have treated the earth like our slave, something alive yes, but not something to be dignified, to be hallowed. As something to be used, and worse than that, as something to be used up.
Which brings me to another parable in Moses encounter with YHWH: the living fire that burns in the bush but does not consume. If the indigenous elders are right and the miracle is indeed something that YHWH does to Moses' eyes rather than the bush, then the bush is a sign of how everything that lives is kept alive by the grace of God with an eternal dance of an energy that burns without burning up.
Here again, I want to quote Wendell Berry, this time contrasting the consumptive economy of the machine to the“energy community” of biological creatures:
They die into each other's life, live into each other's death. They do not consume in the sense of using up. They do not produce waste. What they take in they change, but they change it always into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind. And this exchange goes on and on round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures.
Our creaturely bodies live by a fire that burns in every living thing, but does not consume in the sense of using up.
Of course, we Canadians live most of our lives by a fire that does use up. The gasoline that got me to church today will not grow back. Oil is not something we produce, regardless of what the corporations tell us. It is only something we can extract. It is billions of years worth of God's sunshine that we have been burning through in one bright flash of a century. And it can't go on. We who have been taught to ask in prayer only that God “Give us this day the bread we need for today” are urgently needing to learn prayers and lives that ask only that God “Give us this year the sunlight that we need to live on for this year.”
All the other living things - the sparrows, the lilies of the field, the bushes in the wilderness - these remind us that it is possible to live on God's good earth without using up that which sustains us, without soiling our nest, without burning the world up, without making our Mother Earth or our fellow human into a degraded slave.
YHWH still hears the cry of the oppressed, and still moves to lead us out of slavery.
Which brings us to the other tree in the scriptures today: Jesus and the fig tree.
Jesus is speaking to Jews who are desperate to be led once again out of the house of slavery, and want to see if Jesus is the new Moses, God's man to take on the new Egypt: Rome. They tell Jesus about a group of Galilean rebels who have been cruelly executed by Rome's local enforcer, Pilate, who let their blood mingle with the blood of their own sacrifices at the Temple. This is blood that cries out for vindication.
Jesus' contemporaries want precisely a holy fire from Jesus – a holy fire that will consume. A fire that will consume the Romans. But the holy fire that Jesus offers is precisely a fire that does not consume, that only transforms and changes, but that does not destroy. He is warning that the consuming fire which they want is a fire in which “all will perish.”
The fruitless fig tree is a symbol of the kind of enemy-loving community God has been trying to grow Israel into, so far with poor results. The manure laid down by the gardener is the gift of Jesus' life laid down, the ultimate lesson in enemy-love. By this time next year, after the sacrifice on the cross, perhaps Israel will bear the fruit the gardener has been waiting for.
To gather all these themes together, I would say that whether we are talking about oil addiction, land abuse, Roman tyranny or any oppressive system, the temptation is always towards solutions that point the accusing finger at others rather than looking to our own transformation.