If You Listen: Rejoining the Earth Community – Br. Keith Nelson

Second Sunday in Season of Creation

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Matthew 18:15-20

Today we continue with the second in a five-part preaching series for the church’s Season of Creation. The theme this week is “Learn.” As many of you will know I spent six-weeks this summer learning from and collaborating with Navajo Episcopalians. I learned so much, and I’d like to begin by sharing one of my experiences.

I was driving a rental pickup truck along the winding, narrow highway that snakes its way through Monument Valley, Arizona, but I returned the gaze of the woman in my passenger seat at every moment I could. It was urgent that I do so, because her eyes shone with the sorrow and righteous anger of generations. She gestured all around us at the sunbeaten landscape of rock and endless horizon that she called home: Dinétah, the Navajo Nation. Though nothing appeared unusual to the naked eye, she told me how this iconic region contains 63 abandoned uranium mines. This is only a fraction of the total number in Navajoland, over 500. Beginning in the 1950’s private, white-owned companies hired primarily Navajo workers to extract this radioactive element for nuclear weapons. Increasing rates of cancer afflicted Navajo people at alarming speed throughout the sixties. Though studied and documented, nothing was done to protect Navajo people. In spite of the founding and intervention of the EPA in 1971, to this day large amounts of radioactive waste remain – in the earth, the air, and in vital aquifers. As she listed the lives of family and friends cut short or diminished by radiated lungs and failed kidneys, my companion’s tears spilled over and her voice trembled as she asked, “Why do they do this to us?”

That single word “they” cut my heart like a knife. I shook my head silently, and my voice caught in my throat. My tears gathered, but I did not take my gaze from hers. I stayed at the foot of that cross, in that place of trembling tension.

She and I are fellow Christians. But the word “they” in that moment meant bilagáana, “white people,” and that included me.

What if in hearing these words from Matthew about forgiveness of sin, we imagine ourselves first as the sinner rather than the sinned against? What if we hear these words not merely through the lens of individual or personal sin and forgiveness, but social and collective sin, for instance of one people against another? What if we expand our definition of neighbor, brother, or sister to encompass every member of the earth community?

Hear, then, a creative reinterpretation of this morning’s gospel passage from Matthew, through the lens of these questions:

If you sin against another member of the earth community, that creature of God will come to you and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

 If you listen to that creature, you have rejoined the earth community.

If you do not listen, that creature will return to you with one or two others, so that every word or action may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If you refuse to listen, those neighbors of yours will tell it to the entire earth.

If you refuse to listen even to the voice of the entire earth, know this: you will be to the earth as an outsider and an exile.

But God – who was crucified as an outsider and an exile for the sake of the whole earth – will not cease speaking through the same earth to bring about the reconciliation of all things.

That last part is crucial, because today’s gospel reading is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep, and followed immediately by Jesus’ words about forgiving not seven, but seventy-seven times.

The whole passage turns on the contrast between listening and refusing to listen. A terminal refusal to listen results, over time, in real consequences to our relationships and even our identity. This can be true for an individual, a people, or entire cultures.  We can become “Gentiles” and “tax collectors.” In Matthew’s gospel, individuals in this category have shown great faith in Jesus; Jesus is sent to these people. But as groups, they stand for those whose hearts and minds do not yet know the gospel from the inside.

In this liturgical season we delve deeply into our relationship with God’s created order and our identity as creatures of God — in joy and praise, as well as prayerful examination and repentance. In this season, I believe that the inner dynamic of this gospel passage calls us who are white to pay attention to how we listen or refuse to listen to this planetary body. If you are black, indigenous, a person of color, or have a blended heritage, I ask for your grace with the parts of this message intended primarily for white listeners.

            The roots of our refusal to listen go deep.

Over the course of the fifteenth century, one papal bull after another codified the stance of Christian Europe toward non-European peoples and lands. Through what Willie Jennings has called a “diseased theological imagination,” these peoples, their bodies, and the lands to which they were bound for generations became useful to European Christendom only insofar as they capitulated to chattel slavery, obligatory conversion, and extraction of precious minerals from vital ecosystems. To take merely one example, in 1452 the papal bull Dum Diversas gave Alfonso V of Portugal full reign to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever… and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” Compare this language to that of Francis Bacon, celebrated as the founder of the modern scientific method. In The Masculine Birth of Time, published in 1603, Bacon wrote, “I am come in very truth leading to you nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” This fifteenth century alliance between science, empire, and a disfigured vision of the gospel is one of the root causes of the ecocide now producing a climate-changing earth.

The dysfunctional theological imagination we have inherited in the United States is due largely to the severance of white colonial settler Christians from the sacred dignity of land and the holy particularity of places: mountains, rivers, forests, animals and plants, insects and fungi. This severance has gone hand in hand with the historic othering and genocide of indigenous peoples.

We live in the long shadow of the so-called “age of discovery.” Today, it is well-documented that black, brown, and indigenous humans are disproportionately at risk from harms generated by ecological degradation. Collectively, black, brown and indigenous people represent the global human majority. But collectively, these groups are also least responsible for the wasteful actions and inactions that are warming the earth. In the minority world – primarily European countries and the United States, whose historic majority has been white – there are things we must learn and must unlearn in order to repair fundamental relationships.

In my experience, one thing that many white people, especially white men, must unlearn is the impulse to fix what seems broken in a community or situation for which they (we) feel a paternalistic sense of responsibility – or an intolerable sense of guilt. “I will come in and do, I will come in and build, I will come in and save, organize, plan, et cetera,”; these have been the mantras of many well-intentioned white missionaries. They are also the mantras of many well-intentioned climate activists.

Though subtle, this is the essential posture of colonization. Such doing provides a short-lived catharsis of the guilt. But learning or re-learning the habit of listening addresses the deep need and historic lack of a relationship of mutual respect. This can heal the wounds of generations.

Those of us gathered here listen and learn as the Church. What is the church?

Most contemporary people would say “a fragile human institution.” Although the earliest Christian communities would resonate with a deep experience of fragility – “bearing treasure in clay jars,” as Paul writes – their fundamental experience was that the church is a mysterious Body sustained by the Holy Spirit. This body is nothing less than the Body of Christ on earth. Maintaining the health and wholeness of that Body in each of its individual members and in each of its local expressions is the major concern of most of Paul’s writings. The Church is an organism, a living system in which actions afflicting one part bear inevitable consequences for the whole. This metaphor is essentially ecological. Listening as members of Christ’s Body is our boot camp for listening to the needs and suffering of the created order. The earth, our mysterious planetary Body, is continually brought into being and sustained by God our triune Creator. Just as truly, the spiritual Body we call the Church is continually brought into being and sustained by God our triune Redeemer – who bears our burdens and forgives our sins.

Looking into the face of the Navajo Jesus, whose face was all around me, I learned like never before to listen from a place of crucified helplessness. I learned afresh to stay put at the foot of the cross wherever I found it in people and circumstances, and not to turn away. I was shown by Navajo Christians how this could be, and is, the place of Resurrection. I was shown that, even in the desolation of the abandoned uranium mine, the earth herself turns her face to us and listens.

God – who was crucified as an outsider and an exile for the sake of the whole earth – will not cease speaking through the same earth to bring about the reconciliation of all things.

If only we will listen in return.

Lectionary Year and Proper: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary Year A, Proper 18

Resources for Further Learning

  • Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Intervarsity Press, 2019.
  • “The Beauty Way,” by the Rev. Canon Cornelia Eaton, in Episcopate: The Role of Bishops in a Shared Future. Church Publishing, 2022.
  • Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church, edited by Hannah Malcolm. SCM Press, 2020.
  • Women, Earth, & Creator Spirit (1993 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), by Elizabeth A. Johnson. Paulist Press.
  • Website of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland: ecofnavajoland.org
  • Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) Creation Care series: Environmental Racism: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ogr/eppn-creation-care-series-environmental-racism/

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  1. Tudy Hill on September 24, 2023 at 14:17

    Your personal response, plus a historical context, gives this sermon its spark. Thank you, Br Keith.

  2. Margo on September 23, 2023 at 13:36

    You may take heart in Nelson Mandel’s comment.
    “Our world is not divided by race, color, gender, or religion.

    Our world is divided into wise people and fools.

    And fools divide themselves by race, color, gender, or religion.”

    -Nelson Mandela

  3. Nikki Nordstrom on September 21, 2023 at 15:52

    searingly lived, searingly told.

  4. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas on September 20, 2023 at 08:57

    This sermon was absorbing to listen to and just as absorbing to read. Thank you for the keen analysis of the connections between domination of the natural world and domination of other people (Muslims, pagans, racial “minorities,” the indigenous). You could of course have explicitly included women in that list (how amazing is it that Bacon’s book is called The MASCULINE Birth of Time?!? — egad), but I know you understand this and maybe that’s a subject for a different sermon.
    I deeply appreciate your creative re-telling and interpretation of the Gospel story. It is brilliant, and will affect how I hear that passage from now on.
    Yes, listening to hard truths — especially when I, the listener, am culpable — is to sit at the foot of the cross. Yet listening with an open heart is the seedbed for reconciliation and resurrection. Today is a good day for listening.

  5. Marian Vignali on September 20, 2023 at 05:32

    I am familiar with the health problems of the Navajo people because of the water pollution from the uranium minds. My daughter was a public health nurse in the Four Corners area of the Navajo Nation. The problems continue because even though free bottled water is available, many people live in remote areas without transportation so cannot realistically access the free water and so continue to use their polluted well water.

    Thank you for this powerful message. I have read it over several times and find new meaning each time.

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