Second Sunday in Season of Creation
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?”
As colors turned and leaves fell, trees beckoned us. I often stopping to look and sometimes stretched up mirroring their limbs. For God’s creation is good and wondrously made. Wow. Thank you. As branches also broke, limbs fell, hanging down or collapsing on the ground. I also stopped to look and sometimes let my arm bend, droop, and hang, feeling the weight of what is broken. O God, have mercy. Bodies hold it all, our diverse and competing truths. As I pray with my body, trees are teaching me to pray both gratitude and grief, including at the same time. [i]
Among the calamities of 2020, a plague of locusts caused a food shortage for millions of people across dozens of countries in the Middle East and Africa. The prophet Joel wrote to people who had experienced such crisis. Joel describes locusts “like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them, people are in anguish, all faces grow pale.”[ii] Joel wrote that the long awaited Day of the Lord would come like such a frightening plague.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! … Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your heart and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”[iii]
At a time when there is so much tragedy around the Church’s witness to the native and First Nations peoples of North America, one wonders about the appropriateness of remembering a nineteenth-century man who spent much of his life as a missionary in Canada’s north. It’s hard to disentangle the very real harm that settler or western religion, culture, and institutions have done in our attempt to follow Christ’s command to go therefore and make disciples of all nations…from the desire to make known the God who is love.
An Englishman by birth, Edmund James Peck spent thirty years in the Canadian Arctic, often separated from his own wife and family for years at a time. We don’t know what Peck’s racial biases were. Like all of us though, at least all of us of European descent, he must have had some. Yet his work on behalf of the Inuit of northern Canada was prodigious. He took a syllabic writing method developed for the Cree of northern Manitoba and adapted it to Inuktitut. By the 1920’s Peck’s syllabic writing method was so widespread that most of Canada’s Inuit people could read and write, and pencils and pocket notebooks so popular, they were in great demand. In 1897 the four gospels were printed as were extracts of the psalms and the Prayer Book.