[This post is a bit long, but I thought I’d provide you with a transcript of this Sunday’s (6/23) sermon, in case you missed it. Although the primary inspiration is the source text (Psalm 104), this sermon has been heavily influenced by my time here on the farm]
Do any of you subscribe to The Christian Century? An undergraduate professor of mine recently signed me up for a subscription, and as luck (fate?) would have it, my first issue came in the mail on Saturday. In fact, I’ve brought it with me. Can anybody see what’s on the cover here?
The cover story in this month’s Century is called “Racked by Fracking.” The piece is set in Williston, North Dakota, a town in the middle of the state’s oil-rich Brakken formation, and it explores the ways in which Williston’s churches have responded to the influx of needs precipitated by the arrival of thousands of oil-field workers and fracking specialists. On the one hand, it’s a nice piece about the changing face of ministry and the unique challenges of building the kingdom of God on the Western frontier. But on the other hand, the article fails to understand a profound truth communicated by today’s scripture reading: God is intimately concerned about the ongoing processes of biological life on earth.
The article misses this point because it actively refuses to challenge the environmental ethics of fracking. Yes, the process of introducing pressurized chemicals into a shale formation results in the production of around 300,000 barrels of natural gas per day, but it does so at huge cost to the environment in which the method is practiced. It takes, for example, between 1 and 8 million gallons of clean drinking water to complete a fracking job. That water is then mixed with a slurry of chemicals (nearly 600, including known carcinogens) to produce “fracking fluid.” The fluid is forced down a pressurized pipe to fracture a shale formation and produce methane, but much of that methane and more than 60% of the fracking fluid escapes into nearby drinking water. In some places, the methane concentration is so high that you can literally light. The. Tap. Water. On. Fire.
As much as I enjoy The Christian Century, it covered none of that. It ignored the deep ecological crisis created by this questionable method of obtaining energy and instead did what many people do: focus on the human interest side of the story. After all, it seems to be a natural human inclination to separate ourselves from the natural world. We exist up here, and the rest of nature is over there, something to be controlled, exploited, or forgotten about. We are some kind of crown jewel – God’s favorite creation – and we can do as we please with the rest of the created order. Don’t get me wrong, I think the work that the churches of Williston are doing with the oil workers – many of whom are far more dependent upon the whims of their employers than anyone should ever be – is good work, but the fact that Psalm 104 is a part of our canon means that we can never ignore the ecological implications of an ethical question, no matter how thorny.
That is true, I think, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this poem paints God as the creator. That’s actually an understatement. This poem splashes the creator God across the canvass in the most radiant hues it can possibly lay hands on. This God is the creator of complex ecosystems and deeply interconnected systems of being. We normally imagine God the creator as a dispassionate artisan, someone standing at the outskirts of a cool and ordered Eden, populated with only tame and well-manicured animals, but this psalm imagines a wild and passionate artist who delights in little rabbits and the great monsters of the deepest sea. God’s creation is positively bursting at the seams with diverse life forms.
And these life forms are created to live in rich harmony one with another. Grass is made for cattle, and rocks for rabbits. The ocean is Leviathan’s playground, and the sun and moon carefully mark the appointed seasons – though in this psalm those seasons mostly involve eating! Though the psalmist is not a biologist, he or she can clearly see the deep ways in which creation lives and moves together, ways that we, when we defy our place as a part of this creation, often disrupt.
This is why Adam’s permaculture is so important to the farm project and to the work of this church. In the Neighbor’s Garden, we can see real life examples of the ways in which creation works together to form a beautiful, highly functional system. Just the other day, Adam was telling me about the role of “aromatic pest confusers,” certain plants that emit odors that either repel insects or disorient them and prevent them from feasting on the bountiful produce there. When we see how intimately creation is bound up within itself, we should tremble to think that we could ever master it. We are as much a part of these complex ecosystems as any rabbit or strawberry bush or aromatic pest confuser.
We spend a lot of time around here talking about God as the creator. This is good. I had some of those conversations with the DOOR group that was here on Wednesday, and I’m sure I’ll have it again with the groups that will help us this coming week. To understand that God created everything around us is important. But it’s not enough. Psalm 104 also challenges us to think beyond the one-time event of creation and imagine a God who is continually active in the created world, a God who is responsible for the feeding of animals and the pleasant singing of a brook.
Let me explain. If we major too much on God as creator, we see a massive influx of creative energy at the beginning of creation, but we lose a sense of God’s immanent presence. We can push God’s creative powers back to Eden or to the Big Bang and imagine that God is not present and active in creation here and now. This line of thinking allows us to disconnect God from God’s ongoing and active creation and makes it difficult to imagine that the rapacious use of natural resources is actually and actively opposing the activity of God in the world.
Rather, we must learn to view God as intimately caught up in the world around us. The psalm describes God as feeding cattle and providing prey for young lions. God also provides grain and grape for human consumption and delights in the cedars of Lebanon. This is not the kind of watch-maker God who set the universe in motion, but the God who remains enmeshed in the order of things. So deeply is God enmeshed in the physical world that Jesus became incarnate in that same physical world to demonstrate exactly how God actively sustains the entirety of the cosmos. To imagine God as sustainer is to imagine God continuing the good work of creation, even now.
Moreover, imagining God as sustainer allows us the unique opportunity to work alongside God. The psalmist makes it clear that the task of providing for animals is sacred work, and I feel the heaviness of the moment each time I check on our little flock of sheep. Now, I’m leaving the country in about eight days, so some of you will have the wonderful chance to experience shared labor with God, and I can assure you that it changes your perspective. To think that these fuzzy little beings require dependence upon us and upon one another and upon God – not to mention that the church is usually compared to a flock of sheep! – is enough to make you reconsider how independent you really are. God is your sustainer, too.
Finally, this psalm provides a third lens for thinking about God in relation to creation: the lens of deep joy. Last week, Eric helped us talk about God’s covenant with Noah and creation, but this psalm challenges that notion at its core. Psalm 104 insists that creation is sustained not because God is required to by a legally binding contract sealed by a notary public, but because God takes deep joy in creation itself. I try not to the whole “in the original language” shtick too often, but it is worth noting here that this psalm is the only time in the entire Bible that God is the subject of the Hebrew verb for “rejoice.”
The most striking facet of God’s joy in creation is the creature chosen to display that joy most fully: Leviathan, the enigmatic monster of the deep. In a passage parallel to this psalm, God asks Job if he can “play with Leviathan as a bird, or bind it on a leash for [his] girls?” And in Psalm 104, Leviathan “sports” in the waters of the deep, just as God intended it to. In a fascinating twist, the symbol of primordial chaos, the first enemy that must be defeated in nearly all other Mesopotamian myths, Leviathan, becomes a symbol of God’s creativity and playfulness and power. Some things exist in this world for the sole delight of God!
This means that when we work against the careful balance of natural ecosystems, we are not only working against God, but undermining a source of God’s joy. And if the psalmist is right, it is only God’s joy holding the universe together. How long are we going to tempt fate? Surely, we must feel the urgency of the psalmist, whose use of the imperative implores God to continue rejoicing in the good creation.
We at Berea are in a unique place to understand the power and truth of God’s role as joyful creator and sustainer. There is a farm at this church, and we need only poke our heads outside to watch delicate ecosystems unfold or take delight in the antics of a chicken (or the collective antics of various amateur chicken-keepers). We work alongside God to create and sustain life all over this property. On the hottest, sweatiest, most draining days of labor, we remind ourselves that we labor with God, and we serve as a model for others who would labor as well.
But even when things don’t go according to plan, we have room to celebrate God as creator and sustainer. A few weeks ago, we started losing more chickens to a predator far craftier than Mary the hawk. Of course, it hurts to watch the flock dwindle and the birds die, but we must also remember that God feeds the lions in their turn. Why our flock ended up as a midnight snack for an unidentified varmint is beyond me, but it is a reminder that all things must eat.
This week, I want to challenge you to seek Psalm 104’s vision of God as creator and sustainer. I want to challenge you to labor with God in bringing about or continuing the work of the good earth. Whether you do that work here at the farm or in the garden, in the heat of the day or the cool of the evening, I want to challenge you to remember that your work is God’s work. God labors beside you as you plant or build, and maybe is planting or building inside of you. Be careful not to upset the careful balance of God’s diverse world, but know that you are free to do good and holy work.
If we can learn to recombine our spiritual and our physical beings, maybe we can avoid the mistakes made by The Christian Century. In uniting these formerly divided parts of ourselves, we join God in the work of caring for all of creation, from the shale formation to the oil-field laborer.
It is good work. It sustains us and lets us know just how much we are sustained by God. Let us go forth embracing the oil-field worker while also challenging the destruction of fracking.