Sermon presented by guest preacher, Emilie Bouvier,
Minneapolis Area Synod's Congregational Organizer for Environmental Justice
Friends, grace and peace.
It is so good to be here with you this morning. It’s an honor to share this space of worship with you all and to be invited to speak a word about faith, water, and environmental stewardship on our Lenten journey together.
Thanks for bearing with me also as we take a detour from the lectionary and read these verses from Genesis [Genesis 2:10-15] that we often skip right over. We know it in the first creation story with wind over water, but we forget that the second creation story begins with water as well. The very first pages of our sacred scriptures are drenched with images of a watery deep.
Water forms and shaped us – it is stirring at the very beginnings of our faith tradition.
Now, as a kid I didn’t grow up surrounded by water – I spent my childhood in Nebraska, which is definitely not the land of 10,000 lakes. In fact, the only lake that I knew of nearby was human made. But when my family moved into the countryside, I spent a lot of time wandering along a stream that cut near our house – whose shallow trickle was usually thin enough for me to find a place to jump across, much to the chagrin of my brother, who 5 years younger than me, and much less adventurous. (Let’s just say whenever he chased me I was always able make quick escape.) But looking back, it’s a different memory I hold from when I came to first know water, and it is much closer to this place – it was walking along the Mississippi with my mom who grew up in St. Paul and spent her childhood by the river. We walked a path where the bank of the river juts out, carving into the neighborhood. There’s a small waterfall there, and when we came to top, I saw the small stream that created it, such as small simple stream, that made something much more dramatic and awe-inspiring as it tumbled down the rocky overhang. As we continued, we finally came to the spring that created it. I was transfixed. In the middle of these damp leaves, filling the air with that familiar fragrance of woods and walks, water was gently bubbling up from the ground. It was this small spring that created that beautiful waterfall I had walked past for years before, flowing right into the much more mighty Mississippi. That was a watershed moment for me. I began to see and be in awe of how water flows, how waters are connected.
I would suspect that many of you have similarly had a pivotal memory or experience of coming to know water. From what I hear, you all are very connected to water, which I would imagine – when I looked up a map of your watershed, the Shingle Creek watershed, I noticed some little pockets of blue near FLW on the map - the Twin Lakes, Crystal Lake, Ryan Lake, Palmer Lake, and Single Creek itself as it meanders to the Mississippi, not far upstream from where I had my own moment of connection in my childhood. Water connects us, and it grounds us to place in a unique way. After all, regardless of if you live on or near a lake, you live in a watershed – these beautiful water systems that point to where water flows when precipitation lands. I like the image of watershed as turning an umbrella upside-down in the rain – everywhere that water lands inside the watershed collects in the same place. All the waters here - connect to the Mississippi, which is, as a major watershed, a huge basin that covers almost 2/3rds of the US, gathering together the Minnesota River, Missouri River, Platte River, The Ohio, The Arkansas, and The Red River.
On the note of naming and understanding waters and watersheds, we began in Genesis, with the winds moving over the watery deeps and then, in the second creation narrative, we see a naming of water and watersheds. Here again, water is the beginning of the story of creation. Before really getting into this narrative about humanity, we learn of the rivers and their connection to the land. First the river Pi-shon, that waters the land of Ha-vi-lah. Then Gihon that flows through the land of Cush, and finally the Tigris and Euphrates are named. Notice, that not only is water given prime significance – the waters are not only named, but are connected to the land that they water. The scripture actually names the watersheds. And immediately after, God places this new earth-formed human being of dust and breath, into the watershed – in the garden at the headwaters, actually, as the rivers were named as flowing out of the place of Eden – and is told to till and keep it. That’s a pretty big responsibility, considering what happens at the headwaters affects everything downstream – the whole of creation in the story of Genesis.
Knowing and tending our watershed is not only important, it’s the first thing that God calls humanity into; it’s the responsibility that opens the relationship between God and humanity. We often read this section creation narrative as one of a “fall” in the sense of humanity falling from a perfect ideal, fallen from a superior state to a lesser state. But, to use the words of Terrence Fretheim, it’s helpful not to think so much of a fallen ideal, but a falling apart of relationship. And the earth, the soil and the water, the watershed, is not just the backdrop, but a character in the story, a part of God’s creating, relating, redeeming, and is squarely in the middle of God’s relationship with humanity. As the narrative unfolds, we see the breakdown of relationship in the drama of Cain and Able. Now as I mentioned, I’m no expert at keeping the peace with a brother who so easily gets on my nerves. But when Cain becomes jealous, something of enormous consequence happens – he takes Able into the field, this place where rain waters the earth and brings forth food, where Able is about the work of tending and keeping, in the watershed outside the lands of Eden. That is the place where Cain rises up against Able and kills him, and his blood sinks into the soil. If you read carefully, you’ll notice that it’s this soil that cries out to God, blood-drenched earth that received the violence and injustice. The earth suffers – it was watered not with rain but with blood. God hears this cry of the earth and goes to Cain to ask, “What have you done?” There’s all sorts of breakdown in relationship after that, there is brokenness between God and humanity, there is alienation between humanity and the earth. Throughout the OT, we continue to see this pattern play out – in the imagination of ancient Israel, which was, by the way, an agrarian community, when the relationship between God and humanity is good, the earth flourishes, and when the relationship suffers, often because of injustice between people, creation languishes. For the prophets the alienation and destruction of the land remains clear indicator of humanity’s sinfulness, brokenness, and unjust behavior. Just here these words from Isaiah 24 – “The earth languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants…”
So what does this mean to us today? It’s certainly no secret that our fragile and finite planet is languishing. What does it say that our waters are so polluted? That our earth is suffering?
This isn’t just a crisis for the environment, this is a crisis of our faith. And it is a moment in which we’re beginning to grasp this and open a deeper conversation. The Pope in his encyclical, Laudato ‘Si has drawn us back into a theologically grounded perspective on how the degradation of our natural resources is a moral issue, how it deeply affects the poor and marginalized, how it calls to question our patterns of consumption and exploitation. These are hard questions, and deeply theological questions.
It’s not that we haven’t talked about care for the earth as people of faith in the past and in our history, but to use a water metaphor, we have often done so in a way that’s been a mile wide and an inch deep… so how do we dive into the watery depths? It can be scary, it requires a leap of faith – as my little brother who was scared of even a small stream could tell you. But it reconnects us, it invites us into the Gods work of healing and restoring in a world experiencing brokenness, and after all, these watery deeps are a holy place, where we meet God, where the winds of the spirit are moving.
I know these days I find these questions very hard and overwhelming sometimes – we’re faced with the statistics that the majority of lakes and rivers in southern MN are too polluted for swimming and fishing, we put pipelines through our waters, entrenched in a systems where we’re dependent upon a system based in extraction rather than sustainability, and in my own home state of Nebraska, I see that mighty Platte River and Ogala aquifer diminishing from industry demands coupled with hotter and hotter years on record – my mentor in photography is a wildlife photographer who has actually documented fish not being able to migrate but being trapped in pockets of where the river has dried up and no longer connects, a sad face of what we’re currently up against with our climate instability.
Yet, I find a word of hope in our texts for this Sunday – you all were very patient with me straying from our lectionary Gospel text to talk Genesis and Watershed instead of Lazarus, but this Old Testament reading for this Sunday that gets paired with Lazarus – the story of the Valley of Dry bones, speaks a word of hope. You see, we left off with blood-drenched soil and alienation, but come then later in our ancient scriptures to this story that returns to the dust, wind, and place of brokenness – with the radial notion of prophesying hope, to a people who see their future as nothing but despair.
Can I just say, that when I went back to read the text for this week, I read it differently coming with this notion of water? I’ve found that in this work on water and justice it has changed the way that I read scripture. Because visiting this text again, I saw something different – the valley, which is very dry, is actually at the bottom of what should be a watery basin. The valley should be the last and least expected place to find dust and dry bones – it would mean the entire watershed has dried up. And in fact, if you go earlier in the text, the chapter prior in Ezekiel, you see that valleys are named almost interchangeably with watercourses, in juxtaposition to the mountains and hills. Chapter 36 verse 4 picks up “Thus says the Lord God to the mountains and the hills, the watercourses and the valleys…” and what is it that these valleys hear? A word of hope and new life amidst what seems like utter death and hopelessness. Later in Ch 36 right before the story that we read this morning the prophet rights “The land that was desolate shall be tilled… And they will say, This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, then the nationals shall know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt and the ruined places, and replanted that which was desolate.” Hear O mountains, hear O valleys and watercourses… This story about dry bones, about the people of God being given life, identity, land, belonging, a new future filled with promise – all happens in a watershed context, in a valley that should be coursing with vital waterways, that is dry to the bone but then brought to life with the breath of God.
I think this speaks to us deeply today. We’re talking about what happens around water and stewardship in this congregation and community today – when the rain falls if it waters and nourishes the neighborhood or leaves us more polluted, who our neighbors are, who is downstream from us, and how we can be called into an ecology of community through taking a closer look at our waters. Thank you, for diving in with me, and courageously holding these questions in mind.
Then, I find this challenge to call us into community. Watersheds help us with this. After all they are a way of designating a local ecology. We’re used to drawing straight lines to make sense of our communities. Just look at a map of the Midwest – you see a lot of square-like shapes. We get use to thinking about our community spaces as hovering above the land, rather than in connection and relationship with it. Watersheds invite us reimagining these boundaries in ways that calls us into community. We find unlikely neighbors. Last year during lent I preached out at St. John’s Lutheran in Mound and I realized that I was in the same watershed as at Calvary Lutheran Church where I’m a member in South Minneapolis. The same place where I taught art to low-income students during the summer while I was doing my undergrad studies. I worried about them getting into the water when we would walk to Powderhorn because of how gross that water is, both smelly and clearly polluted to the point of being unsafe, and would take them on a couple of occasions to Lake Nokomis – watching them splash and delight in the water, which believe me, was always the highlight of the week’s activities. These experiences remind me that we have a lot of beautiful treasured waters, we also have a lot of problems with our waters – another watershed neighbor, Sean Connaughty who lives near Lake Hiawatha walks around the lake every singe day, picking up trash out of the water. Since May of last year he’s collected more than 1,500 pounds of trash.
Given that watersheds reflect a confluence of different pollution issues it’s easy for watershed neighbors to treat each other more like siblings than co-creators, to pointing fingers about the problems that harm our water – everything from discarded trash, to sprawling turf grass, to agricultural runoff, to all the cement and salt of dense urban areas, to point-source pollution. We’re all a part of communities that in some way are a part of the problems that we face, but we need all of us to be doing the work to be a part of the solution. We can be intentional and grounded as communities of faith to take on these complexities rather than assume we can do nothing. We may not all literally be in the same boat, but we do share a watershed. So my word to you is to opening some deeper and honest conversation about the opportunities and challenges of this community. I don’t know exactly what that will look like because I don’t live here and know all of you, but I am your watershed neighbor and share in this Lutheran tradition. So I invite you all to reflect and spend time thinking about what all this means in your context.
Wendell Berry argued that the question "is not how to care for the planet but how to care for each of the planet's millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others." Wendell Berry recognized that we suffer from displacement and disconnectedness, starting with our own back yards connects us to our ecology, our community, and through those networks of water and soil, to the whole of God’s creation.
So. Where are we now? With the dust of earthen ashes still lingering on our foreheads, we trace that sign with water. In this Lenten journey, we are in a time between the “dust to dust” of Ash Wednesday and the baptismal waters of Easter Vigil – the time of year in the early church when new members were baptized into the community. In this season of contemplation and journey to the cross, we go with this God who suffers with humanity, whose heavens languish together with the earth, who calls us to the cross, from the earthy place of ashes and dust to the tree of cross, ultimately a tree of life. The waters that shape up seal our forehead in the same shape, cleansing waters of promise that claim and restore us. We hold these realities together – we delve into the deep, embrace the brokenness, lean into the challenge, and yet hold to this watery promise of spirit stirring, inviting us through it all into hope and healing. Amen.