God, Ecology, and Relational Power

Jesus cares about how we do public relationships

We are in the midst of a short “creation season” in the church. Christians all around the world are invited in these Sundays leading up to the Feast of St. Francis’s Feast for the earth, and for our human relationship with the rest of creation. Relationship is key. Today’s Gospel gets at a fundamental tension in our understanding of relationships.

John comes to Jesus to tell him, “Teacher we saw someone throwing out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” There are echoes from what we read from the book of Numbers. John is expecting a thank you. He wants Jesus to know he had his back. John thinks he has done well.

Jesus surprises John. Jesus inverts the usual saying: “If you’re not with me, you’re against me.” No, Jesus says, “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.” For Jesus the way the disciples (and the way we today) have been taught relationship is problematic. The way we have been taught to compete and count insiders and outsiders, it won’t work if you want to follow Jesus.

We spend quite a bit of time worried about our private relationships. This teaching isn’t about family systems. This section of Mark’s Gospel is all about public relationships. Jesus asks his disciples to relate differently than they were taught by society: with ethnic outsiders, and children, and the poor. Jesus invites his disciples to radically re-define relationships with power, with money, with faith, with government, with rivals. Relationships have power. How are we related? What does this have to do with creation?

Seven Generations

When I was in college, the Native American activist Winona Laduke broke open my sense of relationship. She gave a lecture at my university and introduced our class to the Iroquois understanding of the seven generations. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

For the Iroquois, any decision, especially a decision about natural resources or land, must consider the impact on the seventh generation. This indigenous understanding can be read in tribal opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline. The people of Standing Rock, a different tribe, in North Dakota opposed construction through their land, through their water sources, because they considered that at some point down the generations, in the lifetime of their great great great great great grandchildren, that pipe could leak into Lake Oahe, or the Mississippi or Missouri rivers. If you’re making a decision, how will it impact event future generations? This teaching has become a common yardstick for many indigenous ecological activists.

Maybe it’s because I have a kid now, but this question of our relationship with younger generations is starting to weigh on me. In London, Warsaw, and Mexico, cities across the globe on Friday, young people, many of them 20 plus years younger than me, marched to raise awareness of climate change. I look at those young people and think, “I haven’t done enough.”

I haven’t done enough: Corporate Responsibility

“I haven’t done enough” those are tricky words in church. Sometimes we say a confession where we confess the things we have done, and the things we have left undone. Part of the reason we seem so stuck on questions of fossil fuels and pollution is that we tend to treat the problem as an individual problem. Remember when were were all supposed to calculate our “carbon footprint?” Gosh I could get worked up over trying to reduce reuse recycle and bicycle my way to a smaller impact on the planet.

In recent years, listening to friends who know far more than I do about these questions, I’ve learned that me doing my little part at home isn’t enough. Climate change and the ecological crises that come with it aren’t solvable on an individual level. We have to think corporately.

Those are dangerous words in this pulpit. Now it would be really easy for me to turn this into a tirade against evil corporations or government. I’ve probably preached a version of that sermon. But part of the difficulty is the myth we’ve woven around corporations. We treat companies as if they are something more than they are.

Corporations are people, they are. I don’t mean in the way the Supreme Court ruled around political speech. Corporations are people plural, they are made up of people. To incorporate means “to make a body.” All of us belong to corporate bodies, whether as members of a a church, a nonprofit, or employees of a business, residents in a certain neighborhood, voters in a district, we are relentlessly incorporated. Makes you hear that second part of the body about what you do with the parts of the body making you stumble differently.

To actually make a difference for our planet, we have to pay attention to those corporate relationships. We have to cultivate them. If you want to make a difference to the planet, you might need to volunteer your time for the ethics committee at work, pushing to get your workplace to investigate the ethical sourcing of materials. You might need to show up at a community meeting to talk about the environmental impact of a local government decision around our sewer system or a proposed construction project. I know, it’s rough. We have to sit around the table with other people. Who is it that said “hell is other people?”

Here at my workplace, at your church, we’re going to need some help. I’m looking for volunteers. Did you know that this church spends $10,000 a year on electricity? $10,000 a year. That’s so much more carbon than my home. We’ve been talking about getting solar panels for years now. I think it’s time we get serious. I think they should be big and ugly and more importantly they should come with a tacky sticker on our windows telling our neighbors who they can call to install solar at their home or workplace. To do this work on solar we’re going to need money sure, but also volunteers to give their precious time, to meet together on zoom and around the table. Because it takes relationships to move corporate systems.

Relationships matter in faith

Relationships matter in faith. I think it’s easy to forget because we have over-personalized. We have over-individualized. How often have you heard faith described as “my relationship to God” or “my relationship to Jesus.” It’s because of this over-individualization that we struggle with the big paragraph in this Gospel about plucking out eyes and severing limbs. Please don’t take that literally or personally. Jesus is talking rhetorically. He’s asking people to tend to their relationships. He’s saying it is okay to release relationships with people who cause harm. That’s all. And it’s still painful. Because relationships matter.

A friend, a wiser priest than me, just started as the rector of a big church down South. I watched her first forum in her parish, a big Q and A. An earnest parishioner asked his new rector, essentially, “what do we do about the people who have gotten so comfortable worshiping from home in their pajamas?”

I say this priest wiser than me, because she didn’t start out with a reactive defense of in-person worship. She paused and noticed her own experience when she wasn’t at church leading worship. She said at first she was very dedicated to signing in right on time, being attentive. As the months wore on she noticed that sometimes she was vacuuming during church, or doing other housework while listening on her earbuds. She said there was something powerful in worshipping from home. For the first time church was literally meeting people exactly where they were. I don’t want to lose that.

Then she said, but I hope that everyone who is still at home hears, from someone who knows them from church: “I miss seeing you.” I miss spending time with you. I miss praying with you.

Look, you can worship God anywhere. You can encounter God anywhere. Yes, we believe God is really present in the Eucharist, here at the altar. But we believe the bread is a sacrament a symbol which breaks open God’s presence everywhere. God is everywhere. You don’t need to come to church to find God. This is where we come to find God together, in all the mess, in all the frustration, in all the joy that comes in relationship. If you haven’t seen someone in awhile, notice, drop them a note, a text, make a phone call. If you haven’t come in awhile, we miss you. We look forward to seeing you again.

Insiders and Outsiders?

Relationships matter. Let me introduce one more twist to this discussion before I sit down. I’ve been thinking a great deal about relationship and church these days, you can probably tell. For more than a century we have counted how many people worshiped in person with us on a Sunday. That was the number that mattered. Frankly friends, we were doing well. For five years we grew. We were getting close to 200 people on a Sunday in March of 2020, and I was proud.

I don’t know when, or if, we will count that many people that way again. But as I read today’s Gospel, I think Jesus wouldn’t want us to be anxious about counting the insiders. Jesus doesn’t want his followers to drive away people doing good work because they aren’t card carrying members. Jesus cares more about the healing.

I find myself wondering, as we take timid steps to what is next: how can we broaden our sense of who counts? Can our churches worry less about growing an arbitrary number of people who show up Sunday morning, and can we put more energy into growing relationships that help transform lives? relationships that transform neighborhoods? relationships that have the power to transform our planet?

I’ve caught glimpses. I watched as volunteers from this church got together to support voters waiting in long lines last November. I’ve seen folks invite friends to join with them as their church marched in LGBTQ+ Pride or in a rally for sensible gun control. How do we start counting more of the people who aren’t against us? How do we walk together and be for God’s justice together, even with folks who might not name it the way we do?

In order to have the power to make the kind of change our world so desperately we have to grow our community. What relationships could we activate to work to make life better seven generations down the road? What if we worried less, in the church, about counting insiders, and more about how we could work together for the healing of our planet?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “God, Ecology, and Relational Power

  1. I really enjoy this morning’s readings because the people involved are SO human! I wish the readers, both lay and ordained, would whine the people’s complaints. Can’t you just hear them? “They’re not one of us! Tell them to stop!!
    Your Good Sam buddy, Verdery

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