19th Sunday after Pentecost
By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
When you tell the story of your, your family’s, or your community’s journey, what role does the land and its nonhuman creatures play?
Central to God’s promise to ancient Israel was a land to call their own, both as a people and as local families. In this week’s reading, Psalm 106 presents one of several biblical summaries of Israel’s relationship with YHWH, the land and its peoples. It is framed by “praise YHWH,” although the core of the psalm laments the people’s constant disobedience and forgetfulness. Throughout the psalm, the land is close at hand, beginning with deliverance from Egypt via the Red Sea, and continuing into the wilderness struggles.
We soon hear, that despite YHWH’s deliverance and protection, “…then they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in [God’s] promise” (106.24). Later, the psalmist laments the people’s turn to idolatry, “and the land was polluted with blood” (106.38). The poem continues until the people find themselves in exile, where even then and there, YHWH “remembered [God’s] covenant and showed compassion according to the abundance of [God’s] steadfast love” (106.45).
As USAmericans, we often find it difficult to confess our national sinfulness in relation to the land and its peoples. We celebrate victories in war with song and salute, polluting the land with blood, but rarely acknowledge what we have done to African Americans, indigenous peoples, and nonhuman creatures. Israel’s periodic confession allowed for a fresh start, a recommitment to live faithfully according to the covenant. But our national reticence to confess our historical sins leaves gaping wounds in the social fabric, as we experience today amid Trump’s repeated pouring of salt into the wounds.
More locally, we wonder what it might be like for we who live in the economically booming Puget Sound region to confess how our wealth has come at the expense of salmon, beavers and trees; of Snoqualmies and Duwamish and other Salish peoples. Glaciers recede and forests are consumed by beetles as the result of climate change. Yet our regional narrative focuses triumphally on the success of global corporations such as amazon.com and Starbucks, who cover the earth with asphalt and warehouses and the refuse of millions of cups and boxes. How would our future be changed and healed if we remembered and lamented periodically the harm we have done while attaining this great “success”?
More personally, I (Wes) am aware of how my grandparents moved from Detroit to the “promised land” of Los Angeles in 1932 during the Great Depression, drawn to the sunshine, clean air, and abundant, cheap land of the paradise of the West. Yet my childhood air was filled with the fumes of leaded gas, and the God-given beauty of the LA basin was soon covered in asphalt and concrete, creating a heat sink that can produce local temperatures that will literally fry eggs on the sidewalk. In the early 80s, the forested mountains of Seattle drew me here. While clearcutting was halted to save the spotted owl, few seem to have enough love for the land to prevent climate change from destroying the luscious harmony of tree, fern and moss that fill every space on soil and rock.
I (Sue), am a fifth generation Iowan. My great grandparents were Iowa homesteaders. (As with most settlers, they were the unawakened “beneficiaries” of white European colonization.) I grew up with many stories of the beauty of a community of local family farmers who collaborated with one another and the earth, supported one another in time of need, and sharing and celebrating the fruits of the land. This experience shifted markedly within the next generation, as family farm harvests became commodities at the mercy of global capitalism, and farms were eventually bought out by corporations, who “enhanced productivity” through ever-increasing use of GMOs. Step-by-step, communion was broken between the land and the people. Holy intimacy with the land was left behind. The land was polluted by the idolatry of capitalism.
How would your stories be different if you lamented your peoples’ sinfulness to the earth? What needs to be healed by the power of story and confession?
Ancient Israel was far from perfect. Yet repeatedly, the Israelites confessed their lack of trust in the Creator with whom they had covenanted. They knew that the fault was their own, not YHWH’s, who was faithful to them despite their distrust and selfishness. May we emulate the practices of our faith ancestors, confessing in communal song, prayer, and liturgy our “despising” of the land, trusting that YHWH seeks nothing less than the healing harmony of restored relationship among YHWH, the land and ourselves.
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.