Proper 22, Year C
By Ragan Sutterfield
A couple of weeks ago I went on a birding tour of Monterey Bay. My guide on the trip was Debra Shearwater, a legend in the bird watching world, who has guided birders through those waters for over forty years. It was her birthday and it was the last season she would be leading pelagic tours.
As we watched the shearwaters, albatrosses, and murre’s of the bay, Shearwater told us about the changes she had seen. The water, she said, has changed color over the years. The krill populations have crashed and so fewer Blue Whales are seen. Over the last nesting season, large numbers of ocean-going birds had complete nesting failures, many of them not even bothering to lay eggs. “Go see them while you can,” she said, “especially the Northern birds, they are disappearing quickly.”
Shortly after returning from the trip I began to read reports of the new study published in the journal Science that showed that since 1970 we have lost 3 billion birds in North America. On a local birding email list on which participate no one was surprised. “We’ve been seeing this for a long time now,” one birder commented. It’s a fact I can confirm, having watched birds actively for over twenty years now. There are simply fewer birds and less diversity than when I first took up this path of attending to the world.
It was with those losses and the ache in my heart at what they mean for the whole of the creation that I turned to our lections for this Sunday. Where, I asked, is the hope? What are we to do in the face of such devastation?
The answer I heard echoed throughout our scriptures was change your values, change your economy. This message begins in Jeremiah where the prophet known for his tears is called by God to make a strange kind of purchase–buy a worthless piece of land as a down payment on the future.
I think of the lots in my community where houses have been condemned and burned, torn down and never rebuilt. The city has taken possession of many of these lots and put them up for sale for little money yet few want to buy them. They are worthless from any market perspective. And yet, with other eyes they are possibilities–community gardens, micro-pollinator refuges, pocket parks. The eyes of hope see differently. Jeremiah buys a worthless piece of land, using the rights afforded by a system of Jubilee, and he does so because he sees a future for Israel. Ever since reading about the 3 billion birds lost I have been thinking of those empty lots in my neighborhood and their potential. Even a quarter acre could provide enough cover for some of the species that are suffering to nest and feed and rest. A well-managed quarter acre of habitat could be a place of beauty and calm for creatures human and otherwise. It is to places like that that my mind has been turning these days. I’m done with big solutions. My hope is in the worthless fields of Anatoth.
Our New Testament lessons expand this hope in a different way. The author of Timothy calls for those of us with wealth, and that includes so many of us in the West, to live in a different way that includes both contentment with the basics of life and a willingness to share anything beyond those. In his instructions to those rich in the present age “Paul” says that they are to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” As David Bentley Hart notes, a better rendering of the Greek words translated as “generous” and “share” in the NRSV would be “something like ‘persons readily distributing’ their goods, in the former case, and something like ‘communalists’ or ‘persons having all their possessions in common,’ in the later” (Hart, The New Testament: a Translation, xxxi). Clearly the author of Timothy is calling for a very radical redistribution of wealth on the part of those “rich in the present age.”
The failure to live into such a redistribution is the heart of Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. While the rich man failed to live in brotherly solidarity with Lazarus during his lifetime, Lazarus is brought into the community of God in death. Leonard Sweet helpfully notes that the failure of the rich man here is not simply a lack of charity (he fed Lazarus from his table and let him sleep at this gate), but rather a lack of vision for Lazarus as one of his brothers.
The audience for this story, it seems clear, are the “Pharisees, who were lovers of money” (16:14). What Jesus is inviting them into is a radical reappraisal of their lives–to live in solidarity with the poor or to suffer the alienation that would inevitably come from the pursuit of wealth.
To reconnect this again with our ecological concerns, I think of Wendell Berry’s advice to a group of college students: “We all live by robbing nature, but our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue. We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and each other.”
What Berry is calling for, in response the alienation and destruction of the world by the industrial economy, is a new way of measuring wealth and value which involves interdependence and community and leaves room for the abundance of creation to spring forth.
Anyone paying attention to the world will inevitably face bouts of despair. The loses are too great to be free from lament. But after our tears, we can find hope in a different way, not through grand solutions or efforts to rebuild the destructive economy that we’ve left behind, but rather a new economy of sharing and solidarity where what is worthless in terms of money becomes a source of wealth for the new community of God’s reign.
Ragan Sutterfield is an Episcopal priest serving in the Lower-Arkansas River watershed, the historic land of the Quapaw.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.