By Rev. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin, a sermon preached at St. Luke Lutheran Church (Portland), for Earth Day (April 23, 2023)
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35 (First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament)
The Road to Warm Springs
On the same day, two of the followers of Creator Sets Free (Jesus) were walking to Village of Warm Springs (Emmaus), seven miles out from Village of Peace (Jerusalem). As they walked along, they were talking about all that had happened. Creator Sets Free (Jesus) came alongside them as they walked, but their eyes were kept from seeing who he was.
He said to them, “What are you talking about?”
They stopped walking and a look of sadness fell over their faces. One of the men, Honored by His Father (Cleopas), answered him, “How can you not know about the things that have happened in Village of Peace (Jerusalem)? You must be coming from far away.”
“What things are you talking about?” he asked.
“About Creator Sets Free (Jesus) from Seed Planter Village (Nazareth). He was a prophet from the Great Spirit, with powerful medicine, who did many good things among all the people. The head holy men and other leaders handed him over to the People of Iron (Romans) to be put to death on the cross. We had hoped that he would free the tribes of Wrestles with Creator (Israel) from the People of Iron (Romans). It is now the third day since they killed him on the cross, but today some women told us an amazing story. Early this morning they went to his burial cave and found that his body was not there. They told us about visions of spirit-messengers who told them he was alive! Some of our men went to see with their own eyes and found the empty cave, but they did not see Creator Sets Free (Jesus).”
“Why are your hearts so slow to believe the words of the prophets?” he said. “It should be clear to you that the Chosen One would suffer first before he would be lifted up and honored above all.”
So Creator Sets Free (Jesus) told them his story, beginning with Drawn from the Water (Moses) and all the prophets. He showed them how all the ancient Sacred Teachings were written about the Chosen One and pointed the way to him.
As they entered the village, he walked on as if to go farther. They said to him, “Please, stay with us. It is late, and the sun will soon set.”
So he went into the lodging house with them. When they sat down to eat a meal together, Creator Sets Free (Jesus) took some frybread into his hands. He gave thanks and broke it, giving each of them a piece. Suddenly, their eyes were opened and they knew who he was, but he vanished right in front of them.
The men looked at each other in wide-eyed wonder and said, “It felt like our hearts were on fire when he was talking with us on the road, showing us the meaning of the Sacred Teachings!”
They got up without finishing their meal and walked back to Village of Peace (Jerusalem) as fast as they could, for the sun was setting. They found where the eleven had gathered together with the others.
They were saying, “Our Wisdom-keeper is alive! He has shown himself to One Who Hears (Simon).”
So the two men told them what happened on the road and how their eyes were opened when Creator Sets Free (Jesus) broke the frybread into pieces.
Good morning, friends,
It has been a long time since I’ve been here at St. Luke, but I’m so grateful that our paths continue to weave together…especially here on Earth Day weekend, since so much of the collaboration and conspiring I’ve had the delight to do with you has been through EcoFaith Recovery with Vern and David and others here on the Environmental Stewardship Committee who have deep hearts for this beautiful and beleaguered planet we call home. So thank you for the invitation to be with you this morning on this Earth Day weekend.
If we had all the time in the world, I would love to spend the rest of our time together just hearing from you what it was like for you to hear the Emmaus story from this First Nations Bible! What a gift our Indigenous relatives have given the Church with this translation — the opportunity to hear this familiar story again for the first time; to see what we may not have been able to see before; to imagine what new medicine there may be for our weary world from the one called Creator Sets Free!
So, we don’t have all the time in the world, so you’ll have to do some of that reflection on your own time, and I truly hope you will. But for now I will tell you a story. It’s a story from my friend Michael Ellick, who shared it in his contribution to this Lenten Devotional, which I commend to you for next Lent. Michael shared this story on Holy Saturday, the day after Jesus’ crucifixion — that excruciating day when despair washes over us because there is no escape from the Shadow of Death. He tells the story like this:
“It was the summer of 1991, twenty-five miles off the Northwest Coast of Washington State, a Chinese freighter collided with a Japanese fishing vessel. The fishing vessel quickly sank, but as it did it began releasing hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel directly into the ocean, and most of this ended up coating the shores of Washington State and parts of Oregon.” [You know as well as I do that we could change the dates and the names and tell this story a hundred more times since then, couldn’t we?]
Michael goes on: “I was a teenager at the time, but I remember seeing the spill, seeing how much of the coastal wildlife it was killing, and some part of me just seized up. A deep despair washed over me, a feeling of inevitability and hopelessness, and for much of my life the image of that oil spill worked inside me as a kind of archetypal placeholder for all the human-made horrors I felt completely powerless at stopping…. But did you know,” he continues, “that there is something called an Oyster Mushroom, which grows throughout North America, and which has the unique, naturally occurring ability to clean up oil spills by leaching them up as food? And did you also know that these same mushrooms, once grown by eating up all the oil, are still completely edible for humans to eat? It’s amazing but true….There are mushrooms that can naturally break down, clean-up, and detoxify oil, all the while producing a healthy food source.”
The image of these little oil-eating mushrooms resonated with Michael so deeply that he had a vision — he saw the whole beach back in Washington State entirely covered with oyster mushrooms. And he says, “this vision shifted something deep inside me, some old wound healed over…I became filled with certainty and deep relief that the planet is still producing the miracles it needs to survive, and so can we.”
What changed for Michael? What shifted him, what lifted him out of that oil-laden pit of despair and carried him into the clear waters of certainty, relief, and active hope?
It was a vision. Not a fantasy. Not make believe. Not disneyland. Not escapism. Oyster mushrooms are real and they absolutely can and do turn toxicity into food. His wasn’t a fantasy, it was a vision — he saw something he hadn’t seen before, a possibility he hadn’t known was possible. And just the glimpse of that, the vision of that changed him forever.
Was that any different from our ancestors of faith walking under the Shadow of Death on the road to Warm Springs? There they were, shattered, coated in despair, terrified, beside themselves without a clue as to what to do or how to move forward or how to explain the truth of the situation to their children. And the one called Creator Sets Free comes close, is walking alongside them, listening, present, and then, when they had said everything they needed to say…Creator Sets Free begins telling them their own stories that they had known all their lives, but in a different way so they could begin to see what they could not see before.
And finally they arrive in the town and they don’t know why but they don’t want the one called Creator Sets Free to leave so they implore him to stay and he does and he takes something ordinary that had been theirs all along — bread, frybread, oyster mushrooms — and broke it open and gave it back to them and suddenly they saw it! What did they see? They saw the future! Not a future solely determined by the death dealers, but a future alive — impossible to their rational minds, yet they SAW IT! They saw what despair had kept them from seeing.
They saw what they had not been able to see before, and they were changed forever! That vision of Creator Sets Free set THEM free! It freed them from the pit of despair and delivered them to the clean waters of active hope. That vision freed them from running away from the danger, to turning around and heading straight back into it but with a renewed power and aliveness they could never have imagined. That vision of a living future freed them from cowering in fear and isolation and empowered them to return to their community as fast as they could, exclaiming, “Our wisdom-keeper is alive!” And discovering that others had seen the vision of a different future too!
And here we see the truth of the proverb that says, “Without a Vision the people perish.” For if we cannot see, if we cannot imagine a beautiful, living, pulsating, breathing, vibrant future, how can we possibly think we will have the energy needed to make that future happen?
And the converse is also true: It is not only that without a vision the people will perish, but without the people, the vision will perish. The two friends heading to Warm Springs did not stay there when they saw the vision. They ran as fast as they could back to their community because a future worth inhabiting is not made possible by individuals acting alone. It takes collective power — it requires the ever expanding collective power of people and organizations and churches and synagogues and mosques and temples and communities who can envision a future alive with hope and possibility and who will give everything they’ve got toward making that vision a reality.
Friends, we heard another vision from the author of the book of Revelation this morning:
“The angel then showed me the river of life-giving water, clear as crystal, which issued from the throne of God and of the Lamb, and flowed down the middle of the streets. On either side of the river grew the trees of life which produce fruit twelve times a year, once each month; their leaves serve as medicine to heal the nations.”
When we can see as possible what others refuse as impossible, we are changed forever, our hearts burn within us, our capacity expands, our imaginations explode, our relationships deepen exponentially, and then even under the Shadow of Death, despair does not, will not and cannot have the last word.
Friends, let me bring this home. We’ve been celebrating Earth Day for 53 years, not quite as long as I’ve been alive but almost, and we are seeing play out in real time apocalyptic feedback loops that are enough to terrify and shatter even the most hopeful and resourceful among us. The Shadow of Death is real, it is here, it is inescapable.
And yet this past week, I saw something that changed me, perhaps forever.
On Thursday night, I and about 40 other members of MACG — Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good — were getting a tour of NAYA, the Native American Youth and Family Center — in NE Portland. NAYA was founded in 1974 by parent and elder volunteers to try to begin to meet the needs of their children. And now they serve Native people from babies to elders from over 380 tribal backgrounds.
Think about that for a minute: 380 different tribal backgrounds. What that means is 380 formerly-sovereign peoples and nations with their own language, institutions, customs, leaders, lifeways, culture all shattered by the apocalypse of European colonization, and fragments of each of those cultures are here in Portland, Oregon, hidden from most of our views. Each one of those fragments is a person, a family, an extended family, living constantly in the Shadow of Death but having survived an apocalypse; the end of their world.
And so I — like my ancestors of faith on the run to Warm Springs — was not prepared for how my heart would be burning within me on that tour, as they led us through the Regenerative Community Garden in back, and the College Preparedness Center, the Math classroom of the Many Nations High School. I was not prepared for how my heart would be burning within me as I toured the three affordable housing buildings they recently developed, rich with art spaces and healing spaces and meeting spaces and support services and colors and textures and designs all emanating LIFE and pride and dignity and possibility. The sheer power and beauty of what the people of NAYA have created from the shattered fragments of 380 formerly sovereign nations blew me away. And my heart was burning within me.
But my eyes were truly opened near the end of the evening, when Karen St. Clair, who is half Lakota and half Norwegian (my ancestry!), closed the evening by sharing the vision of NAYA. But this is not just your standard vision statement that most organizations have. No, like Michael with the Oyster Mushrooms, and the author of the book of Revelation, NAYA can see something others cannot…yet! They can SEE a thriving Portland Native Community 50 years from now. They can SEE a “united and connected community celebrating their multicultural and multi-tribal heritage as a source of strength.” They can SEE “economically secure families thriving and living in homes that provide stability and a place to practice culture and connection to community.” They can SEE a “healthy community that understands the connection between our environment, our culture, our spirituality and our wellness.”
They can see it! And because they can see it, against all odds, they are creating it…together — with ALL their relations, and all their relations includes us! The Wisdom-Keepers are alive! And they are among us.
So friends, on this Earth Day weekend, but literally every day from here on out, let us make this commitment to one another — that we will not run away from the shattering truths we must face. Instead, we will face the towering cross casting the Shadow of Death over everyone and everything on this planet — and we will face it TOGETHER with our vision of a living planet and a vibrant future for our children, for ALL children, to the seventh generation.
We will face it not blinded by the logic of empire, but with eyes that can SEE the crystal clear waters flowing in the river of life;
We will face it not helpless in the face of tremendous resistance, but tremendously persistent with our vision of trees bearing fruit in abundance and leaves as medicine for the healing of the nations.
Friends, here in the Shadow of Death, we will stand, hand in hand with the Wisdom-Keepers among us, connected, strong, resilient, with hearts on fire; not mired in the toxic oil of despair, but alive with the medicine of the Oyster Mushrooms soaking up all that is toxic within and without and turning it into food for our children, for ALL children, to the seventh generation. Can you see it?