Sermon, Season of Creation I, Proper 17, Year A 2023
The forests of Ethiopia. Page with links to both of the stories and videos.
“Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides,” states the psalmist.
Jesus, who came and pitched his tent among us, lived among us, and died as one of us, dwelt on this earth. And when our hearts are open to God, we know that God has always lived among us. Back in the Garden of Eden, in the very first book in our Bible, Genesis, God had a habit of walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.
And in the closing book of the New Testament, Revelation, God once more comes and dwells among us, after ridding the earth of the evil that has held it in thrall for so long.
“See,” the writer of Revelation proclaims, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with us and we will be God’s peoples, and God will be with us, and will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
So we live in the time of God with us now and not yet quite fully, knowing that truly, the earth itself is the house of the Lord, for God is not only transcendent and heavenly, but also immanent, as near to us as the air we breathe, as refreshing and as life giving to us as the water we drink, as restoring as the rain after a long drought, and as solid as the rocky mantle that supports the soil and all of life on this earth.
Jesus came and dwelt among us so that we could see, with our own eyes, that God has always dwelt in our midst, on this earth, which is not only God’s footstool, but the very body of God, as theologian Sallie McFague would say. We earth dwellers live and move and have our being within the body of God during our lives on this earth.
And so, when we truly open our eyes, we can see for ourselves God’s glory abiding all around us.
“Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides—” God’s glory, so intricately woven into the fabric of this earth and the entire universe.
So we rejoice in hope, even as we look around us and see God’s glory diminished by the ways in which we abuse and mistreat one another.
Even when we look around and truly begin to see the ways in which we have been both intentionally and unintentionally oblivious and negligent, greedy, and selfish in the ways in which we relate to God’s earth, still, we can rejoice in hope.
When Jesus told the disciples that they must take up their crosses and follow him, he was hopeful. Jesus told the disciples that the next part of his journey would be difficult, and would include suffering and death—but that beyond the suffering and death was resurrection. Jesus was hopeful that the disciples could see beyond the grim predictions of the “now” into the hope of the resurrection life of the “not yet.” This resurrection life included the time that they were spending with him, because in being with him they were learning about what resurrection life is in the here and now. So when Jesus told the disciples that they must take up their crosses and follow him, he was hopeful that they would do so, despite the costs.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of the Season of Creation. We can take up our crosses as followers of Jesus in the context of how we Christians live faithfully in a climate that is quickly changing and bringing about irreversible changes to life of earth. We human beings have an impact on our climate in just about everything we do, both positive and negative.
Our life together in the church can be both positive and negative in terms of climate change. So I’d like to share this hopeful story about the church in Ethiopia with you so that we can draw inspiration from it as we consider our individual relationships with the earth, particularly in our own place here on this beautiful land on the banks of the Rappahannock, for right now we are the caretakers of this little piece of God’s dwelling.
The entire country of Ethiopia used to be covered with lush forests, full of biodiversity. These forests have vanished as the land has been cleared for farming and cattle grazing. But about 35,000 small oases of this forest remain, dotted through the country and in almost every case, a church rests in the middle of each small forest.
More than half of Ethiopians belong to the Orthodox Tewahedo Church and they view their natural forests “as a symbol of heaven on earth where every creature is a gift from God and needs a habitat,” as Alison Abbott states in her article about these church forests in the publication Nature. The priests and the people consider that the forest is an extension of the church. The forest itself is the house in which God dwells.
This collaboration with the people and with scientists who are working with the church to save the forests is a sign of hope for the journey for all, for in their communion with the sacred, the people are working together for the common good, not just for themselves, but for God’s creation around them.
Alemayehu Wassie grew up in Ethiopia. Because of his love for the forests, he became a forest ecologist, and as he learned more about these small pockets of forest and the biodiversity they held, he realized that these bits of forests were also quickly disappearing. So Wassie began actively working to save these last small bits of forest in his country. He says that the “church forests became his profession and also his emotional and spiritual connection.” His first task in working to help to save the forests was to convince the priests that protecting their forests was vital. The villagers, although respectful of the forests, would let their cattle go into the forest to graze, and their plows would damage the edges of the forest, degrading and slowly shrinking its size.
Wassie had to educate the priests. Although they let him enter the forests to count the various species there, they didn’t understand why he was doing the work. They couldn’t see any advantage to themselves or the community regarding actively preserving their forests. Wassie showed the priests their churches on Google maps. The images are striking—the church forests are small oases of green dotting an otherwise rather barren looking landscape. Wassie wanted to convince the priests to actively preserve the forests, not only because they are considered sacred space, but also for the birds and insects that the forest supports, for these birds and insects play an important part in fertilization and pest control for the rest of the country. The forests also “absorb carbon, conserve water, reduce soil erosion and provide natural medicine. For the priests and the local populations, the forest provides shelter for buildings, space for worship, contemplation and prayer, and burial areas,” as Abbott explains in her article.
Wassie became discouraged because he was finding local collaboration and funding difficult. But then, at an international conference in Mexico, he met another forest ecologist, Meg Lowman, “who was moved by his despair.” She joined him in his work, and they began raising money and working to win the trust of the priests in the church.
Once the priests realized that part of their mission was to actively protect their forests, they began to enlist the local population to help them build walls around the forests. Teams of people come together to gather rocks from the fields, which is helpful for their own crop production, and to then build walls that allow people to go in and out of the forests, but that keep the cattle out, allowing the parts of the forest floor that have been trampled, and the plants that have been grazed to regenerate, improving the health of the forests.
In another article in the publication Emergence, Jeffrey Seifert and photographer Fred Bahnson write about the mystical geography of these forests in northern Ethiopia. I highly recommend that you read this beautiful piece of writing and see the a few of the dramatic images from Google earth that helped convince the priests to work actively to preserve their forests. You can find the links to these two articles I’ve mentioned today on the St Peter’s website.
The story of Alemayehu Wassie’s work, the priests and the local people working together to save the forests is a story of taking up a cross, while rejoicing in hope.
So on this first Sunday of the Season of Creation, based on today’s lessons, consider how your understanding of the earth shifts when you imagine it as God’s dwelling, a dwelling that God gracefully invites us to share. Look for God’s glory, glowing around us, if only we have eyes to see. Think about how taking up your cross when you engage with the environment can cause you to rejoice in hope, even when you’re tempted to give in to despair. And let’s consider, how we, as the church, can take up the crosses waiting for us in our own place and time and work together with one another and with the broader community for the good of the earth.
“Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.”