Let me begin with a poem:
“St Kevin and the Blackbird” By Seamus Heaney
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird. The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside His cell, but the cell is narrow, so One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands And lays in it and settles down to nest. Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked Into the network of eternal life, Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown. * And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, Imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful or in agony all the time From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms? Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees? Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head? Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river, ‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays, A prayer his body makes entirely For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
St Kevin and the Blackbird: Such a moving image of Christian care for the creatures of God’s creation. St Kevin becomes like a tree, for a season, for the sake of a mother bird and her young. This can be a kind of icon of the heart of Christ that can come to us in the humility and the sense of responsibility to care for all Creation.
Now, when Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about this old story of St Kevin and the blackbird, he doesn’t let us just admire it. He asks us a very real question: can we imagine ourselves in his position? And when we imagine ourselves in his position do we expect we’d in agony or to be in ecstasy. Seamus Heaney helps us imagine both. He helps us imagine Kevin’s body in agony stuck with his arm out in this contorted posture, day after day, week after week. But most of what this poem does is invoke the kind of quiet ecstasy, the sweet self-forgetfulness, that comes in these times when our heart grows out in compassion, through our discomfort, in compassion for another creature: “finding [ourselves] linked Into the network of eternal life” “mirrored clear in love’s deep river”
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ – this is St Kevin’s humble prayer “A prayer his body makes entirely For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”
This poem invokes the kind of spiritual experience that can come when we surrender ourselves in care for another, and in so doing surrender ourselves to the great Being of our Creator. Yet the reality is, I think, there is both agony and ecstasy.
So, this sermon is coming because of a request that I preach about the Christian value of stewardship of God’s creation, and what that means about our church’s environmental responsibilities. As you know we’ve been doing this solar panel project, which has been really successful, there’s been such an outpouring of generosity and enthusiasm from lots of different folks. And we’re just now waiting on inspections before we can flip the switch and the panels are live. And we’ll throw a big Sol-Fest party in September – details forthcoming. So anyhow, as I’ve been taking requests for sermon subjects for the summer, and beyond (still keep them coming by the way) someone asked that I speak more about the underlying value behind the solar project, the Christian commitment to caring for our environment which these days means climate justice.
I wanted to begin with this image of St Kevin and the blackbird to serve as a kind of icon for the longstanding traditions within Christianity of care for creation. It’s a long and abiding theme in the stories and images that folks have told about the people through who best show us how to follow Jesus and have the heart of Christ, that one of the special things about them is that they have a peaceful and loving influence on all kinds of animals and they help to bring about abundance in the good things of this earth – abundant harvests and overflowing fruits.There are longstanding Christian traditions that understand that one of the ordained purposes of human beings is to be humble stewards of the gift of this good earth – our God-give purpose, or one of our God-given purposes, is to take responsibility for the well-being of this world.
The Hebrew scriptures are full of love songs of a people for their land, for the beauty and abundance of creation, and for the awesome God who creates it all and entrusts it to us as a precious gift. There is also a strong theme in scripture of standing in awe before the raw might and just inhuman power and scope of the forces of land, water, fire, and wind, and the forces of fertility, of life and death … a deep humility and awe before God’s power and wisdom manifest in Creation.
Along with humility there is the value of responsibility. The Hebrew scriptures see the land as an inheritance – we receive it as something we didn’t earn, and it’s our job to caretake the land and share its fruits in a just way so we can maintain its fertility for the next generation and beyond.
If you want to go deeper in this, Wendell Berry is a good resource. He’s a dear old farmer and poet and folk philosopher, and Christian. He writes wonderfully about our God-given purpose to care for this good earth.
So, how are we doing with that purpose, as humankind right now? Let’s be honest: are we taking good care of the fertility and abundance of this good earth, so we can pass this inheritance on to those who come after us? Or are we squeezing it dry? We may feel some agony here, if we’re honest that there is good reason to expect we will be giving to our children and grandchildren a much more depleted, and severe earth than the earth we received.
One of the many ways our culture justifies its appetite to just take and take and take is a perverse form of Christianity that says that, well, God gave us this world for us to dominate. Full-scale domination is our God-given birthright. God meant for us to be a severely invasive species. And who cares about this world anyway, all that really matters is the world to come and making sure we believe the right things to get to heaven. It doesn’t matter if we trash this earth behind us. And, hey, let’s be real, we’re just sinful and violent creatures through and through. Taking yours to get mine is just what we do. For what it’s worth, I think this view of Christianity doesn’t really come from Jesus and the Bible. It is much more a belief system of the Roman Empire and the empires that came after which then grafted Christianity into itself. But I won’t get into that now.
Instead, I want to lift up St Kevin and the Blackbird, and the traditions of creation care Christianity- that says that part of holiness is being at peace with the earth and its creatures – the nearer we are to the heart of Christ the more humble and responsible we are toward all Creation.
Alright. But as we consider this story of St Kevin and the Blackbird as a kind of icon for the Christian value of care for creation, let me question something about: What do we make of this ideal of just a totally selfless and self-denying? Is it realistic or even helpful to have this kind of selfless and self-denying ideal? The martyr/saint?
Because there are problems with that, especially when it comes to talking about environmental issues. For instance, a lot of people resent environmentalists because it seems like they are demanding that people sacrifice life and livelihood for that sake of a bird. Logging communities vs. snowy owl protectors, right? We use lumber, we use metals and minerals, we use fuels- those have to come from somewhere. We can’t pretend we can become pure and not be destroying somethings in order to create what we need.
But if you are someone inclined to really be concerned about the melting ice caps and rising sea levels and increasingly severe floods and fires and heat waves, and famines, mass extinctions, and the tremendous suffering of all those and people having to leave their homes, and if you’re inclined to take seriously that humans bear responsibility here, that the massive scale of human industrial behavior has been changing the atmosphere and driving the changing climate, it can be easy to just feel overwhelmed and helpless. And I think there can be this expectation that the only options are to do nothing or to becoming a saint/martyr. You have to be putting your life on the line to block pipelines, or you gotta be rushing off to aid every flood and famine, or you gotta be going completely off grid, or else you’re useless or you’re just a hypocrite. This can be paralyzing.
Now, we do need dramatic action, and much more of it, but we can’t expect everybody to be up for it.
And this I think is one reason why our solar panel project at the church has been so successful. A few people have shared with me a sense of relief of “Ahhh, this is something I can do!” I know I can adopt a solar panel. Or I can pitch in with my friends to adopt a solar panel. I know climate change is real, I know we have to change our energy system, but I can’t afford to put solar panels on my roof or to buy an electric car. But when throw in together, we can do it. And then throw a big party.
And the other great thing is that this is just a win-win for the church. We’re not becoming martyr’s here. This is a boon for our energy bills, for years and years to come. And an electrician we’ve consulted with told us that if we just keep plugging away at making improvements in our lighting and heating and cooling and in being smarter about energy use as we can, he’s confident we’ll get it so those panels will cover all of this building’s energy use.
It’s our job as Christians to offer hope and to bring people together around that hope. This is about Good News and New Life, after all.
Everything we do to address the crisis of climate change can be life-giving, community-growing, full of hope and good news. Working together to turn the dirt and plant seeds and share the fruits just feels good, because it is good.
What the martyr/saint image misses is that care for creation really is mutually beneficial. St Kevin and the Blackbird does a beautiful job of showing the kind of humility and responsibility that we are called to, but it misses the part about Kevin’s nourishment, and the generous community around Kevin that made his sanctity possible. We also can’t forget that with God at the heart of things, Kevin was full of joy.
We need to be clear about the other values we find in the Hebrew and Christian traditions: that when we come together as a community to care for our inheritance of this good earth in a way that is just and fair, God will bless us with continued enjoyment of the earth’s fertility and abundance.
The needs are urgent. But this is a responsibility we can meet with great joy and hope.
(Delivered August 4, 2019 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Genesis 1:27-31 God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” God created human beings and created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. God created them male and female. God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.” Then God said, “I’ve given you every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth and every kind of fruit-bearing tree, given them to you for food. To all animals and all birds, everything that moves and breathes, I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.” And there it was. God looked over everything God had made: It was so good, so very good!
Psalm 19:1-9 The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays God’s handiwork. Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals God’s greatness. There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; its words carry to the distant horizon. In the sky God has pitched a tent for the sun. Like a bridegroom it emerges from its chamber; like a strong man it enjoys running its course. It emerges from the distant horizon, and goes from one end of the sky to the other; nothing can escape its heat. The law of the Holy One is perfect and preserves one’s life. The rules set down by the Sovereign Creator are reliable and impart wisdom to the inexperienced. The precepts of the Sacred Living Presence are fair and make one joyful. God’s commands are pure and give insight for life. The commands to bow in awe before the Lord are right and endure forever. The judgments given by the Holy One Beyond Name are trustworthy and absolutely just.