Reconciliation Creation-ward, reconnecting the vines to the branches to bear the fruit of creation.
What is it that grounds our life and flourishing? And what relationships do we threaten with our “costs of doing business”?
I have a confession. And, perhaps it is one I should have brought to you when I first came to serve as your seminarian two years ago. With this as my last sermon and next Sunday as my last service in any official capacity, I offer it to you now. When I was first elected as an Alabama legislator, I believed compromise could change the world. And I believed that politics was the art of compromise. I was wrong. And, in many ways, that belief is what led me on this path, where change is not dependent on the terms of the deal cut in the face of adversity but on our capacity to persevere in our convictions despite that adversity.
One compromise that still haunts me was negotiated over a fine white tablecloth dinner at La Jolla restaurant with Reneé Toussaint, a smooth-talking Cajun lobbyist for a national waste management company. He asked the House Democratic Caucus leadership to dinner, along with my friend AJ McCampbell, a local representative, to support a bill that eliminated fees for disposal of hazardous waste at a small landfill in Sumter County, Alabama. He told us his bill would increase jobs in AJ’s district by 300%. AJ’s district, which is 75% African American, included the ancestral homeland of the Choctaw before they were taken away and given to wealthy plantation owners to cultivate in cotton. Now, its sprawling farmland has been converted to catfish farms and waste dumps, neither of which promise much employment to the descendants of the people who picked that cotton.
I wasn’t eager to make Alabama a destination place for the nation’s hazardous waste. But the lure of jobs for an economically depressed area carried the day, along with the Boudin sausage Reneé dropped by my office later in the week. The sausage should have given it away. Today, Emelle, Alabama, is home to the nation’s largest hazardous waste facility, which leeches 84 million pounds of toxic release a year into the Eutaw aquifer that lies beneath it. Some might call this environmental racism. Others might call it the “cost of doing business.” As we continue to discuss the many directions of reconciliation this Easter season, I’d like to invite us to consider what reconciliation of ourselves to the land we inhabit and the living things we share it with might look like. How can we begin to repair our relationship to creation caused by our “cost of doing business”?
In our Gospel story this morning, we find an image that might help us better imagine our role in this kind of reconciliation. Jesus tells his friends that he is the vine, the source of all life and flourishing, in whom all things in heaven and on earth are held together. For all the metaphors Jesus uses to describe himself – Jesus as the good shepherd; Jesus as the light of the world; Jesus as the bread of heaven. But, what does it mean for Jesus to be the vine and us the branches? And what is asked of us, that all might bear fruit rooted in the source of all life and flourishing?
This image of Jesus as the vine makes more sense to me in light of the passage from Colossians that frames our Easter sermon series on reconciliation. There, Jesus is described as the means by which all relationships hold together: “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…all things have been created through him and for him…and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). In this light, Paul Tillich describes Christ as the “ground of being” itself. That is, in Christ, God holds all life together in an interconnected web of relationship. Or, as the Lakota would say, Mitakuye Oyasin, or, “All are my relatives.” The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the forests, the streams – all are related in the kin-dom of God.
My friend and Cree theologian, Ray Aldred, says that this understanding of our radical relatedness – popularized in the concept of “deep ecology” – transforms the work of reconciliation into “repairing the primary relationships of life…includ[ing] the relationship with God the Creator, relationships with other human beings, relationships with the rest of creation, and relationships with ourselves.” Or, as Paul tells the Corinthians, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (5:19). In Jesus, God was bringing all living things back into the life of God – all birds of the air, all fish of the sea, all forests, all waterways, and yes, even us humans. How selfish we must be to think Jesus was sent to live and die for only us! As my friend Ray once told me, in the Cree translation of the Bible, John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the land that he gave his only son, that all who live in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” It is for this love of the land – of all creation – that, as Paul says, “God…[has] reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18).
When we first began this sermon series on reconciliation, Michele challenged us to call out dangerous theologies – those theologies that have been manipulated by the powerful to exploit land and bodies for their profit. And it is not only for us to call out those dangerous theologies; we must also challenge them and reconcile them to the kin-dom of God that Jesus taught and lived and died for.
So, in light of this image of Jesus as the vine of relationship that holds all living things together, I want to invite us to consider God’s command in Genesis that we have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Gen 1:26-28). How does a theology of dominion – or domination as it is often understood – justify the exploitation of land and bodies in Sumter County, Alabama as “the cost of doing business”? And is that theology of domination consistent with our Gospel lesson today, that Jesus is vine of relationship, in which all creation lives and flourishes?
If you find yourself questioning that theology of domination, you are not alone. Indeed, there is more than one way to read that passage from Genesis. While some Hebrew texts translate the word “dominion” from the Hebrew Radah, or “to rule over;” others translate “dominion” from the Hebrew Mashal: or “to represent.” Under that reading, humanity is not charged with dominating the world; we are responsible for it, representing the Creator to creation. We are ambassadors of God, bearing God’s image into the world as stewards, cultivating all creation on behalf of the Creator that it might bear fruit. Even the Latin roots for the word dominion – domine, “the Lord” and ion, “a state of being” – suggest that creation is not ours to dominate, but rather is ours to cultivate that it might bear fruit.
We see this reading clearly in Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Genesis in The Message:
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;
he created them godlike,
Reflecting God’s nature.
(Gen 1:26-28 MSG)
My friends, if we are responsible for all of creation, representing to the world the nature of the Creator, then the “cost of doing business” gets much more expensive. It costs far more than just a pack of Boudin sausage, or even a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant. It may even cost more than 84 million pounds of toxic chemicals leeched into our waterways. The cost of doing business, the cost of our consumption, the cost of our comfort and convenience, may threaten more than just ourselves or even our neighbors. It may threaten the entire interconnected web of relationship held together in the source of all life and flourishing.
So let us take up the ministry of reconciliation! If we are all relatives – from the birds of the air to the fish of the sea, from the forests to the waterways – then we are called repair the rupture in those relationships caused by the “cost of doing business.” If we can represent the Creator to all creation, we will find ourselves grounded in the source of all life and flourishing, the vine that holds us all together. And, we will bear much fruit.