Sermons

  • Nourishment and Care – April 18, 2021

    A sermon for Earth Day

    Rebecca Pugh, clergy

    Luke 24: 36:  “Peace be with you.” … 42:  he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”.  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

    Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke have written a 2014 book called The Living Landscape, and in it, Tallamy tells the story of his 10 acre homestead in Southeast Pennsylvania. When he and his wife Cindy bought it, it had once been a hayfield, but hadn’t been mowed for three years. It was full of stuff that had grown up over those three years.  

    I always have thought, since they taught it to me in Sunday School 50 years ago, that it is better to leave things growing. But Cindy and Doug discovered something different. They saw two different kinds of trees growing side by side: ones that were from other parts of the world, but that had seeded into his hayfield and were growing vigorously there, and ones that were native to the region where he lived, that were in some cases being choked out by the ones that were non-native. Because Doug is an entomologist, with a particular expertise in lepidoctera (that is, butterflies, skippers, and moths), he could recognize the particular caterpillars on the different trees, and see how they were doing. The local trees, and his favorite are the oaks, were full of caterpillars. The foreign trees and bushes had almost no caterpillars growing on them. Then he looked to see where the birds were. The local trees and bushes were full of warblers, thrushes, finches. The invasive trees had hardly any birds. 

    Doug and Cindy realized something that had not yet been studied. They realized that local plants support local insects, which then support local birds, amphibians, reptiles.  And foreign trees do not support the same caterpillar buffet for birds, and so the birds will keep looking for local trees rather than search in vain for food in invasive trees. 96% of birds rear their young on caterpillars. And so if your yard is full of trees that don’t have any caterpillars in them, the birds can’t feed their babies. And the babies don’t eat. 

    So the Tallamys got a pocket full of acorns, and planted oak trees. The oak tree supports 542 types of caterpillars, and it also sequesters carbon better than almost any other tree. They planted three kinds of dogwood. They planted birch trees. And viburnums. And black cherries. And beeches, and chestnuts, and elms. They were able to save the seeds for a lot of these from neighboring land, and were surprised how fast they grew. It took a lot of supervising, because invasive species kept self-seeding on the Tallamy’s property from the neighbors’, but by paying attention, they  could keep it at bay. 

    With the local plants flourishing, first the butterflies moved back. The Tallamys watched them coming: the monarchs in the lead. And because Tallamy is an entomologist, he knows that the monarch is 95 percent extinct. To see them coming back to his yard (with the help of some self-scattered milkweeds) gladdened his heart. But then, shortly thereafter, the birds came back. And when the Tallamys woke to hear them singing, they set up chairs outside. 

    One day they noticed a Blue Grosbeak singing in the ironwood tree. Doug Tallamy said he thought for a moment that it was an Indigo Bunting, but it had a different song, and a red stripe on its wing. Soon, a chocolate brown female Blue Grosbeak stopped by, and started to construct a nest in the alternate-leaf dogwood tree nearby. The thing about the Blue Grosbeaks is that they like to build their nest out of a snakeskin. Usually they hunt for one not too far from where they will build their nest, so they don’t have to carry it very far. And the Tallamys held their breath and watched. 

    Not too long later, they saw the male Blue Grosbeak carrying a four-foot snakeskin from a black rat snake. The snake had shed near a groundhog hole in the meadow pretty close to where the birds were singing. Soon, the two Blue Grosbeaks had woven the snakeskin together with grass blades and sticks, and laid three eggs in it. 

    The eggs hatched, the parent birds fed them from among the 1000 varieties of caterpillars that were prominent in the local trees that the Tallamys had planted seeds for. The babies hatched and the Blue Grosbeak family of 5 enjoyed the whole summer in the Tallamy yard, until they left for Mexico in the early autumn. Tallamy says that the male Blue Grosbeak sang every morning at seven sharp. 

    In Luke 24, we read about how Jesus shows up hungry, after the resurrection, and asks the church if they have anything to eat. We get to ponder our connections to the hunger of God, and the chance to be a part of the nourishment of the planet.  

    Jesus came back from the grave, and one of the first things he asked for is food. And not only that, but that he asked for a meal with them. He ate this food in their presence. It reminded them of all the meals they had shared, with all kinds of strangers and strange folks, from when the church was first born.

    Not only that, but when we pray “Give us this day our Daily Bread,” there are several nuances of this that we have missed, when we focus on the King James translation from the Greek into the English, which is the one we tend to say because we have memorized it. In the Aramaic version of this, which would have been the language Jesus would have spoken to the church in, it says more like, “Thank you for all you do give us, and hear us today gratefully receiving both the bread and the wisdom you offer us.” Beginning with gratitude, rather than just “Give it to us,” and continuing with sustenance and also wisdom, we have this broad version of nurture that we don’t get a sense of when we stick with the Greek and the King James English. I love that, and how it offers insight for the well-being of all creatures. 

    Today, on earth day, we get to hear the living God asking from the land for something to eat, and we get to think how we can be a part of the YES that the disciples also were a part of.

    This holy opportunity to feed God incarnate is a broad concept that calls to us on Earth Day, and calls to us in the Easter season. that Doug and Cindy Tallamy took the feeding of nature to heart. They went through their land, and looked at where it was barren, and then began to take out the barren plants, and to put in ones, instead, that were full of food. 

    They might have just put up a birdfeeder, but here’s the thing. Parent birds like the seeds in the bird feeder, in some cases. But baby birds like caterpillars. Baby birds put up a huge fight if they can’t eat what they want, and then they go on a hunger strike. You all know as well as I do what it’s like to try to feed a baby who doesn’t like what you are offering it. The Tallamys realized that all the bird feeders in the world weren’t as useful as planting a few acorns, because the babies couldn’t eat the seeds, they wanted the caterpillars who live in local trees. 

    Tallamys fed the earth, and the earth grew trees, which fed the birds, which is a beautiful way of feeding God. And then the earth broke out in song.

    So I would like to sing you the song of the Blue Grosbeak.

    Too wheet too drew Too wheet too drew Too wheet too drew : Too wheat wheat wheat!

  • Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021

    Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh

    This is a sermon about preaching peace — 

    You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ, who is the most high.  – Peter, Acts 10:36

    There was an actor in the third century, a comedian named Genesius, from Ethiopia. The emperor Diocletian hired him to put together a play mocking Christians. Genesius was happy to apply for this job. Like a good actor, he did his research: visiting the house churches, running through the catacombs, attending secret worship, listening to the women. He joined the table fellowships. These are the love feasts, with God as the host, where people of all different types come together for a big meal, make a mess, make friends, learn a lot, pray a lot, help each other, confront each other, feed each other. He joined. The warm welcome. The healing. The food. He joined all of it.

    When it was time for his play to go up, he was ready.  He had prepared: a mockery about Baptism: this was an easy one to make fun of. Washing, but not exactly washing, dunking, but not exactly dunking, transforming, but not exactly transforming. He put up a big show. An actor dressed up like a priest got ready to pretend to Baptize him. But all of a sudden, Genesius was struck by this realization of how true it was for him, how much he needed it, how hungry he was for it. He fell on the floor at the edge of the stage. The other people were putting on the play around him, and they were like, come on now Genesius! Get up. Get up now. Like good comic improve people, they tried to make his collapse into part of the comedy. 

    When Luke wrote the passage in the Book of Acts that we are studying today, they were well aware that the Easter church was preaching peace, in ways that nobody else was doing. They came out of the context of the powerful equality that the early church was founded on. In this sense, it was understood by everybody: that God had made of one blood, all the nations, as Luke wrote in Acts 17, that nobody was better than anybody else. And it was the foundation of the church, to share everything they had: to give all of the things that each person possessed into the central collection, and share them back out, as Luke wrote in Acts 2. This radical equality, and radical sharing, which marked the early church, would have been stunning for Genesius, and it would have gathered him in to its very heart. It’s likely, that Genesius wasn’t very good at sharing previously. And it’s likely, as a Roman citizen, that Genesius thought he was better than other people. If he had really lived in these early churches he would have begun to learn of its fundamental message of equality. And not only that, but this religion was fun, to make a mess at a table, share food with new friends. Likely too, they really liked him: I am sure he was as funny at church as he was on stage. Everybody loves a comedian.

    In early America in the communities of enslaved people there was a similar church. Dr. Barbara Holmes has written about it in her book Joy Unspeakable. During the African diaspora, in suffering that has no words, she describes how prayer led people to God, though they were strangers to each other by virtue of language, culture, tribe. And yet, she documents how in the three times of the most extreme sorrow: in the middle passage, on the auction block, and in the Hush Arbors, people found their way to the heart of God, and God reached their holy heart directly to their souls. 

    It was these Hush Arbors that I want to speak about today. These prayer and liberation circles, for people living in chains, were the place where Easter came alive. It was this: in the middle of the night, after backbreaking work, abuse of bodies, heartbreaking separations, that people sometimes would steal away to an old tree. And people would understand there: of God’s mercy for them, God’s will for courage, God’s promise for freedom. It was everything about the preaching peace that Peter talks about. 

    When Luke wrote about Peter’s speech, they knew how important it was to set it in its context. Peter, they say, is speaking to the Roman General Cornelius, telling the General that Jesus is here to preach about peace. He tells him that Jesus rose from the dead to bring a message of nonviolence, of the wild and freewheeling equality that you almost can’t even describe properly. And for the General to hear about peace, when his whole life was about the military, well, I can’t even begin to describe that to you. 

     Gandhi believed in this preaching of peace, as he looked at it from his perspective in India. And he saw that it was the early enslaved people who got the churches back to the original meaning they had had when Jesus first organized them. In early America, enslaved people listened to the gospel of the slave owners, and then put it through the prism of their own experience: living through deep suffering in antebellum society, enslaved people realized something that the slave owners did not realize: that Jesus himself was among the disinherited: a Jew in a Roman colony, and a poor man in a land of opportunity for rich people. They claimed that theology for themselves, and brought Christianity full circle back to the church the way Jesus started it, before 313 when the Romans took it over and merged it with their colonialism. 

    Howard Thurman was one of the theological founders of the Civil Rights movement. He was a professor at BU, he was Martin Luther King Jr’s professor. And he was married to a woman named Sue Bailey, who was brilliant, well-organized, and tireless. It was Sue Bailey Thurman who got the Thurmans and a delegation of early civil rights leaders an invitation to travel to India to meet Gandhi. Gandhi and a delegation of his Dalit, the folks in India who are the very poorest of the poor, greeted them, showed them India, spoke about nonviolence. And when it was almost time to say “goodbye,” Gandhi asked them to do him a favor. He asked Howard Thurman to sing them a song. Thurman said, “Well, I am not a singer, but what song do you have in mind?” and Gandhi said, “Were you There when they Crucified my Lord.” Howard and Sue and their group of leaders sang this song, for Gandhi and his team of Dalit. When they finished, it was stunned silence. Gandhi and his community knelt in prayer, and prayed in complete stillness. And Thurman and his community knelt too, holding that same prayer, from different cultures and religions and languages. They stayed in complete silence, wrote Howard Thurman, for four minutes. 

    Gandhi knew that this song was uniquely about the African American experience of God: of suffering, of enslavement, of courage. And he knew that it said something the whole world needed about Easter: that God is there with the ones who suffer, holding them, weeping, staying.

    Genesius, you will recall, is flat on his back at the corner of the stage. His fellow actors are pretending that his collapse is part of the show. After a few minutes they stop being able to think of funny things to fill in. They are wondering what to do. And then he sits up. And he says, “I have been researching in the churches, in the catacombs, at the tables. This is a place of the truest truth I have ever known. This is true for me. I believe in this.” He described how he was seeing angels. And he said they had a book, and his sins were written in it: the sins of being a part of the wealthy class, the community that had forgotten about the enslaved people, that was taking their wealth and forcing their suffering. He said he had come to believe in this God, this God of the angels. 

    He called for the priest actor to Baptize him for real, right on that stage. The actor! And the Emperor Diocletian is furious. It was supposed to be a joke. His comedy, flipped upside down. And now it was so serious. 

    Genesius was Baptized that day. And he joyfully went to church from that day on. And he shared what he had. And he began to preach the peace that Peter preached to the Roman general Cornelius. 

    Genesius was martyred for his conversion. Gandhi was too, in his own Hindu practices of preaching the peace. 

    And we, who join our prayers together on Easter, have the most powerful challenge: to remember this:  that Luke wrote of a Christ who rose from the dead to preach peace, and the church which sprung up inspired shared everything that they had, and met everyone that they could, and fed them, and laughed with them. This is the message of Easter this year: a table full of crazy new friends, and a tree arching over your deepest humiliation and blessing you, and a song which knows that Jesus was here in the hearts and bodies of the most disinherited, willing them to keep trying, willing them to believe their better life was coming, on earth as it is in heaven. 

    I invite you to it. And in conclusion, I would like to sing you Mozart’s Alleluia, from the Exultate Jubilate. 

    Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

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