Sermon 05/12/2019


Robin Blakeman

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

May 12, 2019

Scripture Readings:

Psalm 23

God is my shepherd,
   I shall not want.
God makes me lie down in green pastures,
   and leads me beside still waters;

God restores my soul,
   and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God’s name.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of God
   my whole life long.

A vision for the early Church and for us today: Revelation 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

    “Salvation belongs to our God
       who is seated on the throne,
       and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, 

    “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
       and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
       be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
    and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Sermon

I want to admit first of all that there are many of you who could have done a better exegesis of these scriptures… and who could bring a deeper understanding of theological and contextual analysis of these scripture texts… in fact, I have to admit I’ve been more than a little bit intimidated by this preaching “gig” – much more than I am for most supply preaching that I do…

Yet, I’m very glad to return here to this place… at this time… and for this reason. I believe I was invited here to give you some perspectives from my eco-justice work in WV and the Ohio River Valley, and so that’s the primary lens I will be using today…

I want to first tell you a story about something that happened to me here, and I do this with some trepidation… I want to be clear that I’m telling this story because of what it taught me about myself, not because of anything to do with anyone here… It has to do with a certain church rummage sale; I don’t know if you still do these or not, but back in 2001, 2002, and 2003, Crescent Hill Presbyterian had THE best yard sales… one could find anything from books signed by famous authors to second hand shoes. I think I was one of your best customers at these sales, in addition to helping with them.

At the conclusion of the sale I remember most, there were a lot of clothes leftover. I was helping pack up, and watched as some folks sorted the shirts; one shirt had some kind of racy logo on it and was – if I remember correctly – a cropped tank top. There wasn’t much to it… that shirt got tossed into a box, which I assumed was a “discard” box; there were other clothing items in there, all of which looked a little “ratty” to me.

I asked if that box was going in the trash, and was told something like – “oh no, we’re sending those clothes to some people ‘in the mountains’ – where there has been some recent flooding… you know, those mountain women will wear anything!” I then remember asking what mountain community they were talking about and was told – somewhere in Eastern KY… Boyd Co or Greenup Co., I think.

This really took me back a bit…. Because that area was close to where I had lived prior to coming to seminary, and I knew – or thought I knew – 2 things:

First, that was not really a “mountain people” kind of place…. Boyd and Greenup Co.’s – in KY – do have hills that could be considered small mountains, but overall they are characterized by Ohio River industrial and agricultural towns… The “mountain people” – I thought at the time – were located more to the South and East – in places with names like Inez, Williamson, Pikeville, and Matewan…  

Secondly, neither I, nor any women I knew well in my former home – near Boyd and Greenup Counties – would wear a shirt like the one that had been tossed into that box – even IF we had lost most everything in a flood.

Why am I telling you this now? Because that story was VERY instructive to me: from that experience I learned both that I was an “other” AND, also, that I was capable of stereotyping “others”…

This is one of the most important and enduring lessons I learned during my time in the Louisville area, and it was reinforced in many other settings and places during my time as a seminary student.

At the most fundamental level, I think this is what’s going on with the characters described in the passage we read in Revelation today… who are these people? Do we recognize them? It seems pretty important that we do:

They are the ones who have been through the great ordeal…

Known scorching heat… perhaps as in the Middle East where temperatures increasingly get into the 115 – 120 degree heat index…

They are in need of shelter – perhaps like those in Puerto Rico and other mega-storm affected parts of the world…

They have been hungry and thirsty… as in drought stricken parts of Africa…

Cried with the grief of lost family members, lost communities and lost horizons… like we do all too often in Central Appalachia… where so-called 500 year (or “thousand year”) floods are happening at least once a year in some part of the region…

I don’t know how Biblically or theologically accurate it is, but I have a strong hunch that these “others” may well be in our midst right now, as humanity enters into the “great ordeal” of Climate Change and ecological devastation caused by human activity, especially extractive industries.

I think the time for dancing around the issue of Climate Change is over… and I figure I’m mostly preaching to the choir on this point here… but, sadly, not so much in the place I call home…

I want to tell you a bit about what’s going on in the mountains… or what’s left of them – in Central Appalachia, and also a few things that are happening in the Ohio River Valley – tap water resource for 5 million people – including YOU and me… but I have to warn you that you’ll never be able to look out over what appear to be “still waters” in the Ohio River the same way again.

MTR continues to devastate more and more mountain ecosystems, including the humans who live near these massive sites.

Unconventional Oil and Gas Drilling – aka: Fracking – is happening on an increasing scale, including at least one site where drill bores travel UNDER our Ohio River…

Hula-hoop size pipelines are being built literally all over the place; at last count, we had 15 major pipeline projects proposed or already under construction in WV… including 2 by TransCanada – who have joined forces with Columbia Gas’s pipeline division. There’s at least one part of this huge complex of pipelines in E. KY, too.

Along the entire length of the Ohio River Valley region – from the Pittsburgh area to Cattlettsburgh, KY., Petrochemical infrastructure is building up… the powers that be call this the Appalachian Storage Hub… IF fully developed, it will include at least 6 “Cracker” plants (mega petrochemical processing facilities), a “six-pack” pipeline, and massive underground storage caverns.

AND, water and air quality regulations are diminishing… anyone heard about what’s happening with ORSANCO? In a nutshell – we came very close to losing region-wide pollution control standards on that beloved River that runs through this city, and my home town, and provides tap water for 5 million people…

If all this continues, a perfectly tragic storm is brewing… we will not be able to meet the United States’ targets – from the Paris Accord – on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. This is due to all the Methane emissions that will arise in the Ohio River Valley and Central Appalachia from the extraction and processing of oil and gas and their byproducts. If you don’t trust my word on this, check out a report titled: A Bridge Too Far – published in 2016 by several environmental groups – which details the dangers of Methane Gas releases in our region.

All of this, in my opinion, stems from a very big social experiment – started sometime in the mid-20th century: the intentional stereotyping of Central Appalachian residents as “hillbillies” – uneducated, bad teeth, ratty clothing… you get the idea… This “othering” of an entire population has led to what’s left of that population living in an increasingly degraded “sacrifice zone” for the rest of the nation and the world…

If what I’ve said has made you uneasy, perhaps it’s time to turn to the Psalms…

How do we return to a place of safety when we feel threatened or in a state of grief? The most common answer to that, for Christians, is Psalm 23… yet, it’s kind of a disconnect to read this Psalm – which attempts to assure us that God is the only necessity of life – in a culture like ours, where we are led to believe we NEED that shiny new cell phone, or car, or whatever…

[Central?]: What do you most need for life? … Whatever it is, water literally runs through it as a key component… I often think: IF we land-based creatures weren’t so narcissistic, this planet truly should have been named “Water” – not “Earth”!

We are promised in Psalm 23 that we will be led by the side of still waters… a very comforting thought in these times of turbulence – from within and without…

I’ve recently tried to revive my sagging spirit by reading portions of the Psalms in the morning; In the week preceding my prep for this sermon, I noticed something about the Psalms on either side of Psalm 23… let’s call them “bookends” for a minute…

Psalm 22, in a nutshell, can be summed up by the cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and runs the complete gauntlet of human experience – from the utter desolation of feeling forsaken by our Creator, to a state of restoration… with a stern reminder that “dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations..” How out of step are we with that these days?? Yet, we can hope for an awakening – preferably very soon – of the human race to our right place and just relationship with each other and with the Earth… God’s good creation!

This gauntlet of human experience is reflected in the social context of the book of Revelation, as Sue Garrett has observed, in her article on Revelation in the Women’s Bible Commentary:

“Believers were giving into the temptations of idolatry, perhaps even worshiping the emperor…” Obviously, they – and we – need to be reminded of Psalm 22…

Then, there is the bookend on the other side of Psalm 23: Psalm 24 reminds us that the Earth is the Lord’s… and the Lord is ruling over a great number and type of “hosts”… possibly those countless individuals in white robes – from all parts of the increasingly challenged Earth that we read about in Revelation… possibly also the multitude of species that have become extinct in the past few decades.

We do so need such a vision of restoration these days! We have to find a vision that leads us to a better, more peaceful and sustainable future… or we will surely perish.

What gives me hope? Certainly, the increasing amount of solar installations in our region: home and business solar is a growing industry; Connie and I got solar panels installed on our home last year, as did the Huntington Habitat Restore…and there are currently solar co-op groups being formed to encourage more of this…

Also, a proliferation of local small-scale agricultural and food production and wild harvest, or foraging programs… Has anyone here priced a bunch of Ramps lately? That particular spring herb is something that I’ve acquired quite a taste for… and there’s a growing craft cider and beer industry… The spirit and spunk of the “mountain people” is still alive and well, even if we are literally under siege by multinational corporations that want to make our region even more of a sacrifice zone than it already is…

I am also humbled and inspired by the continued dedication and inspiration that can be found here – in this place; ya’all should be VERY proud of the leaders in this community on eco-justice issues; honestly, the time I spent in this place truly inspired me to do what I do in WV… and I bring to you a personal “thanks!” for your consistency in backing the Fossil Free PCUSA overtures.

On this Mother’s Day, also, I know there are some mothers who are spending their precious time at “pie parties” – which are essentially pipeline protests and/or community education and activism meetings – led by women.

Then there are the younger leaders – like Greta Thunburg…. And many, many others who are loudly challenging the status quo of continued fossil fuel extraction and use. My prayer is that their voices will be heeded by elected and appointed leaders everywhere. It truly is THEIR future which is most at stake.

 I pray for the kind of collective miracle that 20th century writer, Willa Cather describes: 

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 20th century
“Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon… healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.”

Perhaps, then, we will clearly recognize just who all “those people” – who have been through great ordeals, and yet are washed clean and gathered around the Creator – are… we will likely see a greater community than we have every even dared to imagine in the Realm of our Lord.

May it be so… amen!

  • Robin Blakeman