A Reflection for the Wilderness
Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost • Year A
12 October 2008
Isaiah 25:1-9 • Psalm 23 • Matthew 22:1-14
Tonight, as we begin our season of Creation, I have a story I want to share with you. Find a comfortable position in your seat, close your eyes if you’d like, and try and make yourselves part of the story I’m going to tell.
The time is the early 1970’s. The place, the village of Reni in the rural, forested mountain valleys of northern India. This is a region of small villages, like Reni, where the people live by subsistence farming, the raising of livestock, foraging in the surrounding forests, and trading in various forest products.
For centuries, the villagers have enjoyed unrestricted access to the forests and their bounty, developing a relationship that is relatively stable, both economically and ecologically. By the 19th Century, however, and with increasing regularity in the decades preceding our story, the governments of India, colonial or native, have taken control of the forests to manage them as a commercial resource, though in recent years they have begun to show some interest in protecting certain areas in the region as nature preserves.
Occasionally, over the years, the government auctions off permits to harvest timber in these forests. With increasing regularity, however, the villagers and their local cooperatives are denied logging permits, which go to commercial logging companies with no understanding of the economy or the ecology of the forests. Clear cutting becomes common. Monsoons strip away the soils, causing landslides and floods that destroy homes and kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Finally, the villagers decide that they have had enough.
In 1974, the government announces a logging permit auction and invites the leaders of the local villages around Reni to attend a meeting to work out some of their issues and find a resolution to the conflicts that have arisen between the villagers and the logging companies. The villagers agree to the meeting.
Soon after the village leaders leave Reni for the town where the meeting is being held, those remaining hear unmistakable sounds. The loggers have arrived, and the villagers realize the meeting is a ruse. With the village leadership gone, the loggers begin their work, with no concern for the consequences on the villagers and their livelihoods. They just want their trees, and the money they can make off of them. The women of the village, in an act of amazing courage, do the only thing they can do to protect their beloved forests and their family’s livelihoods.
They run into the forest, and right in front of the loggers, throw themselves around the trees.
And thus the term “tree-hugger” is born.
You’ve probably heard the term “tree-hugger” used before. Usually it’s used in a derogatory fashion, meant to belittle those who work to conserve natural resources and create a more sustainable world. But doesn’t that story put the term in a different light? The action was part of the Chipko Movement, as it became known, from the Hindi word meaning “to hug” or “to embrace”, and was more than just about saving a bunch of trees. It was about conserving a natural resource for the livelihood of current and future generations, a need they felt so strongly that the villagers were willing to give their lives for it.
What does this mean for us as part of the Christian community? What can this story tell us about our relationship with Creation? A look at our readings tonight begins to give us a clue. Tonight we were given images of green meadows to rest in and still waters to sit by. We were given a vision of the community of God gathered for a banquet, a banquet of rich food and well-aged wines, all of it the bounty of God’s good creation. Jesus in his parable points us back to this vision, a banquet for all of God’s people, opened to anyone the host’s servants could find, “both good and bad”, as the story notes.
Notice how material our readings are tonight. We often tend to think of our Christian faith as something spiritual, which it is, in part, but our faith is material too. Jesus was born of flesh and blood, he lived among us eating and drinking with his friends, healing sick bodies and minds, he raised the dead to new, material lives, and he died his own horrible and material death. This is just as important to our faith as is the Resurrection of Jesus, and we relive it every time we come together to share the bread and wine as a forerunner of that heavenly banquet Isaiah and Jesus speaks to us about.
But we can take this a step further, maybe many steps. We can also engage this materialness of our faith by honoring everything that God has created and given into our care. As James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, notes in his book, Jesus and the Earth, “matter matters to God”.
Matter matters to God. All of creation matters to the God who created us as the material, as well as spiritual, beings that we are. Caring for that creation and being wise stewards of its bounty is a part of our call as Christians to love God and our neighbors. Let us go forward through and from this place, worshiping the Creator of creation, honoring and being responsible stewards of the creation God has given us.
Oh, and if this season of Creation inspires you in some small way to do something as part of your own stewardship and you find yourself called a “tree-hugger” for doing it, thank that person for their compliment. I certainly can’t think of a higher one.