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Sermon for Proper 11 Year B First Option 7-22-18

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Proper 11 Year B 1st option 7-22-18

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Psalm 89:20-37, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Make these words more than words, O God, and give us the Spirit of Jesus! AMEN.

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” My environmentalist-journalist friend Fred Strebeigh is, at this moment of writing, in just such a “deserted place.” He has just disembarked from the scientific-research vessel Kosatka, having plied the cold and misty waters of the North Pacific off the coast of the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia, participating in a Russian study of orca whales, more commonly known as “killer whales” because many are mammal-eaters, killing seals and other such creatures for food. Next, he heads to the South Kamchatka Nature Reserve, at the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, where he’ll intern in a study of the intersection between the teaming grizzly population around the salmon breeding grounds of Kuril Lake and the humans who want to see them. These studies are part of a massive complex of scientific research taking place across the entire continent of Russia as part of the Russian Nature Reserve network called the “zapovedniki,” a network launched under the tsars in the late 19th century with the founding of the Barguzin Nature Reserve on the deepest and still-purest body of fresh water in the world, Lake Baikal, to study and protect the population of the fur-bearing weasel relative called the sable. But it was vastly increased in 1919 under Lenin as part of the Soviet plan to secure land from private ownership.

Zapovednik” (plural, zapovedniki) means "sacred, prohibited from disturbance, committed [to protect], committed [to heritage].” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapovednik] “The roots of the zapovedniki were holy. Priests for years had sanctified forests by proclaiming a zapoved, or commandment: Thou shalt not cut. By the early 20th century, the sacred was resonating with the scientific: Mankind was exterminating “primordial nature,” a Moscow biology professor, Grigorii Kozhevnikov, told a conference in 1908. He argued that anthropogenic dominance would soon leave humanity unable to see nature except through man-made imitation, “obscuring the image of the vanished past.” He proposed that Russia preserve vast lands where “nature must be left alone.” Each would serve not as a “pleasuring-ground” for people (the words of the law that created the first of America’s national parks, about which Russians were aware) but as a baseline established by observation of natural systems untrampled by people.”

[Fred Strebeigh, “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/07/opinion/lenin-environment-siberia.html]

So these Russian nature reserves – though founded at the same time as our national parks and partially inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s commitment to keeping areas of beauty open and unspoiled – were always different from our park system. “The fundamental idea of ‘zapovednost' is the exclusion of people and the prohibition of economic activity, the only exceptions being non-intrusive access allowed to scientists and rangers. Zapovedniks are intended to be parcels of untouched natural ecosystems that can be studied as standards with which to compare managed ecosystems, such as are created in agriculture and forestry. To this end, zapovedniks need to be large enough to be self-sufficient, with a complete range of [species] up to the top predators.  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapovednik] The zapovedniki are fiercely – and sometime riskily – protected by a whole tribe of young Russian scientists who have named themselves “Druzhina,” “after the medieval warriors who defended their homeland against invaders seeking to destroy Russia’s Christian faith,” [op. cit., “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors] serving as under-compensated rangers in the zapovedniki, and committed – even to the point of citizen-arresting poachers at gun point – to a sacrificial vision of preserving species and eco-systems in these nature reserves. These are my friend Fred’s hosts, teachers, and companions as he reports to the Western world on this singular, massive undertaking, so very much at odds with our fraught American perspective on the Russian society and culture at this time. And these Druzhini live in these “deserted places,” places barely accessed by the social media and concomitant dynamics that roil and agitate the rest of our planet. If there is any “away,” the zapovedniki and theirdruzhini have come to it!

Surely we in Cambridge recognize the deep weariness of Jesus’ disciples, who have been trying to respond to every need around them so that they don’t even have time to eat, in these days and weeks and months in which we have felt obliged to respond to a positive avalanche of need for our active and principled response. Surely we, too, in the heart of summer, long to “come away and rest,” to find a place on the margins of the world where the world is no longer “too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending!” [William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us”] And surely the Evangelist Mark MEANT us – as Jesus MEANT for the disciples – to come away, to find a deserted place where rest is possible, to rest in God, to be restored in the priority of God’s intention, in trust in God’s future.

But when Jesus bid them come away, and gathered them onto the boat and traveled deliberately to that deserted place, the world, pulled like iron filings to a magnet, swirled after them and before them and beat them to it. And there, Mark tells us, Jesus, perceiving these desperate crowds to be “like sheep without a shepherd,” perceiving the spiritual chaos of them, the complete lack of any core sense of spiritual value, leaving them at the mercy of whatever leader nominates him, her or themselves a “great” one, had compassion on them, and turned again to teach, to provide moral structure, to invite them to orient themselves to the depth of unshakable value in which his foundation in God’s love gave him root.

It was Alice Killian in our Tuesday morning PRAXIS group, doing lectio divina on the coming Sunday Gospel as we do each week, who made the connection between the word “compassion” and the word “compass.” Compassion – com, from the Latin “together” & pati – to suffer (as in the Passio, the Passion of Jesus Christ): the sharing of each other’s affliction. And compass – the same Latin com – “together,” now paired with passus – a step or pace: the stepping together in concert. For Jesus, the deepest taproot of value of them all is exactly that comprehensive fellow feeling, that moving into alignment with God and each other. Loving one another just as Jesus has loved us, laying down our lives for each other. [John 13:34, 38] As Alice was resolving, so Jesus resolved: compassion would be his ultimate compass. And so he lived.

Back to the zapovedniki, those beautiful places, protected to remain “deserted.” As I am living, day by day receiving photos on my WhatsApp application from Fred, I know deeply that NO PLACE is “away,” anymore. Because, as the Ephesians author says, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and we all, who “once were far off,” are now “brought near,” near to each and every other, Russian, North Korean, Nicaraguan, Nigerian, Canadian. Family, in fact, in Christ. And I daresay we are family with grizzlies, too, and orcas, and sables, even if our 23-&-Me doesn’t yet confirm it! We can no longer act as if one can be “great” at the expense of another. Our knowledge of the fractal algorithms of the physical world forbid it. We can only “simplify” ourselves into hostile antipathies by a willed obtuseness about that! Which may feel simpler for a moment but can only end in massive mutual destruction. God’s temple is neither in a traveling tent NOR a tabernacle on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, the holy City of God, as 2 Samuel envisions it. It is everywhere. We are living on its border and in its center at all times in all places. It is most manifest in spaces like this magisterial one at St. James’s… AND in the places of pain like Bowdoin St. in Dorchester or the ICE detention center in Boston or on our mercilessly fraught border with Mexico or in the migrants’ boats tossing on the Mediterranean sea in search of refuge, or the relentless “heat islands” of Dhaka & Lagos, or in the towns and villages ravaged by decades of slow-burning war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And God’s temple is wildly manifest in the place of grizzlies & salmon, orcas & seals, shearwaters & fulmars & tufted puffins, where my friend Fred is, amid still-active volcanoes in the zapovedniki on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia. Let us follow the sacred example of the Druzhini, and NEVER FORGET that all these creatures are also part of the household – the FAMILY – of God, joined together and growing – painfully halting and resistant step by painfully halting and resistant step – into a holy temple in the Lord, the dwelling place for God!

I’m sure there’s a biological imperative to our tribalism, our “us-versus-them-ness.” In pre-history, as people defended only by our spears and clubs, we needed quickly to discern who was friend and who was foe, and our measures couldn’t have been that sophisticated with such close-range weaponry all we had.  But we are LONG beyond that biological imperative, LONG in a position to take up Jesus’ invitation to put an end to such hostility, to such an in-the-end arbitrary carving-up of the world. Once we had looked back upon ourselves from the moon as I watched on TV in the summer I spent in Thailand on American Field Service in 1969 – and once we had devised the means to destroy ourselves without distinction many times over, either instantly through nuclear war or with paralyzing slowness through global climate change – we learned that it is our INTERCONNECTIONS, not our separations, that matter.  

So praise God for opportunities to “come away and rest awhile” in deserted places, so that our spirits can give up for a moment all our effort and agency and return to God for refreshment, as Fred is being deeply refreshed by the great community of being he is surrounded by and held in, in Siberia. And praise God we cannot depart from the compass in the center of our human – our GODLY – being, our being in the natural world, which DEMANDS our compassion as our primary response to the world, rooted and grounded in God’s infinite love for everything God has made, every human soul, every Borzoi dog and fat Siberian horse and golden rhododendron, built together into a dwelling place for God. AMEN.