Connected in Christ 04/15/18 (Easter 3B)

Connected in Christ
Text: Luke 24:36b-48
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
April 15, 2018 ~ Third Sunday of Easter (Year B)

In 1995, Yellowstone National Park had a problem: the deer population had exploded. And as their numbers increased, in spite of human efforts to limit the population, they grazed the vegetation in large swaths of the park down to almost nothing. They were destroying much of the natural landscape.

Now, by 1995, gray wolves, also called timber wolves, had been absent from Yellowstone for some 70 years. Indeed, gray wolves had been hunted almost to complete extinction in North America. In 1995, 41 gray wolves were quietly reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park as part of an experiment in trying to save the species.

What happened was both spectacular and unexpected. Journalist George Monbiot described it from the TED stage. [1] He tells us that after the wolves arrived, not only did the number of deer decrease, but also their behavior changed. Deer are vulnerable in wide open spaces and along riverbanks, so they started avoiding those areas. This gave those areas a chance to regenerate, some of the trees quintupling in size in just six years. As soon as that happened, the songbirds returned. The beavers, who like to eat the trees, came back as well. And since the beavers are ecosystem engineers, their dams created niches for other species: otters, muskrats, ducks, fish, reptiles, amphibians – all of them began to increase.

The wolves killed coyotes, which meant that the number of rabbits and mice grew, which meant more hawks and weasels, foxes and badgers. Bald eagles and ravens came down to feast on the carrion left by the wolves. The bear population began to regenerate as well now that they too could eat the carrion and could eat the berries which were again growing on the trees and bushes the deer had destroyed.

But here, says Monbiot, is

where it gets really interesting. The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion, their channels narrowed, more pools formed, more riffle sections – all of which were great for wildlife habitats. The rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often, so that the rivers became more fixed in their course. So, the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of land, but also its physical geography.

The effects of the wolves rippled all the way to Billings, Montana, whose drinking water comes from the Yellowstone River – water that is now clean and clear, thanks to all of the changes wrought by the reintroduction of the wolves to Yellowstone National Park. [2]

It’s all connected: the rivers, the beavers, the trees, the deer, the wolves, and the people. And when one element is missing, the whole system suffers. When one element is too prevalent, the whole system suffers. It’s all part of one big ecosystem where every piece affects every other piece.

Many of you know that I was at an interfaith conference last weekend. Called the Revolutionary Love conference, this year the theme was “Completing the Dream.” It was timed to coincide with all of the ways our nation marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of one of our greatest dreamers: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rev. Jacqui Lewis, the senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church, was our host for the weekend. In her letter of welcome, she wrote:

That dream [mine, King’s, yours, ours] is articulated in the scriptures of our various religions. A dream of people reconciled to one another and to whatever name they give the ineffable. A dream of children safe, loved, learning, living in peace; of women and men making a living wage. A dream of the gorgeous mosaic that is humankind celebrating our unique particularity while we work together to build a more just society. Mother Earth healed and holding her people; creatures great and small stewarded. A dream in which love is a revolutionary force.

Harriet Tubman once said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is most widely known as the champion of Civil Rights for African Americans in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, he has been tamed over the years, lauded only as a peaceful protester (which, of course, he was) and praised for the gains in Civil Rights he both achieved and laid the ground work for (which, of course, he did). But this notion of King is a watered-down version of who he was in his totality. It celebrates only those things which have become well-accepted across our nation – or, at least, ostensibly so: voting rights, desegregation, and so forth. (But it must be said that all of those gains are under direct attack right now.)

Anyway, if we really pay attention we discover that King was a radical revolutionary. By the end of his life, King had moved beyond a narrow focus on Civil Rights. He envisioned a Poor People’s Campaign, in which the nation would move from an era of civil rights to an era of human rights, a time when, in his words, we will “see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…” [3]

His Poor People’s Campaign was part of his new, bigger dream: the eradication of what he called the Three Evils of American society: Racism, Poverty, and Militarism. He was a radical revolutionary. He knew that these three evils are interconnected; today we call them “intersectional.”

And last weekend some 500 Love Revolutionaries gathered around four pillars based on King’s dream: Racism, Economic Injustice, Militarism and Violence, and the additional pillar of Sexism and LGBTQ Justice. We learned together about the ways in which these four evils still plague our nation – in some ways now more than ever. We learned about the new Poor People’s Campaign which is already underway across this country. We wondered together about a way forward. We dreamed together. And we asked what role religious traditions have in the realization of that dream of what we might call shalom.

Today’s scripture lesson tells us that

Jesus himself stood among [the disciples] and said to them, Shalom.

Shalom: Peace. But not just peace as an absence of war. According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, shalom means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” – internal as well as external.

Until we all live shalom, until we all are free of oppression, injustice, violence, and war; until we all have enough to thrive, not just survive; until children everywhere are safe and loved; until no one is left behind; there is work to do. As long as some, like the deer, take over and use up the resources while leaving so many others to starve and die; as long as some, like the wolves, are driven to extinction; as long as some, like all of the other creatures and plants, find their existence threatened by the imbalance in the system, there is work to do. And when you live a life of joy, healing, wholeness, love and dignity, so do I.

We are all connected – in our suffering and in our joy. And that really is good news.

You know, when the post-resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples he says, “You are witnesses of these things.” As many scholars have pointed out, he does not say “you will be witnesses.” He doesn’t say, “please be witnesses.” He doesn’t say, “consider being witnesses if you have time.” No, “you are witnesses of these things.”  [4] We who call ourselves Christians, we who try to know God through Jesus Christ, already are witnesses – whether we like it or not, whether we feel comfortable with that or not, whether we are ready or not – we are already witnesses of these things.

Scholar Karoline Lewis says:

Of course, exactly to what things we witness requires some interpretive imagination. Perhaps “these things” is the real bodily resurrection of our Lord. Perhaps “these things” is the content of Jesus’ own confession – the suffering of the Messiah, rising on the third day, the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Or, perhaps “these things” is the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. After all, Jesus’ whole life was witnessing to the “holistic character of God’s salvation.” [Matt Skinner, “Preaching Acts in Easter (Year B)”]

So, I’m not too sure about the whole bodily resurrection. I don’t not believe it, but I don’t quite believe it either – at least, not most days. Jesus’ own confession is of course terribly important to me – but on this third Sunday of Easter I admit that I’m not terribly eager to return to the cross quite yet, central though it is. Today I am mostly thinking about Jesus’ whole life and ministry as the “these things” to which we must act as witnesses.

Jesus’ whole life was one big act of salvation. His whole ministry was about seeing the humanity in each person and recognizing that each person’s life had undeniable connection to the lives of everyone around them. After all, he never just healed someone; he always restored them to community.

And in case we just can’t – or won’t – understand how connected we all are, Jesus gave us many metaphors to help us get it. He is the shepherd and we – together – are his sheep: one flock. He is the vine and we – together – are the branches. And as Paul teaches us, we are now his Body, each with our own function, gifts, and contributions. In Christ, we are all connected.

Your pain is my pain; your joy is my joy.

A man grounded in Christian faith, a minister in word and deed, King said:

I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out…This is the way I’m going.

If we are all connected, and if we follow Jesus, we really are compelled to go the same way. And we must remember that our very lives, more than our words or political or religious affiliations, are our truest witness.

I hope our lives are truly eloquent.

Amen.

[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/george_monbiot_for_more_wonder_rewild_the_world

[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/wolves-yellowstone/

[1] from the website of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/

[1] See Karoline Lewis, “We Are Witnesses.” 9 April 2018.

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