Coral and Refugees
I’d like to begin with two images from the news that have stuck with me from the past week.
First, on the front page of the NY Times last Sunday, there was a picture of a sea turtle swimming above coral in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The coral was entirely, ghostly white -- bleached. The article talked about how coral reefs around the world are experiencing the most massive bleaching event in history. My layperson’s understanding of this is that warmer oceans and more sunshine are causing the algae that live in coral to produce toxins that damage the reefs, causing the loss in color. It’s possible that more than a third of the world’s coral reefs will be damaged by this bleaching, and many will not recover.
Consider the coral.
Second, I heard a story on the radio about refugees on the border of Macedonia who are trapped in their camps since the E.U. has closed its borders to the huge flow of migrants fleeing Syria, Iraq, and north Africa. As refugees - families - live in terrible conditions in these camps, some have made a desperate attempt to storm the border. Police have responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Some of those injured in these attempts were children.
Consider the refugees.
Today’s Gospel, and the poem from Mary Oliver, are all about noticing: what do we consider, and why? What, and who, do we deem worthy of our consideration? And how does that noticing invite us to respond, to act?
I love the Jesus who comes through in this Gospel - the one who says don’t worry, slow down, stop striving. I am a striver. I need to hear this. Look at the flowers, he says. Check out those birds. As the parent of an almost-toddler, I hear myself saying the same things to him, inviting him to see all these new amazing parts of nature that he’s never seen before. And if you hear “consider the lilies” and want to know what that looks like, go for a walk with a toddler. Every tree is like a tree we’ve never seen before. “TREE!” he says. That one has fat branches! Or thin ones! Or a bird in it! Or the way he says “flower” so that is sounds like “wow,” all breathy and full of wonder.
In a nutshell, Jesus is saying, “do you notice? Do you see?” Do you see how good these things are, in and of themselves? Do you see that you are not the center of the universe, dear little one, and that the grass and the birds are beloved by our God, just like you are? The worth and dignity of the things around us have nothing to do with us, other than the fact that we are all part of the tapestry of creation that God weaves. That fact alone makes them immensely valuable. Pope Francis in his document on the environment says, “Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” The writer Barbara Brown Taylor has a wonderful reflection on this, encouraging people to try out the spiritual practice of blessing a stick - not for its usefulness as kindling, or for hanging things on, but simply to bless it in its stick-ness. That takes real noticing, real considering.
The problem is that we often lose our ability to notice, to consider even these humble things as beautiful, and only look for those things, and those people, who are useful to us. Jesus warns us against this in the Gospel - do not worry, do not strive, you already have what you need from the God who loves you. But trust is difficult and worry is so, so easy. I really think that this kind of worry is one of the main roots of the consumption that is destroying our planet - we worry we do not have enough to eat, and we work the land until it is barren. We worry that we are not safe enough, so we devise more and more destructive ways to protect ourselves. We worry we will be out of touch, so we clamor after the latest technology that promises connection in a new, groundbreaking way, heedless of the precious minerals we’ve mined to create it or the precious hands that have suffered working long hours to build it. This kind of worry is insatiable, but we are wrecking the environment in our attempt to satiate it, and ourselves. There will never be enough to satisfy worry.
In our efforts to satisfy our worries, in our striving, we have hurt not only the environment, but the people who are poorest and most vulnerable on the earth. We do this in two ways. First, the poorest are often the most directly affected by climate change. People without the resources to flee rising sea levels, or to move away from polluted water sources, or to survive a year of drought, are the ones who suffer the most. For example, there are some studies that suggest that the beginning of the conflict in Syria was exacerbated by a drought whose severity was caused by climate change. When the environment suffers, these people suffer. Pope Francis says, “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same.”
The second way we hurt both the environment, and the poor, is this: If we see nature as something to dominate and control, we ultimately see people as something to dominate and control. We get so wrapped up in our worries and our striving that we lose sight of our fundamental relationship with the earth, and with God, and with other people. Too many of us - myself included - have become disconnected from those who are poor. And we have become disconnected from the environment. When we don’t notice the coral, when we are too involved in our own striving, we ultimately also will not notice the refugee, our brothers, our sisters, our children huddled in tents in the spring mud, exhausted and hungry and stuck between a violent homeland and a closed border. We are not considering. We are not noticing.
Whether we are noticing or not, each thing on this earth - each lily, each raven, each piece of coral, each refugee, is singing the hymn of its own existence. (The Japanese conference of Catholic bishops used that phrase - I love it.) If we are too busy striving, not only will we not hear that hymn - that hymn of praise to God - we will silence it, drown it out. We have already done this to our planet - we are losing species to extinction at an astonishing rate, and by some estimates will lose 20 percent of the species currently in existence on this planet. And we have already silenced the poor among us. In a society, in a political system, where money talks - where money is power - we have silenced vast numbers of people. That hymn of praise to God loses its complexity, its richness, when so many parts are missing.
So what do we do? Jesus gives us a way forward -- give up your possessions. If that feels intimidating - and it IS intimidating, remember, trust is hard -- at least give up the idea that they are firmly and ultimately YOURS, alone. Stop with this idea of ownership, and move to the idea that what we have is gift, and it is meant to be given away freely to those who need it. God models this for us. Jesus says that the kingdom of God, a precious gift, is already gladly and freely given to us, because God loves us so dearly. We need this kingdom of God - we need our power structures turned upside down, our swords turned into plowshares, the meek inheriting the earth and those who mourn rejoicing. And God already gladly gives it to us. But as we know, the kingdom of God is an example of “already, but not yet” -- it is already here, but we still have a lot of work to do as co-creators.
That work begins with our noticing, with our considering. With putting our treasure, and our hearts, with the poor of the earth, and with the earth itself, which we have made poor with our plundering. God’s heart is already with the poor. God’s caress is already in creation. Do we notice God in the moose, the anteater, the lemons, the grass? Do we see the face of Christ in the refugee? When we consider, when we encounter, we are pulled into relationship. May this Earth Day be an opportunity to enter more deeply into those relationships - with the earth, with the poor. May we replace our worry with trust, and our striving with giving freely of what we have.