February 14, 2021
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
In this morning’s scripture reading, Jesus is in the presence of his spiritual ancestors. He’s on a mountain top with the two leaders who bring to the Hebrew people the Torah and the Hebrew Prophetic tradition, that provide the foundation for Jesus’ ministry. These traditions are not static. In both Moses’ and Elijah’s lives and ministries, they adapted their teachings and actions to the People’s needs, and God’s Word, in their contexts. Moses and Elijah know well that they serve a living God, who speaks anew into human life, often in new ways that bring about the dreams of previous generations, in new ways.
Tradition can root us, providing a lens to understand the world around us. There are traditions and practices that keep us in check, limiting our actions, to paradoxically give us the freedom to be loving and responsible to larger goals beyond ourselves. Jesus knew this well in his ministry, his teachings, his healings. The central practices of Judaism provided limits, that were liberating. Celebrating the Passover provides a lens for remembering God’s loving acts of choosing the people, liberating them from slavery, and providing a way to understand human life in relation to God and one another shaped by love. The practice of Passover set limits on food and how time was spent, to focus the people on giving thanks to God, but also to inspire the ongoing work of partnering with God’s ongoing work of liberation in the world. Observing the Sabbath reminds us that our value doesn’t come from what we produce, but instead sets our eyes to a future where all may rest, where humanity and creation are brought back into a relationship where one supports and the other tends, where exploitation is ended. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is a reminder that we are not perfect, we make mistakes, and what we do, or leave undone, can hurt ourselves, our neighbors, those we love, and exploit or threaten destruction to our planet. It is a tradition that shows the limits of our good intentions and charges us to make right where we have hurt others. Hearing the words of the Torah and the Prophets helps to refresh our vision of the world God invites us to be partners in co-creating a flourishing world with God. This worldview has a wide angle on making loving decisions, looking back generations, millennia, and looking ahead just as far, to the end of human time.
This kind of worldview, rooted, but adaptable, honest but also full of dreams, is something our world could use more of. This week, I have been meditating on how these traditions speak to our care of creation, specifically through agriculture. For Christmas, my Husband Eric gave me a copy of James Rebanks book English Pastoral: An Inheritance. Rebanks grew up on a farm in the lake district of Northern England. His Grandfather wanted him to fall in love with farming and taught him how to make a quiet living through the land; passing on generations of wisdom about how to bind together cows, sheep, people and grasses, hay and wildflowers, birds and hares, in a web of ecological health. It was rooted in old traditions, that set limits, and gave space, food, and honor to not only the animals they raised, but also their village, the landscape, and the people who they hired to practice traditional farming methods. But as his Grandfather’s life was ending, and his Father stepped into managing the farm, the pressures of modernization caught up with them. James and his father witnessed and participated in the intensification of farming, through the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. His Father rented a farm, and over decades sought to bring it up to modern farming practices. It meant tearing out hedgerows that had once been home to native plants and birds, insects, and wildlife, so that massive machines could move in straight lines. They saw the pressure to move from growing grasses for cattle and sheep to graze, to creating silage. But this changed the relationship between the livestock and the soil, and instead of the waste of these animals enriching the land, it began to poison it. Using pesticides to remove weeds, so the machines could more easily harvest grain for feed, and growing on the soil nonstop for silage, led to birds leaving, because they no longer had places in the fields to lay and hatch their eggs. Eventually, the economics of trying to run a small farm drove them off their rented land, and the family moved to James’ late Grandfather’s farm. For years, so many in their small farming village were uncomfortable with how farming had changed, not only their lives, but also the environment around them. These were not folks who would consider themselves environmentalists, but the world was starting to seem to them to be horribly out of sorts. His Father, after trying to embrace more industrial farming techniques, started to feel that something was off. James writes that it was like waking up from bad ideas, that had tried to turn their gaze away from their animals and the earth, and towards numbers on a page. Over time, James and his father recognized that the animals being raised around them were not being allowed to jump and play in the fields, and even if they were allowed outside, they were weak. Milk cows and chickens were living in what look like factories, having to be given antibiotics and hormones to produce more and more, and were living shorter lives. And then, one day, the floods come. Down river from their farm, cities and towns were devastated. After these floods, a woman arrived from a local conservation group. She was disarmingly honest with James and his father and explained how rivers and streams want to behave; being able to meander, to have trees planted around, and be surrounded by grass that is seldomly grazed. On that visit, she made a deal; she would help them replace their fencing on the farm, paying for most of it, to help them return to rotational grazing of their animals, but they would have to take part of their land and manage it for the health of the streams and wildlife, providing refuge for wild plants and animals, birds, and insects. They’d have to rotate their sheep and cows and chickens, and let the soil become healthy again. It’s a mix of old wisdom, but also new insights, that take into account the realities of the economics of farming. They would be paid to care for the earth for the benefit of all, while also being able to farm. And James’ Father, turns to his son, and says, look, I’m going to die soon. It’ll be your farm. Do you want to try this? I think you should listen to her. There’s old wisdom and new possibility in what she is offering.
Tradition can help constrain some of the most damaging impulses of our society, but it can also trap us from adapting to new realities that threaten the vision and dreams of our future. This tension is on display in our scripture reading this morning. Peter doesn’t know what to do with Moses and Elijah showing up to chat with Jesus, but something tells him to create something static, monumental, to set into stone this experience. But this transformation of Jesus, isn’t about things staying the same; instead, it’s the next chapter in God being in the presence of the people, rooted in the past, but also moving towards God’s future of redemption and liberation. And so, God invites the disciples to listen, to follow where Jesus will lead. They’re not supposed to stay on the mountain; they’re called to go, witness what will happen, and be a part of the next chapter in a rooted, adaptive life with the Holy One, the Living God of Israel.
James Rebanks decided to partner with the conservationist land trust, and now, there are new fences that help rotate his family’s livestock from field to field, much like his grandfather and generations before him did. They have replanted hedgerows, where hedgehogs and hares, birds and native flowers, butterflies and insects can thrive. There are also new traditions at their farm. They let certain wild plants flourish in the fields, not for the health of their livestock, but for the health of the soil. And they are paid, not just for the animals they raise, but also for the care they take of the land, slowing rain runoff, creating marshes and wetlands. There are areas where the streams and rivers are given more space to meander, to change course, to drop silt and gravel banks for salmon to spawn, areas where bogs are protected, instead of drained, and thousands of more trees that have been planted. It’s the best of the old ways, with a vision of how to move into a future where people, livestock, wild creatures, the soil, and waterways flourish. It doesn’t make James Rebanks rich. But it empowers his family, as his grandfather would say, to live quietly. They can raise much of their own food, taking land and setting it aside for a garden, with enough diversity of livestock to always have something to eat they have raised. There’s not a lot of money left for store bought things, but there is always enough food. And there is enough strength left in their spirits to be able to pick up other work here and there, to supplement their income.
Beloved, there are ways we can allow others to live quietly, lives that are honest and fulfilling, full of dignity and care for creation. We have a part to play. But often, to make these kinds of dreams a reality, we’re going to need societal structures that make it possible. That’s why I am so intrigued by the work of Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who will be joining us in worship next week. She is working on an old idea, a tradition that many states in our country have revived and taken up, to enshrine in our state constitution a right to a healthful environment, through something called a Green Amendment. It would state that each Marylander has an inalienable right to live in harmony with creation, and that when practices threaten the health of creation, and ourselves, we can remedy it through the use of our collective resources. Not only would it empower citizens to challenge damaging practices in industrial agriculture, but it would also create a necessity for the state to support new solutions, like James Rebanks experienced in England. From climate change to addressing rainwater runoff, to eliminating pollution in our air that disproportionately impacts communities of color, the Green Amendment would bind us to one another, set limits, and give us the resources we need as a collective people to think beyond ourselves.
When we put ourselves in relationship with one another, with our ancestors, and those we will be the ancestors of, when we invite God to speak, to inspire us with visions of a present and a future, and then listen, we can act more justly, in ways that make this earth whole. This kind of living takes a collective willingness to be limited in some ways, because we do not live just to ourselves. We never have. Our culture often lifts up the ideas of rights, of liberty, without speaking of the truth that we cannot have these freedoms without responsibility, working together. We need farmers to eat, and they need to be able to make a living. That means adapting land to be used to grow crops and raise animals. But there are ways to do so that enrich our land, protect our streams and rivers, where pesticides and artificial fertilizers don’t need to be used. This kind of quiet living means that we may pay a little more to eat and will have to create systems to make sure all can have their daily bread. It’s going to mean that we have to invest as a state and society in supporting best environmental practices. Instead of building shrines to unmovable ideas, we’re going to need to join a conversation between our dreams, the effects of our actions, and our neighbors to bring just a little bit more of heaven to earth. May we risk limiting ourselves, just a little, so that all may live quietly, on this beautiful planet God has given us, and speaks into still.