The Riparian Zone

riverWe have it all here in Nova Scotia… oceans and sand… farmland and forests… rolling hills and rivers… each beautiful in their own way… We live in a beautiful part of the world… so beautiful that it can be easy to ignore climate change and environmental degradation.

But the last few years has made even those of us who would like to remain oblivious to the way the weather has changed become conscious of different patterns. We have just had the driest and hottest summer on record… a burn ban on for most of the summer… wells going dry in communities along the south shore.

We hear of melting icecaps and glaciers, but it’s sometimes hard to care when the beautiful weather makes it possible to enjoy our all too short summers. And yet, we know that everything in and on this earth is connected to everything else… Thinning ice caps means rising sea water… rising seawater means losing oceanfront… losing oceanfront means people are displaced… That hasn’t happened here yet, but there are places around the world where this is taking place.

I continue to be struck at how having river in our churches names affects me. How many of you heard the phrase ‘riparian zone’ before you saw it in the bulletin? If you didn’t, don’t feel bad, I didn’t encounter it until last spring some time as the Tuesday afternoon Study Group started reading a book called Grounded by Diana Butler Bass.

According to Wikipedia, a riparian zone or riparian area is the interface between land and a river or stream…Riparian zones are important in ecology, environmental management, and civil engineering because of their role in soil conservation, their habitat biodiversity, and the influence they have on fauna and aquatic ecosystems, including grasslands, woodlands, wetlands, or even non-vegetative areas…The word riparian is derived from Latin ripa, meaning river bank. (Wikipedia)

Diana Butler Bass writes about walking along the Potomac and seeing wild irises, appreciating their beauty and wanting to pick some to put in a vase at home, she steps off the path, heads to the riverbank to the nearest clump. With her first step she feels spongy land beneath her feet, a few more steps and it is squishy, a few more and she is up to her ankles in watery mud, the flowers still out of reach. The irises taught her that the riparian zone is a metaphor for life. Neither the surety of firm ground or the excitement of the clear current, the muddy edge of the river is its most vital feature. (Paraphrased, pages 89-90)

Quoting Diana Butler Bass, “The Riparian zone is remarkably like what some faith traditions call liminal space, the uncertain territory between more certain realities.” (Grounded, page 90)

Nothing could be further from the mucky riverside that the geography of this morning’s reading. It’s the Middle East. Judah and Jerusalem were under siege, literally and physically. A siege that may not be much different from what is going on in the Middle East now. Fear and anxiety and danger and death. And in the midst of that, what does Jeremiah do?

He makes an investment in the future of Israel, and he buys a plot of land. What an absolutely ridiculous thing to do under the circumstances! In his particular style, he does it with flair. There are definite rules for property. You can’t sell to just anyone, because the property in question is linked with the tradition and history of the people who came into the land and had the land divided according to families. Jeremiah would belong to a particular family whose property was an essential part of their heritage and their very identity. So he goes through an elaborate routine, making sure that it is seen. In today’s terms, he provides a photo-op! A soundbite. And the message is a message of hope, spoken in action on behalf of God. In the midst of the doom and gloom and destruction he buys a piece of the future.(Adapted from material developed by Stew Clarke and Catherine MacDonald)

Now, I am not advocating that the millions of people who experience war and violence should stay in their countries, the kind of violence and death that the people of Syria and Sudan and other places experience is very different than the people of in Jeremiah’s time would experience. Death, yes, but not death screaming from the skies, flattening whole neighbourhoods at a time.

The message that I get from our reading is that Jeremiah invests in the future of his community. He invests in the people and place that is right in front of him. Can we do the same? Can we invest in the communities of which we are a part?

I wonder if we, whose churches are named after rivers, can be riparian zones for our communities? Places of diversity where creativity and life emerges from the messiness of life? Places where the dirt and the muck that accumulates upon our spirits can refresh and restore and give life? Places that play an essential part in the health of the wider community. Thinking globally, acting locally… for vibrant and sustainable and healthy ecosystems… What would it mean for our eyes to turn outward from this place?

Some scientists say that we have passed the point of stopping environmental disaster. That there is nothing we can do… that all our efforts are not enough to prevent devastation… as an aside, those of you who came here looking for a word of hope and still looking this morning aren’t you.  Don’t worry, I am getting there…

Those scientists might be right… perhaps we can’t stop it… but we do have choices about the way we live, even in the midst of discouraging news. Like Jeremiah, we can invest in the future, even when we don’t know what the future holds. And how do we do that? We invest in people. We invest in our communities.

We invest in doing what Jesus has always called us to do… feed the hungry… shelter the homeless… clothe the naked… visit the sick and imprisoned… and drug addicted… and working poor…create the beloved community…

We go forward… into the future… and we don’t have to be afraid… and it’s not an uncharted path. The Roman Empire was sharply divided into rich and poor…haves and have nots, an empire not unlike what we live in today. A world in which half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%, the top 10% of adults hold 85%, while the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth. None of us here today are at either end of that extreme. Many of us through a combination of luck and hard work are fortunate to afford not just the necessities of daily life, but some of the perks too.

But think about it, HALF OF THE WORLD’S WEALTH BELONGS TO THE TOP 1% OF THE PEOPLE. Nobody can say that that is fair or what God envisions for us.
St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived through the last days of the Roman Empire, wrote a ‘Rule of Life’ that became the basis for how most monastic communities lived and worked and worshipped together. That Rule of life can be summed up in ‘peace, pray and work.’

“Today most people think of monasticism as escaping from the world, but the movement St. Benedict put into motion was not just withdrawing from society. The Benedictine communities became cultural centres in post-Roman Europe. Here, the outcast and the landless, the sick and the poor, found shelter and hospitality. Here, farming was taught and transformed. Here libraries were saved… here communities that were not of the world, became paradoxically for the world.” (Geez: Contemplative, Cultural Resistance Winter 2014)

We may not be able to stop some of what the future holds, but we can live in gracious community with each other. We can be the new monastic communities… not living apart from the world but in the world. We can be signs and symbols of a new way of interacting with the earth and each other.

I don’t know if you thought about the symbolism of these clear windows when you built this church. They are clear… and as much as I love stained glass, I am grateful each time I stand in this pulpit and see the world… the trees that have changed dramatically since my arrival in January… To me it says that you don’t want to be a community that hides from the world or one that tries to keep the world out. Because there is no space that is not inherently sacred… God created the heavens and the earth and declared it good… but we have laid waste and desecrated some space.

Let us be like Jeremiah… Investing in our communities. Committed to building and rebuilding. Let us be riparian zones… that liminal space in which divine creativity and abundant life is made possible. Creating something new and beautiful and life giving.

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity, amen.

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15       September 25, 2016   Elmsdale Pastoral Charge

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