In Christ of the Celts, J. Philip Newell tells the story of a shepherd: a border collie named Jo, who lived with the Iona Community, in Scotland. Newell writes: “[Jo’s] favorite day of the week on Iona was Wednesday, pilgrimage day, when sometimes with up to a hundred people we would walk the seven-mile route around the island reflecting on the journey of our lives and world together and praying for peace…. [Jo] was in an ecstasy of delight, rounding up pilgrims all day, at times looking almost beserk with joy as he circled endlessly in the heather. But it was not frenetic running…. It had a purpose, a goal that he was sensitive to. It was to hold us all together. So as we approached in silence the hermit’s cell at the heart of the island… Jo quieted down… And when finally we all gathered in the circle of the hermit’s cell for prayer, Jo would enter the cell, lie down at its center, and sleep…. Jo’s deepest instinct was to bring us in to a unity. It is an instinct that has been bred particularly in to border collies, but it is an instinct that comes from the Heart of Life, from the One from whom all things come. There is a longing within the whole of creation to form a circle again. It is a sacred longing. And I often think of Jo as a memory of that longing. The pains and betrayals of our lives may lead us to distrust or forget that holy instinct, but it is at the core of all that has being. And it is waiting to be reawakened in us, in the most intimate relationships of our lives and in the vast relationships of the earth’s community.”
“I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” For me, this line of Psalm 23 sums up why we, as human beings, are here. Our purpose is to dwell, to inhabit wholly, to belong fully. Our work is to stay and be and rest. And yet this dwelling is not a passive pursuit. Some excerpts from Mary Oliver’s poem “Messenger” express it well: “My work is loving the world… Let me keep my mind on my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished… which is rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here… which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes.” The place where we dwell is not simply an address on a street in a city and state and country. We dwell in the house of the Lord. Our home is creation, the universe, the complex web of creatures, elements and energy that is also the very body of God. “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” The whole of Psalm 23 is in the present tense, describing a present reality. We are at home in God’s body now. From our first breath to our last, our breath is God’s breath.
“God is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I shall not want. So many of us yearn for balance in our lives. Dwelling in God’s house offers that gift. God draws us toward that sweet spot that is neither excess nor scarcity, gluttony nor hunger. Dwelling is about having enough. Being satisfied. “God makes me lie down in green pastures; and leads me beside still waters; The Holy One restores my soul. God leads me in right paths for the sake of the divine name.” Enough means a slower pace. Slower food. Slower means of transportation. Slower, simpler schedules. Dwelling in God’s house means producing and using less stuff, burning less energy. It demands a new economy, a different way of running our planetary household. The economy of dwelling in God’s house does not take as its goal constant growth and expansion. We are blessed, rather than impoverished, when we accept limits for our material wealth so that God can restore the soul of our spiritual wealth.
Psalm 23 is a powerful call to trust in God, the shepherd of earth. But in the face of the evidence before us we cannot read this psalm as an assurance that we will be safe from dangers and spared of sorrows. This week’s events in Boston provide just one illumination of the complexity of life in God’s household. A beautiful day celebrating health and community becomes the context for a horrific trauma. Innocent people die and sustain terrible injuries. Yet beauty unfolds within terror as brave people run toward, not away from danger, as strangers show love to each other. Two young men act like monsters. Their crimes fill us with rage and defiance. But we know they are human too. In their hatred and violence, we face the potential for evil within ourselves. We see in their faces our own sons and brothers and friends. We grieve for them, for what they have done and what they have become. We wonder how we can heal the kinds of wounds they carry and inflict.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.” Though we do not understand why, we know that suffering and death are part of the natural rhythms of creation. Dwelling in the household of God means cultivating hope and love and courage that can coexist with grief and rage and fear. Dwelling in the household of God means placing our trust in life, Life that does not avoid death, but emerges again and again from its ashes. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. God is a banquet of joy and abundance that is available to us in all circumstances. Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never be lost.” Eternal life is not heaven. It is life now, life that shows up when we follow the unifying voice of our shepherd instead of the voices of fear and greed and hostility that clamor all around us.
A couple of weeks ago, as we kicked off Mission 4/1 Earth, Monte Hillman spoke to us about the efforts of Mayflower UCC to become a carbon neutral by 2030. For those who missed his talk, let me summarize. Buildings are the source nearly 47% of the greenhouse gas that is released into the atmosphere! (Source: http://architecture2030.org/about/energy_faq) Mayflower church has taken on the challenge of making their building “carbon neutral”. They started by undergoing an intensive energy audit. The report is almost 100 pages long; it lays out all the available options for using less energy and for generating renewable energy onsite. We have a copy of the report available in Pilgrim Hall as part of the Earth Care Fair. From this report, the church designed a plan with several phases. So far, they have sealed the building’s “envelope”, installed occupancy sensors and sophisticated controls for their heating and cooling, and replaced rooftop units. This work reduced their carbon footprint by 42 %. They are close to installing 200 solar panels and switching to Xcel’s windsource program for remaining electricity needs. This will bring their reduction in carbon impact to between 60-70%. Much of this work is being paid for through grants and incentives from state and local government and utility company rebates. For example, the solar panels cost $300,000 to purchase and install, but the church will end of up paying only $30,000.
“I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” How will we, First Church, dwell together in God’s home? Could solar panels or geothermal wells or windmills be our new steeple? Beckoning our neighbors to come in and share in a banquet of enough? Providing a beacon of hope and possibility that we can choose a different way of life in this time of crisis for our earth? All of creation is God’s home, and our home in God. Now is the time for us to dwell wholly in that truth. Now is the time to heed the voice of the shepherd which echoes the longing within us. Let us take our place in the sacred circle. Let us lie down in the center of things and be who we truly are. Amen.