At the beginning of the service, we received reflections from the group that travelled a few weeks ago to the water protectors’ welcome center near Palisade, MN.
After several days of spring rain, the forest floor was one giant mud puddle; everyone in the camp wore tall rubber boots. As one water protector reminded us, the river is so much more than we can see. The marshland that spreads all around the main channel is the river. The river is one with a vast network of subterranean streams and reservoirs. We followed the muddy, mossy path down to the riverbank, where we gathered in prayer. I felt myself drawn down to the ground, down to the water, down into a posture of reverence, silence, presence and listening. As I knelt with eyes closed, concentrating, I could hear the river rushing through my body.
Jesus tells us: “The Good Shepherd lays down their life for the sheep,” meaning. the shepherd who knows and loves the sheep will choose to confront the dangers that threaten them, whatever the risk to themself. The Gospel writer, John, points out that Jesus’ form of leadership was fundamentally different from that of the religious leaders of his time. The Gospel of John was written a few years after the Jewish revolt against Rome ended in a terrible, months-long siege of Jerusalem. During this catastrophic event, the Pharisees abandoned their starving and dying people. They fled to another town to save their own lives. Jesus, by contrast, was willing to suffer with and for the community.
For Jesus, this way of being and leading meant facing death. Death was not the goal; however. Life was Jesus’ aim. Jesus gives us life by showing us how to stop the cycles of harm. He calls us to stand against violence—non-violently. He teaches us to disarm predators by building a community of mutual care. He urges us to resist the impulse to play into the “us” and “them” dynamic that hurts everyone. The table he prepares is for us all, even enemies. He shows us how to resist the evils of greed and oppression not by clinging to what we have but by relinquishing the need for control. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” In this laying down and taking up, I hear a dance of interconnection. I hear sharing power, taking turns. I hear mutual care.
Pondering today’s passages about the ways of shepherds and sheep, the patterns of mutuality, the dance of interconnection, I remembered Robin Wall Kimmerer’s portrait of lichens. In Braiding Sweetgrass she writes:
The forest the lichens inhabit is a richly textured plant-scape, but they are not plants. They blur the definition of what it means to be an individual, as a lichen is not one being, but two: a fungus and an alga. These partners are as different as could be and yet are joined in a symbiosis so close that their union becomes a wholly new organism. . . . The algal partner is a collection of single cells, gleaming like emeralds and bearing the gift of photosynthesis, the precious alchemy of turning light and air to sugar. The alga is an autotroph, or one that makes its own food and will be the cook of the family, the producer.
The lichen, in a single body, unites the two great pathways of life: the so-called grazing food chain based on the building up of beings, and the detrital food chain based on taking them apart. Producers and decomposers, the light and the darkness, the givers and receivers wrapped in each other’s arms, the warp and the weft of the same blanket so closely woven that it’s impossible to discern the giving from the taking. Some of Earth’s oldest beings, lichens are born from reciprocity. Our elders share the teachings that these rocks [on which the lichens live],the glacial erratics, are the oldest of grandfathers, the carriers of prophecy, and our teachers. Sometimes I go to sit among them, the proverbial navel gazer at the belly button of the World. These ancients carry teachings in the ways that they live. They remind us of the enduring power that arises from mutualism, from the sharing of the gifts carried by each species. Balanced reciprocity has enabled them to flourish under the most stressful of conditions. Their success is measured not by consumption and growth, but by graceful longevity and simplicity, by persistence while the world changed around them.
A moment during our visit to Line 3 struck me: We were standing in the grassy ditch next to the highway, beside the pipeline corridor. A truck roared by on the road. The driver didn’t slow down at all, and sprayed something at us—bug fog, someone guessed. Water protector Shanai Mattson picked up the bullhorn and began speaking. She grew up in Palisade. Six generations of her family have lived there. As a descendant of settlers, she says, she now sees her relationship to the land and to the Indigenous people of the land far differently than she did growing up. When politicians talk about what northern Minnesota wants, she argued, they leave out Indigenous people and they play on class resentments. They tell the white people that they deserve to have jobs working on pipelines, in mining and other extractive industries. This is your way of life, they say. But this way of life, she pointed out, is just taking and more taking. And most of the jobs on Line 3 so far have not gone to local people. Her own family is divided; some members have sold land to Enbridge while others have opposed the pipeline. Law enforcement stokes fear and resentment, she reported, by calling up local business owners and telling stories about water protectors that are exaggerated or untrue, portraying them as violent, crime-committing outsiders.
Matteson said that as a young adult, she left Palisade as fast as she could. Now a parent herself, she has returned and is committed to stay, to be rooted there, for the rest of her life. She has compassion for the people around her. She seeks healing of relationships within her own family and with her neighbors. In her view, the work of water protectors is to create bridges rather than put up walls. They are there to change the culture, to demonstrate to the local community that there is another way.
I John says: “We know love by this, that Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The resurrected life we have in Christ is a dance of laying down and taking up, of giving and receiving. This way of life is rooted in mutual care and reverence. This way of life calls us to stand against the economy of extraction, the drilling of tunnels and the laying of pipes that would enable toxic oil to pollute our sacred waters, to poison our very lifeblood. And similarly, this way of life calls us to resist systems of white supremacy that kill Black people without consequences. And this way of life invites us, also, to dream and create and connect, to bring to birth a new fossil-free economy that honors the sovereignty of indigenous people and the wisdom of creation herself. And this way of life offers us the hope and strength we need to turn this week’s guilty, guilty, guilty verdict into a tide of justice that upends hundreds of years violent repression and brings true safety for all of us.
This way of life that Jesus embodies—abundant, whole, and eternal—is not unique to him. It is woven into the very fabric of creation; it is written on our souls. Father Richard Rohr says it this way:
The first Incarnation of God did not happen in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. That is just the moment when it became human and personal, and many people began to take divine embodiment as a serious possibility. The initial Incarnation actually happened around 14 billion years ago with “The Big Bang.” That is what we now call the moment when God decided to materialize and self-exposeat least in this universe. The first “idea” in the mind of God was to make Divine Formlessness into physical form, so that everything visible is a further revelation of what has been going on secretly inside of God from all eternity. Love always outpours!
Creation is us, as Margo so beautifully said. And we, all of us, together, are the incarnation, the making flesh of God’s love. So when we listen to the river within us, when we bend down and commune with the muddy ground, when we truly pay attention to the wisdom of the plants, when we take seriously the smell of the air, the colors of the sky, the hum of the insects—then we will know what to do, and we will be who we are, and we will love as we were made to love. Amen.