Holy Ground, God and Cod, Part II

A message given Sunday, September 3, 2006

Psalm 15
A Psalm of David.
[1] O LORD, who shall sojourn in thy tent?
Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?
[2] He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
and speaks truth from his heart…

_____________

We will hear a song this morning, sung by one of my favorite vocalists, Manny Meli. We heard another beautiful song this morning, a portion of a long poem called the Song of Songs or The Song of Solomon.

Religious scholars used to debate the meaning of this poem: What does this mean…. “The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”

Is this a parable about God’s power; is the lover who looks in the window meant to represent Christ? Is the bride meant to represent Israel or the Church? That debate is pretty much settled. It is generally accepted that the lover looking in the window is just that, a young man looking in the window, beckoning to his beloved to come out and enjoy the spring:

2:10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 2:11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
2:12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 2:13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Why should there not be a love song in the Bible, a song of human love, a song celebrating the beauty of creation, a pretty racy song at that, even though most translations smooth over the sexy parts? It is a celebration of romantic love and the pleasures of earth. After all, it’s is the Song of Solomon, and he did have seven hundred wives!

But my message today is not about romance. My text today is from the Psalms:

15:1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? 15:2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart…

I say today that God’s tent is earth and earth is God’s holy hill. All worship, all reverence for God that is not rooted in love for God’s tent, has no roots at all.

This is going to be my second annual Newfoundland message. You may wonder how many annual Newfoundland messages there will be; that all depends on how many times we go back to Newfoundland. We went last year, and we went this year, and we may just go again.

Going to Newfoundland is not just a vacation. You may think, “Aha! He goes places, and then writes sermons about them, and then deducts his vacation expenses as business deductions.” No, I claim no such deductions, but I do claim that a visit to Newfoundland is a religious experience laden with theological meaning, and I shall tell you why.

Newfoundland is a large island, about the size of the state of Pennsylvania, only a lot more uneven and spread out. It is where the arctic currents flowing down past Labrador meet the Jet Stream coming up from the south and produce one of the most fertile marine life regions in the world.

It is the place of cod, great whales, and massive flocks of sea birds, caribou herds, and now great numbers of moose – not native to Newfoundland, but presently exceeding 100,000 in number.

It is the Eastern most part of North America.

It contains one of the most unusual rock formations on the planet. Many millions of years ago, the North American tectonic plate collided with the African tectonic plate. Part of the African plate got pushed up on top of the North American plate and got stuck there.

It is now an area called the Table Land, designated as a special UNESCO world site. When you fly over western Newfoundland you see the coast and the green hills and mountains, and then you see this yellow or orangish plateau, looking most out of place.

When you are on land and get closer to it, it still looks out of place: there are green mountains on one side of the road, and on the other it looks like mars – (see photo) no vegetation, orange-yellow rubble everywhere. You look one direction; you’re on earth. You turn around, and you think you’ve gone to Mars.

This is because part of the mantle of the earth, the stuff that is down there under the earth’s crust, is sitting on top of the surface of the earth’s crust. It is a manifestation of great events shaping the earth millions of years ago.

Continents move with the same speed that our fingernails grow. It takes along time for them to collide and make mountains and rifts and occasionally deposits of mantle such as are found in Newfoundland. Newfoundland makes you aware of time.

Deep deep time.

That’s the first theological importance of Newfoundland – it makes you realize how old earth is and how young — very young — we are. It is humbling to ponder the great age of its stones.

Newfoundland also makes you very aware of the relationship between the human species and the earth. It is a place where an ecological disaster has changed the very fabric of the life and the traditions of the people. I am speaking of the destruction in the cod fishery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, an event that occurred in my lifetime, culminating in 1992 when the Canadian government shut down cod fishing in off the Eastern Provinces of Canada. Cod was lifeblood of Newfoundlanders for centuries.

The moratorium on cod fishing for Newfoundland was like the Mayor of New York issuing a moratorium on banking, shipping, and the exchange stocks or bonds in the greater New York region.

In Newfoundland there is an artist, Ben Ploughman. In his work he has been evoking the pain of Newfoundland, the dislocation of it people. Ben Ploughman is not a trained artist – he is a natural artist, born in a fishing family in Newfoundland. He says when he was little, he would sneak behind the wood pile and nail boards together. Now he nails boards together and paints them.

In his art there is usually a blue background — the sea — and a dock, and the backs of fisherman; you sense them gazing stunned and bewildered and angry at the sea.

Ben Ploughman made one particularly controversial work of art, the Crucifixion of the Cod. (Photo above.)

He meant it to convey the agony of a lost way of life; the pain of a people cut off from its roots, and the senseless destruction of species, the cod, that gave life to millions of human beings, and would have kept on giving life to millions forever, if the huge mechanized fleets of bottom dragging fishing factories had not destroyed the ecosystem upon which the cod depended.

It’s fourteen years later, and the moratorium is still on, though some very reduced fishing for cod is allowed. Nobody knows yet whether the cod will have a resurrection or whether the crucifixion of the cod is permanent.

Ben Ploughman was criticized for using the crucifixion to represent the destruction of the cod, but I think the criticism was misplaced. The dried cod — those triangular shapes on the three crosses — speak deeply of the wound done to people, to an animal species, to God’s earth.
I do not think the artist is profaning the cross; I think he is reminding us of the meaning of the cross.

From the psalms we hear the words today:

15:1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? 15:2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart…

I think that this is art that is speaking the truth about the holy hill – the holy hill is all the earth, God’s creation, and we humans may be just a small footnote on its long history, but we do have the power to shape the earth in ways that he heal or ways that can destroy.

When you go to Newfoundland you come to feel something about the earth. If ecology seems like an abstract subject; it is not abstract up there. The people live up against the sea, and everything about their lives is affected by the sea, by the temperature of the waters, by the life of the creatures that inhabit it.

And the ancient mountains and geological formations stand witness to powers far greater than our human powers. Newfoundland could be earth itself, coming to terms with finite resources and the need for conservation, reverence, and humility in relation to earth and life – otherwise the systems of life our species requires can collapse just like the greatest fishery in the world collapsed less than twenty years ago.

I do not mean to suggest that Newfoundland is a depressing place. It is not. It is incredibly beautiful. God’s splendid tent, this earth, is glorious there in the coastline, the forests, the rivers, the wildlife, the masses of birds.

Its people are resilient — those who are still there — many have left, especially the young. And they are a singing and storytelling and joke telling people.

I cannot resist telling you two typical Newfoundland stories:

A fellow named Jack spends his whole life on a very remote Newfoundland island in a tiny fishing village. He grew old and by the time he was ninety, his heart was not so good. The local doctor says, “You better go to the mainland and get looked at.” So they take him to town on the mainland. The doctor there says, “You re not a well man at all, better get you to the big city to the hospital, so they send him off to St. John’s, the biggest city in Newfoundland.

He gets to the hospital and the doctor says, “You’re not well, man; not much we can do for you,” and sure enough the next day he dies. They ship his body back to the little village he came from in. They lay him out at the funeral parlor. Three of the oldest women on the island come to pay their respects – they’ve known Jack all his life; they’re not in much better shape than he is.
They look in the casket.
One of ‘em says,”Jack is lookin’ good.”
The other says, “Yes, that’s a good lookin’ corpse.”
The third says, “I believe the trip to St. John’s did him good.”

And this story:

A fella comes up to another fella and says, “Was that you or your brother who went overseas and drowned?” He says, “It, couldn’t have been my brother; he’s never been abroad.”

Newfoundland, finally, is a place you can reflect on what it means to be a human being. A most interesting thing occurred in Newfoundland one thousand years ago; a remarkable milestone in the history of the human species.

It is now fairly well established that our species, homo Sapiens, evolved in Africa and spread out from there to populate Asia, Europe, and eventually crossing the Bearing Straight traveled down and across the North and South American continents.

At some point the people moving east met the people going west. It took over a million years, and historians now suspect that the meeting place of East and West, the linking of the human species across the whole planet occurred in Newfoundland about the year 1000.

In 1961 the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad completed decades of intense study and exploration with the discovery of a 1,000 year old Viking settlement in Newfoundland. The site was excavated and authenticated by his archeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad.

They proved that it was a Viking site, and correlated it with Leif Eriksson chronicle, making it very likely a place where he and his ship stayed for at least several months around the year 1000.

I stood in the foundation of Leif Eriksson’s house. My wife will now stand up and say, “You don’t know that it was Leif Eriksson’s house.” But I’m certain that it was, after all, he surely would have had the biggest house in this settlement.

It was there that the great event took place – East met West. Near a remote fishing village, accessible only by sea, a place called L’Anse aux Meadow. The local people had carefully protected the site for many years, believing it to be an ancient burial site.

The journey begun in Africa millions of years before, the circling of the globe by our species, was completed, when stone age hunters and fishing people from Labrador met up with the Vikings.

The Vikings gave them milk; they got sick, they got mad. A bull brought by the Vikings came running out of the forest; the native people’s were terrified.
Words were exchanges, blows were exchanged, the native people’s went off and brought their friends; they had lots of friends. Leif realized there was no way they could survive, a few Europeans, in a place they were not welcome.

It was not a happy first encounter, and many unhappy encounters of Europeans and native people would follow, but it was historic.

A dramatic sculpture marks the spot, where the peoples of the east and the peoples of the west first laid eyes upon each other. (photo above)
One of the sculptors was an Inuit, part of the human species that arrived in eastern Canada from the west. The other was a Canadian of European ancestry, whose forbears arrived from the East.

At a tiny fishing village at the northern tip of Newfoundland, the human species met itself.

All of this is humbling.

The ancient rocks,
the lives of a people wedded to the sea and the fish that inhabit it,
the great sea itself,
the rocks and the cliffs,
the history, the humor,
the tragedy of this land;
in all of this God speaks.

O LORD, who shall sojourn in thy tent? Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?

You do not need to go to the Holy Land in order to walk on sacred ground. All the earth is sacred ground.

All the earth is the Lord’s tent.

Shalom

Grace and peace to you.

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