wisdom and the oil spill

Wisdom and the Oil Spill

A sermon based on Proverbs 8.22-31 and Romans 5.1-5

We all have our moments of exhaustive fragility. Moments which we know, again and again, will break us. When I experienced the near proximity of three divorces a couple of years ago I found that infidelity became one of these moments.The pain caused by the infidelity in these marriages spilled, no, not spilled, gushed into my life as if pain were a new superabundant resource.

I could not read a book, or watch a television program, or a movie, that featured infidelity, either real or imagined, without feeling my stomach lining start to degrade as if it were a marshland being crashed upon by waves of crude oil.

And now, predictably, it is images of the marshland which breaks me. I look at pictures of gulf animals and my stomach feels like conjoined lovers softly whispering, listening, to the wrong name.

When I look at pictures of gulf animals and when I read the scripture for today’s sermon. In Proverbs it says,

When God established the heavens, I was there, when God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, when God established the fountains of the deep, when God assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress God’s command.

The waters might not have transgressed God’s command, but in the end they did, although only after we drilled a hole to release the fountains, only after we ignored the circle that God had drawn. The proverb writer was not predicting the idolatrous greed of British Petroleum, when these lines were penned. However, the proverb writer was aware of the idolatrous greed of the wealthy people of this planet who drive the greed of British Petroleum

Scripture, especially that part of our scriptures that is written in Hebrew, has a density and diversity of meaning that shouldn’t be construed in ways that constrain its relevance. So this is a sermon about wisdom and the oil spill.

And, so that I’m able to fight off the tears that might come if I force myself to continue to flirt with these black oily parts of my soul let me turn to delight and rejoicing by expressing these thoughts again in this setting of one of my favorite poems Margaret Atwood’s Elegy for Giant Tortoises.

I have slightly modified this poem, which Atwood wrote for tortoises, creatures who live in dry climates, in order that it might be made to elegize sea turtles, creatures who live in the gulf of mexico.

by Margaret Atwood (modified and set to music)
changes in italics

Let others pray for the brown pelican
the blue crab, the green heron, the cajun:

everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the sea turtles
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can’t quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave traveling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize,
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralyzed,
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed.
our holy and obsolete symbols.

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave traveling shapes vision:

This poem, at least in the way that I have rendered it here, suggests hope. Even though we have destroyed the sea turtles and deprived them of water, even though our destruction renders God and our worship of God brittle and obsolete, we look to a time, we look forward with hope to the last day when they will be there.

What is the nature of this hope? It seems foolish. The ravaged ecosystem of Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground 20 years ago, is still feeling the effects of that disaster. We don’t know how much longer it will take for the area to recover. How do we move from the recognition of unrepairable damage to hope? Are we just blindly trusting in God to just make it all better, sometime?


But I don’t think that this is how the apostle Paul sees it in Roman’s 5. Paul boasts of hope because of suffering. Paul offers us a Christian grammar of virtue in today’s passage, a rule for talking about how you get from suffering to hope. It makes sense to Paul to rejoice in suffering, not because suffering is good but because the person who suffers learns endurance. Hard situations in our lives, if we use them as times to learn about ourselves and our environment, can cause growth and can make it easier to endure hardships in the future. Part of what we learn in suffering is how to pay attention to life’s difficulties. What about this hardship is going to cause me pain? why? Is there another way of approaching this hardship? Is there something that I can do? Part of what we learn in suffering, after it is over, is that we survived. We recognize that there is at least some life on the other side of our hardships. These two types of endurance, attention and awareness, lead to character. The people that I am close to who have been divorced recently do not wish that there lives had been changed in these ways. But they hope. We become the kind of people who can recognize, resist, reframe, or challenge suffering because we know that suffering is part of how we become who we are. And when we do this we realize that we can hope. We can hope because hope will not disappoint us. We know that hope will not disappoint us because of who God is.

One note at this point. Paul certainly believes that we can hope because God resurrected the crucified Christ. Christ did not survive his suffering, but in the resurrection we see that survival is not even necessary for hope to arise from suffering. God has proven that God will sustain our hope. However at this point,  in this Christian grammar of virtue Paul shows that he believes that our hope is not dependent only on the crucifixion. We can also hope because of who God is. This brings us to the Trinity.

God is not a being like we are.  We relate to other beings and things that are more or less like ourselves. But God is not a thing of any kind. God is relationship and this is why the Trinity is an important part of our identity as Christians. Paul says that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ and love from God through the Holy Spirit. The gifts that we have receive from God happen because God is always making peace through Jesus and loving through the Holy Spirit. One God, three persons. It’s unstable, but in the instability between divine identity and different persons God’s gifts gush out not just from one person of the trinity to the next but through them to us.

This superabundance of love is what the passage in Proverbs is all about. Wisdom reflects, “I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” God’s delight happens because the Spirit rejoices. The spirit rejoices because of God’s inhabited world. The same pattern as in Paul is present again here. Delight flows from God through the spirit to humanity. Well really, delight is just zipping around all over the place and everyone is rejoicing.

It makes sense to hope because suffering leads to hope for people who know who God is. I want to finish my sermon this morning by talking about what I think that looks like in relationship to the oil spill.  I want to talk about this strange language of oil spill, the limits that God sets for us, and the ways that wisdom can guide us. I want to read the oil spill through Proverbs.

I don’t know why we insist on calling this kind of catastrophe a spill. A spill is something that happens when I can’t hold onto my coffee in the morning because I haven’t drunk enough of it to hold onto things. It’s a small mistake that has a certain kind of inevitability about it.

What we have in the gulf is not a spill. It’s a fountain. Oil is gushing forth from a device that we have made to channel and thrust forth liquid. To use the term spill is simply to show that we are in denial not just about the impact of this disaster but also about culpability for it. Fountain is a much more honest word. I believe that when we depend on scripture, scripture will guide us. It takes careful reading and a concern for responsible word-care, but it will also give us the tools to describe our world in ways that will cause God to rejoice.

The language of Proverbs 8 bears many similarities to the language in Genesis 1. There God’s spirit hovers over the face of the waters and rather than drawing God talks. But many of the same characters are there. One thing that is really interesting about Genesis 1.4 is that God’s creation doesn’t respond with rote obedience to God’s command. It’s not that creation disobeys God’s command … but creation is not simply ordered by these commands either. Genesis 1.4 reads,

And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

God creates light and likes it and separates it from the remaining darkness that had been covering the waters. And immediately evening and morning … both times when light and darkness are not at all separated. Creation is a dynamic mysterious thing, not out of God’s control, but able to move in and around God’s purposes in surprising delightful ways. No wonder the Holy spirit rejoices!

The possibility then that creation might transgress God’s limits is there from the beginning. It is the possibility of transgression that in many ways allows life to issue forth. In fact, we might even want to say that God, in God’s trinitarian nature, is transgressive in exactly these ways.

The circle on the deep then is there as a control on the waters but not as a magic rule binding the waters. It is a warning. “After this point you will need wisdom to be ready for what might happen.” I believe that this line, this circle on the deep is the depth at which humans can easily dive to. A bunch of people in diving suits are going to be able to work to mine energy differently, less randomly, with less unpredictability. We know this. It is simply common sense, which is often what wisdom amounts to. To do something else is to move beyond wisdom, into irrationality. I don’t know why made this move into deep sea drilling, but I know that we have a desire for oil that turns it into a god. And we aren’t supposed to have other gods than God. So I’m not saying that it is a sin for us to have drilled in the gulf, creation transgresses limits all the time. The transgression of limits is a part of what it means to be created. I am saying that it was unwise to drill without knowing how we would stop the fountain. It was particularly unwise given that exactly the same thing happened thirty years ago across the gulf at Ixtoc 1.

A dependence of the honesty of biblical language and a recognition that God places limits on our world are both obvious ways in which we can wisely respond to the oil fountain in the Gulf. However neither of these approaches help us with what to do now. Neither really inform our hope. We have up to a million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico a disaster that we might never recover from. What can we hope for? We need more wisdom about the natural world. One of the ways that we were, for a while, very successful in cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill was by using oil-eating bacteria to break down the oil. We learned a great deal about how to do bioremediation in Alaska 20 years ago, but one of things that we learned was that we shouldn’t depend on dispersants if we want to be able to use effective bioremediation. A real danger now in the gulf is that the oil eating bacteria will deplete the oxygen in the gulf causing a dead zone in which nothing will be able to live.

Wisdom rejoices in the natural world and learns everything it can about the wonderful ways that nature has found to heal itself. In Chernobyl mushrooms have radiation level many times the level of surrounding soils. In regularly polluted areas like harbors incidence of oil-eating bacteria and fungi are much higher than in the rest of the ocean, but they exist in more stable relationship to their ecosystem. We need more wisdom about all of the different fungi and bacteria that might be able to bring real hope to the Gulf. We need an approach to our natural world that is honest, that recognizes boundaries and that seeks to work with nature rather than against it to solve our worst problems. This wisdom is our hope, a hope that moves beyond blind trust to action in relationship with all God’s gifts. May wisdom continue to rejoice in the natural world.


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