For the link to the BBC Outlook story on Jose Luis Alvarez, click here.
To view the Apple commercial “Think Different”, click here.
To learn more about Watershed Theology, click here.
If you are interested in learning about which watershed in which you live, click here.
Every year, millions of monarch butterflies make an amazing journey from the northern United States down to Central Mexico. Their flight has been the topic of many documentaries and public radio stories which is where I heard this story of one man on a mission. Jose Luis Alvarez grew up in the Mexican state of Michoacán in Central Mexico where when he was a child the mountains just north of his home were filled with dense forest and where the Monarch butterflies would mate. But over the years, the forest in Michoacán began to disappear as the land began to be converted into farmland and illegal loggers were coming in and stripping the mountains of their forest. The forests were all but decimated. Jose Luis said, “It looked like they raped the land. It looked like it had cancer. Slopes were bare where they were trying to plan oats and corn. The farmland wasn’t even profitable anymore because nothing would grow there.”
Because these forests are essential to the Monarch butterflies, there was a great concern for what long-term impact this might be on the Monarch population. Jose Luis says that he has a picture of himself standing knee deep in dead butterflies from 2002. Knee deep. The picture looks like he is standing in a pile of leaves raked together, but it was dead butterflies, suffering the fate of the shrinking forest. And so, he set out to change that. And that is how Jose Luis Alvarez essentially saved the population of the Monarch butterflies. He is the man who planted an entire forest in Central Mexico.
He knew the answer was in the trees. So he wanted to start a non-profit. And in a conversation with a man at breakfast, he convinced that man to start an NGO for him. And then that man got a spread in the New York Times, and that exposure got Jose Luis two big donations to begin his planting. He said getting started was really difficult. He said eventually he was able to convince two landowners of very small plots to allow him to change their farmland into forests.
He said he planted 3 plots the first year. And then 10-12 the next year. And the following year, 40 or 50. These plots that were just dust and rocks we being rejuvenated into forests. And as neighbors watched the trees grow and saw the trees flourish, they said, “I want to do that.”
And over the past 15 years or so, Jose Luis Alvarez has effectively planted an entire forest. He said 7 or 8 million trees have been planted since 2002. And this threatened piece of forest so important to the monarch’s flight and mating patterns has been restored.
When Jose Luis was asked why he did what he did, he responded, “I wanted to change the world.”
Where does that drive come from? What is it that inspires people like Jose Luis to try audacious things? What motivated him to want to try to change the world? It is almost like he has deep roots planted into something more than himself. It is like he is a tree planted by the water who will not be moved.
In our scriptures today, we have three beautiful texts. The gospel lesson is Luke’s version of the great sermon, Jesus’ teachings on the plain. He looks out onto the crowd and speaks a series of blessings and woes. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the persecuted. Luke doesn’t try to sugar coat anything. He wants to demonstrate that Jesus is concerned with the physical well-being of people. Unlike Matthew’s version of this text, Luke doesn’t spiritualize these things. Luke’s Jesus says, “The hungry, the thirsty, those terrified of being persecuted, come on into Big Mama’s house because she is ready to give you too much to eat, keep your cup overflowing, and draw you into her comforting bosom and whisper, ‘You’re safe here.’”
In this text from Luke, we find Jesus pointing to a world as it ought to be. He points to a world where there are equality and balance among all people. One cannot separate the way of Jesus, following Jesus, being saved by Jesus from this compassionate posture in this world.
Being grounded in the ways of Jesus is being rooted in deep compassion for the world.
Having deep roots of compassion, tapping into those deep spiritual waters that run below the surface of our world is what Jesus is always pointing to in our gospels. He is always speaking to a different way. Sharing examples of what the kingdom is like. And it sounds so different from what we are used to in this world. Foolish almost. Jesus’ compassionate posture is leaning into the real belief that you can change the world. Being foolish enough to believe that it is possible. Jesus’ compassion is ready to upset the status quo of the world and create a different way of doing things.
And then when we flip back to the Hebrew Bible texts for today, we find the same sort of style of blessings and woes. Happy are those whose thoughts are continually on the Lord. Blessed are those who meditate on the ways of God all day long. Jeremiah and the Psalmist use the image of being planted by the water. Oh and we’ve seen trees planted by the water.
Here in central Texas, just think about those trees along any of these waterways… those roots shooting down into the depths of the water. So big that you can climb over them like huge rocks protruding from the water. You can almost feel them drinking up the nutrients of that place and bearing good fruit for that place.
And in both Jeremiah and the Psalm, those trees are compared to the chaff in the wind, the shrub in the desert, living parched places of the wilderness. Like the dust bowl.
While some of the metaphors of the Bible don’t really communicate as well today, this is one that perhaps has taken on new and a deeper meaning in the climate crisis we find ourselves in today. We know how crucial that water is as a life source. As it runs through our land, we know how precious it is to our well being and how fragile our existence is without it. I mean just think of your experience a couple months ago when we had the boil advisory for nearly 2 weeks. Trees planted by streams of water speak real truth and demonstrate very well today.
Many of us here know Sarah and Rodney Macias. Sarah was an intern at UBC five years ago and was just recently ordained at a sister church in Dallas, Royal Lane. A few years ago, she and her husband took a leap of faith and purchased an old property of farmland north of Dallas, in Van Alstyne, Texas. It’s called Sister Grove Farm, and their intent with it is to be good stewards of the land and to be actively engaged in their community.
There are a few things that inform this way of being. Sarah and Rodney have been deeply influenced by the work of Ched Meyers, who is an evangelist for watershed ownership and watershed theology. If you ever meet him he will state his name and then immediately follow that by the watershed he lives in, like “I’m Stephanie Cooper and I live in the Williamson Creek watershed.”
Even in the simple act of naming my watershed immediately reminds me that I am not alone in where I live. I quickly think about the neighbors and neighborhoods around me that share this watershed who are rooted in the same water in which I am also rooted. I think about the neighbors who have rain collection systems to ease the strain on our water usage, and those other neighbors who water their lawns too often. And I think about neighbors who eat, drink and live in the creek. The immeasurable connectedness of recognizing a watershed reminds us that we are rooted. Not as one single tree as the picture on the front of the bulletin might suggest, but we are rooted in a place, as a community.
Sarah and Rodney are rooted in their place. They are working to be good stewards of their land, their inheritance and their piece of their watershed. They are also rooted in their community, knowing that the water we share connects us to those around us in very visceral ways. But Sarah and Rodney are also rooted in a deeper way. They are rooted in this deep spirituality that flows below the surface of our world that causes them to do what some might call foolish.
So where are you planted? Where are you rooted? Where are our roots as a church? To what are we committed and what foolish things can we do to show our rootedness?
Years ago Apple released a commercial campaign called “Think Different”. And over pictures of our history’s geniuses, Einstein, Muhammad Ali, Gandhi, Amelia Earhart. The commercial plays this text:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
What if we became a forest of crazy foolish ones, grounded, rooted in these deep waters of the spirit? What would it look like for us to be rooted and planted in the community where we are, to clean the water where we are, to plant seeds where we are, to even the scales where we are? What would it look like to be foolish enough to have Christ’s compassion for our neighbors?
As the old spiritual sings, “Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”