Text: Psalm 24:1-6, Matthew 6:25-33
Today’s sermon is in response to the President’s decision last week to pull America out of the Paris Climate Accord, which was signed by all but two nations, Syria and Nicaragua, with Nicaragua’s objecting that the agreement didn’t go far enough. In a statement, United Church of Christ leaders have called this “a tragic mistake,” going on to applaud the Parliament of World’s Religions’ calling the decision “scientifically, economically, medically, politically and morally wrong.”
I am sorely tempted to indulge myself in a righteous political rant. But I know it is wiser, and worthier, for my response today to be more thoughtful, theological, and Biblical. So, we begin with the Psalmist’s reminder that “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.”
* * * *
Vicky and I used to live in southern Arizona, which is desert. In Tucson, temperatures of 112, 113, 114 degrees Fahrenheit were commonplace. So anytime in the summer we could get up into Arizona’s “high country,” we would.
I remember the August week we spent in the White Mountains, at the lakeside cabin of friends. Hawley Lake is 8,000 feet above sea level. So we left behind the bake-oven terrain of cactus and lizard to enter the green environment of deer and bear, of Ponderosa pines and Indian paint brush, where it rained almost every day. It was a restorative week for us.
Especially, that summer, it was 1988. In our home states of Ohio and Illinois, farmers were desperate, their crops withering from drought. And that summer a NASA scientist testified before Congress about what he called “the first unmistakable indication of the ‘greenhouse effect.’”
The NASA scientist, James Hansen, said the warming trend had almost certainly been caused by the burning of fossil fuels, by other gases emitted from human activities, and by wide-scale deforestation. Because gases, discharged into the atmosphere, act like the glass in a greenhouse, making the earth warmer and warmer. “We have altered the global climate,” Dr. Hansen said, “in a manner that will affect life on earth for centuries to come.” That was 1988.
In the twenty-nine years since, it has gotten worse. Plant and animal species are dying off. Glaciers and ice are melting. Some scientists say there will be no polar ice cap by 2060. A United Nations panel on climate change predicts permanent drought and famine in Africa, massive flooding in low-lying Asian deltas, and severe hardship for billions of people. Hurricanes, tornados and tsunamis may be ahead repeatedly, not only for Asian islands, but also… cities like Miami, Charleston, Washington, New York and Boston are threatened by massive flooding. The co-chair of the UN panel pointed out that these conclusions, from the research of thousands of scientists, are based on changes already being observed. “This is not speculation,” said Martin Parry. “This is empirical. We can measure it.”
Which all brings back the sadness – grief, really – that I first felt during that baking summer of 1988, when I read the headline: “Scientist says, Greenhouse effect is here.”
* * * *
A book I took along that August – to Hawley Lake, in the White Mountains of Arizona – was Robert Heilbroner’s Inquiry into the Human Prospect, because he had warned in 1974 about “global thermal pollution.” So up there, in God’s wonderfully ever-green Creation, I read, in a chapter titled, “What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?” these words:
“Will [hu]mankind survive? Who knows?” “But,” Heilbroner went on, “the question I want to put is more searching: Who cares? It is clear that too many of us do not care – or do not care enough. How many of us would be willing to give up some minor convenience –say, the use of aerosols – in hope that this might extend the life of [humanity] on earth by a hundred years? Suppose we all knew...that humankind could not survive a thousand years unless we gave up our wasteful diet[s]..., abandoned all pleasure driving, [and] cut back on every use of energy that was not essential... Would we care enough for posterity to pay the price of its survival?
“I doubt it,” Robert Heilbroner wrote. “A thousand years is unimaginably distant. Even a century far exceeds our powers of empathetic imagination. By [then], I shall probably have been dead for three quarters of a century. My children will also likely be dead, and my grandchildren... will be in their dotage. What does it matter to me, then, what life will be like? Why should I lift a finger to affect events that will have no more meaning for me seventy-five years after my death than those that happened seventy-five years before I was born?
“There is no rational answer,” Robert Heilbroner wrote. “There is no rational answer to that terrible question.”
* * * *
And so, despite decades of warnings that this finite biosphere is fragile, we keep doing what we have been doing. In the terrible trade-off between economics and the environment – the near-term emphasis on jobs over against the long term question of planetary survival – once again the immediate has been chosen over against the supposedly further-off. But, friends, the limits to our short-sightedness – and our excesses – are coming ever closer.
I once heard our situation described as our “out-running our headlights.” It’s like a driver, at night, going so fast that when the brick wall in the road ahead appears in the headlights, there isn’t enough time to stop the car before hitting it.
At last, we see it: the brick wall ahead, called “global warming,” or “climate change” – not to mention the hole in the ozone layer, deforestation, pollution of the air and waters, over-population. Even if we hit the brakes now, there are collisions ahead.
Do we care? Well, we do. But how much do we care? And how much does the rest of the American citizenry care? And our public leaders? Enough to make significant changes?
But then, why should we? “There is no rational answer,” said Robert Heilbroner. But there is a Scriptural answer: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it...”
* * * *
When it was time to leave Hawley Lake and the mountains, we bustled about the cabin, cleaning up, in gratitude to the people who let us use it. With broom and dustpan, soap and sponge, we got the cabin ready for those who would come after us. Why?
You know. Because – we didn’t own it. It wasn’t ours. We were guests. That’s it. That’s the point. “The earth is the Lord’s.” We don’t own it. It isn’t ours. We are guests.
There was a brochure I found in the cabin, which advertised the nearby Sunrise ski resort; it’s owned by the Apache tribe of northeast Arizona. There was a message in the brochure from the tribal chief that caught my eye. “Come...” he said. “Come, share with us this gift from the Creator that we carefully protect.”
* * * *
When our European ancestors came to this great land, they brought with them an understanding of our relationship to nature that was quite different from that of Native Americans. Our pioneering forbearers read in their Bibles,
“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it...
“The fear of you and the dread of you shall be put upon every beast...
“Look at the birds... Are you not of more value than they?”
And “subdue the earth” our ancestors did, leading to the greatest national, industrial energy, and power and prosperity in the history of the world. But – at a price.
“Subdue the earth,” it says, in Genesis 1, the first chapter of the Book. But there is another strand in our Biblical heritage. And it is now past time for us as a people to heed it.
It is true that the Noah story ends with the fateful deliverance of Creation into human hands. But there is also Genesis 2, in which Adam is invited to be God’s care taker, giving the animals names, tending the Creator’s garden.
In one strand, all creation is implicated in the Fall, but in another, only human beings are fallen – because we have misused our free will – while nature and the rest of God’s creatures remain unimpaired.
In one strand, the names for God stress power and authority – names like “Lord” and “King” – emphasizing hierarchy, suggesting that earth is to be dominated. But in another stand, God’s presence in nature is emphasized – through images like “living water,” “shelter,” even “womb” – which help us to recognize the world as cherished and embraced by God.
In one strand, nature is the wilderness, the abyss, chaos, an enemy to be overcome; but in another strand, nature is the realm of renewal, refuge, retreat, revelation.
We can no longer act as if we are above nature, or against nature. Human destiny is intertwined with nature. We are in nature, according to the plan of God – to whom we and the earth belong.
Some of our industrial, technological, “modern” concepts of progress and growth need to be redefined. And the time to do this is surely now. There are built-in walls ahead in this, God’s precious world.
With thanks to Elizabeth Dotson-Gray, Patricia Fort, Jeffrey Kluger and George Williams
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other meditations and musings.