Isaiah 55:656:1; Psalm 65; Luke 12:1531
There is nothing quite like spring in Washington. Here in this season of dogwood and tulips, of the sweet scent of viburnum and the dazzle of daffodils, it’s easy to sense God’s glory everywhere. Every year at about this time I can’t get off my mind the words of poet e.e. cummings:
I thank thee God for most this amazing day
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky
and for everything
which is natural which is infinite
which is yes
This is Earth Day Sunday, a day when we give thanks for the beauty and abundance of the earth, and when we reflect on our call to care for the earth as well. But unfortunately, now Earth Day must also mean that we must look closely at the fact that our earth is in grave danger.
Not long ago I found myself talking at dinner with someone who had been invited onto the board of a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. He had just come from a board meeting here in town and looked visibly shaken. When I asked what they had been discussing he blurted out, ‘It’s more desperate than you can imagine. We’re losing the oceans, no, we may already have lost them. Pollution, oil spills, melting ice caps, over-fishing to the point where fish stocks won’t come back—it’s all happening while we’re standing here right now. In fact, we don’t have time for dinner tonight. The oceans are slipping away as we speak.’
On this Earth Day the question we have to ask is, “What is becoming of this small, fragile planet drifting through space?”
The argument about climate change is over. The earth is warming at an alarming rate, and all but a very few are convinced that the polluting of our planet will only get worse as new economies such as in China and India strive to achieve the standard of living we have in the U.S. We are already seeing ominous consequences—melting ice caps, glaciers shrinking at an increasingly fast rate, intensifying storms and droughts, rising coastal waters.
James Hansen of NASA, probably the world’s most significant climate modeler, has said that the earth has ten years to start producing less carbon dioxide instead of more. If it fails we will have a “different planet.” The British scientist James Lovelock, who built the equipment that allows us to measure deterioration of the ozone layer, said that he believed the “tipping point” had already passed and that the earth is careening toward a worse disaster and on a faster time scale than almost anyone realizes.
New reports trickle out in the news almost every day of water supplies, animal species, and habitats at risk. But so far, it is still by and large business as usual in this country. Climate change isn’t a serious issue in the presidential campaign. It ranks far down the list of Americans’ concerns in the polls.
Near the top of that list of concerns is terrorism. We know what a terrorist attack looks like. It’s natural to see it as something which it is our job to stop, and to see ourselves as a force for good. But climate change is a far more dangerous threat, killing more people by far than terrorist attacks, only those people are dying from drought or storms or rising water or spreading disease, which do their damage in ways hard to measure. And the big difference is that unlike being a terrorist, we don’t have to commit evil in order to contribute to the destructive evil of global warming. All we need to do is keep living the comfortable life of American consumers as we are now. It’s far easier to focus on evil terrorists out there, than on ourselves and on the damage we are doing by denial and avoidance.
It seems that there are two great issues the human race must face if it is ultimately to survive and thrive. The first is, can we learn to deal with our differences without turning to violence and war? And the second is, can we muster the vision and courage to stop the destruction of the earth before it is too late?
We Christians begin our thinking about our life on this planet with the simple affirmation of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Everything is God’s first. In our gospel lesson this morning we see the implications of that sweeping claim. In the first part, Jesus tells a simple parable of a rich man who is bringing in large crops. The man decides to build larger barns to store everything he’s producing, and says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But then God says to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.’ What good will all that do you?
And then Jesus wheels around and talks not about farmers and barns, but about nature:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them… Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…”
We’re seeing two views of life. In one, the solitary individual accumulates for himself. In the other, Jesus describes life in an interconnected world where there is enough for everyone. Your life, Jesus is saying, is part of a single great economy, the Economy of God, in which all of nature, all of life is held in God’s love, and there is enough for everyone. There are enough resources, enough food and clothing for everyone—but only if we take our place in God’s economy and not just our own. Everything is connected.
Christianity has often made the mistake of narrowing its focus solely to personal salvation. ‘My faith is about me and my own well-being and private spiritual life, and above all about my own going to heaven.’ But our scriptures tell us that God creates and loves the whole world of oceans and rocks, plants and animals, and human beings are created to be part of that great harmony. It’s God’s world, God’s house, after all, not ours. And we humans have been rude and self-centered guests in someone else’s house.
The greatest spiritual leaders from St. Francis to Mahatama Gandhi to the Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu have believed that God’s universal love knows no bounds of race or faith or nation, or even of species. All of life is connected. All life participates in a seamless web of connection, scientists now tell us. It is actually possible that the flap of a butterfly wing in Japan can set off a hurricane in the Caribbean. And the driving of a gas guzzler in Washington can melt an iceberg in Greenland.
In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the spiritual teacher Father Zosima puts our interconnectedness this way:
All is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world… Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing you will perceive the mystery of God in things.
That vision is what moved St. Francis to write his great poem celebrating “brother sun and sister moon.” Everything is made of the same star dust—the elements and molecules unleashed by the first Big Bang. So that makes us cousins to a granite rock, a polar bear struggling to stay alive in the Arctic, or a grand sequoia along the coast of California.
By contrast, we have been schooled in a radical individualism in our religion, politics, economics, and business. The only questions we learn to ask are, ‘What’s in this for me? What can maximize my prosperity, what will make me happy, what politicians will improve my own life and pocketbook?’ We are consumers above all.
Of course, we who love this earth have to ask, What then shall we do? How can the human race pull back from the brink we are racing toward?
Of course, ultimately the answers will have to be technological—finding new, sustainable ways to generate the energy a growing, increasingly demanding world will need. But we all have work to do as well.
I know that it can be daunting to imagine how the likes of you and me can make any difference at all. Maybe we should begin with the wise advice of Nellie McClung, an early 20th century Canadian environmentalist:
Let us do our little bit with cheerfulness and not take the responsibility that belongs to God. None of us can turn the earth around. All we can ever hope to do is to hit it a few whacks in the right direction.
Let me suggest several possible whacks each of us might deliver. First, we can begin to see ourselves as a part of God’s world. We can see our health and our destiny in relationship to all that exists. Clean water and air are spiritual issues. “God so loved the world,” Jesus said. We have to learn to do the same.
We need church to help us to see through the phony consumerism and individualism that leave us more anxious and lonely. And we need to stay connected to nature—through walks and bike rides, through watching the birds carry out their daily dance, through strolling along beaches and hiking in mountains, or just lingering in the park down the street.
Second, you and I need to evaluate the lives we are living—the cars we drive, the trips we take, the size of our home, the light bulbs we burn, the ways we get to and from work, the amount of meat we consume. Some churches are beginning to have two pledge campaigns during the year—one where people pledge their financial resources for the church’s ministries, and the second is a pledge of what they intend to do in the coming year to be less of a burden on the earth.
And finally, we can support candidates and leaders who are committed to addressing this crisis. Here’s a question for you: Name the greenest city in America. Do you have it? It’s New York City. Yes, New York. It contains more people for less strain on the earth than any other. They have a public transportation system that serves nearly 90% of the city residents, and heating and air conditioning that are more efficient for the numbers in tall high-rises. Compare that with Washington, one of the least green cities, as it continues to spread out to fill one county after another with highways and over-sized homes on properties that require cars and fuel to accomplish anything. Cities and suburbs have much work to do, and it will take courageous political leadership to muster the long-term commitments needed to make the changes that will be required to create sustainable communities.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for the human race, and in fact for the entire planet. Either we will learn new ways beyond a self-centered individualism or millions will suffer and our children and their children will inherit a critically ill world.
When Richard Cizik, the evangelical leader committed to saving the environment, was a guest at our Sunday Forum in the fall, he described a conversation where someone had said to him, “What is the point of the U.S. making a lot of sacrifices for the environment when countries like China and India are only going to make things much worse as they develop?” And I still remember his answer. “First, if the U.S., as the most prosperous nation in the world, won’t lead the way, who will? And, second, if Christians won’t help lead this country, who will?” And then he said, “God isn’t going to ask us whether China or India did their part, but did you do yours?”
That really is the spiritual question for us. Will we deliver a few whacks in the right direction—for God’s sake, for the sake of human lives already at risk, for our children’s sake, and for the sake of the earth itself and our fellow creatures?
[Thanks to Professor Sallie McFague, whose addresses in Vancouver in April, 2008, significantly informed this sermon.]