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The national “Keep It in the Ground” event we are participating in today is called a “preach-in,” but I want to be clear: Preaching is not the most important thing that will happen here today. (Preaching is never the most important thing that happens during worship, but this is even truer here at First Church when the subject is climate change and what to do about it.)
The truth is that whenever the members of the Earth Ministry Team and I get together to talk about having one of these earth-focused, creation-themed, climate-change services, we always come away a bit stumped. After all, it’s not as if we have to convince you that climate change is real; you know that. We don’t need to beat you over the head with mind-numbing facts or horrifying projections about the devastating effects of warming temperatures, extreme weather, melting glaciers, rising seas, and the drowning of entire nations and coastal areas, including major cities in the United States—you know most of that, too. We don’t even have to urge you to live more lightly on the earth; so many of you are already doing so much, from recycling to sustainable gardening, buying local, getting out of your cars, driving hybrids, putting solar panels on your houses, getting your electricity from green suppliers, demonstrating against oil and gas pipelines—and some of you even getting arrested.
You are amazing—and I admire you and love you, but the truth is that sometimes you make this worship-planning thing really hard.
And so we worship planners and preachers end up scratching our heads. We know we all need to do more—but how to we ratchet up a sense of urgency without making you feel guilty? How do we preach God’s good news when the earth’s news is so incredibly bad? How do we sing the Lord’s song of salvation in a world that is groaning and melting and drowning, when entire plant and animal species and human populations are threatened by our devotion to, and dependence, on fossil fuels? Guilt is not the point, of course, but we wonder if maybe we shouldn’t provoke at least a little despair, if we shouldn’t design a service of grief and lament because the earth as we know it is passing away. Yes, we are Easter people, but we understand that the new life of resurrection is preceded by the surrender and death of what is.
But do we really want to have a funeral for the earth? Of course not!
So you know how it goes. We usually end up with a mishmash of urgent exhortations to action and really lovely prayers, poems, songs, and photographs. We avoid dwelling too much on some truly awful information and, instead, try to inspire you with warm, fuzzy feelings about the beauty of the earth. (Hence this morning’s opening hymn.)
Beyond that, however—and I take full responsibility for this—there won’t be much in the way of warm fuzzies today. If you want lovely nature photos, just step outside—spring’s beauty is busting out all over. Where just days ago there was nothing but brown, bare branches and monochromatic views, now the grass is greener than you’ve ever seen, the trees are covered with little baby leaves, and flowers are blooming in a riot of color. Our psalm for today, 148, has all of creation praising God for life: sun and moon and shining stars, sea monsters, mountains and hills and trees, wild animals, creeping things, and flying birds. That’s one of the things we love about God’s creation: it evokes awe and wonder, praise and thanksgiving.
Unfortunately, we haven’t taken care of it as we should. We haven’t always understood, and many still don’t want to accept, our impact on the earth and all the people who live on it. Unfortunately, many years of coal mining, oil drilling, forest clearing, pipeline building, natural-gas welling, mountain-top removal, and all manner of fossil-fuel burning have taken their toll. This past winter was the warmest ever recorded on our planet; we have already warmed the earth’s temperature by one degree Fahrenheit, and another 2.5 degrees are already in the pipeline. As if drowning islands, severe drought, bleached sea coral, melting glaciers, and entire forests dying from the infestation of once-foreign insects weren’t worrisome enough, recently it was discovered that a loon in northern New Hampshire had died of malaria. That’s right: malaria, a tropical disease, in northern New Hampshire.
All the news isn’t bad, of course. In just the past two weeks we in Western Mass. have witnessed some exciting developments: Students at UMass staged peaceful, effective sit-ins, civil-disobedience actions, and rallies to demand that the university divest from fossil fuel companies—and they have won the promise of votes in June. And after two years of grassroots opposition to a 188-mile natural gas pipeline that would have cut through the heart of Western Mass.—some of you here marched and organized against it—Kinder Morgan pulled the plug on the project. And on Earth Day, 175 nations signed onto an historic agreement to combat climate change.
All of that is great, and should be celebrated. But still: We are running out of time. Our earth, and hundreds of millions of people on it, are running out of time.
It just so happened that when the news about the Kinder Morgan pipeline broke, I was standing in line at Amherst Cinema, waiting to see a powerful documentary called “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change.” As you might imagine, the mood was pretty upbeat, almost giddy even—and then the movie started, and it wasn’t long before those feelings were replaced by gloom and doom.
But the movie was about more than what climate change is doing to the earth and to us; it also examined how we are fighting back. It explored the connection between despair and transformation, and argued against the urge to give up. It was very much like the gospel in that way, saying, Yes, the evidence is bleak, but good things are happening. Look at what good people are doing. See the signs of courage, creativity, resilience, generosity, community, love, democracy, and moral imagination at work.
As Christians, that is our challenge as well. In the face of the incredibly bleak facts, we must hold onto God and each other. We must trust that even now, even in the midst of this human-created mess, God is doing a new thing. We must ask where God is, and what the Spirit of New Life is doing amid the destruction, danger, and despair of climate change.
You know our scriptures begin with the story—well, two different stories, actually—of creation. And they end with a vision of re-creation. The new earth, it says, is not some pie-in-the-sky, after-you’re-dead promise. No! It is God’s doing here and now, God’s power and love dwelling with us, and living through us, transforming pain and suffering, healing everything, and making all things new.
Like all resurrection, this is new-making is not magic; it is the result of good, old-fashioned love in action, real and sacrificial and joyful love for our neighbors—neighbors we will never meet, neighbors yet unborn, neighbors who live in the sea and fly through the air and walk on four legs.
Love takes many forms. Love is expressed in many ways, not all of them warm and fuzzy. I think of Jesus in the temple, and how his deep love for his poor and oppressed people made him angry at the system. I think of him turning over tables and driving out the moneychangers who were taking advantage of the poor in the name of religion. That was love in action.
We are focusing this Eastertide on calling and every-member ministry, considering our individual callings and vocations. But we also share common calls, and they include the calls to do justice, to love our neighbors, and to care for God’s precious earth. Given the bleak realities of climate change, I am starting to wonder if all of us aren’t also called to resist the evils of empire, just as Jesus did—to cause trouble, to shake things up, to turn over the tables and plans of the fossil-fuel companies, to do all we can to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to find new life in the gifts of sun and wind.
Among the encouraging stories told in the “How to Let Go of the World…” film is that of the Pacific Climate Warriors. These residents of the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, and other island nations are watching their homes be swallowed up by water. It is already happening—but they are fighting. In 2014 they blocked the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle, Australia, with nothing but their hand-carved canoes. Yes, their victory was extremely short-lived, but their struggle continues.
“We are not drowning,” they chant. “We are fighting!”
We are not drowning. We are fighting.
After the movie ended, some of the younger people in the audience took to the stage. They invited everyone who was 25 and younger to come forward, and then they took turns speaking. They reminded us old people—yes, that is what they called us—that they will be living with the realities of climate change much longer than us. Climate change will shape their lives and their futures. For them and future generations, climate change is not about politics or economics or lifestyle; it is about survival.
These young people were passionate and eloquent. They were not warm and fuzzy, but my heart was filled with both sadness and love for them. They are my neighbors. God is dwelling with them and speaking through them. They are our neighbors, and Jesus calls us to love them with all that we are and all that we have.
Because our God is doing a new thing, even now, we can have hope. Because God’s transforming Spirit is living in us and through us, we can resist all forms of evil and destruction.
We are not despairing. We are being made new.
We are not despairing. We are recreating.
We are not despairing. We are loving our neighbors.
We are not despairing. We are trusting God.
We are not despairing. We are resisting.