Ecology, Sermon

our host, the earth: a sermon

I had the honor of sharing my sermon with a church plant I’ve been part of for the last few months in NYC. 

Psalm 93 
God rules justly, robed in beautiful majesty;
the Mighty One is robed, girded with strength.
God has established the world; it shall never be moved;
your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O God,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea,
majestic on high is the Lord!
Your decrees are very sure;
holiness befits your house,
O Lord, forevermore.

Revelation 12:13-17 
So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the Earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the Earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.

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Please pray with me: O God, the oceans are rising, during our lifetime entire species of animals have become extinct, and climate refugees increase every year. O God, our world is burning, may you burn brighter. Amen.

Today’s subject on ecology and environmentalism is close to my heart. Too many times though I’ve watched preachers or speakers take over lecterns or pulpits to talk about plenty of subjects that they do not know anything about! I myself am no climate scientist but have a few friends in the fields of geology and climate science, that I’ve bounced what I’m going to share about with them.

As for me a few my credentials, within the Presbyterian world last Spring I planned a  weekend retreat for Young Presbys. Our theme was intersectional environmentalism. As well, I’m part of Fossil Free PC(USA) which encourages the denomination to divest from fossil fuels. It has unfortunately failed the last two General Assemblies, but we will not give up!

Last but not least I got into this work after I spent two weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan on a peace delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams and Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. We heard stories from villages across Iraqi Kurdistan who do not have clean water or fertile land to farm because oil companies extract crude oil using toxic chemicals. A brief historical side note, Saddam Hussein hated the Kurds and would not allow oil companies to enter Iraqi Kurdistan. This was to make sure that their economy would suffer. It wasn’t until US troops invaded the country in 2003 with Operation Iraqi Freedom that Iraqi Kurds tasted the abundance of black gold. Oil companies started to enter villages promising hospitals, schools, and jobs, yet sadly, none of it came about. More than just their land and water being toxic, their roads have destroyed by tank trucks carrying oil back and forth and these companies did not hire anyone from IK. One other note, in 2011, one year after the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the disgraced CEO of BP, Tony Hayward created another oil company Genel Energy that has been in IK ever since. It’s as if he thought, where’s the next place, people, and creatures I can exploit…

Ok so those are some of my more recent environmental credentials. Yet, my childhood was full of nature adventures. I was born and raised in Western Maryland and just went back for Thanksgiving with my family. Western Maryland is a thin part of state and the Appalachian Mountains go through it. In a way I grew up hickish, but because of the internet and my music preferences I began to dissociate myself with the culture in my teens. Yet when I was a child, I loved playing in our small creek, (or as I used to call it a crick) next to our house. There I made friends with crayfish, worms, turtles, and dragonflies. I loved that area so much that every summer I used our farming tools to cut down the thorn bushes next to the creek. Looking back on it, I think I wanted to help clean up “the house” of my creature friends. Sadly, since then, every time I go back to the creek, the thorn bushes have taken over.

Now this seems like a good segue into stewardship, to care for our common home. But it’s too dang easy to do that. Honestly, I’m tired of those kinds of conversations. Stewardship seems to focus on the individual instead of the entire system. Yes, yes, please keep up the work of reducing, reusing, and recycling. And as my grandmother taught me, “Think about your need of an item three times, before you purchase it.” Or maybe today it should be updated to say something about not going on shopping apps late at night to tiredly or drunkenly order items.

Stewardship, for me, portrays the same idea that I get from servant leadership. Both believe that because one person changes their actions to be more conscience of how they treat the Earth or one another that things will change. Just because you can be friends with your boss now that they practice servant leadership doesn’t mean that the system is not still inherently oppressive. Rather in a way both of these ideas point to feeling good about yourself. Not that you shouldn’t, but really that’s not the life Christ has called us to.

One other small rabbit hole about stewardship: we have come to think of ourselves as consumers and others treat us as so. Nowadays stewardship seems to be tied to consumerism. I’m sure you remember after that wretched day on 9/11. To comfort US citizens, President Bush said to continue shopping or to even go to Disneyland. In other words, live care-free and keeping buying! But Thank God, we are more than consumers.
We are called by God to be a spirit empowered community!
We are called to follow a Jesus who taught abundance, not scarcity! We are called to be in the Way of injustice and to lift up love! Thanks be!
So if I’m not going to speak our ethical and moral obligation to one another and to God, what am I going to speak on? Interdependence, of course.
These past two weeks we saw a full display of environmental interdependence.

At the beginning of last week, we learned that the Mid Atlantic experienced smoke from California’s wildfires. Even if we think that we are exempt from this tragedy, think again.
Nearly 14,000 homes were destroyed
84 people have died, so far
605 people are still missing
And around 52,000 people have been displaced.
May God be with them!

On Thanksgiving, after eating my meal, I was scrolling through Twitter, and saw Mari Copeny’s tweet “Went through a 40 pack of water cooking Thanksgiving Dinner.” Flint, MI still does not have clean water.

Then on Black Friday, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released. President George HW Bush signed The Global Change Research Act of 1990 which mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the President no less than every four years. This Administration purposely posted the fourth report on Black Friday in hopes that it would be buried by other news.

This report is stark, showing how “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”
When I listened to NPR interview one of the scientists on this project, he said, “It’s no longer about how climate change will affect our children or grandchildren. It’s happening now.” And to that I say God help us all.

And a little more news about Black Friday, much shopping was done. One shopper was shot and two were stabbed in disputes over items. This is disturbing, but sadly not surprising.

Today’s passages seem to be conversation partners about the Earth.
In Psalm 93, we hear of a God who is majestic and in control. Today in the Christian Calendar is Reign of Christ Sunday, so it makes sense why this passage would be chosen.

The middle section reads:
“God has established the world;
it shall never be moved;

your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O God,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.”

In the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and Canaan, divine kingship was established by victory over the sea and the deep. Our passage speaks of a God who not only controls the world and waters, but that they are roaring and lifting up their voice to God.

I think it’s beautiful to bless God’s majesty, but I think this passage is referring to a bit more. The water speaks, shows kindness and love, and even praises the Creator. As a child I think I was more in tune with that. In tune with how at my parent’s flower shop, dish gardens could liven up when I’d sing to them, with how the clayfish stopped pinching me after they got to know me after a while, how the tree I planted on Arbor Day in the mid 90’s grew and grew on the side of my hill because I would visit with it every day. 
The seas and Earth worship God. Are we paying attention or are our headphones blocking out such adoration?

Our second passage from Revelation is a doozy. I remember reading it for the first time in seminary in a class dedicated to Revelation and being blown away.

Let me give you a little context. When we think about Christmas narratives, we often head to Matthew or Luke for the story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem. The writer of Revelation though has a different idea. A cosmic woman, who we can assume is a Mary-like figure is in heaven and she’s pregnant. She starts to go into labor and the dragon, Satan, is also in heaven waiting for the baby to be born. This starts Revelation 12. Cosmic Woman and Dr. Dragon. This sounds like a band that I’d go watch. Anyway, as she births the male child, he is snatched away by an angel and taken to God’s throne. A war then breaks out in heaven. The cosmic woman heads to Earth for refuge. And here’s where our verses begin. 

Every time I read this, I am in awe. The cosmic woman is nourished in the wilderness. One note about the wilderness in books attributed to John. The wilderness functions as a place of witness (John 1:23), salvific healing (3:14), provision (6:31, 49), and protection (11:54). All of these are present in this passage. The cosmic women bears witness to God’s glory and protection, by resting in a place God had prepared, and she’s offered protection.

The Earth fights for the woman. Often when we read Scripture or think generally about the Earth, it’s always passive or reactive. We have more intense hurricanes because of climate change. The Earth is not doing it; rather we have created this situation.

Yet it’s time for us to think of the Earth, not as only creation, but as a creature. A creature that speaks, reacts, fights, and heals.

Our lives are intertwined with the Earth, whether we know it or not. The Earth is not just our home, but in a way our host. The Earth has everything that we need to survive and thrive.

I was listening to the rather strange philosopher Slavoj Zizek earlier this week. He’s written tons on ideology and was sharing about when he debates with others on environmental issues. He said that all they do is quote disparaging facts to him. Then, he says something I’ve never him his say before, “The function of Ideology is no longer to paint an idealized image, like that the world is not as bad as we think or that things can get better. Nor is ideology even used to oppress much, state power already does that. Today ideology kills hope.” May we not allow our hope to be killed by being overwhelmed by facts and figures.

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All sermons are fragments. Pieces of a puzzle in a box without a picture. This certainly stands true for my sermon. Out of this mess though I have a few conclusions:

I. Be vigilant
As I said earlier keep up with reduce, reuse, and recycle. Try not to buy as much. Discern each purchase.

II. Be proactive
The Historian Howard Zinn was right. It’s not always the lawmakers who change the world, but it’s those who take to the streets.
He said, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

III. Promote the commons
I took a train from my parents’ house back to Philly yesterday. A trip that I’ve made many times, but during my layover in DC’s Union Station, I noticed that the benches I used to sit on were all gone. The only places to sit were ones where I had to buy a meal or coffee. We need to create spaces where one does not need to buy anything! Let’s not privatize any more of the world.

IV. Fight back
Communities of color are on the frontlines of climate change. Need I remind you of New Orleans, Puerto Rico, the droughts in Somalia and other countries in Africa. We must amplify their stories and struggles. Climate change refugees have been created because of us. May we open our arms wide in hospitality and love.

As we continue to do our part to struggle against this Administration’s lack of compassion. May we remember that God always stands on the side of the poor and oppressed, that means the Earth too. May we stand as a community with God, no matter the risk. Amen.

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