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Sunday, May 5, 2019 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
To Worry or Not to Worry
"Big Questions" Sermon Series
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.
In an era when there was heated discussion in churches about the “right” way to baptize, someone engaged the great humorist Mark Twain in the debate. They asked him, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” Twain responded, “Believe in it? [Heck], I’ve seen it!”
In our time when there is heated discussion about climate change, if someone asked us, “Do you believe in climate change?” we could answer, “Believe in it? We’ve seen it!”
I have seen it directly in Alaska, where my sister-in-law has lived for forty-seven years. Over the past sixty years, the average temperature across Alaska has increased by approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Warming in the winter has increased by an average of 6 degrees. Glaciers are melting at such an alarming rate that they are expected to disappear completely if nothing changes. The permafrost is thawing, causing ice to melt and the soil to sink. Eighty percent of Alaska’s surface lies above permafrost. Its melting is damaging highways, railroads, airstrips, and homes. (This and the following information about Alaska is taken from a January 2017 snapshot from the United States Environmental Protection Agency: www.bit.ly/2H5cNy3)
Climate change is also causing changes in lakes, ponds, wetlands, plant composition, and wildfires that impact human health, wildlife, and ecosystems. The melting of polar ice is causing sea levels to rise, which directly threatens whole communities and cultures of people and species who live close to coastal waters. This includes not only Native Alaskans, but many indigenous people who live on islands throughout the world and places like Bangladesh, where 85 percent of the population lives—or used to live—on coastland.
Creation is an amazing, holistic, organic balance both fragile and resilient. It is so intricately intertwined that when one part changes, much more is affected. Lakes in Alaska and elsewhere are shrinking through a combination of increased evaporation caused by warmer temperatures, permafrost thaw that allows lakes to drain more readily, and greater accumulation of decomposing plant material on lake bottoms caused by greater plant growth. Surface waters and wetlands provide breeding habitat for millions of waterfowl and shorebirds. These threatened wetland ecosystems and wildlife resources are also important to Alaska Natives who hunt and fish for food. In addition, as the climate warms, in some areas of the tundra, shrubs are replacing lichens. Lichens are an important winter food source for caribou. Caribou, in turn, are a critical food source for predators such as bears and wolves, as well as for some Alaska Natives.
Alaska Native peoples depend economically, nutritionally, and culturally on fishing and hunting animals, including polar bears, walruses, seals, caribou, and fish. As the supply of fish and game decline, they are being forced to seek alternative food sources. Climate change is also increasing erosion and flooding along Alaska’s northwestern coast. The health of native communities is also threatened by loss of clean water, saltwater intrusion, and sewage contamination from thawing permafrost, as well as by the northward expansion of diseases. Warming also increases exposure to pollutants, such as mercury and organic pesticides, that have been transported to Arctic regions and are released from thawing soils. More than thirty Native villages are either in the process of or in need of relocating their entire village. However, due to high costs and land constraints, tribal communities in Alaska have been experiencing difficulty relocating to safer areas.
Alaska is home to more than 200 federally recognized tribes who are already experiencing the impacts of climate change in their everyday lives. They are but a portion of millions upon millions of people in the world who may end up as “climate refugees”—people in need of finding a new home because where they, and where generations of their ancestors have lived and been able to grow their own food, is no longer habitable (Climate Refugees, documentary by Michael Nash and Justin Hogan, 2011).
You don’t have to go to Alaska to see the impact of climate change. All of us are frequently hearing about increased flooding, hurricanes, cyclones, drought, wildfires, desertification of former croplands, all related to climate change. Climate change is here.
Today marks the first of a sermon series based on one of the “big questions” the congregation submitted. Today’s question is, “If God is in control, why should we care for creation?”
There are beautiful passages in the Bible that praise God for the ways God provides for all creation, such as Psalm 23, which the choir just sang. We heard Jesus teach us not to worry about what we’re going to eat or drink or wear, because God provides for us. We are to know this by looking at how God provides for the beautiful lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
But what if the habitats for the birds and flowers have dried up or flooded out so they can no longer thrive? What does this scripture mean when 8 million tons of plastic wash into the oceans each year impacting every single marine ecosystem?
We need to dig deeply into what the Matthew story means. Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farms in the 1950s, had this to say about this scripture text:
I think [Jesus] is setting forth here great spiritual laws of the universe—that God will provide for all who will let him. The only ones [God] won’t provide for are those who won’t let him. . . . [God] provides for everything that will let him. Jesus is setting forth a great spiritual law that operates just as certainly and as surely as the law of gravity. . . . If you’ll set your heart first on the God Movement and its kind of life and center yourself around its concepts, then he says, all of these things will come as a matter of course.
Suppose now this little lily that [Jesus] was talking about . . . says, “You know, I don’t like it out here in this field. . . . I want to get in a better environment. The cultural opportunities are horrible out here. So I think maybe I’m just going to write to my cousin in the town and see if he can’t find me an apartment and I’m going to move in there.” Suppose that little lily has the free will, as we have, to determine his own conduct and can move into the city and live on the concrete. Jesus is not saying to that little lily, “Take no thought about tomorrow.” It had better! It won’t let God take care of it; it had better take care of itself. So long as it will stay in the environment which God intended for it, God will care for it. But when it wants to govern its own course, then it takes itself out of God’s care. (Clarence Jordan, The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons, pp. 83–85)
Let me repeat that: “So long as it will stay in the environment which God intended for it, God will care for it. But when it wants to govern its own course, then it takes itself out of God’s care.”
Since the industrial era began, humanity has been governing our own course by exploiting the earth in ways that make the earth uninhabitable, for other species and ourselves. God has designed creation with built-in consequences. When you forget leftovers in the back of the fridge and discover them weeks later, it’s guaranteed you will find them covered with fuzzy mold or sour-tasting discoloration. When you smoke a lot of cigarettes, you increase your likelihood of lung cancer. When you eat a lot of processed foods with many preservatives instead of a mostly plant-based diet, you increase risks to your health and shorten your lifespan. When too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels—coal, gas, oil—and cutting down trees, our planet’s atmosphere becomes like a thick, heat-trapping blanket. Climate change has resulted. We have not preserved the environment that God intended for us and through which God can care for us.
Two people were conversing about what causes climate change: nature or humanity. One said, “I really hope it is caused by humanity, because then we can do something about it” (Climate Refugees). Ninety-nine percent of scientists who have studied climate change believe it is caused by humanity. If there is any good news here, it is that God has given us the ability to respond to this dire crisis.
Not only has God given us the ability to respond but the responsibility. Psalm 8 proclaims that God has made human beings a little lower than God, crowned us with glory and honor, and given us dominion over the work of God’s hands, putting all things under our feet: all sheep and caribou, the birds of the air and fish of the sea, polar bears and penguins, whatever resides in the fields and forests. God has given us charge over all creation. The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), said, “The evidence is there, not simply science, but as our call as Christians to protect the earth. It has been given to us by a God of creation. We have been given dominion, but dominion does not mean domination. It means as stewards we have a responsibility to take care of the earth. We should take seriously the understanding of what it means to be involved in climate and climate change.”
When we are good stewards of all creation, when we live according to the great laws of how God has designed and ordered our environment, we let God not only provide for us but for all God’s creatures.
Here at Fourth Church, our Care of Creation Committee is leading several efforts toward our church being a better steward of the earth. They are discouraging the one-time use of all plastic and Styrofoam, including stir sticks. In fact, as a church we need to avoid using all disposables; paper plates and plastic utensils consume resources unnecessarily and release environmental toxins as they degrade in landfills. Biodegradable disposables are often made from food (such as corn or potatoes) that could have otherwise been used to feed people. Instead let’s use dishes and silverware that can be reused, and enjoy one another’s fellowship while we do the dishes. Today the Care of Creation Committee is launching a pilot program of composting both disposables and food waste. Our hope is to sustain this for the long-term. The World Mission and Social Justice Committee has also recommended a task force be formed to explore the best ways to influence energy companies to move away from production of fossil fuels and towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar.
Here are some other action steps you can take to reduce greenhouse emissions:
Urge our political leaders to involve the United States in collaborative efforts with other nations through the Paris climate agreement. Push legislators to develop a national climate policy. Currently there is a bill called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019, which would impose a fee on producers or importers of the fuels that emit greenhouse gasses. Urge your representatives to pass it.
Push yourself and others to use and invest in cleaner, healthier renewable energy. 2019 saw the first month in the U.S. in which more energy came from renewable sources than from coal. Even if you can’t install solar panels or a wind turbine, you can join a local renewable energy co-op.
Whenever you can, take public transportation, walk or bicycle, carpool, drive electric or hybrid cars, fly less, or try the city’s new electric scooter pilot to move around. You can also offset emissions by planting trees.
Conserve energy by using energy-efficient lightbulbs, turning lights off, unplugging electronics when not in use; washing clothes in cold or warm (instead of hot) water; hand drying laundry, winterizing your home, and installing a programmable thermostat.
Don’t eat too much food, and when you do, eat mostly plants and less meat, buy organic and local whenever possible, don’t waste food, and grow your own. Consume less, waste less, and enjoy life more. Sharing, making, fixing, upcycling (or creatively reusing), repurposing and composting are all good places to start. Reconnect with nature and other people for the sake of your health and mental well-being. (David Suzuki Foundation, “10 Things You Can Do about Climate Change,” 3 July 2018, www.davidsuzuki.org).
Clarence Jordan preached that God’s promise to provide us with all we need was a promise given only to those who were willing first to set their eyes on one object, and that is the kingdom of God and its righteousness. The kingdom of God is the environment in which God can care for us, one in which we remember and respect that we are all connected; we share one home, the earth. God can care for us when we look out for one another and for future generations and protect creation. The “little” decisions about what we buy, how we get places, and ways we live all add up and impact people and the planet. Together, we can live into God’s call, because God has given us the responsibility, the ability to respond, the hope and the vision. Together we can live into God’s call to build a world based on better not more, sharing not selfishness, community not division, where all can share in the abundant life that God intends. Amen.