AT HOME ON EARTH—Owning the Devastation

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AT HOME ON EARTH—Christian Spirituality in a Time of Climate Change
Part 1 – Honesty: Owning the Devastation (PDF here) (video here)
Sermon by David Weiss
Grace Lutheran Church & St. John’s Lutheran Church, September 11, 2016
Worship in Owen Park, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Text: Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is a good psalm for us today. Let me explain.

It’s not my parents’ world anymore. They’re still alive. Dad turns 80 in just two weeks; Mom’s two years ahead of him. But this is no longer the world they grew up in. It’s barely my world anymore, for that matter. People my age and older, we live on a different planet today than the one we were born on. And future generations—our children and grandchildren and beyond—they’re counting on us to make new choices for this new planet.

My daughter, Susanna, for instance, was born into a world altogether different than the one my parents knew. Within Susanna’s lifetime—in fact, just since she was a toddler in 1998, she’s lived through all sixteen of the hottest years on this planet since 1880.

Why “since 1880”? Because that’s the year we finally had enough accurate temperature reports from around the world to calculate a true “average global temperature.” Since then we’ve kept very precise records.

And according to those records, out of the past 136 years, every one of the hottest sixteen years has happened during her lifetime. I’ll read them off, so you can FEEL the weight of this heat. Susanna was born in 1996. The hottest 16 years since we began measuring them in 1880 have been 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. By the end of this year, she’ll—no doubt—add 2016 to her collection.

I also have nine grandchildren; two of them, Eli and John, are about two-and-a-half years old. Last spring—in May 2015, to be specific—they experienced the hottest May recorded on the planet since 1880. And then the hottest June and July, followed by the hottest August, September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, and most recently the hottest July on record. August data isn’t in yet, but for fifteen consecutive monthsmore than half of their young lives—they’ve lived month-to-month through the hottest months experienced by anyone alive today. My grandchildren. And yours.

So, it IS a different planet that we dwell on today. And the wellbeing of those who come after us hinges—perhaps more than at any point in this planet’s four-billion years—on the choices made by those of us alive today.

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

Psalm 51 is indeed a good psalm for us today … a good psalm for an apocalypse. While the word has come to mean “the end of the world,” biblically “apocalypse” meant the ending of one world—and the beginning of another, usually connected to the fall of an empire. It meant, for better or for worse, “the end of the world as we know it.” TODAY we’re living through that type of Apocalypse. The world that we will bequeath to our children is NOT the world we were born into. That world … IS NO MORE.

My dad was born in 1936. Of all the oil ever pumped and burned by humans, 98% has been pumped and burned just in his lifetime. My son was born in 1987. In his 29 years, more than half of all the greenhouse gasses generated by human activity have sailed upward into the atmosphere.

As for me, over the course of my 56 years, of all the “stuff”—from stone implements to crops, clothing to processed foods, jewelry to high tech gadgets—of all the “stuff” that’s been fashioned for and consumed by humans over 10,000 years of human civilization, HALF of that stuff, half of 10,000 years of stuff has been produced and consumed in my lifetime.

If Earth were a candle, it would be only too accurate to say that lately we’ve been burning the wick at both ends. Is it any wonder it’s getting a whole lot hotter in between? But it isn’t just the temperature. It’s the whole set of cascading consequences.

Year-round sea ice has now virtually disappeared in the polar regions, releasing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and contributing over the long range to both the rise in ocean temperatures and the rise in sea levels.

Increasing carbon dioxide in the air drives ocean acidification which, in turn, harms coral, shellfish, and plankton—the very infrastructure of the ocean ecosystem.

As news reports relate—as our own experience confirms, storm intensity is growing, along with the severity and frequency of flooding, water shortages, and droughts. It’s like the whole planet is running a fever, complete with body aches and vomiting.

Here in the U.S. we use water at twice the rate our equally developed European neighbors do. And—we, who more stalwartly than any other developed country insist on claiming our Christianity—we consume the resources of this finite planet at a pace that imagines we have FOUR Earths to plunder rather than simply the one blue-green orb that appears on the photos from space: breathtakingly beautiful but always singular.

Since the first Earth Day, initiated in 1970 by your own Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, the human population on Earth has more than doubled; but during that same time period the total population of wild animals on the planet has been cut in half. By the time my grandchildren reach my age up to one third of all plant and animals species alive today will face extinction.

And nearly all the consequences of climate change will fall first and hardest on those least able to adapt: the poor. Well, animals, plants, ecosystems—and the poor. So, “What now?” How do we think—feel—act—as individuals and as communities of faith—in a time of climate change … in a time of apocalypse?

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

In the spirit of Psalm 51, we begin by honestly owning the devastation. Commissioned by God in Genesis 2 to “tend the Garden,” we have tended it with such vengeance that the garden now wilts before us. And so Pope Francis implores us to hear our own sister, Mother Earth, as she cries out. How shall we respond?

THIS IS TOUGH: WE NEED TO JUST STOP AND WEEP. We’d rather do something. When we finally realize the extent to which climate change is going to rewrite the options for our grandchildren’s future on this planet, we want to do something. Now. Even among the experts who speak with sobering clarity about the crisis we face, there is an impatience to say, “But there’s hope, there’s technology just around the corner that can help us …”

There MAY be great technological breakthroughs that can aid us in the decades ahead, but if we do not first come to terms with the insatiable and idolatrous pursuit of stuff that has crept into the entirety of our lives—that has irreparably … APOCALYPTICALLY … altered our planet—then no amount of technology will safeguard for long either the planet … or our souls.

When Grace Lutheran invited me to speak on Christian Faith and Climate Change, I eagerly agreed, but I also said, NOT in a single talk. I know people—myself included—like things neatly and conveniently packaged. But climate change is not like that. If you squeeze everything into a single talk—a single sermon no less—you trick people into thinking they’ve actually accomplished something just because they heard the whole talk from start to finish. No.

I will talk about HOPE and RESISTANCE. Next month. Not today. Because I’m convinced—absolutely—that if the church has something it can bring to the challenge, the crisis of climate change, it’s the capacity for repentance and tears. That’s what we need most of all. That’s why Psalm 51 is so appropriate.

Because if we—the people of God called to be faithful in this moment of Apocalypse—if we want to do something truly profound, it will be to allow ourselves to feel the full grief of where we are. And only act, only do, after that grief has washed over us. I’m not talking about despair. I’m talking about raw grief. Deep lament.

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

In order to truly place this psalm on our lips—for the sake of our children and grandchildren, for all future generations—we need to be willing to be wrenched in our gut. Before we dare reach the end of the Psalm and ask too quickly for a clean heart, we need to own, in these hearts, the depth of the earth’s wounds. But how do we endure such anguish without being swallowed by the grief itself? I’ll conclude with four honest words about this.

First, I can’t promise that we’re up to this. A century ago, even a few decades ago, we still were. But today, having inflicted such wounds on this planet—on God’s creation—can we now bear the grief that is ours to own? I don’t know. It is unquestionably OUR grief. The result of OUR sin. But the sobering depth of this climate crisis is such that we dare not assume we can endure this grief. Until we feel that level of trepidation we have not sensed the peril we’re in.

Second, I believe we’d be wise to anchor our grief in a renewed sense of who we are and where we fit in the Garden we were commissioned to tend. The Genesis 2 creation account tells us that God fashioned “Adam” from the dust of the ground. That’s what the English tells us, anyway. The Hebrew is more evocative. There we learn that God formed an adam from the adamah: literally, that God fashioned an earthling from the earth, or, as I like to say, a HUMUS BEING from the HUMUS.

That etymological—and ecological—truth about our profound kinship to the ground, reminds us that, from Eden onward, we were intended for intimacy: humus beings, commissioned by God to tend the humus, caretakers of the Garden to which we are indelibly linked.

Enhanced today with scientific insight, this is no small thing to know about ourselves: we are humus being, with stardust-laden iron in our veins, and the breath of God in our lungs. Recalling—reclaiming this truth can help sustain us in lament and enable us to grieve for creation as our own kin. Carrying us at last to the place where we fully yearn for a clean heart.

Third, as we embrace this deep lament, God—Emmanuel—will be with us. The biblical story tells—again and again and again—from Eden to Exile; from slavery to crucifixion that God has always accompanied God’s people through their worst times—and will do so yet today.

Which is why, like Psalm 51, our lament should be spiritually shaped. From litany to hymn, from public ritual to personal devotion, from communal prayer to grief groups (and more) we must get serious, creative, and thoroughly spiritual about the work of lament. As a church, both for ourselves and for our world, we must help midwife the largest act of communal repentance the world has ever seen.

And the resounding anguish of sustained lament may be the only thing that can truly stir us to this repentance. Who knows whether it is even possible. I don’t. But I know this. As humus beings entrusted to tend the humus beneath our feet (indeed the whole created world), we must tend it today, first with our tears and in the company of God—Emmanuel—who is with us.

This will take … years. It is not all that we can or should do. There is HOPE. There is RESISTANCE. And we’ll need to start those works right away as well. But the great temptation is to hurry past anguish, to rush through repentance, but THIS is where our work begins. In a bitter, but absolutely essential first step.

Finally, I can offer a balm. Without forgetting that the deep ecological call of Christian discipleship today is to enter as fully as possible into lament for the Earth, ALONG THE WAY it is also possible to simply do good work together—as you will today after lunch. Doing God’s work through our hands in deeds of community service is a balm that can ease the bitterness. Moreover, it not only accomplishes much good in our communities, it also weaves bonds with one another that can steady us in the days, months, years ahead.

I hope, while offering your service this afternoon, as you work side by side, that you talk about the challenging words of my message today. That you begin asking what shape this lament will take in your personal and communal lives. And that you return on October 9 and October 30 to hear about the HOPE and the RESISTANCE that is needed as well.

All of this is God’s work. All of it commissioned into our hearts. All of it laid upon our hands. All of it watered by our tears. May it be so. Amen.

 

AT HOME ON EARTH—Christian Spirituality in a Time of Climate Change

Part 2 – Haunted by a Holy Hope
7:30 p.m. – Ecumenical Religious Center, UW/Eau Claire, Lower Campus

Part 3 – Resistance: Prophetic Faith
7 p.m. – Grace Lutheran Church, 202 W. Grand. Ave., Eau Claire

 

 

David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

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One thought on “AT HOME ON EARTH—Owning the Devastation

  1. I really appreciated the references to your Dad since he and I share the same birth year. Watching the world for these past 80 years has been exciting and terrifying. How I wish I was leaving my grandchildren a better world than I was given. Sadly I have to admit our generations have failed to do so.

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