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God’s Green Earth

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Quiet voices and faith activists, a pope and a scientist all call for action – now – to break free of fossil fuels. A reflection from Pastor Phil.

Today’s texts: Psalm 24 and Ephesians 1: 3-14

By Pastor Phil
By Pastor Phil

Everything seemed on track for the delegates at the General Synod of the UCC last month to adopt a reasonably strong resolution calling on the U.S. to totally move away from fossil fuels – coal, oil, natural gas – as an energy source.

It was a bold resolution, to be sure. A resolution in line with the United Church of Christ’s long-time commitment to caring for the earth and for environmental justice.

Wind powerAnd then our own Karin Wells walked up to one of the microphones during the debate. She proposed an amendment – an amendment that would be seconded by Heide Hackman, the pastor at the UCC congregation in Belleville. It only changed a couple of small numbers in the resolution, but it made a huge impact in the urgency of the statement the UCC was considering making.

The original language called for breaking free of fossil fuels by 2080. Karin had listened to the educational presentations during the week, had studied the issue of how fossil fuels are primary factors in accelerating global climate change. She reasonably concluded that waiting until 2080 would be way too late to change the disastrous course we are on.

So she proposed calling for an end to our dependence on fossil fuels by 2040. The amendment was adopted. The resolution passed. (Here’s the text)

Now those of you who know Karin know that she is rather quiet, not exactly a firebrand. But those of you who know her also know that she is a woman of deep convictions, an incredibly smart person with a PhD in economics and someone who is not easily dissuaded once she sees the principle underlying an issue.

Our first reading today came from one of those beautiful Psalms that celebrates the earth as God’s wonderful creation. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too. Because God is the one who established it on the seas; God set it firmly on the waters.”

Our second reading from the letter to the people of Ephesus reminded us that God is in the midst of us and all that is around us: “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”

Karin’s willingness to be bold about what needs to be done, the UCC’s willingness to push for urgent action to move the world away from its dependence on fossil fuels, reflect the messages in those scripture readings. They are a reminder to all of us that part of our calling as followers of Jesus, as people whose world view is shaped in part by the writers of our scriptures – our calling is to care for the earth and to protect those places and those people that are most vulnerable.

We reflected a few weeks ago on the remarkable encyclical by Pope Francis calling on the world to acknowledge the role we humans have played in accelerating climate change and the disproportionate impact those changes are having on the poorest residents of this planet.

EcuadorPopeHe has been reinforcing that message this past week as he has traveled through Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, linking the impacts on the environment with the effects on the poor. And you can be sure we will be hearing more of it when Pope Francis visits the United States in late September.

But we also know that the accelerating climate change affects all of us and that, as residents of a nation that is driven by an economy of consumption, we are contributing disproportionately to that acceleration.

Let me draw on a few voices this morning as we reflect on how we might live on this earth that is the Lord’s, on how we might be part of bringing all things together in Christ rather than separating ourselves from one another, from the beauty of this earth and, ultimately, from God.

One of those voices is our own United Church of Christ. Another is a faith-driven climate activist named Tim DeChristopher. A third is a local resident who has helped shape the idea of creation care within Christianity.

When the UCC General Synod adopted this resolution last month calling for an urgent transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, it was not the first time our denomination has waded into the streams of environmental awareness. Starting in the mid-1980s, the UCC helped focus on the justice dimensions of environmental degradation, bringing awareness to how the poorest communities were often used as the dumping grounds for the toxic wastes of our society.

Now, without letting go of that concern for how poor areas are used as environmental dumping grounds, the UCC is stepping up its emphasis on the need to shift away from a fossil-fuel based lifestyle.

As it says at the beginning of the resolution adopted last month, if we don’t act with urgency, “all life on earth will likely experience previously unknown devastating results, including drought, wildfires, extreme precipitation and cyclones, drinking water scarcity, diminished food production, population migrations, human mortality, violent conflict and species extinction, thereby upsetting the whole ecology of Earth.”

The main driver of this accelerated climate change is the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide emissions – and the burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of that. In the U.S. alone, carbon dioxide emissions increased 7 percent from 1990 to 2013.

But all is not hopeless. The U.S. emissions of CO2 peaked in 2008 and have decreased since then – although they are still above the 1990 level. And gasoline consumption – the biggest source of CO2 emissions – has dropped 4 percent since 2007.

This is a result of both popular support and governmental action. We can make changes. But it is not enough. Since 1900 – that’s 115 years ago – fossil fuels have accounted for 80 percent of the fuel mix for energy in the U.S. Renewable sources of energy – water, wind, solar – now make up 10 percent of that mix – but it is a growing sector. It’s just not growing fast enough.

Here’s an interesting story from Denmark in the past week. Last Thursday was an unusually windy day there and its wind farms generated enough power not only to meet all of its electricity demand, but to export power to Norway, Germany and Sweden.

Yes, that was an unusual day, but the growth in wind-farm installations in Denmark means that nation could be producing half of its electricity from renewable sources well before its target date of 2020.

So things can change. But to push that change forward, it means people like us need to take seriously what our delegates said last month: “The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is among the most compelling and urgent moral issues of our times.”

Tim DeChristopher
Tim DeChristopher

Tim DeChristopher has been living his life with that conviction. He is now a student at the Harvard Divinity School, but before he wound up there, he spent some time in a federal prison for his activism trying to stop the sale of public lands in Utah by pretending to be a legitimate bidder and driving up the price at an auction.

DeChristopher argues that “when religious people answer the call of the climate crisis, we must bring real moral leadership to the climate justice movement.” And he has some specific ideas.

One is “a change in consumer behavior, reducing one’s personal carbon footprint.” This is familiar and something each of us can work on. Then there is our collective consumption and ways we try to impact our organizational carbon footprint.” We’ve been working on that at Memorial over the years and, as with reducing our individual carbon footprint, it’s an on-going process.

But DeChristopher reminds us that we need to see ourselves as more than simply consumers. He writes that “churches are uniquely suited to develop our identities as children of God, pieces of an interdependent web of existence, or bearers of divine sparks of creativity.” And then, he says, “We need religious communities to lead, challenge, and deepen the climate movement.” That’s a piece of what the UCC was doing with its resolution on fossil fuels.

DeChristopher notes that “the fossil fuel industry has made it quite clear that they will not relinquish those trillions in future profits without an intense fight. To be at all serious about climate justice means being willing to engage in a real struggle that will inevitably demand real sacrifices.”

And when that struggle gets hard, DeChristopher argues, one of the gifts that faith communities bring to the table is hope. Not optimism. Hope. Trust that God will be with us in this struggle. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners likes to say, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.”

DeCristopher put it this way: “In those dark moments we continue to struggle for justice, because that is what it means to be faithful to the people we love, to be faithful to the world we love, and to be faithful to a God who loves the world.”

Cal DeWitt
Cal DeWitt

One of the places where we can draw that hope is from our scriptures, the place that reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Someone who has helped Christians in this country understand that is Cal DeWitt, a professor at the UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and a resident of the Town of Dunn, just down the road a piece.

He has been at the forefront of a movement known as “creation care” that has had particular resonance in the more evangelical branches of Christianity. A few years ago, Harper One published an edition of the Bible known as The Green Bible. It used the familiar New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, but it highlighted the passages referring to the environment in green ink.

The Green Bible also included essays at the beginning by a variety of theologians and religious leaders. Cal DeWitt wrote an essay titled “Reading the Bible Through A Green Lens.”

He began by saying, “The Bible is hardly a minor contributor on writings about caring for creation. In fact, the Bible turns out to be a powerful ecological handbook on how to live rightly on earth.”

He goes on to counter some of the misstatements about how people have misused the Bible and religion to ignore what is happening to our earth. He writes that “Our goal is to make tending the garden of creation, in all its aspects, an unquestioned and all-pervasive part of our service to each other, to our community, to God’s world.”

To do that, he calls for greater awareness of what is happening to God’s creation, greater appreciation of the natural world and then a sense of stewardship that will lead us to restore what has been degraded.

Listen to those voices around us.

From the rich heritage of Catholicism, we have the eloquent voice of Pope Francis calling us to work together to change the trajectory of climate change and to protect those who are most vulnerable to its effects. He is also calling us to let go of a consumer mentality that puts material things over human welfare.

From the broad reach of evangelical Christianity, we have the thoughtful voice of Cal DeWitt inviting us to think about our scriptural heritage in new ways that reflect a deeper understanding of what it means to care for creation.

From the front lines of environmental activism, we have the voice of Tim DeChristopher calling on us as members of a faith community not only to take the lead in pushing for changes in the use of fossil fuels, but also to give people that sense of hope they need in the midst of gigantic struggles for social change.

And then we have the voice of our own UCC, amplified by the quiet voice of Karin Wells, to move the world on a more sustainable path.

Let’s add our own voices to an appreciation of the wonders of this world. There’s a simple hymn we might sing together. It’s #32 – “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale.” It reminds us that we are with all of God’s creatures, that, in the words that letter to the Ephesians, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.” Let’s sing the first four verses.