Texts: Psalm 29, John 3:1-17
Theme: We need a true conversion of heart and life to begin to engage – and continue – the real work of caring for the environment and those hurt by the destruction of it.
Subject: Earth Care
I had the opportunity this last Wednesday evening, Thursday and Friday morning to spend time at our Minnesota Conference church camp, Pilgrim Point, near Alexandra, MN. I walked quiet trails in its woods and along the shoreline of Lake Ida, fell asleep to the sound of lapping waves, toasted marshmallows over a fire. It was a welcome change – a slow-down and simplifying time – after the accelerated pace of life of the early weeks of May. I wonder: how long as it been since you enjoyed time in that kind of place? (Too long, you would probably say.) In such a refreshing natural setting, it seems pretty logical to also learn more about defending and preserving our beautiful, but threatened world.
Do any of us really need to talk any more about whether or not climate change is real? It’s difficult to determine exactly how many believers there are out there. But in 2008 Gallup surveyed and reported – with what they said was an estimated accuracy rate of 95% – that 61% of the world’s people are aware of global warning. There was less agreement on whether it was caused by human activity and whether it was a real threat. But most active climate scientists – 97% – viewed it as a threat in 2012. They would also say that human activity – not natural earth cycles – is a primary driver of the present warm-up.
12 of us – seven lay people, three church-based clergy and 2 conference staff gathered at Pilgrim Point to learn about what’s called environmental justice. The term was actually first coined by our United Church of Christ in the 1980’s when they studied the location of toxic chemical dumps and people in poverty. Environmental, of course, refers to relating to the natural world; since we human beings are part of that world our presence and activity are included in it. Most of us would likely say justice is a harder word to define. As Christians we know it involves God, whose authority over us and nature we hear of in Psalm 29. God “speaks” in that very realm of nature that we enjoy and seek out to “reset” ourselves. We see and hear God is in action in that world. And God rules – or God’s ways prevail – in that world. That’s partly through justice – creating and maintaining right relationships between the inhabitants of God’s creation – throughout that creation. .Right relationships are those that are good, positive, all-including, life-enhancing ones for all parties involved in the relationships. Which means we cannot leave out the vulnerable, the less-able or those who can’t speak or wave their appendages wildly enough – or cry out loud enough – to get our attention.
Justice, of course, is not just an attitude we hold but is also shown in our just actions. And here is where holding to and living in a spirit of earth care and of justice gets really difficult. Wade Zick, director of Pilgrim Point Camp, was part of our group. He talked about the discussion that took place arguing for and against the use of poison to deal with the mouse dilemma in the Annex and question of grounds clean-up weighed against how the camp should “look” in order to attract and please campers.
These, of course, are small examples. And for many of us that’s where caring for our environment begins – in the everyday decisions we make about our care and use of what we have. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that for each of us, together, the way we use the total sum of our world’s resources is NOT sustainable. And that’s a sure thing. (Right now, we use the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide for our needs and absorb our waste according to Global Footprint Network, a widely respected international non-profit research group*,) And it’s easy to despair.
So we talked about despair – and our attempts to ignore the dramatic changes in our world and to live with the fantasy that superstorms and droughts are really “just normal. How we carry on as though everything were fine and live with a deep sense of fear. If we decide to speak up or take action (particularly political) we are concerned we’ll appear negative, over-emotional, stupid (because we don’t have the answers), unpatriotic (to some) or that someone will confront us on our consumption.
But there’s something that happens when we do take the time and bring a willingness to talk and plan action together. When we come with openness to questions and what are possibly new perspectives and ideas for action. Nicodemus, coming to Jesus, brought that spirit – and Jesus encouraged that discerning spirit, rather than a judging spirit. As a result, Nicodemus experienced what theologian Dr. Marcus Borg called, a conversion. Environmental activist Joanna Macy brought that spirit to an academic seminar where, just before professors got up to deliver their scholarly papers on the environment, she asked them to introduce themselves by sharing a story or a symbol for how what is our developing environmental crisis touched them personally. She writes, “…The brief introductions that followed were potent, as those present dropped their professional manner and spoke simply and poignantly of what they saw and felt happening to their world; of their children; of their fears and discouragement. That brief sharing transformed the seminar. It changed the way we related to each other and to the material, and it unleashed energy and mutual caring. Sessions went overtime, laced with [laughter] and punctuated with plans for future projects. Some kind of magic had happened….we all need to unblock our feelings about our threatened planet and the possible demise of our species. Until we do, our power of creative response will be crippled.
I wonder if it’s time – and if we have the energy – over the coming summer months to have a thoughtful, respectful conversation on our perceptions of what’s happening in our environment, both here and worldwide. Discussions about land health, water availability, our patterns of consumption, the actions of business and government, social groups and movements speaking about environmental concerns and environmental injustice that significantly impacts groups of people who are often -but also not coincidentally – poor.
If we take the time to do that – 4 or 5 or more of us, we might be surprised what comes out of it. Because we have gardeners and animal and nature lovers among us at St. Peter’s. And we stand in the tradition of 12 disciples – maybe 20 if you counted the women who were part of the earliest circle – then Nicodemus, then others,– who started a change movement that we are part of today.
I was reminded of one of my favorite poets – and of our St. Croix River Valley – when our leader read a poem for us as we closed. Wendell Berry achieved fame in New York City, then left it all to return to Kentucky where he has a farm on the banks of the Kentucky River in the county where his family lived for five generations. He writes about nature, the power of community and environmental concerns. Here’s that poem called, “Work Song, Part 2: A Vision)
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.
– Wendell Berry
“Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.
Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.”
- Joanna Macy, “Working Through Environmental Despair” (1995,
Work Song, Part 2: A Vision, by Wendell Berry, (http://www, joannamacy.net/poemsilove.html)