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A Jewish Teaching on Esau’s Birthright and Climate Action

On November 15, 2015, Board Member Susan Frant offered the following d’var (sermon) at a board meeting of Congregation Beth David in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. The Torah portion for that week was Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9. In Susan’s teaching, she focuses on Genesis 25:27-34, which centers on Esau spurning his birthright. How does this relate to climate disruption and our need to act? Read on to find out.

Beth David logoWhen Isaac’s twins grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. Many translate this as “tired” or “exhausted,” not “famished.” And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am” tired. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” So he sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright. (Genesis 25:27-34)

Certainly there were benefits associated with the birthright, but there were also responsibilities. From Rashi we learn that Esau’s exhaustion is more spiritual than physical. He is tired of the obligations of family life, tired of the responsibilities associated with Jewish living, and weary of the limitations placed on him daily by his pledge to the future. Would it not be easier simply to ignore tomorrow and live only for today? And so, with the stew as collateral, Esau abandons his future.

Many commentaries point out that Torah admonishes us not to live exclusively for the moment lest we forget that tomorrow will bring new challenges and new blessings. The Torah portion Toldot highlights the struggle between this instant and the thousands of tomorrows that follow.

I relate this Torah portion to the very serious issue of climate disruption where birthright is a sustainable, livable—that is, inhabitable, G-d given planet. Related to this we could talk about farmers who allow fracking to “save the farm” when fracking leads to contaminated water and earthquakes. We could cite drivers who buy gas guzzling vehicles when driving them leads to an increase in greenhouse gasses that contributes to climate disruption. We could point to eating red meat where it was reported in 2012, that the world’s 1.5 billion cattle contributed nearly 18% of all greenhouse gases, more than cars, planes and all other transportation put together. We could talk about powering our digital, electronic world with fossil fuels where wind and solar power do not emit greenhouse gasses and therefore, the total cost to humankind is much less than burning fossil fuel.  We could go on. But I won’t.

Rather, let me conclude by asking you to raise your hand if you believe you are a contributing member of the society. Look around. We are the people that are referred to in the statement that says: we are the FIRST generations to witness and feel the effects of climate disruption AND the LAST generations to be able to take actions that will have a significant impact on mitigating the magnitude of what is to come. Let me repeat: the first to witness the effects and the last to be able to take significant action.

I hope when our children or grandchildren ask what we did to change the trajectory of global climate disruption, to preserve their birthright of a sustainable, livable, beautiful G-d given world, I hope our answer doesn’t include that we were busy eating stew!   Thank you.


Things to read and to watch:

This Changes Everything* by Naomi Klein

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Colbert

Merchants of Doubt* by Eric M Conway and Naomi Oreskes

Laudato Si by Pope Francis**

*also a movie

**on YouTube

Rev. Alison Cornish Sermon on “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

On September 25, 2016, Rev. Alison Cornish, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, delivered the following sermon to University Baptist and Brethren Church in State College, PA.Alison Cornish

Luke 16.19-31
Today’s scripture reading, the parable often called ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus,’ gifts us with a perfect, albeit miniature, 3-act drama, so beautifully wrought that it’s not difficult to picture it in our minds in full and resplendent color – and, to translate it to our own times.

Act I: Our narrator describes the nameless Rich Man, living luxuriously essentially in a gated community, surely surrounded by others like him, and securely protected from others that are not. His very costume exudes wealth – purple and fine linen – and we can picture him sweeping by Lazarus, lying right at the foot of the gate. Lazarus is poor – he has no food – and unwell – he is covered with sores. He must have been a sight to behold – except, as far as we can tell, the Rich Man simply didn’t see him. It’s the narrator here that’s telling us the story, and as far as we know, there was never any interaction between the two men. A gulf, a chasm, between two people, living literally side-by-side, but in completely separate worlds. Lazarus was clearly aware of the Rich Man’s existence, as he ‘longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table,’ but, then – as now – it is a privilege of the rich to look past the existence of the poor. Different lives, nothing to do with one another.

Now we move to Act II – and the narrator informs us that both the Rich Man and Lazarus have died, but here is a bit of a twist. When Lazarus died, he was carried away by angels ‘to be with Abraham,’ which we know is the sign of the highest bliss, the greatest honor. The Rich Man was buried. Period. No angels. No Abraham.

On to Act III – a shift of scene, to Hades and Paradise, and now not just a narrator speaking, but dialogue, a conversation. Now we can actually imagine not just what these men looked like, but what they sounded like, too. We learn that the Rich Man, tormented by the heat of Hades, actually knows Lazarus’ name, and though he doesn’t address him directly, calls to Abraham to have Lazarus quench his thirst – as an act of servitude? Compassion? Could be either … And to Abraham falls the task to gently point back into the past – when the Rich Man had good fortune, and Lazarus suffered, and announce the ‘reversal:’ it’s now the Rich Man’s turn to experience something of the agony Lazarus once lived. The Rich Man seems to quickly accept his fate … but then appeals to Abraham again, this time imploring Lazarus to travel from the world of the dead to the world of the living, bringing to his brothers a message of warning, giving them an opportunity to repent and change their ways, so as to save them from the fate that has befallen him. Abraham again (patiently? Pointedly?) says all the information for his brothers to live faithfully is available to them – always, has been, always will be – but the Rich Man seems to know his brothers well, and nothing short of someone returning from the dead will get their attention. Abraham is unconvinced, and the curtain falls on what must now be a devastated Rich Man, consumed not only by his own agony, but with the specter of his brothers eventually joining him in the same fate.

A beautiful, elegant illustration of God’s favor not for those who expect it – the rich and successful – but the poor and sick. But also a provocative story for our times, in at least a couple of ways.

I see first the economic chasm that separated the Rich Man and Lazarus in life, of which Lazarus was so clearly aware, and the Rich Man had the privilege to ignore – and how, in the Rich Man’s mind, they could be so completely disconnected – so disconnected that the Rich Man may never need contemplate how the wealth he so enjoyed was in any way related to the poverty Lazarus experienced.   For though we don’t how the Rich Man’s wealth was connected to Lazarus’ poverty, we can surely conclude that it was, because it doesn’t matter whether we are all living equitably or with vast differences in wealth and poverty, we are all interconnected. Was the Rich Man one of the .1% controlling the same amount of resources that 50% of the poorest in his city had access to? Did he see any connection between their stories? Was there anyone ‘connecting the dots’ that extreme wealth is accumulated from somewhere: by not paying a living wage, by not investing in a public infrastructure to care for the poor and incapacitated, by systems of oppression and power that keep whole populations ‘in their place,’ dependent on scraps from the table?

And I see, too, in the drama – in the separation between the Rich Man and Lazarus – the gulf, the nonexistence, really, of compassion – the result of hardened hearts, of not seeing – of being insulated from – another’s pain, which is far too much with us still today.

But, given the work that I do today with communities of faith and climate change, I see another, perhaps less literal, way of looking at this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Looking through this lens, when the curtain rises on Act I, the personification of a certain (over) developed country – let’s just say the U.S. – is at the center of the scene. Its wealth is conspicuous, particularly in the powering of our economic engines with fossil fuels. Blithely we consume, combust, and spew forth more ‘absolute emissions’ in tons of CO2 than any other country on the planet, save China.

And who is it that sits at our gates, our ‘borders?’ Those countries who are far less developed, consuming, per capita, far less of the total ‘carbon budget’ – the oil, coal and gas that spew GHG into the atmosphere we all share. And, not inconsequentially, who are also the first to experience the effects of rising temperatures and sea levels, warmer oceans, changing weather patterns, intensified storms, and altered migration routes. Those at the gates are indeed suffering.

Like the Rich Man, the U.S. and other heavy fossil fuel users are going about business as usual, just living out their lives. Quips, like ‘we earned our prosperity’ and ‘we’re not hurting anyone, just doing what we do,’ and ‘no one is going to take away our way of life’ are heard coming out of that gated community. And we burn fossil fuels with abandon, as if there are no consequences, because we’re not connecting our way of life with those who are suffering. It takes connecting the dots to realize that our voracious appetite for our carbon-fuel-based economy is pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, allowing the planet to warm, and putting life for everyone in peril. It takes recognizing that those at our gates are real.

Just as in our parable/play, all the information is there. It’s been here all along. The scriptures that that tell us that Creation is a gift to be treasured and cherished and treated with care. The still small voice within, our conscience, that knows when we are in right relationship, caring for life, and when we have fallen short of the mark, sinned against God and fellow earthly travelers, including the flora and fauna. The science that documents the massive changes to our air, water and soil, directly connected with soaring GHG emissions from the age of industrialization. Just as in the parable, no presence returning from the dead is going to give us a stronger message than what is right in front of us, accessible each and every day.

But, somehow, we refuse to listen. Our ears are stopped up, our eyes closed. And our hearts are hardened. We are not getting the message.

Which makes me wonder if the parable-as-play needs a fourth act – always needed one, really, but today, truly needs another piece, another chapter. Because to leave us at the end of the story as it is, with the Rich Man bereft, and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, with the wide, uncrossable chasm between them, leaves us, where? What will change? What can change?

If I were to write another few verses, if the curtain were to rise again, I would give the next lines to the voices of the not-yet born, the future generations, the great great grandchildren of Drew Dellinger’s poem. They would perhaps appear and speak to the characters in their dreams – that’s a good biblical literary device – and speak to those both behind the gates and at the gates and perhaps even to the Rich Man’s brothers. And their voices in the dreams would be so compelling, so moving, that the separation of the gate would fall away as people recounted to one another the remarkable dreams they had – and wanted to share with everyone they encountered.

These dreams would carry the voices of future generations because I don’t know who else has the capacity to stir us to action. It would be in their voices because keeping their interests, their questions for us, before us, might help us keep perspective as we try to figure out, day-by-day, what it is we’re here for. For them, for their well-being, we might be willing to make the sacrifices we must make. If we remember that they are coming, we might find within us untold reserves of creativity and perseverance and stamina. Just thinking about them, hearts might be made less hard. Perhaps their voices would be strong enough for us to say, without equivocating, that what we face isn’t a matter of left or right or progressive or conservative or rich or poor or black or white but a matter of life and death like no other our species has ever faced. The dreams would be in their voices, because nothing else seems to be working. And the dreams would carry the words of future generations not because they will actually be alive on the planet – that’s something we can’t actually know but … because of how they might shift our own awareness.[1] In other words, we might, finally, get the message.

And, what would the message be? What could they whisper into our sleepiness to awaken us in all the ways we must be stirred?

They would remind us that we are God’s treasured and beloved people, gifted with such extraordinary powers – foremost amongst them, to be fully aware of the preciousness of life, to love living beings, and feel the call to protect and preserve them.

Those voices would recognized the times we are living in are so difficult – to live, every day, with the knowledge of the damage the planet is experiencing – the loss of species – the poisoning of air, water and soil. And their voices would offer compassion across the gulf of time.

Those voices would remind us of the strength, courage and perseverance that are a part of who we are – that we have brought to bear in other crises – that moved us past obstacles and discouragements – and are always available to us.

And, they would remind us that we are all interconnected, with one another, even with them – the not-yet-born.

And, before the curtain falls on this ‘new’ last act, I can imagine the newly awakened – those from behind-and-at-the-gate – the Rich Man’s brothers – all together speaking this prayer, from Joanna Macy, as a chorus, as one –

O you who will walk this earth when we are gone, stir us awake. Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world. Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat. Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick. Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims, that we may honor the life that links us.[2]


[1] Carolyn Baker, Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015) p.186.

[2] Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2014), p. 183.

“I Don’t Want to Go to Hell—Do You?” – Dr. Neill Johnson Sermon on Climate Change

On August 16, 2015, Dr. Neill Johnson delivered the following sermon to University Baptist and Brethren Church of State College, Pennsylvania.

neill1I Don’t Want to Go to Hell—Do You?

“Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. . . . This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”[1]

I’m going to address four related themes today: 1) reading Matthew 25: 31-46 and similar scenes in Revelation as judgments of nations, rather than individuals; 2) examining how people in Biblical times thought about concepts related to what we call “heaven” and “hell”; 3) exposing popular Rapture/Apocalypse narratives as non-Biblical and countering the damage done by Christians who see no point in saving an earth that will disappear soon anyway; and 4) finding theological grounding and inspiration in Pope Francis’s encyclical for taking on the work of “ecological conversion” as Gospel work.

Jesus’s parable or prophetic story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is consistent with the last judgment in St. John the Divine’s Revelation. The two texts were probably written about the same time, 20-25 years after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in A.D. 70.[2] However, I will argue that both this parable and the book of Revelation describe not only a last judgment of individuals, but also and more significantly a judgment of nations—primarily Israel, but, by extension, all nations and civilizations. This is consistent with Jesus’s other teachings in the Gospels and his role as a prophet, the man described by John the Baptist as coming to baptize the people by fire.

Our text begins with a reference to the return of the heavenly king with his angels and with justice: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne of heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.” Even though it is very clear that this king will address the two groups (sheep and goats) as collectives, “Come, you who are blessed/cursed, take your inheritance/depart from me,” the church has taught and we usually hear this as an individual judgment: Which side am I on, and how can I avoid being sent into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? It’s good that we are called to self-examination by this passage, but if we ignore the call to our own nation for widespread repentance, we stand in grave danger of missing the gist of Jesus’s warning. In short, I hold that what Jesus is saying here is this: “Those nations who are not in the habit of caring for the least of these in my family will become accursed and separated from God, but those nations who are in the habit of caring for these least ones will inherit what was always theirs—perfect communion with God.”

When I first read Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, the core precept of which is quoted in our Meditation, I cried tears of joy. Finally, the institutional church is starting to build a theology which demands that we take care of the planet, our sister, our common home, with the same uncompromising habituation we apply in caring for “the least”—those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick, and those in prison. Only by doing this will we gain our inheritance. And what do we inherit if not the earth, the earth as created from the beginning for us and for all creatures, the earth which we have been rejecting since our first sin in the Garden of Eden, the land, the air, the waters, the minerals, the flora, the fauna, this inhabitable realm, this shining and blessed planet, this inseparable-from-us thing we call “the environment”? Shouldn’t it be obvious to us and to our leaders that taking care of our common home equates to providing affordable, sustainable agricultural resources and potable water to those of all nations, giving shelter to refugees, clothing the naked, nursing the sick and injured, and visiting, defending, and attempting to free those in prison? Does this not describe the main problems we face now, now!—not in some future Armageddon or WWIII that we imagine will usher in the second coming of Christ? What makes us think Christ wants to wait for things to get worse? How much worse are we willing to let things get?

In The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two contemporary historians of science, a fictional science historian from the Second Peoples Republic of China looks back from the year 2300 to examine why people of the 20th and 21st centuries failed to stop global warming, even though they had full knowledge of its causes and effects. Instead, they let global warming reach a tipping point that melted Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, inundating whole countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh, not to mention over half of Florida and most US cities on the East coast. This tipping point was breached when the rise in average annual global temperature exceeded six degrees C and was not abated until after the rise peaked at 10 degrees C in the year 2093. By the start of the 22nd century, the nations had relocated 1.5 billion environmental refugees from flooded coastal plains and islands as well as from the desertification of continental interiors and two whole continents—Africa and Australian.[3] Why, this historian of science asks, weren’t ameliorating policies put in place soon after scientists developed computer models in the 1970s showing that greenhouse gases would cause global warming? By 2012 when temperatures had risen 1 degree C and sea levels not quite one third of a meter, why then with a bounty of plain evidence at hand provided by the International Panel on Climate Change and national environmental agencies across the globe, was the combustion of carbon-based fuels still increasing exponentially instead of being stepped down as rapidly as possible? Why did public policies favor global shale gas development and oil exploration in places like the Arctic keeping fossil fuels cheap and delaying for half a century the widespread adoption of zero-net-carbon sources of electricity such as solar and wind to power factories, businesses, homes and most means of transportation?[4]

I don’t know about you, but Oreskes’ and Conway’s science-based look-back from the future sounds like Hell to me, and I don’t want to go there. Earlier this summer in the middle of June, Columbia, South Carolina experienced 13 consecutive days when the high temperature was between 97 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, I check Columbia weather almost daily because my brother lives there and because I want to remind myself why I don’t. During that June hot spell, one Youtube video that went viral featured a middle-aged African-American business man sitting in his air-conditioned car in his dress suit looking out at the waves of heat rising from the Columbia pavements, shaking his head slowly, and singing softly to himself, “Hell is a hot place, I don’t want to go [repeated twice more]. Hell no, hell no, hell no!” Columbia is profoundly hot from May through September, and it gets hotter every decade. Even in the 1980s when I lived there, the heat was punishing. My anthropology professor at USC did his research on natives of the Amazon rainforest. When one of my classmates asked him how he prepared his research team for the Brazilian heat and humidity, he said, “Oh, you must not be from here! We just pitch our tents in my back yard for a week or two in the summer.”

Common Christian images of Hell as a place of eternal torture have been used by the church (and by pagan religions and states, as well) to intimidate an unruly populace into behaving less badly.[5] So it’s not surprising that the Church jumped on that bandwagon. Much of the difficulty of tracing the meaning of “hell” in the Bible is that our early English translators forced four different words (one Hebrew and three Greek) into those four little letters. The word most relevant to a fiery torture furnace is “Gehenna,” a valley outside Jerusalem that Jesus references quite often in the gospels. Gehenna was a place of ignominious sacrifice to pagan idols and, later, Jerusalem’s stinking city dump where waste was burned continuously. It’s ironic that we are turning our planet into a vast dump that resembles Jesus’s Gehenna.

Jesus and other prophets before him warned an unrepentant Israel that as a nation, it was going to Hades—the land of the dead, the unseen, the place of shadows, and the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “sheol” in the Old testament. Both words were translated as “hell” in many early Bibles; however, there is one major difference: the Greek underworld was divided into two districts, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. Hades is the place where Lazarus goes before Jesus brings him back and where Jesus himself goes between his death and his resurrection. Hades is inhabited by vanquished peoples, nations, and city-states. In Revelation, Jesus holds the keys to death and hades and at the last judgment, he casts death and hades into the lake of fire after they have given up their dead. Jesus warned his people that without repentance, Israel would disappear from the earth. And it nearly did.

Like Israel 2000 years ago, our nation is in danger of going to Hades—this I firmly believe. How long can we endure when our leaders appease the powerful energy companies who are obstructing all efforts to mitigate climate change? How long can we remain the most influential nation in the world when our interests are controlled by companies whose annual income is greater than the gross domestic product of most countries and who are intent on burning as much fossil fuel as possible before finally exhausting all available reserves? How long can such a nation’s leaders dare to claim to be following the teachings of Jesus?

As Christians, I think it’s important for us to understand and counteract the damage that has been done to our common home by many of these so-called Christian leaders in the name of fulfilling Biblical prophecy. In The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, Barbara Rossing traces the origins of the Rapture to a 19th-century British evangelist named John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren. Based on a young girl’s vision of a two-stage return of Jesus, Darby developed an elaborate and strained interpretation of scriptures claiming that Jesus would return a first time in secret to remove his church to heaven so that believers would escape a seven-year period of global tribulation at the end of which Jesus would return a second time to establish his Jerusalem-based kingdom on earth.[6] Rossing says Darby developed “a grand timetable for world events” based on “seven distinct dispensations, or ages” claiming that “during each time God has dealt with people according to a different set of rules. Dispensationalism thus lays out a rigid master plan for all of history.”[7] Darby won many converts on his mission trips to the US, and his ideas were popularized in the Schofield Reference Bible published in 1909, a book that had a huge influence on US Protestantism. I know from growing up Southern Baptist that our teachers and preachers made regular use of that Bible.

Rossing argues convincingly that the Rapture is a persistent and widely-believed, but largely escapist fantasy popularized most recently by the left-behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These novels portray an increasingly polluted and violent world as a necessary evil so that Antichrist can take over, Jews can convert and fight back, and Jesus can return to slaughter his enemies and to establish a new Heaven and Earth. Rossi argues that Revelation’s return of Jesus as a king with a sword coming out of his mouth and as a scarred and blood-stained lamb (both incongruous images for a warrior) debunks the left-behind novels’ portrayal of a violent and epic routing of the enemy. In Revelation, Jesus and his followers do “conquer” the forces of an evil empire (think Rome, think American carbon-combustion complex), but they do so with their words and with their faithfulness.[8]

Revelation is ultimately more about the healing of nations and the establishment of a city of God on a planet restored to an Eden-like state than it is about the battle of Armageddon. In 22:1-2 that I read earlier, the headwaters of the river of the water of life flow from the throne of God and the Lamb, then down the middle of the great street of the city. The fruits of the tree of life are edible and its leaves have the power to heal and bring peace to a war-torn world. Revelation’s infamous whore of Babylon is as apt an image for a self-serving, unregulated, consumerist America run amok as it was for the glutted superpower that was Rome. Pope Francis’s encyclical says that our ecological crisis calls both active and passive resisters to “ecological conversion, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”[9] Protestants as well as Catholics must take seriously this call for an ecological conversion of the faithful as a means of reversing the harm done by the self-serving doomsayers, those who want the world to come quickly to an end, as well as the deniers of responsibility for climate change and its consequences.

If we continue to reject Jesus by ignoring the plight of the planet and its poorest and most helpless inhabitants—human and other species, we will surely be cast into Hades and oblivion. But the Bible is a book of hope, not despair. The word “heaven” appears at least ten times more than “hell” even in the least accurate translations. The Gospel does point the way forward in the current crisis. It’s crucial not only that we personally attend to “the least of these,” but also that we demand this of our leaders. Impassioned appeals to members of Congress, the application of steady pressure over time, the promotion of policies that will reverse our reliance on carbon-based fuels, the generous funding of scientific research, the immediate implementation of practical stop-gaps, and our speaking out boldly as people of faith—these collective efforts will enable us as a congregation, a nation, a civilization to authentically and habitually address the urgent needs of “the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” We have accomplished seemingly impossible tasks in record time before—think of government-sponsored programs such as NASA putting a man on the moon within nine years of President Kennedy’s vow to do so. Until the will of the executive and legislative branches of our government is committed to a man-on-the-moon-before-the-end-of-the-decade approach to stopping global warming, it is up to us to take civil action and generate that national will, starting right here in our local community. This work is worth doing, and it is Gospel work!

Now, to close: don’t ever let anyone persuade you that it’s too late. One degree Centigrade and one foot of ocean rise into the global warming future is not far, and we can turn this around. Scientists may eventually find a miracle breakthrough. In Oreskes’ and Conway’s View from the Future, that breakthrough is a tiny, genetically-engineered black lichen that thrives in almost any environment and that is enormously efficient at capturing carbon-dioxide. But we don’t know the hour of that breakthrough, so we must be vigilant in taking action now. Our reward will be far more than survival; it will be the promised kingdom of heaven, the New Jerusalem right here on Earth. Do not despair. Let the closing words of Revelation live in your thoughts, your prayers, and your actions as you make your way forward in this exciting time of ecological conversion: “Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” We’re ready, and we’re not going to hell!


Repent and rejoice. Convert your families, friends, and neighbors by your words and deeds. By the witness of your faith-activism, hold the rich and powerful to account. Attend to the least of your fellow creatures—including your sister, the earth. Save our nation from Gehenna. Work and pray for the healing of the nations and for the preservation of our common home. Behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand! The time is now, the work has begun. Amen.

[1] Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for our Common Home. (2015, May 24). Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1-2.

[2] Wayne Jackson. (2015). When was the Book of Revelation written? Christian Courier. Retrieved from https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1552-when-was-the-book-of-revelation-written. Jackson makes a strong case for the latter date based on historical evidence. The alternate date is just before the destruction of Jerusalem. Barbara Rossing in The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation dates the writing of Matthew as around 90 A.D., making it more or less contemporaneous with John the Divine’s Revelation. A date for Matthew after the temple destruction is increasingly favored by today’s Biblical scholars.

[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. (2014). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 33.

[4]Oreskes and Conway, p. 19.

[5] Samuel G. Dawson. “Jesus’ Teaching on Hell.” Retrieved from http://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/doucments/death/jesus-teaching-on-hell.php#.VbWRRPIVhBc. The online materials are based on ch. 11 of Dawson and Dawson’s The Teaching of Jesus: From Mount Sinai to Gehenna: A Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns Rebellious Israel. Amarillo, TX: Gospel Times Press, 2007.

[6] Barbara R. Rossing. (2004). The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 22.

[7] Rossing, p. 23.

[8] Rossing, p. 111.

[9] Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for our Common Home. (2015, May 24). Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 217.

Sermon: Hope in the Dark

The Rev. Alison Cornish
service and sermon, Main Line Unitarian Church
July 31, 2016

flaming chaliceWe want more soul, a higher cultivation of spiritual faculties

We need more unselfishness, earnestness and integrity of high and lofty enthusiasm and beacons of light and hope,

People ready and willing to lay time, talent and money on the altar of freedom.
(Frances Ellen Watkins Harper)


The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berrydrake-wood-duck

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel about me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

SERMON. Hope in the Dark

A story from UU minister Chris Buice

Two frogs hop (as they do) along through their day … hop (as they do) into a bucket.  This bucket happened to be half-filled with cream, which made the sides very slippery – too slippery for the frogs to climb out, too deep to jump out.  One frog began to moan and wail ‘we’ll never get out, we’re doomed!’ but the other frog quietly thought about their predicament. While he thought, he moved his legs, treading ‘water’ in the cream – ‘we’ll never get out – we’re doomed’ moaned one – and the other, paddled, and to drown out his companion, started chanting ‘keep hope alive! Keep hope alive! And he urged his despairing friend to do the same – keep hope alive, keep hope alive – around and around they swam, croaking ‘keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!’ And, after some time, the most astonishing thing happened – what do you think it was? Butter formed from the cream! As the frogs swam round and round, they churned the cream into butter, enough to climb up on and hop out of the pail, on their merry way, still chanting to themselves – keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!

Keep Hope Alive.

Not to stretch this image too far, but I suspect most of us in this room feel as though we’re in a whole lot more than a big pail of cream these days.  I was reflecting on the events that have occurred just since submitting the title of this morning’s service in time for your newsletter deadline – the public and tragic deaths of two more young African American men at the hands of white police officers; the mass shooting at the Pulse, an Orlando nightclub catering to LGBTQ young adults, many of them Latino; the shooting of police officers, first in Dallas, and then Baton Rouge; a Bastille day rampage in Nice; a failed yet hugely disruptive coup in Turkey, which is still unfolding; stabbings in Japan, the murder of a French Roman Catholic priest while saying mass.  These are just the headlines. In the back pages there are the ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan, among others. Refugees. Widespread injustice, abuse and violence.

Our bucket of cream runneth over.

How, possibly, can I even suggest we ‘keep hope alive?’ The temerity! What kind of rose colored glasses am I wearing? Or substances am I smoking or ingesting?  Honestly! The Dark Times, yes – Hope? That’s a lot harder to accept.

Well, this is my task this morning – to share with you why I not only think hope is warranted in Continue reading

SERMON: Love God with All Your Heart

This sermon was given by John Dernbach at the Church of the Nativity & St. Stephen in Newport, PA on April 17, 2016.  It is reprinted here with permission.

john-c-dernbach[1]          Good morning.  I have known your rector, Rebecca Myers, for many years.  She has honored me, with her invitation to speak today, in ways I cannot express.

This coming Friday is Earth Day.  Every year since 1970, people in the U.S. and around the world have set aside April 22 to celebrate our environment, to learn about it, and to discuss how to protect and restore it.

I am going to respond to your Rector’s invitation by venturing an answer to a question that has concerned me for my entire adult life–What does our faith have to do with the environment?   This is a huge question, and one the churches have not—until recently—done a particularly effective job in answering.

I am from St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Harrisburg.  About fifteen years ago, at Stephen’s, we were planning to convert an old parking garage—one that used an elevator to move cars to Continue reading

Sermon: The Passing of New Things

The Rev. Alison Cornish delivered this sermon, entitled The Passing of First Things, on April 24, 2016, at PA IPL member congregation Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia.

Good morning, and thank you so very much for the invitation to be with you here this morning.  Having an opportunity to participate in worship of many different faith communities is one of delights I cherish as Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light.

Vincent Van Gogh Ravine

I sincerely doubt that the common lectionary that lays out the cycle of scripture readings for so many Christian communities intentionally aligns itself with the relatively new, and entirely secular, holiday of Earth Day – officially 3 days ago – but what a gift they have given us this morning!  First, those beautiful images from Psalm 148 that Susan read earlier – words, in fact, that are the basis of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun – words that one author describes as ‘a symbiosis of praise involving humans and nature.’  And then, the vision from Revelation of a new earth, a new creation, of almost Edenic quality, coming to pass at the end times.  I’ll dig deeper into each of these in a few moments, but for now, let us savor these images, connecting perhaps to moments in our own lives when the qualities of our environs have elevated us, inspired us, nurtured Continue reading