This sermon was given by Greg Williams, Board President of PA IPL, at his home church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Altoona, PA, on February 4, 2018, the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B (lectionary page) and is part of the 1000 Teachings #EachGeneration movement. We’re delighted to share it with all of you.
In preparing to give today’s homily, I was particularly struck by the reading from Isaiah. Isaiah has always stood out for me because of the beauty of the images and poetry of the writing, all written at several very dark times for the Israelites — times of despair not unlike our present times. This passage in in Isaiah 40 stood out for me:
It is the Holy One who sits above the circle of the earth,
The Holy One who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in:
In this description of The Holy One, Isaiah paints a picture of an omnipotent, creator God who somehow made the vast panoply of stars that fill the night skies. Human lights have nowdimmed those heavens but it would have been overwhelming and humbling to the Israelite nomads and shepherds who slept under those star blanketed skies, who saw them move through the night sky hour to hour, day by day, and season to season. Of course it would appear that those heavenly lights were being continually stretched across the heavens by an all-powerful hand.
I have not had many opportunities to be in such a dark-skied place, but I have a vivid memory of being an 18 year old, of sitting on a mountain side, above a deep canyon in the Black Hills of South Dakota on a long August night, and being humbled as I watched the heavens turn over my head. I felt small and awestruck. I believe in the big bang theory of the creation of the universe in terms of how the universe expanded. But I, and many scientists, still wonder whence came this creation. I still see God’s hand there in mysterious ways.
This Holy One is not only omnipotent creator but also loving and benevolent sustainer as the one who “spreads the heavens like a tent to live in.” This Creator made the heaven into a protective home to sustain this earthly part of his creation, and the humans who needed a tent to survive the cold nights of the desert would have fully understood that metaphor.
My view of humans and creation, and the miracle that this planet sustains us, is shaped by my faith in this Holy One but also by my life as a science teacher and a naturalist. From that viewpoint, the heavens really are a tent in which we live. The thin layer of atmosphere that makes life possible on earth for us humans and our fellow travelers, developed over time and through the forces of evolution. In the early life of earth, gases that are noxious to life, as we know it, dominated and the planet was barren for billions of years. It was the eventual emergence in the ocean soup of life in the form of one celled cyanobacteria and the miracle of photosynthesis they carried, that decreased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increased the amount of oxygen. Billions of these floating creatures absorbed carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis transformed it into sugars for themselves and created abundant oxygen for the atmosphere in the chemical process. Somehow, a balance between those two gases developed an atmosphere that carbon-based life — like us— could breathe. Astonishing.
That thin layer of perfectly balanced gases also allowed just the right amount of sun and heat to penetrate earth’s atmosphere and reach the earth, warming the planet during the day, but also allowing heat to escape at night so the planet didn’t get too warm. Amazing.
This balance continued for millions of years and evolution brought along humans. We benefited from this garden of Eden. We created cultures, civilizations, and came to know God, by many names and in many religions. All those traditions were filled with gratitude for the created world and thought of humans as stewards.
In the modern world, progress tipped those fragile balances of oxygen and carbon dioxide, of heat at day and cooling at night, and of reaping the fruits of our home without harming it. Within the last couple of centuries, human civilization “developed” in size and sophistication to the point where we could extract raw energy from the earth. We began with coal that would heat our houses and power our factories and our trains. We found oil which lubricated our machines, and refined into gasoline that would power vehicles and engines of all sorts. Though there were killer pea soup fogs of London in the 19th century, and the Donora, Pennsylvania killer smog of 1948 that decimated a whole industrial town near Pittsburgh, the price —even when you added in black lung disease— wasn’t so high that it tarnished the economic boom that came with use of these fuels.
Until relatively recently, little did we realize that there were invisible consequences from all the carbon dioxide released in the burning of these fossil fuels. For two hundred years, we have been tipping the delicate balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. That thin layer between us and the vast universe has been changing. The atmosphere has been becoming more of a greenhouse than a tent, so that the heat of the sun can still penetrate and warm the earth but just a little less heat exits the bubble around us. The earth’s temperature has been climbing and almost every year sees another record global temperature.
This growing global temperature so far totals a couple of degrees – which might seem survivable. However, it is now evident this temperature increase is melting polar ice which leads to rising ocean levels. This has led to Change in our Climate systems. These changes in weather patterns – more hurricanes, more severe weather, more droughts, more wildfires seem to be weekly occurrences somewhere on our planet. Somehow, we have made “the tent to live in” into a sauna where the rules of what we can expect in daily weather have changed radically and dangerously.
Scientists, using incredibly complex computers, have spun out dire forecasts of an unlivable future that worsens year by year. Unless humans make changes —do-able changes to renewable energy and a less wasteful life— these forecasts will become an unthinkable reality. Life on earth may well be imperiled and it may be true that, like Walt Kelly popularized in a Pogo comic strip “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Many humans are showing a hubris not that different from the Jewish story (shared by the Abrahamic traditions) of indifference to Yahweh that led to the Great Flood of Noah. Tragically this is creating a threat to their own existence. Many see no limits to our use of the earth. Many exercise little to no self restraint as to how we treat this planet. Many certainly don’t treat it like the sacred gift to us from our creator.
As is God’s wont, we have been given prophets who tell us to repent —to turn away from our wasteful and destructive ways. Pope Francis, in the eloquent and prescient encyclical, Laudato Si’, makes the case that many have elevated “progress”, “the gross national product,” “the good life” above our relationship with God. He even calls out our blind trust in “technology” and our over-confidence that technology can fix this problem of global warming (in spite of the fact that unbridled technology helped create the problem!). He speaks up for the poor who are the first to feel climate change —living near sources of carbon pollution, or huddled on the edge of rising oceans. Pope Francis mourns the rapid extinction of our fellow creatures— evident everywhere around us as humans gobble up all the resources and displace more and more species.
There is another group of prophets who have been crying for justice for themselves and the upcoming generations that particularly speak to my grandparent’s heart. This is a group of 21 young people, aged 10-21, who are, in an act of prophecy, suing the United States government for the grave threat to their future that is climate change. The suit, Juliana v. the U.S., has been moving through the courts for the last five years. It was due to be heard in US District Court tomorrow [February 5, 2018] but has been delayed by the present administration’s request that the suit be dismissed. The government’s lawyers are saying that such a suit will disrupt the administration’s ability to deal with more pressing problems and it could well be the “suit of the century.”
The bravery of these young plaintiffs and the eloquence with which they speak of the dangers of climate change give me the hope that comes with prophecy. They are speaking not only for themselves but also for my granddaughter, Talula, who is five. I tremble when I think of her future. I have nightmares of what lays in front of her. Perhaps you have similar fears for a youngster that you love. But I must respond with hope – I believe in the Jesus in today’s Gospel from Mark who, with all of the town gathered around Andrew and Simon’s front door, drove out demons within. I believe, that, with God’s help, humans can control the demons that threaten our own existence.
I am committed to spreading that hope. My homily today is one of a thousand sermons called for by the United Church of Christ’s support of these plaintiffs. Similar teachings or sermons have been coordinated or inspired by Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, at Howard United Methodist Church in Howard, PA; at Trinity Lutheran Church in State College; and at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity and St. Stephens in Newport, PA. I ask you to join me and them in praying. Please pray that this trial is allowed to proceed and that it truly does become the trial of the century. Please join me in praying that the courts do find that future generations have a right to life, liberty and property unhindered by the vast dangers of unbridled human hubris that are causing global climate change.
Let me end with this hope-filled statement of faith in our God and Savior and our ability to be part of the solution.
May 2, 2013 “The Episcopal Church of America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) meeting in Washington, DC this Easter season to celebrate our commitment to hope in the face of climate change do state that: “As Christians, we do not live in the despair and melancholy of the tomb, but in the light of the Risen Christ. Our resurrection hope is grounded in the promise of renewal and restoration for all of God’s Creation, which gives us energy, strength and perseverance in the face of overwhelming challenge. For us, this promise is more than an abstraction. It is a challenge to commit ourselves to walk a different course and serve as the hands of God in working to heal the brokenness of our hurting world.”