National Preach-In on Climate Change: Sermon for Epiphany 6A

Sermon for Sixth Sunday in Epiphany, Year A
Deuteronomy 30:5-20
Saint Andrew and Emmaus Lutheran Churches, Racine WI
February 16, 2014 – National Preach-In on Climate Change
Dr. Peter W. Bakken
Executive Director, Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

In our first reading, from Deuteronomy, this morning, we heard some of Moses’ final instructions to the Hebrew people. He had led them out of slavery in Egypt and through forty years of wandering in the desert. They were about to cross the river Jordan and enter the Promised Land, though he would not be going with them.

Moses makes it clear that in their new home they will face fateful choices, choices that will determine whether their future will be one of prosperity or adversity, blessing or curse, life or death.

His words also make clear that their choices will be made and their future lived out as creatures within creation: as dwellers in the land in the presence of heaven and earth.

Moses says:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

Like the people of ancient Israel, we are faced with choices that mean life or death, blessings or curses for ourselves and for our descendants.

Creation is God’s gift to us – of a world of abundance, beauty and mystery, a living and life-sustaining planet with water to drink and air to breathe and fertile soil in which to grow food; a world of forests and prairies, of oceans and mountains, of an unimaginable variety of plants and animals from the sparrows, squirrels and dandelions in our back yards to tropical rain forests, polar bears and coral reefs.

Creation is indeed God’s gift to us – but not for us alone: rather, it is a gift for all people and for all creatures.

Sadly, though, throughout our history as a species, we have not always treated creation and other creatures with the respect they deserve. We have not always justly shared the earth and its fruits with our neighbors. Too often, we have not chosen to walk in God’s ways, in the ways of justice, peace, and the care of the earth. To often, we have chosen instead to bow down to and serve the gods of greed, hatred, domination, and self-indulgence.

Past generations have made both good and bad choices, and we, and the rest of creation, live with the consequences of those choices.

One of those choices has been to get the overwhelming majority of our energy from fossil fuels – from coal, oil, and natural gas. In Wisconsin, nearly three-quarters of our energy comes from coal – which we have to import, because we have no coal of our own, at a cost of over eight and a half million dollars every year.

That choice has brought both blessings and curses, life and death.

In many ways, fossil fuels have been a blessing. They have been a treasure trove of millions of years of stored sunlight that we have released in the twinkling of an eye, geologically speaking. With that energy we have created industries and technologies that have brought undreamed of prosperity – although not for everyone. And the livelihoods of many people are dependent on the fossil fuel industry, although for some, like coal miners, it may be at the cost of their health and safety.

The use of fossil fuels may not have been the wrong choice in the early stages of the industrial era. But as a society we have clung to that decision in spite of growing evidence that it is not sustainable, that the costs of continuing on this path are outweighing the benefits.

Some of the costs are quite clear and immediate. There have been quite a few news stories recently of trains carrying crude oil exploding, rivers contaminated by coal ash spills, and coal processing chemicals infiltrating water supplies.

Other costs are more indirect: health problems from breathing the by-products of burning fossil fuels such as fine carbon particulates, nitrous oxide, and ozone, or from eating fish contaminated with mercury.

And others may be less obvious but are no less real: the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is causing acidification of the oceans and disruptions in the earth’s climate as a result of global warming.

These are matters of justice because many of these costs fall more heavily on those who are the most vulnerable, like children, the chronically ill, and the elderly. And they are also borne by those who live in poor and minority communities. They are often more directly exposed to pollution from power plants and have fewer resources to protect themselves from flooding, heat waves, and crop failures caused by climate change.

As a society, we can debate the relative weights of various costs and benefits, the advantages and disadvantages of alternative technologies, the details of particular scientific projections and analyses. But surely we can and must demand a cleaner, healthier, safer world for ourselves and our descendants. Surely we want to be remembered as a generation that chose life rather than death. Surely we can do better than this!

We can’t turn back the clock. We may not be able to retrieve and contain all the toxic chemicals we have released into the environment. We can’t resurrect every extinct species. We can only reduce, not stop, global warming.

But we still have choices, important choices that will have consequences for ourselves; for the most vulnerable neighbors in our communities and the world; for our children, grandchildren, and descendants; and for the creatures with which we share this planet.

I had the privilege and pleasure of spending last night not far from here, in the hermitage at the Racine Dominicans Eco-Justice Center. In real and practical ways, the Center is a signpost pointing to the sorts of choices we must make and the path that we need to follow if we and future generations are going to live long on this gifted and graceful earth in faithful obedience to God, with love and justice toward our neighbors, and with care and respect for the whole of creation.

If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to visit the Center and see for yourself the wind turbine, the solar panels that provide electricity and hot water, and the gardens and the chickens, bees, alpacas, goats and other creatures they care for. And you can see their respect for the history of that place, even as they help to teach schoolchildren the knowledge and values that we all need to learn in order to create a more sustainable society.

The people of Israel said farewell to their prophet Moses before they crossed the river Jordan into the Promised Land. Not long ago, we took leave of a latter-day prophet with a passion for justice and care for the earth, who for decades used music and humor to cajole us into making choices that will lead to life rather than death. In his song, “Rainbow Race,” Pete Seeger sang,

One blue sky above us,

One ocean, lapping all our shores.
One earth so green and round,

Who could ask for more?

And because I love you

I’ll give it one more try.
To show my rainbow race

It’s too soon to die.

Go tell, go tell all the little children!

Go tell mothers and fathers, too:
Now’s our last chance to learn to share

What’s been given to me and you

One blue sky above us,

One ocean, lapping all our shores.
One earth so green and round,

Who could ask for more?

Heaven and earth will bear witness, in very concrete ways, to the choices you and I make today.