Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen

The Congregational Church of Hollis
22 April, 2018
Easter 4B

Psalm 24:1-6
1 John 3:16-24

Today is Earth Day, for those of you who weren’t already aware.  Earth Day, now observed and celebrated in 193 countries worldwide, started in this country in 1970 as an initiative to encourage governments and citizens to care for and protect our environment.  Many of you will remember the ad campaigns from my childhood featuring Woodsy Owl, who admonished TV audiences, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” alongside Smokey Bear’s reminder that, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”  The issue of global warming and global climate change was barely discussed at that point; that really didn’t “gain steam” for another few decades.

Today, however, that particular issue, as we all know, is a political hot-potato, which has devastating effects especially for the poor.  And growing numbers of scholars argue it’s the gravest global threat to human existence, if not to all living species, not least because of its far-reaching socio-economic impacts.

In 400 B.C., in his book History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  Some things don’t change.  In the latest “World Economic Outlook” report published by the International Monetary Fund, one conclusion is that failure to act on global climate change ensures that the poor indeed will suffer—and the greatest negative impacts of the increasingly common weather traumas are on tropical countries.  We don’t need to look further than Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for evidence.  As it happens, nearly all low-income countries are tropical.  So, those least economically able to protect themselves become even more impoverished victims of global economic and political realities.

Here’s a truth that’s not new, but it should challenge us as people of faith: despite contrary instruction in every ancient religious tradition (and especially in Christianity), just as Thucydides suggested, the poor have always been left to fend for themselves by others who value their own material gain more than the wellbeing of their neighbor.

In response to this reality, a group of 21 young Americans are putting their faith convictions into action, by attempting to change things.  Melanie Oommen, a UCC pastor in Oregon, published a reflection—her son is among the group of 21 young people.  She wrote:

“This is the best time to be born,” [according to] 15-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, [who] spoke to hundreds of youth and adults on the steps of the Federal Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, “because we have the opportunity to change the course of history.”  Here’s one way to live that opportunity: my 19 year old son Kiran, Xihutezcatl, and 19 other young people from all over the U.S. are suing the U.S. government and the entire fossil fuel industry.  With the support of Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit in Eugene, Oregon, they argue that the U.S. government’s persistence in proactively supporting the extraction, production, consumption, transportation, and exportation of fossil fuels is a violation of constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property as well as a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine which holds that it is the obligation of the U.S. government to protect natural resources for the use of present and future generations.”[1]

Responding to the efforts of this group, Peter Sawtell, Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries (an independent, ecumenical agency that helps churches respond to our call to care for all of God’s creation) wrote: “This is not a frivolous lawsuit. The judge who will be hearing the case refused the government’s attempt to have it dismissed.  She wrote, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

Sawtell continued, “The legal principle being used in the lawsuit is called the public trust doctrine.  It is an idea that goes all the way back into ancient Roman law, and has tracked through western civilization.  It is a foundational principle of virtually all legal and religious systems.  One of the most prominent legal scholars on the topic wrote, “The public trust doctrine speaks to one of the most essential purposes of government: protecting critical natural assets for the survival and welfare of citizens.””[2]  A trial date for the constitutional lawsuit – Julianna vs. U.S. – has been set for October 29th.

The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, introduced herself to a congregation this way: “I am often known as the ‘eco-minister’.  I am the one who won’t shut up or give up.  I am constantly challenging people to make care for creation a priority matter of faith.  It is true, I do this and I believe that care for Creation is as central to the Christian faith as love, justice, and peace.  And because I won’t stop preaching and talking about it, and will go to extremes, I am referred to as the Loose Canon.  I justify my single-issue ministry (which is not single-issue REALLY because the climate and accompanying influence on the environment affects every aspect of life)—I justify my preaching by asking the question, ‘Can you sit in a pew and profess to love God and your neighbor and NOT be concerned about protection of God’s Creation?’  You cannot.”[3]

Even Pope Francis has weighed in on this, making it clear that this is more than a mere political issue—it’s a moral one.  He said, “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

Clearly, Christians across the globe have begun realizing that whatever our politics may be, we have a moral obligation—as those entrusted by God to be tenders of this whole creation—to wrestle with this issue.  It’s not an easy issue, either, because good people of faith will disagree about the merits of fossil fuels and our utter dependency on them.  Many, many devoted Christians are employed by corporations, industries, and agencies the young peoples’ lawsuit seeks to address—and it’s not hard to understand why they might be feeling defensive, if not outright dismissive of the merits of the lawsuit.  It’s simply not a cut-and-dry issue.

The same goes for those of us who are quite comfortable in our habits of consumption and waste.  Some of us are not eager, much less certain how, to change—especially when it feels like such a massive problem.  And what difference can one person make, anyhow?  Is it really going to make a difference in my relationship with God?

“The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for [God] has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.  Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?  Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.  They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation.  Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.”[4]

The Psalmist made it clear some three thousand years ago: human beings have always struggled to accept that the earth isn’t ours to exploit and squeeze for our own selfish gain.  As I said earlier, Thucydides also identified the dynamic even if he deliberately steered clear of any references to spiritual realities or God.

But it’s the ethical question that our scripture lessons are inviting us to consider this Earth Day Sunday morning: How do our choices and actions contribute to (or, possibly, detract from) our proper stewardship of the environment, of the earth as a whole?  And how do those choices help—or hinder—our relationship with God?

Our New Testament text challenges us with these words: “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”[5]  In other words, if we truly want to discover the deeper joy and meaning in life that Jesus demonstrated, we need to be willing to sacrifice personal comforts in order to serve others who are suffering.  And that doesn’t extend only to those in our family or close circle of friends.  God calls and equips us to tend to whatever bit of earth is within our sphere of influence, however small or great that may be.  When God created the world, gave it a sense of order, and entrusted its management to humankind, the intention was that we might be co-operators with God; the plan is that caring for the earth and all its life-forms alongside the Creator might be a powerful way to cultivate our mutual relationships.  As care-takers of life, we begin to understand more about the Giver and Sustainer of life.

The epistle writer continues, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”[6]

What actions are we taking as a tenders of God’s creation, as stewards of God’s creatures?  Are you doing more than just talking about it?

confession: I’ve been talking about how I need to remember my reusable shopping bags for months—probably longer.  It’s amazing how easy it is to get out of the habit of remembering your reusable bags when those plastic bags are so ubiquitous.

When we lived in Denmark and England, we always carried reusable grocery bags with us to the supermarket.  Partly because they charged us for each bag if we didn’t bring our own, and even having to pay 5 pence per bag was enough incentive for me to remember.  But here, every time I get to the check-out till at Market Basket, I’m full of regret and say yet again, “I MUST put those reusable bags in the back of the car!”  And after putting the groceries away at home, I forget.

Statistics suggest that the average American throws away about 10 single-use bags per week; globally, an estimated one trillion of those bags are used each year.  But they cause problems for animals: sea mammals get caught in the bags and aren’t able to surface to breathe, so they drown.  Sometimes animals, birds, or fish mistake pieces of the bags for food, and they ingest them; it blocks their digestive system and causes suffering and death.[7]  And, although they shred easily, it takes generations for the plastic to completely decompose.  Sure, a lot of them get recycled—and that’s good; in fact, that’s been one of the sources of reassurance for me when I forget my reusable bags. But we’ve all seen them hanging in trees, and blowing about in fields, contributing to the litter of the land.  And even recycling results in further, unnecessary, carbon emissions.

Another relatively easy change action is deleting plastic straws from your life.  Would you believe that 500 million plastic straws are used in the U.S. each day?  That’s an average of 1.6 straws/person/day—enough straws to circumnavigate the planet 2½ times!  Like the plastic bags, they’re seriously harmful to sea creatures as well as birds, and they’re less likely to be recycled; most get tossed into the landfill.  A lot of them wind up floating in the ocean—they’re the 5th most common form of beach debris.  So, one easy way to demonstrate your care for the earth is to request “no straw”, or encourage your restaurant to go with paper straws.

Friends, we are called to demonstrate our love for God by serving the world, which includes striving to leave a healthy future for generations to come.  Most of us are already busy doing many things that express our care and concern.  But our Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit that’s trying to work with us to transform this world, don’t want us to get too complacent.  Thank God, there’s grace and second (and seventy-second or more) chances for people like me who know what we should be doing and are just forgetful.  The thing to remember in all of this is that God’s love and devotion to humankind—the love Jesus revealed so perfectly, so that we could practice following his example and experience God’s love more intimately ourselves—that love is unflappable.  That love understands how we struggle, and extends grace when we fail.  But it also gives us the opportunity to keep on trying, to discover the joy of sharing our abundance so that the whole world can benefit from the blessings we ourselves enjoy, and so our relationship with the Creator might go that much deeper.  Hallelujah!  Happy Earth Day, everyone!   Amen.

[1] http://www.ucc.org/god_s_abiding_presence_in_the_prophetic_action_21_young_people

[2] http://www.eco-justice.org/E-171020.asp

[3] “Love God, Love Your Neighbor”: a sermon preached by Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on July 8, 2012

[4] Psalm 24:1-6

[5] 1 John 3:16

[6] 1 John 3:17-18

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/03/opinion/sunday/plastic-bags-pollution-oceans.html

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