Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Sermon on Job, Psalm 104, and the Kerry-Boxer Energy Bill

I had planned to give this sermon at an Omaha-area Episcopal church today, but unfortunately flu-like symptoms caused me to request a back-up preacher a couple days ago. Nevertheless, I thought I would post it here. The readings follow the Revised Common Lectionary, focusing on Job 38: 1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104: 1-9, 25; and Mark 10:35-45. Drawing heavily from a book by Bill McKibben, the crux of the sermon is basically this: The environment is important for many spiritual reasons. One, when Scripture reveals God’s glory, it does so with environmental and biological language. Two, we are able to experience and feel God when in nature. Three, God gave us this environment as a gift, called it “good,” and asked us to take care of it. For these three reasons, as well as the role the environment plays in justice (its close ties to things like cancer and asthma), we as good Christians must be humble and not live a lifestyle that destroys the environment. If we believe what science tells us, then we must address climate change, and one way to do that is to pass clean energy legislation. So without further ado, my sermon:

May I speak in the name of God who is Creator, Liberator, and Sanctifier.

The common message across these passages from Job, Mark, and Psalm 104 is a simple one: God is great, and we must humble ourselves before God, approaching God’s creation with humility. My understanding of that message is that when we ignore His natural works or replace them with our own, we risk running afoul of the First Commandment.

I am rather struck by the timing of these readings. I bought a book last winter called The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation about this passage from Job and this very psalm by a fellow named Bill McKibben. Some of you may already be familiar with McKibben; he is an environmental scholar at Middlebury College and the author of several popular books. He has helped organize almost every major climate change campaign in the last decade. The reason I am struck by the timing of these readings is that McKibben’s biggest event yet will be next weekend. I’ll say more about that event in a few moments.

The Comforting Whirlwind points out that when God wants to reveal His glory, he uses language of an environmental and biological sort. God appears to Job in a whirlwind, one of the basic elements of nature, and talks to him about “the foundation of the earth” and the “morning stars,” reminding the man that he wasn’t there when these things were created; that they are bigger than he and that he should remember than when contemplating his relationship with the creator. Then, in verses 34-41 (“optional” verses for today in the Revised Common Lectionary) God says,

Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, “Here we are”? Who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?

Waterskins of the heavens! Lions! That is some awesome stuff, all of it speaking to the glory of the Creator and all of it found not in our cities but in God’s forests and skies. There’s more of the same in Psalm 104, which highlights God’s “majesty and splendor” with verses like “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” These verses are neither the first of an environmental nature in the Bible, nor the last. Where does Jesus go, McKibben asks, when he wants to pray? The Temple? No! A garden, and the Wilderness. And who was the original conservationist? Teddy Roosevelt? American Indians? How about… Noah? Remember Genesis: “The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.” And God saw that it was good.

There is a reason God and the psalmist talk of weather, geology, and animals when they want to show His glory. God considers those things good—and we can experience why for ourselves. There are moments in life – children discovering the joy of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly; pilots, as John Magee says, slipping the surly bonds of earth and joining the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds; farmers taking in the awesome power of a prairie storm; city slickers walking in a park to escape the grime, me camping in Badlands National Park under a full moon during the drive to Omaha from Idaho – there are moments in life when we know that God loves us not because we see God in our air, but because we feel God in the midst of God’s creation.

If we are to honor God, then we must honor the things God calls good, the creations that reveal God’s glory. Part of honoring them is learning to approach them with humility, which is one of the lessons in today’s Gospel. Here we have James and John caring not about what the Kingdom of God will do for humanity but about what it will do for them. Dr. David Garland, the seminary dean at Baylor University, writes of James and John, “They want to dominate, not to serve” and of the reaction of their traveling companions, “The disciples would rather bear a grudge than a cross.” And so Christ very lovingly puts them all in their place: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

So we are called to act with humility, and yet we do not. Our culture is one of consumerism; our society demands a lifestyle that takes more resources from the earth per year than the earth can replace. I am speaking not just about materialism, but also about climate change, which is a scientific issue far more than it is a political one. NASA has made it clear that if we keep relying on coal as our primary energy source and on ungodly amounts of dinosaur bones to fuel our daily transportation, we will put enough greenhouse gases in the air to raise the average temperature of the planet several degrees. If that happens – and nine of the ten hottest years on record are in the past two decades – we will see several Katrina-style storms every year. A report from the Nature Conservancy says the largest temperature increases in the U.S. will come right here in the Midwest, causing massive drought. The refugee crises won’t just be limited to the population of Bangladesh moving to China; Omaha will have to deal with incoming Miamians. This is the lifestyle that we lead right now – a lifestyle that says using bottled water instead of filtered water bottles is worth destroying homes around the world, and leaving the lights is worth the cancer caused by mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Where is the humility in that?

McKibben writes in The Comforting Whirlwind, “Most cultures, historically, have put something else—God or nature or some combination—at the center. But we’ve put these things at the periphery.” Instead of building ourselves around God, we have built ourselves around the proposition that growth is always good, that we always need more. And while McKibben doesn’t say it, this means that we are not putting God first, that we are dangerously close to running afoul of the first commandment. Clearly, if one believes the science, then there is a Christian imperative to combat climate change. Fortunately, while there is a tipping point to climate change, we probably haven’t reached it yet. It’s not too late to green our lifestyles, to restore the balance of humility in our relationship with God. The biggest thing we can do is lobby the elected representatives to pass major energy legislation. This country has to break its addictions to foreign oil and coal. We need renewable energy, and in my opinion, nuclear energy. This is not a partisan issue – conservative Republican Senators from Alaska and South Carolina have climbed on board and may soon be joined by colleagues from Tennessee and Arizona.

To help pass such legislation, we can write our Senators, and we can take part in the 350 campaign, the upcoming Bill McKibben event that I mentioned. 350 parts of carbon per million parts of atmosphere is the sustainable level of carbon output we should shoot for. We are currently at 390ppm, a historically unprecedented level. McKibben has started a website called that seeks to bring attention to this number and to the measures we need to take to reach this goal. Next Saturday, thousands of events around the world will highlight the number. Musicians will sing songs about 350, outdoor enthusiasts will arrange 350 canoes in the shape of the number 350, and churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia will ring their bells 350 times. We don’t have an outdoor bell here at Holy Spirit, but Repower Nebraska, the non-profit I have chosen to work for as part of my internship, will host an event at St. Mary’s College from 2:30 to 3:50 next Saturday, right about the time the Huskers game ends. We’re going to have free popcorn, live music, the mayor, and a wall on which event attendees can right their favorite reason for passing climate change legislation. We’re hoping to get 350 such reasons, and Christian voices are not just welcomed but desired. On a side note, I also recommend joining the e-mail lists of the Episcopal Ecological Network and the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

These goals are not about politics. They are about being better stewards of what God has given us. Yes, Genesis does say we have dominion over the earth, but dominion does not replace humility. I like what McKibben says: “God, who had gone to the trouble creating myriad species and who had called them ‘good,’ did not understand dominion to include thoughtless destruction for short-term gain.” God does not understand dominion to include thoughtless destruction for short-term gain.

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