Climate Change and the Church

Jennifer Ireland

Jennifer IrelandNovember 11, 2011

     Isaiah 56:1-8
     Ephesians Chapter 3: 14-21 


All-Loving Spirit of God, Creator of all that is,

Whose life is our light without which

We are as a branch cut off from the living vine that can only wither and die;

Or like salt that loses its essential nature, and no longer salty, is fit for nothing at all.

You are our father, our mother, by whom every family that is true to your purpose is named.

Our failings in being true father and true mother are so great and so numerous,

Forgive us, Lord, and renew us so that we may nurture, sustain, and protect our families,

and our wider family—the whole creation You have made.

Mystery beyond our understanding, the veil still firmly in place, help us quiet our inner clamor.

May our innermost being become quiet, let us attend to your Spirit in our hearts and know You are present with us.

We give thanks that You continually draw us to You, that You gather your small community of  the 8th Day Church, as You gather all peoples.

As scripture says, ‘all who dwell in love, dwell in You.’ And, ‘the one who loves, knows God.’ 

Therefore, help us to know better the meaning of love--love that bears all things. 

Root us, ground us in love, we pray.


Good morning, everyone. Since many of you don’t know me well, I thought I’d begin with a little about myself.  Being a mother to my daughter Denise has been one of the defining calls on my life for many years. My uneven and imperfect mothering has increased my awareness of the ways that God has supported me in this call to parenthood. At times I can glimpse the way this loving relationship with my daughter shines a light on the greater, surpassing love of God. Certain moments of such beauty blaze out as I look back on my life with her, and I’d like to share one of those with you.

My parents were not churchgoers, and I had only some intermittent attendance of Sunday school as a child. I had no real experience of a faith community until finding a Quaker meeting which we began attending when Denise was about 6 years of age.  Our small family was beset with a number of problems, health, financial, and others--and the struggle felt great to me to try to find an environment where my daughter could grow and flourish. I think I felt as though I were still carrying her on my hip, as though there were no safe place to put her down—and at six, she was getting pretty heavy!! So one Sunday morning in early autumn, such is my memory, we went to a nearby Quaker meeting for worship. After the first 15 minutes of the worship, the younger children left to join their Sunday school classes, my daughter along with them. The weather was so enticing one of the classes met outside on a grassy slope under the trees—and in the silence of our worship, with the meetinghouse windows open, we soon heard the voices of our children raised in song. One song they sang is “Simple Gifts” and the piercing sweetness of the moment –the children’s voices, the affirmations of the song, the peacefulness as I sat in the silent worshipping group—will always be with me. 

The teaching today is focused on a grave threat which will grow ever more severe in the lives of our children and future generations. The threat I’m speaking of concerns the far reaching effects of climate change.  My question for us today is:  are we doing all we can to learn about the earth’s changing climate, wrestle with implications of what we find out, and discern possible actions and follow through? Are there ways we can share this journey more intentionally, collectively? Far too much is at stake not to take this on w/ our full strength—and we need each one another!

In my own grappling with the unfolding reality of climate change, the enormity of which can overwhelm, I have realized that it is a struggle that absolutely requires that I enter more deeply into community. In fact, I believe so profound are the challenges we face, that our rootedness in faith and the depth of our bonds with each other will crucially affect our ability to respond in ways that could turn us (humanity) away from the course of “business as usual” in the way that we are continuing  to generate greenhouse gases.  These emissions are already having hugely destructive consequences, as most of you undoubtedly know, for example, in freak weather events, drought, and flooding.  If we do not diminish and arrest the pouring of CO2 into the atmosphere, it is certain we cannot prevent a plummet to far worse catastrophes for our children and their children, not to mention non-human life on the planet. What we are doing and failing to do now will be life-giving, or death-dealing for those who come after us.

Deep grounding in faith and community that I believe is necessary does not, of course, assure that we will be successful in putting a brake on greenhouse gas emissions and the planet’s warming. Inestimably important as a succeeding in this struggle is, deep grounding in faith and in community is essential for another reason—a more selfish one perhaps, but its importance also cannot be overestimated. And what I most want to talk with you about today, in a few words, is this.  In this world being transformed by climate change, faced with these challenges, what account will we give of how we are responding? Ultimately, how we answer will reveal what kind of faith it is that we have in God, and whether we move more deeply into gospel witness, or fall away.

Most of my learning about our world’s environmental degradation and changing climate has occurred since my joining the Bridge to Hope mission group. For over a year now, my participation with those in the group, David, Kate, Fred, Maria, Tim and Dottie, has been a critical piece of my journey. We have been working with the premise that the environmental problems we face, including climate change, result from a nexus of interrelationships among government, corporations, the economy, the media, peak oil, and the culture of consumerism; and we have been trying to take in the big picture of these interrelationships.

A film which we recently screened, “The Age of Stupid” does a pretty good job of dramatizing some of these relationships, and our interconnectedness, through documentary footage which follows the lives of seven people for a couple of years. The individuals in the film are both flawed and gifted, and above all they come across as real--completely credible. One of the most endearing is a mountain guide in his eighties, whose life-long love of the Alps and now melting glaciers is palpable. We see him living a conscientious lifestyle, but also filling his tank with gas from a Shell station.  In another scene we have been shown the horrendous damage Shell has wreaked on oil rich regions of Nigeria where despite the oil wealth, the people live on less than $1 a day, and suffer greatly from the environmental devastation of their land, water, and air.  By the film’s end, we care about what happens to these individuals whose lives we’ve glimpsed—and I believe our unspoken answer to the question posed in the film, ”Why didn’t we save ourselves—did we believe we weren’t worth it?” is a huge resounding, “Yes! We are worth it!” But the question of why we are not doing all in our power to save ourselves is not so easily answered.

Some current not-good news: the Associated Press reported last week that “Levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts (that is, the IPCC) just four years ago.The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide has jumped by a record amount, according to the US Department of Energy, a sign of how feeble the world's efforts are at slowing man-made global warming.” 

So--given the enormous changes underway that climate change is bringing about which have already transformed the planet to such an extent, will we live out hope or succumb to despair?  Some brothers and sisters are pointing us toward what “living out hope” can look like. Right now I’d say that whatever the faith or lack thereof of individuals in the Occupy movement, the values of egalitarianism, the unique importance of each individual, that many have been enacting and that seem to characterize the movement, are values that Jesus embodied when he walked the earth. How deeply these values are held, and whether they can be sustained, we do not know, but this spreading movement is kindling some fresh hope in a few of us…

A high point for me last Sunday, November 6, came when I joined in the chanting: “We are the 99%!” and, “This is what democracy looks like!” standing side by side with thousands of other opponents of the massive carbon fuse which the Keystone XL pipeline would be, and now that it’s put on hold by President Obama, would have been—and pray that the pipeline is permanently cancelled!   For the space of a few hours last Sunday, all kinds of potential divisions among us demonstrators were of no account—and I think so many of us hunger to be able to experience and express our solidarity, as one humanity.

It is egregious that wealth in this country--has been siphoned off over recent decades so that is now concentrated in the richest 1% of the population. Not only wealth has been drained, but so has political power which is then wielded to protect and enhance the so-called interests of the wealthy.… so-called, not actual, because we and all life are interdependent and live on a finite planet whose resources are shrinking; and so violating the interests of the many will eventually lead to the demise of the few.

In a larger frame, according to a study by a Princeton ecologist cited in “State of the World 2010”, A Worldwatch Institute publication, “The world’s richest 500 million people (roughly 7 percent of the world’s population) are currently responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3 billion are responsible for just 6 percent.)” Are we surprised that once again it is the poor who suffer first and suffer the most, and who have had least responsibility for the CO2 emissions which are causing global warming?

In the publication referenced, it is reported that, “In 2006, the 65 high-income countries where consumerism is most dominant accounted for 78% of consumption expenditures but just 16% of the world population….It is these countries that most urgently need to redirect their consumption patterns, as the planet cannot handle such high levels of consumption. Indeed, if everyone lived like Americans, Earth could sustain only 1.4 billion people.”

As Americans, we are among the 16% of the world’s population with consumption patterns that are unsustainable. So, all the problems posed by our consumerist lifestyle cannot be laid at the feet of the wealthiest 1%—we too are embedded in a culture that is not sustainable for life on the planet.

I have listened recently to an interview with liberation theologian, Nestor Miguez, Methodist minister, author and activist, who has been the spiritual counselor for the Mothers of the Disappeared, and who spoke about the need to renew our minds, saying that he believes the main concern today must be with “transforming ourselves by changing our minds.”  He quoted Romans 12:1,Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

We could look to an ancient Jewish text, Isaiah 56:1, from the scripture reading chosen for today, for some clues, perhaps, as to what a transformed understanding might be:“Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.”In Walter Brueggemann’s exegesis in a small book titled, Using God’s Resources Wisely, he suggests that this statement is the touchstone for how God’s resources are to be managed.  Our work is to act justly, with righteousness. The Hebrew is:  enact mishpat, and sedaqah.  Then, God’s response will be salvation and deliverance—the latter word, deliverance, is the same word in Hebrew for righteousness—sedaqah. That is, by enacting sedaqah, we receive from God sedaqah. Through our righteousness God delivers us and God’s righteousness is revealed.

So, our liberation comes in enacting right, just, relationships; not only within our communities of people like ourselves but inclusive of the “other”-- those who are outcasts, foreigners, marginalized. In so doing we are freed by God, saved, delivered.

The next verse states, “Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.” The only specific requirement spelled out here is the keeping of the Sabbath, which Brueggemann notes became definitional for Jewishness in the period after the Babylonian captivity. He asks why this is so and suggests the following answer:

“ …the Sabbath was a public, disciplined enactment of difference, because it  broke the vicious circle of productivity that defined imperial life. Without a Sabbath, the busy scheme of production and consumption turns all of life, neighbor and self, into a succession of commodities with only utilitarian value”; those returning from exile “decided that life would not be defined in terms of commodity success but in terms of another sort of neighborliness, not based on utilitarian value.” (p. 50)

This, according to Isaiah, is what our community life should consist in—and the “other” who holds to these same values and the Sabbath, must be invited to full sharing in the community and its resources.   Community members are not promised freedom from pain or suffering; nevertheless they will be “happy”—blessed, reminiscent of the beatitudes of the New Testament. What does this blessing mean?  How do we understand the meaning of this deliverance? It is not, I think, a simple equation—act justly and then God will deliver you from all suffering; somehow my experience and observations just don’t corroborate this!… And I doubt that of post exilic Jews did either…The story of Job certainly would have been evidence against that interpretation, as well.  When we come to the example of Jesus, it is abundantly clear that embodying the values of justice, mercy, love, and righteousness did not deliver him from suffering—indeed his faithful walk led him to the Cross.

I don’t think deliverance is only about the life we receive beyond this earthly one, either, though I do believe in Jesus’ resurrection, and ours.  In the New Testament several stories Jesus tells or that are told about him empower us inthis life here and now, and deliver us in a sense, out of the hands of our “enemies.”  They exemplify the attitude we are to take toward unavoidable suffering and loss of control over our circumstances—not that we should ever seek suffering out for its own sake. These include the stories of turning your cheek to be struck again; giving up your cloak too, when your coat is demanded; and giving up the denarius demanded by Caesar’s taxation—though that could be your last one.

In these actions you give of your own accord—for example your goods are not taken from you but you hand them over; even turning your other cheek for more punishment. Taking this attitude is empowering, and far more so if you believe that the strength underlying your actions ultimately is given by God whose power is unassailable, unlike the fragile human body of clay.  The supreme example of power is shown when Jesus said, ‘I myself lay down my life—it is not taken from me, but I lay it down.’

And even in the face of this suffering, in the presence of enemies—yes, even with the reality of global warming—there is/can be an assurance of deliverance.  The faith community through its worship and commitment to walking by faith, can live out this hope. In the psalm that is among the best known and loved, no. 23, we hear the assurance that the goodness and love of God always pursues us, ready to restore us, no matter what shadow of death we cross through. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need.”

In the interview with Nestor Miguez that I mentioned previously, he said, “When you walk by faith, the irrational rationality of the world’s system has to confront another kind of reasoning.” He calls this “the Messianic logic”; that is, “the reign of God, which means God has the last word.”