Psalm 78-1-4, 12-16
Speaking and living our “Yes”
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning, and I’d like to thank Molly, your rector, for inviting me. I serve the churches in this diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, and I am just back from last Sunday’s exhilarating experience of walking through New York City in the People’s Climate March alongside literally 10,000 people of faith. As you probably heard, the march drew a record 400,000 people from all over the country to express their concern about climate change.
I’d like to speak about why Christians care so much about protecting the world that God entrusted to our care, and we have a wonderful parable to guide our thoughts, the parable of the two sons, which is found only in the Gospel of Matthew.
We just heard the story: a father with two sons asks the first son to go work in the vineyard, and the boy replies, “Nope, no thanks. Not interested.” But sometime later he changes his mind, heads to the vineyard and gets to work. The father asks the second son to work in the vineyard, and the boy says, “I go” (Matthew 21:30). But he doesn’t go; he stays put. The question is: which of the two sons did the will of his father? The answer, of course, is the first son, the one who, despite his initial no, actually carried out his father’s request, not the son who said yes, but did nothing. What counts in the end is what we do, not what we say we will do.
I confess that I smiled when I realized that this was one of today’s readings, for this parable means something to me personally. My son is now 24, but when he was a kid, I remember asking him one day to turn off the TV and go clean his room. “Sure, Mom,” he said, “I’m on it.” But he kept sitting on the couch, absorbed in the TV, and didn’t move. I gave him a couple more minutes and asked him again. Again he said yes, just a sec, sure, he’d go, but he kept on staring at the screen. I waited a while longer until finally – exasperated – I decided to tell him the parable of the two sons. Which is better, I asked: to say no but then do what is right, or to say yes and do nothing? With a hangdog look my son went off to clean his room. I was pleased about that, though I can’t say that my irritated lecture deepened his appreciation of either the Bible or Christianity.
Still, I think there is something here for all of us to consider: this story invites us to notice the places in our lives where we know what the right thing to do is, but we’re not doing it, the places in our lives where our lips say, “Yes, Lord, I love you, I’ll do what you ask,” but our actions express something else entirely. We all have places in our lives where what we believe and what we do don’t quite line up, places where what we intend to do and plan to do and know is right to do somehow never gets done. We say yes with our lips, but our actions say no. It is a powerful moment, a moment of healing and integration, when our actions finally line up with our values, when we start doing the things that we know are right, when we say yes to God’s will and desire for our lives and then actually follow through.
That is one reason why last Sunday I found the People’s Climate March so exhilarating. Here we had people of all the world’s faith traditions – everything from A to Z, Agnostic to Zorastrian, and people of every religion in between – Episcopalians, for sure, but also pagans, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Greek Orthodox, indigenous people, Evangelicals, Buddhists – you name it, the world’s religions were represented – and all of us, with our different rituals and different doctrines and different ways of talking about the Holy, all of us were saying yes: yes, we recognize that the living world of which we are a part is sacred and precious, and we take action today to heal and protect it. As I imagine it, it was as if members of all the world’s religions had in their own way heard God the Father say, “I need you to work in my vineyard; I need you to play your part in the urgent work of healing the Earth that I entrusted to your care,” and last Sunday members of all the religions said yes, and went out to the vineyard and got to work. Values and actions lined up. It was a day for rejoicing.
I’ve talked a bit with Molly, and I’ve heard many good things about how here at Christ Church you are already taking action to make care for Creation an important part of your mission and ministry. I’ve heard about your replacing throwaway, disposable cups at coffee hour with cups that can be washed and reused. I’ve heard about your community garden, which is a terrific way to build local resilience and food security. I’ve heard how several years ago you raised thousands of dollars to build a well in Liberia.
I want to salute you for efforts like these, because doing our utmost to protect the ongoing web of life on this planet, and caring for the water and soil and air upon which our good health, and all life, depends is central to what it means to be a faithful Christian. In our Creation story at the beginning of Genesis, we meet a God who loves the Creation into being and who takes a look around at what he just made and is filled with delight. “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The created world, the web of life that scientists call the biosphere, is created by God and reveals God’s glory. As the psalmist puts it, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Land and rivers, animals, air and sea ultimately belong to God, not to human beings, for, as we also hear in the psalms, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). As humans we are part of the created order, not above it or separated from it, and the Book of Genesis tells us that the very first task that God gave to human beings was to take good care of the earth (Genesis 2:4b-8, 15). This is God’s Creation, not ours. We are here to shepherd and protect what is ultimately God’s possession, not ours.
Well, we’ve got some hard work ahead of us in that department. Even a quick look at the news reveals how far humanity has fallen away from God’s vision of our species living in a loving relationship with each other, our non-human neighbors, and the rest of the natural world. Because of our burgeoning population, powerful technologies, and ever-expanding appetite for “more,” we’ve reached a point where human activities are unraveling the web of life. My particular concern is how humans have affected the global climate. As no doubt you’ve heard, climate change caused by human activity is already having far-reaching effects on the world’s continents and oceans, and the creatures that inhabit them. In only two centuries, we have pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher today than they’ve been for millions of years. A while back I heard a climate scientist remark, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.” Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, gas, and oil, at present rates could raise worldwide average temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, which would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Already our planet is changing before our eyes: oceans are heating up and becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide released by cars and power plants; tundra is thawing, ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains are intensifying in others.
This past spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” As the environmentalist Bill McKibben has written, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” 1 Given the many pressures on the planet’s web of life, we are now in the midst of Earth’s sixth major extinction event. Maybe half the world’s species could vanish before the century is out. Our planet is 4.5 billion years old and has endured other extinction events, but this is the very first time that an extinction event is being caused by one species: us.
We live at an unprecedented moment in human history, a moment when our choices really matter and what we do, or don’t do, makes all the difference to what kind of world we leave our children and our children’s children. What can we do? Well, we can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation, turn down the heat, and cut back on AC.
As individuals we can and should do everything we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with other people and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We need to push our political leaders to get this country and other countries on track to make a swift transition to clean, safe sources of energy like sun and wind. We need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels and bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, which is the uppermost level that many scientists say is safe for life as we know it to continue on this planet. What is the level today? Nearly 400 parts per million – and climbing. So we have work to do.
Hope springs up when we take hold of that work and move into action. So I hope you’ll form a “green team” or a Creation Care committee (whatever you want to call it) here at Christ Church, and start to explore what you can accomplish together. I hope that those of you interested in building a network of people in the diocese committed to Creation care will give me your names, so that we can work together and support each other. I hope you’ll read the blog posts on my new Website, Reviving Creation. I hope you’ll take full advantage of our diocese’s first-ever Season of Creation, which begins next Saturday and lasts through the end of November. We are fortunate to have a bishop who recognizes what we Christians must do. I hope you’ll be thoughtful and creative and have some fun as you find ways to line up actions that express your values.
The news from scientists is grim. But the good news, as we saw last Sunday, is that people the world over are finally beginning to organize, strategize, and mobilize. And the Gospel good news is that God is with us. God is with us. “God so loved the world” – literally, in Greek, the “cosmos” – “God so loved that cosmos that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The melting ice in West Antarctica may be unstoppable, but so is the divine love that made us, that sustains us, and that calls us to stand up for life. Jesus is among us now, offering us here at this table the nourishing gift of his presence and power. There is so much left to save, so much good that we can do, so many ways that we can help to build a better world.
Like the two sons in the parable, we have a chance not only to say yes, but also to embody that yes: to go to work in the vineyard and to learn to live more lightly on the earth. As the poet Wallace Stephens once wrote:
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii.