I delivered this sermon (my first!) today, at St. John's Episcopal Church in Great Bend, Kansas. For reference, the day's lectionary reading can be found here.
Good morning. Since this is my first time in this pulpit I suppose I should start with a little introduction. I work for the Dominican Sisters of Peace as the organic farm manager out at Heartland Farm, and I am not a Catholic nor even an Episcopalian but rather a Jewish Unitarian Universalist. But I am discerning a call to ministry and was invited to preach here. A week after receiving that invitation, I was at a climate justice organizers training where I was asked to go out and preach on the topic of climate justice. And so, here I am, which is kind of crazy in so many ways. A few months ago I would have avoided a conversation about climate change. The statistics, the fire and brimstone, the end of the world narrative turn me off, and I’m sure it turns most of you off. No one wants to think we’re doomed. And so I didn’t really think about climate change. I just thought about caring for the earth, and ways of living on this planet that were good for me and good for the environment. I rode my bike and grew my own food and tried to opt out of destructive systems as much as possible. But the systems continued.
I lived and farmed for four years in Arkansas, and my community there was passionate and dedicated, but among those of us wanting to farm and to care for the earth in a meaningful way, I felt a creeping spiritual malaise. In part that discomfort led me back to religion, and in a desire to connect with my fellow Unitarian Universalists engaged in a struggle for a better way of living, I found my way, a month ago, to that climate justice organizers training. I expected to be a voice saying, enough of the fire and brimstone, we’re not going to move people, reach people, if we scare them. But I found, among that group, that I did not need to be that person because everyone understood, everybody understood that this is about more than polar bears, this is about environmental justice, about the fact that poor people and people of color are more likely to feel the negative consequences of climate change as they have negatively felt the consequences of our continuous methods of exploiting people and the environment. We build trash incinerators in poor neighborhoods, we let our pollution float downstream, we extract resources from the parts of the country that don’t have the wealth and power to say otherwise. And it’s frustrating and depressing. And I don’t want to stand up here frustrating and depressing you all this morning. That’s not my point. My point is to provide hope, and another way, a way forward. And at this organizers training I found hope, hope that there’s a future for us on this planet, and it may not look like what life looks like now, and in some ways it can’t look like the world looks like now, but there are enough people who care enough that we can make a difference. And maybe I’m just naïve. But I’ve studied enough of social movements to know that change is possible. It is possible for us as a culture to break free from our habits of excessive consumption, to break free of a way of life that is destructive towards other people and the environment, that there are a growing number of people who care about the earth and how we relate to it in our lives. Every few weeks another young person comes to stay on our farm for a little while, wanting to learn more about growing vegetables and caring for animals and totally willing to work hard and get dirty in exchange for room and board. Most of these folks won’t go on to become farmers, but I’m confident that after the experiences they are having they won’t stop caring. And hopefully they’ll have seen enough alternatives to build better lives for themselves. I’m fully aware that I am speaking to you in an oil town, but the price of oil isn’t reliable and thus neither are the jobs. Climate justice doesn’t just mean preserving nature and organic farms. It also means providing reliable and meaningful jobs for all of us. It means supporting farmers so that they don’t feel compelled to drill on their land in order to make any money off of it. It means identifying ways in which we can support each other, and the environments in which we find each other, at the same time.
I was back in Arkansas this past weekend visiting farmer friends in the Ozarks and I stood there, talking to them while they worked, and I remembered that there’s something that these farmers get that most people don’t seem to get, there’s an understanding and an urgency that governs their lives and how they face the world, how they interact with the world, why they do what they do, despite the fact that they don’t have any retirement saved up, despite the fact that they have no idea how they are going to put their kids through college. And I think what it is, is that they realize, on a deep and intuitive level, that land care is a life or death matter. That, not caring for the earth might not necessarily kill them, as individuals, but to do otherwise is to destroy the future and to devalue and depreciate our present. There are things besides money worth valuing. I think the fact that the hardest working people I know are struggling isn’t justified by the fact that their lifestyle has priceless benefits, because they do still have to put their kids through college, and they do still have to worry about their health, and they do still have to be able to pay their employees. So there are bigger systemic problems that need to be fixed. But in their struggle to survive and provide quality food for their community they are embodying an ideal that I think we all ought to move closer to. That of creating a better, meaningful life for one’s self in such a way that enriches the life of the environment and the people around you. And I think the response to climate change has to do that, has to enrich our lives and enrich the earth. And I know it’s possible. I’ve seen it and experienced it in small places, and I think it’s one of the biggest miracles on this planet, that we don’t have to choose between one and the other, that the earth gives forth richness when we put into it, and when we have faith.
So what does today’s gospel reading have to do with any of this? A lot, I think. This is the first time when Jesus really explains what’s going to happen to him and what it means for him to be the Messiah. And Peter rebukes what Jesus says because Peter has a very specific idea of what Messiah means. He’s coming from a traditional Judaic understanding of what the Messiah is, someone who is going to lead the nation of Israel to greatness and redemption as a political and military leader. And Peter also thinks that following Jesus, who will be this great leader, will be easy, it will be a life of miracles and glory, and he can be alongside that. But the truth is that salvation isn’t easy, it’s not just about following the leader who is going to get you there. What Jesus tells us is that salvation comes at a price, that his future will be one of suffering and persecution. But then there will be resurrection, there is hope, there is redemption. But we need to first turn our minds away from human things to divine ones. Which means the solution probably won’t come where we expect it. It probably won’t be some simple cure-all technological innovation. It certainly won’t be as simple as just switching from oil to solar power. It’s going to be something that takes sacrifice, that takes change on our behalf in the way that we live now. But then, there’s hope on the other side of that.
Which is what Jesus is telling us when he explains what is required to be his disciple. Mitigating climate change is going to take sacrifice on our part, as individuals. We need to adjust our living habits and ways of thinking to move away from materialism and consumerism, away from a way of life that demands energy and fossil fuels. For what will it profit us to gain the whole world and forfeit our lives? There are lots of lists of green living out there so I’m not going to go into it and I don’t want to tell you what to do because there is no one right thing, but if we want to save our lives, to have a future for humanity, we need to be willing to change. And allow ourselves to be transformed as we learn to listen to the world around us. In the transformation, of individuals and of culture, lies salvation.
Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year, which commemorates creation, which God has asked us to care for. As a new year, it may be an opportunity to make a resolution for a change in your own life, such as recycling or using cloth napkins or drinking fair trade coffee or buying local food. It is also the first of the High Holy Days. Ten nights from now is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The interim days are for individuals to ask forgiveness from those they may have hurt in the past year. And on the eighth day the Jewish community gathers together and collectively ask for forgiveness from God. Because sins against God are a collective responsibility, and I think responding to climate change is a collective responsibility. Individual actions matter and I don’t want to disempower anyone, but it matters more when it’s an organized effort. Boycotting Taco Bell to raise how much the tomato growers get paid makes a much bigger difference than the fact that I just don’t go to Taco Bell. Monsanto doesn’t care that I don’t spray Round-Up. And so, while our personal actions matter and I think they are totally transformative to our lives, collective actions matter too. As a group we have the power to sway policy and create institutions. And I think we all agree with that or we wouldn’t be here today, gathered together in a group for worship of God.
I don’t know the solution. And I do know that it won’t be easy. This morning’s reading from James asks, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” No. And similarly, a solution that seems to helps humans at the expense of the planet in reality helps neither, and vice versa. But a solution that truly does help one helps all. Everything is connected. This natural order gives me hope. And I have hope because I see a lot of people with a strong desire for work that has meaning we can feel in our bones. And I see a lot of examples of people like my farmer friends doing such work, and living lives of beauty and generosity and abundance where others might see only scarcity. If we learn to change our perspective, if we set our minds on divine things and recognize the abundance before us, we will see, perhaps, what the future truly might offer.
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