This is an excerpt from a sermon on climate change that Janeen Bertsche Johnson preached at Eighth Street Mennonite Church, Goshen, Ind. The earlier part of the sermon explained the science of climate change and its consequences.
Psalm 24 begins with the most basic affirmation possible: the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. Not only is God Creator, but God still claims creation as God’s possession. In spite of all of humanity’s talk about owning land or owning mineral rights, we are really only leasing the land from its true owner. We are the caretakers, given the task of gently tending the treasure which God has entrusted to us.
The psalm then asks “who shall stand in God’s holy place?” Probably this means “who is able to enter God’s temple?” But what if we thought of creation as God’s holy place? Certainly we can all think of places on the earth which are so beautiful that they seem holy to us, because there we experience the presence of God. So we might ask, “who will be allowed to meet God in the beauty of creation?”
And the answer comes, “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts. This speaks both to our intentions or attitudes and our actions. Do we view creation with pure hearts—loving it, valuing it, wanting to preserve it? And do we act toward creation with clean hands? Do we live lightly on the land? Do we avoid actions which harm the earth? Do we engage in actions to restore it?
Most of us would probably have to admit that our carbon footprint is far from neutral. But there are many ways that we can work to reduce our negative impact on the earth. Psalm 24 promises blessings from God for those who “do not lift up their souls to what is false.” We are called to reject the false idea that the earth is here for humans to exploit, to confront the false notion that there is nothing we can do about climate change.
A Prophetic Challenge
The Jeremiah 6 text is one of the great prophetic challenges of the Old Testament. Verse 16 starts with this lovely invitation: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
We are at a crossroads moment. Things are dire, but there is still the possibility of a different direction. Climate change scientists tell us that prompt and strategic actions by nations working together, especially breaking the global dependence on fossil fuels for energy, could slow or even stop our race toward disaster (Hansen 74).
So what will it mean for us to intentionally enter this crossroads situation, and look for a better approach? What would it mean for us to ask for the ancient paths? I think it is so interesting that many young adults are asking to learn the skills that their grandparents knew—gardening, canning, etc. One of our AMBS students recently learned how to make candles!
I believe that asking for the ancient paths has to do with connecting ourselves again to the created world that modern culture has separated us from. Many people are realizing that their future is bound up with the future of creation, and that they will care for creation if they have learned to love it, and that they will love creation if they have learned to know it.
I wish the Jeremiah text ended there: that humanity acknowledged this crossroads moment and learned how to walk in the good way, and found rest for our souls. But the prophet goes on and laments, “But they said, ‘We will not walk in it’” (vs. 16) . . . “We will not give heed” to the warning (vs. 17). And because of this, the prophet declares “Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have rejected it” (vs. 19).
Isn’t it interesting that the witness to the prophet’s words is the earth, because the people will not listen? The earth then joins in bearing witness against those who have not heeded God’s words and those who have rejected God’s teaching.
This reminds me of those statistics I read earlier about the huge proportion of people who deny that climate change is real and caused by human action. A quarter of Americans do not believe that climate change is happening! And another quarter don’t think it is caused by human actions.
This spring a co-worker sent me a clever video, in which people asked, why are hurricanes and other climate-related super-storms named after innocent people? What have Katrina, Andrew, Sandy and Ivan done to deserve the horrible responses which storm victims have laid against them? What if, instead, we named super-storms after the policy-makers who deny that climate change is real? Then the news would say “Marco Rubio threatens everything in his path.” “John Boehner is just destroying this town.” “Senator David Vitter is turning out to be one of the hugest and costliest disasters in American history.” It’s a funny video with a pretty important message. Just google “climate name change.”
Talking to our neighbors
So maybe one of the most important things we can do is to talk to our neighbors and our legislators, and share with them the reasons that we care about climate change. If solving these problems is going to take global action, we need to start evangelizing! And by that I mean talking about our faith and why faith leads us to care about creation.
We believe that God is Creator of the world. We believe that God gave humans the task of caring for the rest of creation. We believe that human sin includes the greed and arrogance which creates the conditions for pollution, abuse of creation, and global warming.
We believe that creation is groaning as it waits for renewed life, as our text from Romans 8 says. We believe not that God will destroy this earth, but that God will renew it, that God is not going to make all new things, but will make all things new.
This is the hope which compels us to keep working for change, to not give in to apathy or despair. We hope even though we can’t see evidence that things will get better. As verse 24 says, “hope that is seen is not hope.” And as we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patient endurance and determination. We may not always know how to act, or even how to pray, but we have been promised that the Holy Spirit understands our groaning, our deepest longing, and “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
This is the hope that will enable us to change destructive habits into earth-protecting habits. This is the hope that will transform apathy into passion. This is the hope that will allow us to embrace the passion of a God who loved the world—the whole cosmos—so much that God sent the beloved Son to save the world, not to allow it to be destroyed! (John 3:16) This is the hope that will show us the ancient paths which are the good ways for us to go. Amen.