Message for September 9, 2018
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee
Jeremiah 4.23-28/Mark 15.33-39
In and around the year 2007, the wider ecumenical church agreed to set aside a portion of the church calendar to recognize the amazing gift God has given us in the form of all aspects of the environment—our diverse ecological systems, the waters of the oceans, lakes and rivers and all of God’s flora and fauna—even, I reluctantly add, spiders. This time set aside is named the Season of Creation. The colour for this Season is orange and when the United Church of Canada introduced Creation Time into the liturgical year in 2010, this symbol was designed for the occasion. There is the tree of knowledge, the circle of wholeness, the four colours of the elements of creation: earth-brown, air-white, fire-orange, and water-blue. In this year of the three-year rotation of themes, we are celebrating the beauty and magnificence of the sky, of the mountains and of humanity. And the fourth Sunday of this Season, September 30th, we will be celebrating animals and we invite you to bring in a photo of your pet or pets so that they may be blessed during the service. We will be celebrating all these things but we will also be exploring the many ecological issues and concerns that exist for each of these aspects of God’s great Creation. Knowing that humanity was given dominion over the earth and all of inhabitants, that we are to be stewards for all that God has created, we ask ourselves, how have we been holding up our responsibilities? If God were to speak to us as God spoke to the first male and female, and if God were to ask, so…what have you got to say for yourselves in how you’ve managed this Earth of mine, how is it that we would explain our actions? The actions of our ancestors, the actions of our leaders, the actions of ourselves?
This Sunday is Sky Sunday, which I think is a lovely way to begin Creation Time because, wherever you are in the world, whether you are in Zambia, or Peru, or Palestine, or Ireland or India or in the Northwest Territories of Canada, each and every one of us has the experience of looking up to expansiveness of the sky. Of course if you are in Zambia or Peru, the night stars are different from what is seen from the northern hemisphere. And, depending where you are in India, you may not see the actual sky in very populated places for the abundance of smog and smoke. What Calgary had for smoke blotting out the sun this summer, is how many Indians live, day in and day out. The sky is one of the few aspects of nature that all the earth has in common—we are connected to one another across the world in that each of us experience day and night, the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. For many Christians, it is to the sky that we glance when we speak of Jesus ascending after his resurrection, and when we wonder about heaven and speculate where God might possibly reside, should God be such that God needs a resting a place.
It is in this connection to one another through our sky that makes our responsibility to care for the sky and the atmosphere all that more great. Albertans well know that what happens to the sky in some other location has the potential to severely impact our living here at home. The smoke from forest fires make it easy for us to see and feel how missteps in care for the environment can reach far and wide around the globe. There was more than once that we woke up in the morning and decided to restrict our outdoor activities last month due to the smoke. In fact, when I stepped outside and smelled the smoke, I was instantly transported back to the UCZ’s Theological University, where we stayed last year on the youth trip. Instantly I could feel the grass beneath my feet and feel the cool morning air on my arms. You see, for lack of centralized garbage removal, the Zambians burn their garbage at night and the smoke lingers until the morning. There are many concerns about wildfires these days that did not seem to exist a few decades ago. Humanity is spreading further and further from town and city centres which restricts allowing natural forest fires to burn. We know that forests need fire now and then for its life cycle but we are disrupting those cycles. As well, there have been an increase in droughts over time which means the forests are drier now and more susceptible when someone throws a cigarette butt out of a car window or when a campfire is not properly extinguished or when an ATV’s hot exhaust ignites dry brush.
One valuable takeaway from our smoky summer (I understand that the smoke from the wildfires in BC even reached PEI and Ireland) is a physical reminder that what we do to the environment has an impact that is far more reaching than just the immediate area, whether we can see it in the moment or not. I am not sure if the ancient Hebrew people had concerns for their environment, but there are many metaphors used in the Bible that use various aspects of creation to make a point about the behaviour of humanity and the nature of God. The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time that rife with instability and discord. Impending doom and destruction was about to befall Judah—it can be confusing, but after King Solomon’s death, the twelve tribes of Israel divided their lands into two kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah to the south—which included the city of Jerusalem. As the Bible tells it, people of Israel were not behaving well and God allowed them to be taken into captivity by the Assyrians. Fast forward a hundred and fifty or so years later and Jeremiah is watching the world around him fall apart. Remember, a prophet is someone who can anticipate or predict a certain future outcome based on current and past actions. Prophets anticipate what the future might hold if current attitudes and behaviours are maintained. One simply needs to imagine what the trajectory of such decisions might have beyond their immediate impact and what unintended consequences might rise up as a result of those decisions.
And so, the prophet Jeremiah, living in Judah, is witnessing the society around him crumbling. 2 Kings, chapter 17 tell us, Judah also did not keep the commandments of their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. The people of Judah have forgotten to know and to find ways of living with hearts of justice, community-mindedness and compassion. Jeremiah, knowing full well his history, knew that those very customs of Israel had resulted in Israel’s captivity. It did not require a Magic Eight Ball to understand that the seize of Judah, this time by the Babylonians, was close at hand. In our scripture reading today, Jeremiah is telling these people they have become vulnerable to powers and principles other than the one true God and their actions and behaviour have consequences for all of Creation. Creation suffers and bears witness to the consequences of humankind living only for self and forgetting their hope in God. Jeremiah reminds everyone that God sees what’s happening and God is not pleased. In the verses right before Daniel began reading, God likens humanity to stupid children who have no understanding. Says the people are skilled in doing evil but do not know how to do good. Don’t hear that in the sanctuary every day do you? This is one of those instances that the Lectionary conveniently skips over. Jeremiah goes on, with the piece that Daniel read, and tells the people that God is watching the very Creation that was gifted to humanity, the very Creation that was given to humanity to have dominion over, for them to be stewards of, that Creation is being undone because they have forgotten God and allowed themselves to ruled by self-interest and desire rather than the virtues that arise from relationship with God. Because of their selfishness and greed, fear and cowardice, the earth was waste and void. All the birds of the air had fled. The heavens above grow black. The sky became black just as it did the moment Jesus died upon the cross that was used to torture and execute him hundreds and hundreds of years later. Our behaviour has consequences that reaches far beyond that which a simple apology or monetary fine or bucket of water or a Band-Aid can fix.
It is often said that even if one experiences the presence of God at church, one can always find God out in nature. The feeling of being in the mountains or surrounded by grain fields, at night, far away from the lights of city so that the magnitude of milky way can be seen, near the ocean, along a stream, with the elegance of a hawk or falcon soaring high overhead, the magnificence of a huge flock of birds flying together across the sky, the sun rising and setting, the moon, full and enormous, right at our doorstep. I love to travel. I love to go see other countries and cultures. But when I am away, I miss being at home. I miss my people. I miss them a lot. And sometimes, when wifi and the phone are not available, I can sometimes feel untethered from the family and friends that I wrap around myself and my life, giving me a sense of comfort and stability. And, in these moments of feeling unmoored from my particular place in the world, no matter where I am, what continent I’m on or what nation I am in, I go outside and I look up. I look for the sun and know that yesterday that very sun rose upon my people at home and I feel their love traveling with it. I look up and see the moon and know that very moon will soon be making its way through the sky to put those I love to bed and I send my love with it. The sky is important. The sky protects us from cold of space. The sky holds for us the very oxygen we need for life. And it is up to us to keep that source of oxygen healthy. Because, believe it or not, on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, air is more fundamental to our well-being than free wi-fi.
I was fretting about what to say here because it seems so difficult for an individual or those who are not involved at a high level in corporations or government to make a difference over how our air quality is maintained. So much of the damage to our air and sky that has resulted in climate change has been because of industry and manufacturing. It can seem too big of an issue for us to manage as simply being citizens of the world. But then I had this funny experience this week. I am invited, now and then, to be filmed preaching sermons from the recent past so that those congregations without a minister can put together a worship service and have a preacher give a message. On Thursday, I pulled out and adapted a sermon for this coming Advent—from the Book of Luke, where John the Baptist is saying we need to make the roads straight, bring the mountains low and raise up the valleys in preparation for the Messiah’s arrival. It was weird to be preaching Advent in September but the long and the short of it was, I was hearing myself say that this specific piece of scripture tells us that we are to be co-creators with God for the coming of peace in this world. Only by our participation and involvement in the bettering of our world, can true peace be known. And, as it turns out, I was preaching to myself because in that moment, I remembered that we cannot abdicate our responsibility for a healthy sky and for clean air, we cannot abdicate our stewardship of the very sky that God breathed into the world at its beginning. We cannot. So, even though we may not be decision makers in industry or with the government, we must still do our best to affect change.
And. So. God gave us to the responsibility to be stewards for the Creation given to all of us. God can see, just as clearly as Jeremiah could, just as clearly scientists across the world, just as clearly—or not so clearly—as those who live in cities besieged by smog, just as clearly as us living under a haze of smoke from wildfires hundreds and hundreds kilometers away, we are not fulfilling our responsibilities to our very best ability. We cannot leave the impetus to be better, to steward better, to care better for our environment just up to the powerful and those with authority. We can affect change as individuals and as members of a wider community and as citizens united together. UN, Canada’s Action on Climate, Calgary. Show websites. Dennis – light bulbs. Gary – solar panels. What more can we do?