Sunday last, I was asked to preach at St. Marks UMC in Bloomington, Indiana. The topic assigned? Christian responsibility regarding Creation Care. What United
Methodist Bishops have called “Environmental Holiness” has become of increasing interest and passion for me. Perhaps this is especially the case as I am enjoying my years as a grandparent and considering the ways these children will experience the beauty and the destruction of the gift of the natural world.
Attached is the sermon that came for the day. As any preacher knows — there is both more and less to say on any topic. Sermons are shaped for particular occasions and specific audiences. Still, I share this in the hope that no matter our particular perspective on the causes of the environmental changes that are now occurring, we can believe that we, each one of us has a responsibility to care for this “common home” that we share.
Dateline – Paris, November 30, 2015: It is the first day of Advent and the leaders of nations around the world gather to seek ways to address the dilemmas created by Climate Change. While there are some who believe that concern for the climate is antithetical to economic prosperity, there is a slow and steady awareness among business leaders that an alternative to this old either/or model can emerge.
Interestingly this environmental summit begins on the first day of Advent. Advent is a season filled with of stories of exile and a longing for home. It is a time of waiting and watching. Paris, touched so recently by terror, knows something about the challenges of exile and the welcoming of strangers
For me, the question of Climate Change is a leading edge of growing faith understanding. This issue is a way I continue to “learn to learn.” Sustainability is another way of speaking of the human responsibility to provide enduring care for God’s creation. So… Advent is a time to wait, think anew, and reconsider my beliefs in the light of new lessons from scripture and science.
On my desk is a copy of the encyclical “Laudato Si” offered this spring by Pope Francis. The subtitle of this fine document is “Care for Our Common Home.” Drawing on the witness of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis Assisi, we are encouraged to seek an “integral ecology.” Care for the earth, it’s creatures and all human beings is one, indivisible task — it cannot be separated into parts. Our commitment to care for the poor and stranger among us is related to our care for the earth; they are one focus. [Link to Ladato Si: Care for Our Common Home]
For years I have pondered the power and beauty of scriptures related to the the creation. The call for an integral ecology is another way of saying the deepest spiritual themes of scripture and faith are interconnected.
I think of Genesis 1, where we are told that God sees everything that has been made and announces “behold it is very good.” I consider passages like the 24th Psalm (“the earth is the Lord’s and all that is within it”) or the majesty of Psalm 104 or 148 — or Isaiah 40. All of these passages are linked speaking to how we are to relate to our neighbor — especially the widow, orphan and stranger. Our Christian scriptures culminate with Revelation 21 which speaks of the fulfillment of creation as a new heaven and a new earth.
For me, the most haunting passages comes in the eighth chapter of Romans, one section of which reads: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in childbirth right up to the present time.” It goes on, “Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not have we wait patiently for it.”
Sadly, there are climate skeptics who deny both science and these compelling scriptural injunctions. Many in the U.S. Congress are voting against the plans that will be offered by the current U.S. administration this week. Sadly, these skeptics do not offer any alternative ideas. They simply deny the science — and the scriptures. Leaders in more than half of the states are suing the administration over this climate care agenda. Okay, congress and governors, disagree if you will; however, offer some alternative. Especially if you make claims about being persons of faith. At least speak to the matter of stewardship and God’s desires for the care of the earth.
If one is an intelligent Christian, this season of Advent is a time to think carefully about God’s call for us to care for creation. The science regarding the dangers of climate change is compelling. Even if it were not, we persons of faith are to be good stewards of all we have been given. If you are a person of faith and cannot support the Paris proposals, then speak clearly about alternatives as to how we should live with care and respect for creation. Advent is the perfect season to think this through and then begin to offer alternatives in the new year.
If, like me, you are both a person of faith and trust the science, then we may have the greater task. How can we help others understand? How will we live? What will we do to bring about change.
One encouraging sign comes from persons in the corporate world who are ready to help address the climate crises. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates will be announcing the creation of a multi-billion dollar clean energy fund, tomorrow, November 30th, at the opening of the Paris summit. This announcement comes after and in addition to his announcement this summer that he was investing more than $2 billion in renewable energy that will encourage both “productivity and sustainability.”
Early reports are that several others are joining Mr. Gates in the creation of the clean energy fund; however, many donors wish to remain anonymous because there is still a considerable lobby of persons who are climate change skeptics among corporate leaders.
This skepticism and resistance is changing, and apparently quickly, Steve Schein, a former CEO and now professor in the business school at Southern Oregon University has recently written “A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership.” In it he suggests that more and more business executives are displaying an ecologically informed worldview — a worldview that for many of them has been nurtured since childhood.
Several years ago a friend took me on a hike that led to a grove of trees in Indiana’s Yellowwood State Forest. It is a wonderful natural cathedral. The white pine planted in the mid-to-late 1930s are now over 100 feet tall. This grove is still a spiritual place for me. It is an Advent place — my Advent wreath — where I pray and think.
It is more than a place to think and pray. You see, as lovely as these trees are they are dying too soon.
Planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, they are in an area that is often swampy and this forest lacks the necessary biodiversity of the wider forest and ground coverings all around. Still, this grove of pines is far better than the land there previously; land that was eroding and abandoned due to the Great Depression that so scoured the region in the 1930s. Something had to be done then… and it was. These trees, now one of my favorite cathedrals, were planted over 80 years ago. This was a temporary fix, perhaps only lasting 100 or 150 years. It does, however, give space for further ways the natural world might, groaning as in childbirth, bring yet another season of beauty and hope. Even if it is only a temporary fix, success at the Paris summit needs to be a part of our Advent prayers in 2015.
“Slowly Learning?” — I scratch my head in wonderment. Where did I read those words? I have become aware that some slow learning is what I need at this juncture in life. How about you? This is a way we can slow down, be attentive to overlooked dimensions and gain knowledge we otherwise might miss? Our culture is often better at fast-forgetting than slow learning. To be labeled a “slow learner” in school is problematic — it is a stigma, a barrier to future success. In my search for abundant life, however, I have come to recognize this is a label to which I aspire.
I enrolled in a particularly challenging “slow-learning” curriculum this spring. My teachers, all 14,000+ of them, arrived in late April. They came in two small packages, 16x8x6 inch boxes with over 7,000 honey bees in each. I prepared for their arrival by constructing two hives. One hive was named “BEE WARE” and the other christened “BEE CAUSE.” The bees arrived on April 21, the day before Earth Day. At this point my learning curve went up in an almost perpendicular direction. Can I learn from such a large faculty of over 7,000 in each hive? I fret. The weather is cold. And, then I remember — slow learning may be my best option.
I kept bees before. My first lessons in beekeeping came when I was in graduate school in Atlanta in the early 1970s. It was a different time, before we heard of Africanized bees or the threat from a changing climate or the failure that results from an overuse of pesticides. Having forgotten the little bit I once knew those many decades ago, I began again in the slow-learner class. After attending the Indiana Bee School in March, I read and watched videos for beginning beekeepers. It was clear much had changed. Today bees are increasingly understood as critical, make that essential, to a healthy environment.
Upon retiring as a seminary administrator, a friend gave me Bill McKibben’s evocative book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. (I had mentioned to my friend that I might return to bee keeping and he kindly sent me the book.)
Oil and Honey speaks of the challenge before our civilization as we face the relentless and greedy forces determined to ignore the damage done by our heavily carbon-based economy. There is an interesting counterbalance between the two commodities. As oil production soars, honey production is in jeopardy. McKibben, “an unlikely activist” he says, because his primary identity was as a college professor and United Methodist Sunday School Teacher. McKibben’s research left him little choice but to do something more dramatic. He began to organize against the growing overuse and dangerous distribution of petroleum products, especially the development of schemes like the Keystone Pipeline. There are other things much more important than making profits — one is providing for a sustainable environment. This is a much more worthy goal. (These other lessons require a slower leaning. They can be learned by staying home, listening and learning from the world around.)
Sadly, too many in our nation’s political leadership don’t seem to desire to learn these lessons at all. Are they moving too fast? Or, are they blinded by their attachments to wealth and power that actually encourages ignorance and denial? It is, frankly, amazing that in the face of the dramatic changes in our environment, congress votes over-and-over on bills that deny any environmental changes are occurring. And, how many absurd television commercials does it require to tell us that BP really cares about the environment or that fracking is a safe way to provide for our insatiable carbon appetites?
McKibben notes there are many ways to address the challenges we face. One way is through activism — he is the leader of the 350.0rg environmental coalition. McKibben also notes other ways we can continue to learn and make a difference — by staying at home and doing small things like keeping bees. He speaks of his friend Kirk, the bee-keeper. Kirk becomes a counterbalance to McKibben’s admittedly contradictory rushing around from protest to protest in petroleum fueled airplanes. He notes some need to protest and others need to give primary attention to care for the earth before we lose much more of our environmental carrying capacity. One small example of this earth care is by beekeeping.
Upon reading Oil and Honey I sent an email to McKibben including this message: “I chuckled when I read of your friend telling you that you were not a ‘mild mannered Methodist Sunday school teacher.’ You have perhaps proven her correct — at least regarding the ‘mild mannered’ part of your self description. However, you stand high on the list of unlikely activists in my life, among them many great Methodist Sunday school teachers!”
I mentioned that he would be in my prayers and that I was taking up bee-keeping again on our small acreage in northwest Indiana. McKibben wrote back this response: “Dear Rev. Amerson–your words made me very happy, and even more so the thought of you donning the beekeeper’s veil again after those decades! all best, Bill.”
SLOWLY LEARNING — I remember now. It comes from the last line in the poem “Thirst” by Mary Oliver.
Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have. I walk out to the pond and all the way God has given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, I was never a quick scholar but sulked and hunched over my books past the hour and the bell; grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart. Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, yet already I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.
This poem, this prayer, is my prayer during the spring of 2015. “Love for the earth and love for you [God] is having a long conversation in my heart.” So, I make this small act of learning from my bees… and perhaps they will give a little something extra in return.
We all can learn, we can move beyond intentional ignorance, we can agree that we can join in slowly learning a new way forward.