Sep 29th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Genesis 6:11-22
This is not the sermon I was planning to preach today. The story I was supposed to preach was the story of Moses at the burning bush and his receiving of God’s divine name. It’s a great story and I promise we’ll come back to it someday.
But today, when our thoughts and worship turn to creation and its creatures, a different sermon would not let me go. It began a couple of weeks ago when I returned to my seminary - Louisville Seminary - and listened to a brilliant sermon by Dr. Stephen G. Ray. Jr., former professor of theology at Louisville, and now President of Chicago Theological Seminary. It continued as the world has been engaged with a sixteen-year-old environmental activist from Sweden, named Greta Thunberg, as she excoriated the world leaders gathered at the United Nations for their lack of environmental vision and action. And, peppering the news this week, were even more reports of our planet’s struggle for survival.
Now, let me share an opening word. If you are one of those who believes the whole climate change - environmental challenge issue is a hoax and a load of hooey, this sermon will do nothing for you. If you’ve made up your mind that the world’s scientists are perpetrating a hoax on a level of global sophistication never experienced, there is nothing I will say in the next thirteen minutes that will change your mind.
But, if you are open to the scientific evidence and are wondering what any of this has to do with the morning worship of God in a Presbyterian Church in southwest Indiana, stay tuned.
Here is the premise Dr. Ray offered his listeners and which I offer to you. It is the theological foundation.
In the story of Noah, that is at the center of our worship this morning, God looks at the earth and sees only corruption. The world has been dramatically changed for the worse. When God created the earth and everything in it, God saw that it was “very good.” Now, God looks at the earth and sees that it is “very bad.” Details are not given.
But, so severe is the corruption of the earth that God decides to “make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence.” God intends to spare Noah and his family and representatives of all creation, through which God will begin the whole enterprise again. But humankind had made such a mess of it all, that God’s sees the only way to clean it up is to wash it all away. God is no Bob Ross, who can simply paint over a mistake - excuse me, happy accident. God is more apt to throw the whole canvass away and begin again.
Back in the days of ancient Israel, in which this story of Noah was shaped, developed, and edited, God was the only being who could conceivably destroy the earth. No one else had that power. No one else could actually do it.
But, now that is not true. It has not been true since humankind developed the ability to blow up the entire planet, over-and-over again. Since the first mushroom cloud left its imprint on the Creator’s skies, we have joined with God in being able to “make an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence.”
And, even more disturbing, we are now destroying the planet without nuclear devices. We are doing it right now, even as we sit in this sacred space, worshiping the Creator and celebrating the creation.
“When President Taft created Glacier National Park in 1910, it was home to an estimated 150 glaciers. Since then the number has decreased to fewer than 30, and most of those remaining have shrunk in area by two-thirds. The prediction is that within 30 years most if not all of the park’s namesake glaciers will disappear.”1
“Everywhere on Earth ice is changing. The famed snows of Kilimanjaro have melted more than 80 percent since 1912. Glaciers in the Garhwal Himalaya in India are retreating so fast that researchers believe that most central and eastern Himalayan glaciers could virtually disappear by 2035. Arctic sea ice has thinned significantly over the past half century, and its extent has declined by about 10 percent in the past 30 years. NASA’s repeated laser altimeter readings show the edges of Greenland’s ice sheet shrinking. Spring freshwater ice breakup in the Northern Hemisphere now occurs nine days earlier than it did 150 years ago, and autumn freeze-up ten days later. Thawing permafrost has caused the ground to subside more than 15 feet (4.6 meters) in parts of Alaska. From the Arctic to Peru, from Switzerland to the equatorial glaciers of Man Jaya in Indonesia, massive ice fields, monstrous glaciers, and sea ice are disappearing, fast.”2
“New discoveries suggest that carbon will escape faster as the planet warms. From the unexpected speed of Arctic warming and the troubling ways that meltwater moves through polar landscapes, researchers now suspect that for every one degree Celsius rise in Earth’s average temperature, permafrost may release the equivalent of four to six years’ worth of coal, oil, and natural gas emissions - double to triple what scientists thought a few years ago. Within a few decades, …permafrost could be as big a source of greenhouse gases as China, the world’s largest emitter, is today.”3
“Marine heat waves - the oceanic version of the sweltering heat events that ripple across Earth’s surface - are also increasing in frequency and strength, with the number of days that qualify as a heatwave increasing by more than 50 percent over the past century. During these hot events, temperatures near the surface of the ocean can spike up to several degrees above the average. Most ocean dwellers, from plankton to fish to whales, live in the upper section of the ocean, squarely in the zone where temperatures are increasing quickest. Many of these marine organisms are sensitive to even slight or short-lived changes in temperature.”4 Marine heat waves are already contributing to the loss of fisheries, which means less food from the sea, which means hunger and starvation problems are on the horizon and galloping toward us.
“The science is clear: climate change is an environmental issue and a serious threat to our public health. The evidence that human activity and expansion is the main cause of climate change is stronger than ever. Between 1995 and 2011, warmer temperatures have caused the U.S. pollen season to increase around the country to be 11 to 27 days longer.”5
The effects of global warming and the environmental crisis are real. Unabated, the coming ecological disaster will see damage to property and infrastructure as sea levels rise, worsening floods, the intensification of droughts, more and more wildfire, and more extreme and intense storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes, requiring billions of dollars for repair and reclamation when possible. We will see lost productivity as climate related change will bring lost work days, lost school days, harm trade, decimate agriculture, and destroy fisheries and farms. We will see mass migration and security threats as huge portions of the population flee from areas of the earth and that no longer habitable. And if you think none of that will carry a price tag beyond our imagining, you have another thing coming.6
We now are God’s rivals in destroying the earth. We are consciously “threatening death to the planet entrusted to our care,” as A Brief Statement of Faith reminds us. We have the capacity to bring an end to the human race on this planet by making the planet uninhabitable for our species, leaving our green-blue planet as nothing more than a cinder floating in space.
But, as God did in the story of Noah, so God does now. God is giving us time - not much time - but God is giving us time to do something to save ourselves. It will not be as simple as building an ark, which will look like child’s play compared to the task before us.
As, as Thomas Friedman told an audience in Evansville several years back, “it is not enough to change our lightbulbs. We need to change our leaders.” The stalwart opposition to caring for the environment and repairing the damage we have inflicted upon it has been impenetrable. We will need leaders who are unfailingly committed to the national security crisis which is the environmental crisis. We will need just leaders who will ensure a bright future for those generations of coal mining and oil working and natural gas providing communities whose livelihoods will disappear with the elimination of fossil fuels. We will need energy corporations that are not afraid of the implementation of new sources of energy. We will need innovation and creativity to change the way we live; from what we drive to how we heat and cool our homes. We will need a resurgence of restorative care to the planet: the replanting of forests, the cleaning of the oceans, the faithful care of the soil and water. We need to eliminate whatever we can that is disposable, even if it means a little hard work and a little more time.
And we need to take seriously God’s commission to us in our creation. The first story of creation reminds us, that:
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it;
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the air
and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
- Genesis 1:28
That word dominion does not give us carte blanche to do with the creation as we please. It is a commission to practice a faithful stewardship of the earth - to use its resources wisely - to mend its brokenness - to heal its wounds - to restore it to the goodness in which God created it.
The task may seem daunting - and it is. But God created human beings with an unbounded capacity for change. We can do the work that must be done for the survival of our species. But, the time is short. We must begin as the storm clouds gather. Noah did not wait to build the ark until he felt raindrops on his head.
It’s our turn. We can destroy what God created. We can do it because we have the ability. Or we can save it - because we have the ability. We can destroy the world and all that is in it and are well on our way to doing just that. Or we can make the monumental and massive changes that will ensure the continuation of life as God created it on this planet.
It’s our turn. Destruction? Or reclamation?
It’s our turn. What will it be?
Nothing is really hanging on our answer. Nothing except the continuation of life. Nothing except the future. Nothing really - except now and forevermore. Amen.