Apr 22nd | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Acts 3:11-20
It’s not one of the “high and holy” days of the Christian year. In fact, there will be many Christian congregations this morning that will not mark the day at all. But, it is Earth Care Sunday – a day to remember our on-going responsibilities for, as the Brief Statement of Faith reminds us, “the planet entrusted to our care.” And this year, the emphasis for this Sunday is on energy and power.
It may seem a little odd – that God’s people don’t make much of such an important day that is marked throughout the world. We don’t mark a day that so many in the world consider important and then wonder why the world doesn’t pay us much attention. Abraham Heschel, the great rabbi and Jewish scholar of the last century, put it this way: “Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid.” In other words, religion declined because it stopped meeting people where they are and talking about their concerns and uneasiness.
There is a lot that Christian people need to think about and talk about on a Sunday that is devoted to an emphasis on Earth Care, especially as it applies to energy and power. It is good and right that we take a little time in worship to work through some of this incredibly important material. What should Christian people do about caring for the earth, especially as it relates to power and energy?
Whenever Christian people turn their attention to the important work of caring for creation, we need to begin with one principle thought. That thought was communicated to us by the unknown author of the twenty-fourth psalm. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” (Ps. 24:1-2) The Bible doesn’t get into the questions of “how” or “when” or “where” or really even “why” of creation. The Bible asserts from the opening words that God is the creator of heaven and earth – “of all things seen and unseen” as the Nicene Creed marvelously puts it.
That means that whether it is the power contained in a drop of oil, or in a puff of natural gas, or in the force of water, or in the brilliance of the sun, or in the might of the wind, or in the untapped and invisible energy of a sub-atomic particle – it all belongs to God, for it is God who created it. The creation belongs to the Creator and not to us – the created. That’s where we begin whenever we are going to talk about caring for the earth. The creation belongs to the Creator. That’s first.
But, then we need to move right on to the second thing that Christian people need to say, and, frankly, own up to. We – you and I and all people in all places – we have been given the responsibility for caring for creation. That understanding has been in place for over 2,500 years. The creation story of Genesis 1, has God speaking to the human beings and saying, God blessed them, and God said to them, “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 mean “do with it as you please.” It implies “stewardship, care, and responsibility.” We have been given the stewardship of all creation and we have been given the resources of creation for the benefit of all. That’s second.
Now, if those two things are true – that God is the Creator and we are the caretakers of creation – and our faith asserts that they are true – then there is an ethic – a system of governing principles – a series of moral standards – a right and a wrong way of dealing with caring for the planet. That ethic is even more in play when we talk about the proper and improper development and use of energy.
Let’s be honest: some energy sources have a greater and more damaging impact on our environment than others. Some extraction processes have a more detrimental impact on the creation than others. And some extraction processes have disproportionate impacts on the economic life of low-income communities and communities of color.
Coal is the primary source of electricity for much of the United States because coal is cheap and there is an abundant supply of it. And, to be honest, coal production and coal usage has become far better and safer for coal miners and coal burning has become more friendly to the environment than it used to be. But, mountaintop mining – in which the tops of mountains are removed in order to get to coal seams – and the removed material is dumped into surrounding valleys – is becoming more and more of a concern. Over 1,000 miles of streams in the Appalachian region of the United States have been buried with mountaintop debris and mines have leveled at least 500 mountains. And in the down-wind communities from coal-burning power plants, there is cause of alarm as asthma rates and some forms of cancer are on the rise. Still, coal mining provides hundreds and thousands of jobs to some of the poorest people in our country and the supporting industries create 3½ jobs for every mining job. The question is: how should Christian people think about this and talk about this and make decisions about this?
Oil presents even more challenges. Thousands of acres of public land in the western United States – areas owned by the American people – have become areas where oil companies are drilling for oil and natural gas. Do we need the energy? Of course, we do. But what often happens in these fragile ecosystems is that the production so pollutes and destroys that the land and its creatures are decimated. Just 2 years and 2 days ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers, injuring dozens of others, and for 95 days continuously spilled nearly 200 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly 2 million gallons of oil dispersant, including the chemical compound Corexit, was used to clean up the spill, even though the chemicals are known to cause liver, kidney, and genetic damage, among other health problems. Even though the beaches are cleaned up and things seem as though they are getting back to “normal,” we are beginning to see fish and other marine life exhibiting diseases related to the oil spill and clean up. The economies of the Gulf Coast communities that were destroyed by the spill are only beginning to find their footing once again. How should Christian people think about drilling for gas and oil and how should we talk about it and make decisions about this?
And we don’t have time to talk about fracking, and solar power, and wind power, and hydro power. How should people of faith think about all of this and talk about all of this? And how should we live our lives as stewards of the earth?
It is obvious that our current energy usage and energy policy is unsustainable. We are using up some energy sources at an alarming rate, with many of these sources being absolutely unrenewable and impossible to replenish. We cannot conserve our way to a new approach to energy. It will require a radical and sweeping change in how we think about and use energy. As Tom Friedman says, “We need to do more than change our light bulbs. We need to change our leadership.”
As we begin to think and talk about energy and power, as Christian people, we need to begin by trusting that God has really provided us with enough to live – even if that means living in a slower, simpler way. We have yet to plumb the depths of what might be possible – a process of discovery that is often hampered and hindered by those who make vast sums of money off of our current approach to energy usage. We need to talk about what might be possible, even if it seems like a pipe dream.
In the story from Acts, that we read again this morning, Peter addresses a crowd that has just witnessed the healing of a crippled beggar, a man who according to the scriptures was “lame from birth.” That’s quite a marvel. There had been a change in the way things had always been – and it was quite a change! Not much wonder the crowd stood and stared at Peter and John.
But, Peter got it. He saw what was going on in the minds of the people. He knew that they were about to attribute this amazing fete to the disciples. So Peter said, “Why do you wonder at this, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (Acts 3:12)
That is a great question. It is a question as important and pertinent today as it was 2,000 years ago. Surrounded by our technology and inventions, it is tempting to credit our own prowess and expertise for all the incredible comfort, power, and ease we enjoy. We take pride in our accomplishments, as though we had somehow created something new.
We forget that all of the power we have, all of the energy we use, all of the wealth we can create, and all of the healing we can offer are originally and ultimately gifts of God. We have fallen into the trap of success – a trap about which Moses warned the people of Israel, when he told them, “Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power…” (Deut. 8:17-18)
As Christian people, engaged in the struggles and problems of the world and not hiding from them or ignoring them, let this be our starting point: God is the source of all our energy and power and we are called to use that energy and power in a way that is pleasing to God, safe for our planet, and in ways that are truly just for all. Let that be our starting point in discussions and discoveries that seek to unlock a new way of living together on this fragile blue-green planet.
And let the glory be to God. Let the glory of new discoveries and new lives be God’s alone. Working together, let us chart a new path for all people to live in safety and comfort in the beauty and wonder of God’s good creation. For now and evermore. Amen.