Living Lightly on a New Eaarth*
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2013
Our two scripture readings today present quite a contrast, don’t they?
Isaiah provides us with a beloved passage, the description of a new heaven and new earth in which God’s people live in peace and enjoy abundance. Jerusalem is a joy, weeping has ceased, lives are lived long and well, with food and wine flowing from generation to generation; no work is done in vain, and even the wolf and the lamb lie down together. Which is another way of saying that the goodness of this realm is beyond our imagination. It is God’s doing, of course, but as we must stretch ourselves toward God’s vision, God stretches our imagination, and the impossible may become possible.
Our second reading, however, is disturbing beyond measure. Luke describes wars among the nations, earthquake, famine and plague, as the old heaven and the old earth pass away. Some fight to hold on to their place in the old order, some for a place in the new, all fight to survive. God’s people, standing fast together, are persecuted and betrayed. Families are torn apart. It is only through endurance that we will gain our souls. Yet these are signs that our redemption is near at hand.
Upon the lips of TV evangelists this arresting passage points to the future; and they eagerly point to natural or political events that they say were presaged by the gospel writer. But this ancient gospel doesn’t point toward events in the future, it points toward the past. It points to events that the readers of Luke’s gospel had already experienced. Those large stones of the Temple had already been torn down and Jerusalem had fallen in 70 CE during what became known as the first Jewish Revolt. The war lasted four years, took countless lives and devastated the land. Jews were forbidden to live in the land of Abraham and Sarah. In other words, this is not prophecy, but description, or depiction, of the end of the world as readers of Luke’s gospel knew it. But for some of them, like some of us, it took a while to realize the world as they knew it had ended.
I recently finished reading Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, now out in paperback. McKibben crafts a new word EAARTH (E.A.A.R.T.H.) to describe the planet on which we now live, which is a fundamentally different planet than the one on which life first emerged and on which life has thrived for millions of years. With 7 billion of us on the planet, more than 390 carbon parts per million in the atmosphere, our ecological life support systems are failing. And there is no going back. Conditions have changed. The environment no longer behaves the way it has over the eons during which life and civilization evolved. As McKibbon writes,
“Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different. We may as well call it EAARTH.”
This is a planet where ” the wind blows harder and the lightning strikes more often and more rain falls and the sea rises.” In other words, global warming is not a problem we will pass on to our grandchildren. It is now. And our carbon footprint means that we are not currently sustainable as a species.
We’re like the guy who ate steak for dinner every night and let his cholesterol top 300 and had a heart attack. Now he dines on Lipitor and walks on the treadmill, but half his heart is dead tissue. We’re like the guy who smoked for forty years and then he had a stroke. He doesn’t smoke anymore, but the left side of his body doesn’t work either.
(The) Damage has been done. The planet no longer follows the rules that have made life possible for millennia.
The first half of McKibbon’s book outlines the facts. No doomsday predictions. No fear-mongering. No descriptions of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. Just dire facts about what is happening right NOW on our warming planet. The problems we will experience in the next fifty to a hundred years – droughts, floods, famines, ocean dead-zones, disease, hunger and decline – are not eventualities but continuations of present reality.
We missed our opportunity to avoid this scenario.
The question now is whether we will take action to create a different future for ourselves in which we learn to live “lightly, carefully, and gracefully” on this NEW planet EAARTH.
On the opening day of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, which is taking place right now in Poland, the chief climate negotiator from the Philippines, Yeb Saño, gave an emotional appeal to the world to address the climate crisis following Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded. The sea rose 13 feet and simply swallowed cities like Tacloban. Estimates say the storm killed at least 10,000 people. “In solidarity with my countrymen who are now struggling for food back home, and with my brother who has not had food for the last three days … I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate,” he said. A year ago, Saño gave another speech to the U.N. climate summit in Doha following the devastating Typhoon Bopha that killed some 1,100. “In Doha, we asked: ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?’ But here in Warsaw, we may very well ask these same forthright questions,” Saño said on Tuesday. “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.”
And he is right. If we are to have any future at all, we must first slow down and eventually stop the everyday destruction of the biosphere. We must reduce our carbon emissions and shrink our populations. That is a given. We’re simply done if we don’t.
But he’s also a bit wrong. Because there is no going back. Even when we end the current madness of daily destroying our only home, we will still be living on a new and changed planet. We cannot restore our glaciers, or the breathing capacity of our forests, or hold back the rising sea. Warmer water in our oceans will continue to create super storms undreamt of on the old earth. When it rains it will pour – flooding waterways and washing away communities, overrunning the carrying capacity of the new EAARTH. And when is doesn’t rain, rivers will disappear and prolonged drought will be the new norm. I just heard this week that because of rising temperatures, the U.S. corn belt has shifted north: we are now growing corn in North Dakota, and will not be growing corn in Kansas for much longer.
Yet Saño is right that the madness of ignoring climate change must stop. But Bill McKibbon is much closer to our gospel text from Luke here: only through endurance we will gain our souls.
I have said that the question now is whether we will undertake the hard work of creating a different future for ourselves in which we learn to live “lightly, carefully, and gracefully” on this NEW planet EAARTH, under these new conditions.
Even as we seek the highest, climate friendly standards in global treaties among nations work to increase sustainability in business practices, and advocate to increase protection for poor communities around the world (who disproportionately bear the ravages of climate change), we must also look local. The answer to whether we will seek a different future is going to lie in communities like ours learning and practicing new ways of living together.
It will take new approaches to energy. Not only on the global level, but on the local level as well. Our congregation recently completed an energy audit with Con Edison, who congratulated us on the changes we have already made in lighting. Vicente, our Facilities Supervisor, has made our facility 60% efficient, and I hope you take a moment to thank him. But with a little more investment, we can get ourselves closer to 100%, further reducing our energy use. We have also begun a conversation about placing solar panels on the roof (back here) to produce the energy we do use. Addressing leaky windows and walls will be next.
It will take new approaches to food, not only on a global level, but on a local level as well. Our congregation will learn the differences between organic food, local food and slow food, and we will learn new ways to eat. Our Green Team has recently been approached by a farm upstate that is looking for local partners in White Plains. It is run as a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, which means that participants buy shares in the farm and in turn receive weekly deliveries of fresh produce during the summer and bi-weekly deliveries during the winter. Congregations in cities like ours are well placed to serve as distribution sites so that neighborhoods can get fresh produce without it being shipped from across the country or hemisphere. It brings neighbors together, supports local economies, and is better for us – body and soul.
And it will take imagination. You can join our church book group to read McKibbon’s book, visit our interfaith partners in the GreenFaith movement to learn what is working in other communities, make a carbon-reduced lifestyle part of your stewardship commitment as a disciple of Jesus, and tell other people about it.
The prophet Isaiah dreamt of a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s people live in peace and enjoy abundance. Well, we already live on a new EAARTH. It’s just not the one we were promised; it is the one we have made. If this is not to be the end of our story, we must endure a difficult period of change and learn to live lightly, carefully and gracefully on this new EAARTH. We must develop new habits and new priorities, and stretch our imaginations to their very limits, trusting God to meet as at the limit of our sight. If we do this, we will gain our souls, and perhaps, perhaps see our redemption draw near.
 Bill McKibbon, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010).
 McKibbon. p.
 Democracy Now, accessed 11/12/13: http://www.democracynow.org/2013/11/12/stop_this_madness_filipino_climate_chief