Lent 5: Thirty Years (What Future?)
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 6, 2014
A little over 30 years ago, 1983 to be exact, I entered a project in my eighth grade school science fair. My topic: pollution. Growing up in the southern skyline of Chicago, I was very aware of pollution. I had grown up with Ranger Rick. I took my pledge to be a Smokey Bear Jr. Forest Ranger. I was disturbed by the image of the Native American chief on a television commercial weeping over our pollution of the land. It was clear from looking at the Chicago skyline, or in cities like Gary, Indiana, that real pollution was entering the air from massive factories. I could count the big smokestacks belching billows of black smoke into the air as I drove down the highway with my father to go a baseball game or to accompany him to work.
As I look at the kind of work produced by eighth-graders today I’m embarrassed by how little science was a part of my actual science project; but also how much heart was in it. What gave me such high marks in the project was that my father had one of the first video cameras around. We lugged that thing that was the size of a large suitcase all around Chicago, Illinois and Gary, Indiana filming my observations. I took the film to my uncle’s house and edited it together with a soundtrack that was largely comprised of the Beatles and Elvis Presley. One of the lasting lessons from the project as I put together the soundtrack is that the music could convey my sense of lament better than any narration.
The science of the project had to do with researching filters that were then being developed to clean the emissions of our factories. The video images I was creating were of what a “clean factory” would look like. And I ended with hope and optimism that our future would be different.
My 13 year-old self was hopeful that, with technology and the dedication of good corporations, we could eliminate pollution and set our planet on a better course.
Last week I sat in this pew down here and listened to Norma Smikle and Wanda Van Woert speak about what they observed while they were in the cities of Lima and La Oroya, Peru. They spoke powerfully about the Doe Run Corporation which operates a lead smelting plant in La Oroya – the most toxic place on our planet. They narrated how the company had been required to meet environmental regulations, how the company pleaded for 10 years for extensions of the compliance deadlines, and how when the deadline finally came they pleaded lack of funds, even as they were shipping money out of the country. Norma narrated how the company has subsequently sued the government of Peru for lost earnings or potential earnings. This is sinful. It is greedy. And Wanda then explained that 99% of the children living in La Oroya have lead poisoning, as well as the adults.
My 44 year-old self is more sanguine. The only way corporations change is if they are forced to change. But I wonder, given that Doe Run has now sued the nation of Peru for forcing it to keep its word on payments it promised to make, who has the power to hold them accountable. The answer right now is, no one. But the question is whether the people of Peru and the people of the US and other nations will stand idly by or stand together to oppose this with all our strength.
The prophet Ezekiel spoke to God’s people in a time of bitter despair. Thirty years earlier they had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem.
The prophet Ezekiel had a vision. He reports that he saw a valley of bones – very dry bones. Those bones would have been sitting in the desert for just about three decades. But did you ever wonder, whose bones were they? They would have been the bones of soldiers and elites of Judea who were marched into exile after the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem. They were the bones of Babylonian soldiers compelling God’s people off to their exile in Babylon. They were the bones of people who never even made it to the place of despair. Death took them first. The rest marched onward, leaving loved ones and friends behind in the desert wilds to rot in the harsh desert sun or to be eaten by wild animals. They continued onward, grieving, losing hope with every step. And now, thirty years has passed. Whatever remnant of hope they once may have held, lay in tatters.
So God gave a vision to Ezekiel the prophet. He saw valley of bones, very dry bones. And God asked a direct question of the prophet and the exiled Judeans: can these bones yet live?
The obvious answer is: no. But the prophet was smart enough to answer, “Almighty God, only you know.” In other words, Ezekiel recognized God’s sovereignty over all of life, including death. Ezekiel recognized that God was not constrained by human beings and our limited notions of the possible.
You see this vision is about more than putting the pieces back together again. It is about more than fixing something that is broken. This is not a biblical happy ending to the fairy tale “Humpty Dumpty.” Rather it is a story of the re-creation of a new people out of the bones of the past, out of the pain and the mistakes and the despair and the death; God breathes life into them, and they begin to rattle.
On Monday, the United Nations released its second report on climate change. And the consensus of scientific experts is that things are worse, far worse than we thought. The report said “that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.” It continued, “While the impact of global warming may actually be moderated by factors like economic or technological change, the report found, the disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. That will be especially so if emissions are allowed to continue at a runaway pace… It cited the risk of death or injury on a wide scale, probable damage to public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations.”
A central problem will be the food supply. With hotter temperatures farmers will not be able to grow as much food and it is the poorest nations that overwhelmingly will suffer. “When supply falls below demand, somebody doesn’t have enough food,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist who helped write the new report. “When some people don’t have food, you get starvation. Yes, I’m worried.”
Of course the report noted that poor countries would need about $100 billion dollars in aid each year offset the effects of climate change. Right now, at best they receive a few billion from rich countries. But that $100 billion figure was eliminated from the UN’s 48 page executive summary given to the world’s top political leaders, who worry that it is impolitic to double foreign aid at a time of economic distress at home. Of course keeping foreign aid the same won’t avert the catastrophe that’s approaching.
Basically, according to Jennifer Sahn, we’ve got about thirty years until world’s natural systems begin shutting down. We have reached every frightening benchmark faster than anyone expected; way ahead of schedule. An example: We have over 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the record we once thought we would not hit for another hundred years. And to make matters worse we have done very little to change our ways.
In another thirty years, I will be 74 years old. My son will be 37. If he has any children they will still be very young. Will there be any hope? Will we have made the necessary changes? Or will my grandchildren live in a world system that is slowly shutting down? Will human society be past the point where ingenuity, technological fixes, and simpler living will make any difference? It is not inconceivable. It is, in fact, likely. If that happens, what will they say when they look back at our dry bones? Will the next generation want to see us put back together again? And if so, what questions would they put to us?
When the city of White Plains celebrated it’s 300th anniversary in 1983, they planted the Time Capsule in our cemetery with plans to open it 300 years later in the year 2283. We plan conclude our own church’s 300th celebration by planting another time capsule in our cemetery. But we plan for it to be opened in 30 years – not within all of our lifetimes, probably not in most of our lifetimes, but within the lifetime of our children or grandchildren. And what will be our sign to them? What will we put in our time capsule?
I think our task is not to put a monument in the ground as a sign of what was the latest and greatest technology, the NY Times’ best selling book, or a roster of church leaders and hope that some future generation will read it and care. Rather I think our task with this time capsule would be to make a pledge to future generations 30 and 300 years out that starting right now we will live responsibly on God’s earth, that we will dedicate our lives to correcting those natural, corporate and human systems that have placed our planet in such precarity, and that we will raise the youngest generation of Christians to do likewise. And I think our task is to articulate to future generations both a prayer for forgiveness as well as what our hopes are for them, on the other side of the world food crisis and when there is no longer drinking water to sustain earth’s population.
For some this may sound depressing – that I’ve given into despair; I would disagree. The UN report tells us we may be facing a valley of dry bones in thirty years. We may not be able to turn our planet around in time, even assuming our best, unflinching efforts. This is not hysteria or ideology, this is the best scientific and I will add conservative, estimation of where our planet is headed.
What I am asking all of us to do is something that is hard to do. I want us to look squarely in the face of death and devastation. I want us to look squarely at the results of humankind’s careless and cavalier behavior. I want us to not mince words. I want us to sit with these anticipated consequences and to think hard and to pray hard about what we are prepared to do with the time that has been given to us. We are the ones living here and now. It is to us that the faces of our grandchildren and great grandchildren will turn and say, “Daddy, Grandmom, what did you do?” And so that those who dig up our time capsule will say – “This is what they pledged to do. This was the urgent task to which they sensed God calling them. This is how they planned to ensure life for us and the generations to come.”
To place such letters in the time capsule is not to give in to despair. Rather it is to articulate hope and commitment. Such letters dare not be naïve. We must be clear that we know what the challenges and the stakes are. As citizens we must demand policy that ensures public heath, energy security and water supply in our local communities and require clean energy and efficiency that will help us migrate toward sustainability within corporate supply chains as well.
Our messages should bristle with courage as we pledge ourselves to confront powerful people and corporations and systems that are larger than any one of us. And these letters should remind future generations as well as us, that we are not alone in this resistance.
During their visit to Peru three of our members witnessed the rapidly disappearing Andean icecap, which is the source of drinking water for all of Lima, the fifth most populous city in South America. As Norma put it so well, we who are insulated from the everyday realities of climate change have had the luxury to debate whether or not it is happening. But our neighbors around the world are already trying to think about what we will require to be able to live in the future. We are not alone – our sisters and brothers in Peru have already begun this journey, as have countless people around the world.
And Ezekiel prophesied as he had been commanded: and as he prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling… (here our music director created the sound of rattling bones, swelling as I continued speaking)
A rattling… there’s a rattling going on right now. It’s rattling at the United Nations. It’s rattling in La Oroya, Peru. And it’s rattling in White Plains, NY. There’s a rattling happening everywhere where people are facing up to what lies before us, trusting God and, with our own hands, hearts, voices and strength devoting ourselves to the earth’s re-creation. May God’s spirit keep on rattling!
Rattle on, Spirit! Rattle on!
 “Panel’s Warning On Climate Risk: The Worst is Yet to Come,” Justin Gillis, New York Times, March 31, 2014. Accessed April 5, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/science/earth/climate.html?_r=0 .
 Jennifer Sahn, Thirty Year Plan: Thirty Writers on What We Need for a Better Future. Orion Books, 2012.
 Adapted from the speech to the oil and gas industry by the UN’s top climate change official, Christiana Figueres on April 3, 2014. http://unfccc.int/files/press/press_releases_advisories/application/pdf/pr20140304_ipieca.pdf