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Hope for the Future – Mountain Sunday

September 27, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation: Mountain Sunday, September 27, 2015

Psalm 48         Romans 8:28-39

As we come to our fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, I want to say a word about HOPE.

On our First Sunday in the Season, we read the story of creation up to – but not including – the creation of human beings. We imagined together the beauty and diversity of this world-without-us, a world of self-perpetuating fruitfulness, of sustainable fecundity, of a life whose true nature is to bring forth more life. Remember the seeds? We were invited to “see as God sees” – to see clearly the patterns of life before us – the ones that give life and the ones that rob us of our future – and to affirm the goodness that our earth was meant to embody.

On our Second Sunday in the Season, we wrestled with two dominant ways we have interpreted our human nature and purpose: on the one hand my son August (the voice of humanity in Genesis 1) insisted that human beings are to have dominion over, that we were meant to subdue and rule over, creation. On the other hand, Norma Smikle (the voice of humanity in Genesis 2) spoke of our vocation to serve and protect creation. Each one of them claimed to reflect what it means to be made in the image of God. My son claimed to be like God, while Norma claimed to be liked by God. August said that he was meant to rule and subdue, and Norma said to him, “When you rule, I suffer.” Both claimed God’s word on their side. And both were right. But we gave Jesus the last word, he who had said:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not to be so among you; for whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Human came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. [Mark 10:42-45]

And then our choir sang that marvelous song, “You Must Be Faithful Over a Few Things, to Be Ruler Over Many Things.” Amen? Amen!

Finally, last Sunday, we entered into the Prophet Jeremiah’s dark vision of the systematic unmaking of our world, the undoing of creation itself. Jeremiah imagined the unimaginable – the failure of the very systems God made to sustain life – as a wake up call to an over-confident and so complacent people. In uttering his oracle Jeremiah called us to repentance and responsibility for what we are doing to this world and for what we do to one another.

We ended our reflections last week with words of Pope Francis: “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” Though we acknowledged that making a new start will require significant commitment and change on our part, and bear no guarantees. It is work undertaken for its own sake.[1]

So … if the world is created good, with the capacity for sustaining a diversity of life; if we human beings have done a pretty thorough job of messing it up; and if God’s faithfulness to creation does not necessarily entail faithfulness to human projects and pretentions: what is hope?

Hope is the refusal to believe that the future is determined. (That would be despair). Or perhaps it would be better to say, hope is the confidence that the future may yet surprise us.

* * * * *

Over the this past summer I completed a ten-week course at the American Museum of Natural History, studying climate science. I earned a nifty certificate naming me a “Climate Citizen.” But I didn’t need a certificate to know that if we do not make significant reductions in CO2 emissions, and end our dependence of fossil fuels, our future on this planet is very dim. We have talked about this many, many times here in worship.

And while there are uncertainties in climate science, they pertain to questions like “when will we reach the point of no-return on melting ice, acidifying oceans, spreading desserts?” Not whether these things are happening. The real uncertainty, which scientist can’t address, is the human. What will we choose to do, or not to do, in light of what we now know? As we put on our t-shirts for the People’s Climate March last fall, “Climate changed. Will we?” That’s are the real question.

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Hope is the refusal to believe that the future is determined. Hope is the confidence that the future can yet surprise us.

Think back just 2 ½ years ago. Who could have imagined Pope Francis? Named to honor St. Francis, he is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European since the year 741.[2] Who could have imagined the address he gave to the United States Congress: proud to be in a country built largely by immigrants, addressing climate change as a moral obligation, invoking the nonviolent witness of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and reminding our senators and representatives that

“A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called, and convened by those who elected you.”[3]

Who could have imaged 2 ½ years ago that 100,000 people would be expected in New York City as part of a global People’s Climate March, and 400,000, four times as many, would show up demanding immediate action for our common future. The organizers didn’t expect it even as it was happening!

And who could have imagined that in this same short time, more than 2,000 individuals and over 436 institutions would withdraw investment from coal, oil, and gas companies in order to tackle the extractive industries that are killing our planet. To date these withdrawn funds amount to over 2.6 trillion dollars, making those same funds available instead for much needed investment in clean energy and renewable resources. Christina Figueres of the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change said this week “Investing at scale in clean, efficient power offers one of the clearest, no regret choices ever presented to human progress.”[4]

Scientists are clear that most of the fossil fuel reserves in the world need to stay in the ground if we have any chance whatsoever of keeping our atmosphere from warming more than two degrees. The fossil fuel divestment movement is aimed “primarily at stripping legitimacy from fossil fuel companies and has grown faster than even the divestment movement that targeted apartheid South Africa and it is backed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.” Active in 43 countries, the campaign for divestment now includes the country of Norway, the Church of Sweden and the World Council of Churches; two of the world’s biggest pension funds, as well as numerous churches, local governments, health and education institutions. Last fall even the Rockefeller family withdrew their financial support from oil. (Think about that!)[5]

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On Tuesday the Hudson River Presbytery held an open discussion on an overture to divest our denomination from fossil fuels, an overture that I hope our own council will affirm at our meeting this week. Several pastors during the discussion said that they thought it is inconsistent to divest from fossil fuels while we are members of a society that is addicted to them. But that is not really so much an objection as it is an observation. Our whole society is invested in fossil fuel – it’s how we run our cars, our homes, our churches. But we cannot exempt ourselves from society. There is no Eden we can build for ourselves. Instead we must use the power we have to stop investing in dangerous sources of energy and, instead, invest in clean efficient power. No change will EVER happen if fossil fuel companies continue to have the support for doing the same thing they’ve done for generations. But if their consumers and investors demand a change, they will change. If you wonder whether it’s possible to change multi-billion dollar companies, just remember the lessons learned from the success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who’ve changed McDonald’s and Walmart and most recently Stop n Shop. Change is possible. And we must do everything we can on every possible front to redirect our lives toward a sustainable future. That’s how change goes from being (excuse the pun) a “pipe dream” to a reality.

That evening, after the Presbytery meeting, I asked my son which he thought would be easier: eliminating our use of ALL fossil fuels or eliminating single-use plastic bags from grocery stores, retail shops and restaurants. “Oh, fossil fuels, definitely is easier. We can all drive Teslas! But getting rid of plastic bags? That’s impossible, Dad.”

Well, when it comes to our capacity to make difficult and necessary changes, there are many challenges, certainly. But while the pathway is steep. But it is not insurmountable. And there will be many surprises along the way.

I’m a “Climate Citizen.” I know there is no short-term return from the damage we have already done to our planet. Much of what we have set in motion will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future, even with our best efforts. (Those plastic bags my son can’t imagine living without, they will eventually break down into smaller and smaller bits, but the plastic itself will be around virtually forever in our oceans and in our food and water supply). To do anything less than our best is to give in to despair that will consign our planet and the lives of our children and grandchildren to a terrifying and harsh future.

* * * * *

According to theologian Charles Mathewes, Hope allows us to “live as best we can in THIS world – the world that we find ourselves in, not the world that we tell ourselves should be.” This requires a form of realism, seeing the world as it is without either turning away (in denial or retreat or escape) or explaining away (through ideology). Hope refuses determinism and despair (which are but two sides of a coin). Which is risky. “We are far less comfortable with hope than we think we are.” As John Cleese says in the movie Clockwise, “It’s not the despair I mind, it’s the hope I can’t stand.”

So hope is fundamentally an attempt to communicate the volatility of the world. [By the volatility of the world Matthewes means the idea that] the way things are can change, change radically, sometimes for the worse, but also, sometimes, for the better. This hope is not optimism, for it does not visualize a route from the way things are now to the way they will be. It is rather a profound apprehension that “the way things are now” is not the final word.[6]

Vincent Harding – the great African American historian and social activist, founder of the Veterans of Hope Project, tells the story of the time he visited a middle school in Denver on the occasion of a Martin Luther King day assembly.

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When the student assembly was finished I was surrounded by a dozen or so students. One of them, an African-American young man who looked about 13 or 14, sidled up closer to me and said, “Dr. Harding, I’ve got a question to ask you.” With an interesting combination of boldness and wonder he asked, “If Dr. King knew that he could be killed at any time, why didn’t he just back off? Why didn’t he just chill out for a while?”

As I stood there, considering how I might share with my young friend the reality of Martin’s commitment, courage, and compassion, a young woman who looked about the same age as the questionnaire moved into my aid. “What do you mean, chill out? Dr. King couldn’t chill out. He had work to do.”

There it was. The word. For them, for me, for all of us, especially in times like these, when it seems so much easier to chill out, to back off and away from the hard, sometimes dangerous work of challenging the racism, the extreme materialism, the militarism, [and we must add climate threats] that threaten to undermine our best possibilities for creating a humane, compassionate, and nonviolent democracy, King’s kind of place. So the word continues: “we have work to do, not just to celebrate, admire, and praise [Martin]. But, like him, we have work to do, to be.[7]

So friends, we have work to do. Are you ready to roll up your sleeves?

Are you ready? Are you ready to work? To work hard? (I kept asking until I heard…) Yes! Yes! For:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8]

And this is the ground of our hope. God is our hope. In this struggle to set our planet back on the thriving course which God intended, God is our hope. When we labor, we do not labor alone, we labor with God, because God is our hope. We do not face distress or hardship alone, we face these challenges with God. Because God is our hope.

In life, in death, and in life beyond death, we are not our own. We belong to God. Let’s get working.

[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si. The Papal Encyclical on Climate and Inequality.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Francis

[3] https://sojo.net/articles/francis-when-visitor-changes-your-home

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/22/leonardo-dicaprio-joins-26tn-fossil-fuel-divestment-movement

[5] Ibid.

[6] Charles Mathewes, Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. (John Cleese, p. 17 and volatility, p. )

[7] A Maryknoll Book of Inspiration: Readings for every Day of the Year. Michael Leach and Doris Goodnough, eds.

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