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The New Nature – Storm Sunday

September 19, 2016

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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 18, 2016

  Psalm 29          Luke 8: 22-25

When I was a child, I would get excited whenever I heard the sound of an air horn. Now, in order to understand with that meant to me, you need to know that I grew up in the Midwest. And when the air horn sounded it meant that a tornado had been spotted nearby and I should move to a relatively safe location. In Westchester, the sound of the air horn means that there has been an incident at Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant or that a test is being conducted. The last time I heard that horn I was out hiking, without cell service, and at least an hour away from anybody who could tell me what was going on. That was a very different feeling, and there was no relatively safe place to go, so I kept hiking. But when I was a child in Illinois, I found the sound of the air horn signaling a tornado exciting. The very idea of a storm that could generate winds that then took on a life of their own, powerful enough to lift up houses and uproot trees, fascinated and terrified me in equal measure. It was an experience of awe, not unlike that we heard in Psalm 29:

The God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of God is powerful; full of majesty.
God’s voice breaks the cedars; makes them skip like a calf;
It flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Almighty shakes the wilderness;
causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”

Illinois, where I grew up, averages 35 tornadoes a year; 25 of which are strong enough to cause significant damage. (By contrast, Texas averages 139 a year). A tornado meant automatic family time. First we would open all the windows in the house, and then my sister Janel and I would go to the basement, pull the white and gold craft table up next to the steel desk, and hide underneath. We would be absorbed listening to the gale winds and pounding rain assault the house, while counting after every BOOM of thunder (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…) until we saw the lightning flash in the window wells. In this way we could calculate how far away the storm was. If the electricity went out, we would pray that the water would not start seeping up into the basement. When the worst was over, we would tell stories until we could safely go back upstairs. This was quality family time, Midwest style.

I was awed by the power of a storm that could shake a whole house. I remember one time I had to go upstairs to investigate a loud banging on the side of the house. The cupola from our neighbor’s roof that held their weather vane had blown down and was being battered back and forth between the houses. I stood transfixed at the open window as the box, that was larger than me, was blown around like a napkin. Two neighbor boys, teenagers, went outside and wrestled the thing to the ground — something that stood out in my childhood mind as a model of courage — although as I think about it now it seems more than a bit foolish and quite dangerous.

The best part of every thunderstorm was the smell afterward. I would lie down on my stomach in the bay window at the front of the house, by the open windows and inhale deeply. I loved, and still love, the smell of a storm. I’ve learned that that smell is made up primarily of three things. Two of them come from the ground, while the third falls from the sky. The “rich earthy smell” comes from bacteria in the soil that secretes something called geosmin, spores that are released into the air when the rain hits them. Petrichor, another earthy scent, is released by plant oils when they get wet. All plants excrete oils during dry periods that slow the growth process, which keep them from overgrowing and needing more water. The oils gather on plants surfaces, soil and rock, and are released, like the geosmin, by the rain. The final scent, the one that comes from the sky is ozone, produced by electrically charged nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere and pushed down by the storm above. Have you ever smelled a storm coming? That’s ozone. And taken together with the temperature change storms bring, produces that cool, crisp, clean smell after the storm.[1]

When I was two and three years old I would draw the same cartoon over and over. It would show stick figure construction workers building a house. Piece by piece it would come together. I’d draw little doors and windows; a chimney. Eventually a family would move in, a flower would go in the window, and smoke would rise from the fireplace. And then a tornado would come. I’d draw the twister, taking the house apart again, piece by piece. (I never seemed to worry about the people. They were obviously safe in the basement). And then the crews would come back and begin the process of rebuilding. The story would always end with the flower back in the window and the smoke curling from the chimney – the signal of a family warm and safe inside.

*******

During the Season of Creation we have been reading scripture passages that assure us that God made this world in wisdom, that it bears the mark of its creator. In our story today, we encounter Jesus calming the storm. The power of the story is the disciples’ recognition that Jesus exercises divine power over the waters, bringing order to chaos. What I have been pondering, though, is that we don’t live in that world anymore. No longer is the elemental structure of nature, of our world, only of God’s making; it is also of our own. Our impact on the natural world has been so profound that many scientist believe we have entered a new age they call the Anthropocene, an era we have never experienced before, an era characterized by the over-determining impact that humans now have on nature.[2]

Does Jesus bring calm to the “natural storms” of our own making?  If so, what does that “calming” of the storm look like?  It certainly can’t look like climate change denial – don’t worry, nothing is happening or don’t worry we’ll just build it back – whether that’s a dam or a coastline or a neighborhood or the entire Norfolk Virginia shoreline!

flooding-in-florida

A couple of weeks ago I commended to you an article in the New York Times on the perils of rising sea levels and wholesale rebuilding efforts by states and municipalities. A colleague of mine, a history professor at The College of St. Rose, got her response to the article printed in the paper last week:

To the Editor: Your article clearly laid out the imminent perils of rising sea levels for the Atlantic Coast states. Flooding has become the norm in cities like Miami Beach and Norfolk and Alexandria, Va. Recounting the enormous efforts underway and the billions upon billions of dollars it will take to shore up infrastructure, elevate homes and raise sea walls, it becomes clear that such efforts to keep these areas habitable would be in vain. Since that is the case, then why throw away billions of dollars trying to fight the momentous forces of nature just to buy a little more time? With foresight and understanding about rising sea levels, use that money to gradually depopulate the coastal areas that will be affected and discourage new development there. If people want to live on the water — like the rich — they can do so at their own risk and on their own dime. They will be hard pressed to find insurance companies willing to cover their properties.

Ordinary people who own homes and small businesses can be gradually bought out and relocated when disaster strikes and federal funds are dispensed, as New York is doing with some areas of Long Island that are being lost to erosion and suffered irreparable damage from Hurricane Sandy. There is time to do this in an intelligent and economical manner if the political will is there. It is foolish to waste precious resources on a losing game.[3]

“Meanwhile in Washington, Congress is gridlocked on climate change.  This means the United States lacks not only a broad national policy on sea-level rise, it has something close to the opposite: The federal government spends billions of taxpayer dollars in ways that add to the risks, by subsidizing local governments and homeowners who build in imperiled locations along the coast.”[4]

How does Jesus bring calm to this storm?  We cry out with the old words of the hymn, singing them not only as metaphor but as literal reality as well

Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
Chart and compass came from thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

While we may cry to Jesus like the disciples did saying, “Save us!” I can imagine Jesus saying, “I cannot save you from the storms of your own making.  But I can give you the grace and the forbearance to do the hard thing.  To confess your wrongdoing, to take responsibility, and to begin to halt the destruction and repair what may yet still be saved.”

There is no magic bullet.  There is no 11th hour rescue.  There is no apocalyptic rapture.  For this kind of thinking – a God who rescues no matter what – allows us to continue heedless of the destruction we continue to produce and the creatures and nature we imperil.  That is not consistent with the kind of God we know in the Bible.  God is a God of love; but that does not mean God is a pushover or that God doesn’t care about the damage our sin creates.  Rather this God of love is a God who gives us the grace to acknowledge our wrong doing and the strength to do the hard thing – to repent, to turn and go in a completely different direction.

Where I see Jesus, where I hear his calm voice is when I hear or read the words of people who, without exaggeration or inflammatory rhetoric, simply spell out, map out, where we stand now as a planet, and the choices that remain to us as a people. Folks like Bill McKibben, who lays out the facts about what is happening right NOW on a globe that is

“suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”[5]

Or ecologist Eric Sanderson, whose book Terra Nova: The New World after Oil, Cars, and Suburbs traces energy choices we have made over the last century and the alternatives before us.[6]

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. Which we can change. Meanwhile

  • Super Typhoon Meranti made landfall in Taiwan on Tuesday. Though it only killed one civilian, it was the most powerful storm since Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
  • Also on Tuesday, Tropical Storm Julia formed over Jacksonville, Florida, marking a rare occurrence. Storms do not typically reach a tropical status over land.
  • Tropical Storm Julia unleashed heavy rain Wednesday morning along the northeastern coast of Florida and southeastern Georgia. The slow-moving storm caused flash flooding and produced 3 to 6 inches of rain across portions of eastern Georgia and South Carolina.
  • And Tropical Storm Karl may be our fifth hurricane of the season.[7]

As the winds rise and the seas churn, in the midst of these storms and storms to come, even as we support the urgent work of disaster preparedness and assistance, let us allow the calm voice of Jesus to remind us of where we stand, what is still possible for this earth, of what we must let go, and where we may begin to live consciously and carefully upon this earth.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/causes-smell-rain/

[2] In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben has crafted 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.”

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/sunday/saving-our-coastlines.html (Letter by Jenise Depinto).

[4] From the original article. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/science/flooding-of-coast-caused-by-global-warming-has-already-begun.html

[5] Bill McKibbon, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010).

[6] Eric Sanderson. Terra Nova: The new World of Oil, Cars, and Suburbs. (Wildlife Conservation Society, 2013).

[7] Straight from http://www.accuweather.com news for the day.

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