A Sermon by Joelle Novey

11_Recommitment_Cover18 September 2011

The 14th Sunday After Pentecost


Joelle Novey, Director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, brought the Word this morning.

In this week’s reading from Exodus, the Israelites have come through the parted sea and begin their journeys in the desert. And how did these folks eat and sustain themselves during their journey in the wilderness? The Bible says that God made manna appear, some kind of fluffy white food that came out of the sky.


The Israelites got two moral lessons along with this food service from the sky: First, you could only take as much as you needed for one day; if you took more than you needed, the manna spoiled. And second, you could take two portions on Fridays, so that you had enough to eat during the Sabbath. The manna which ordinarily wouldn’t keep for more than one day did keep on the Sabbath, so that the Israelites could eat without collecting on the day of rest.


At first there is quite a bit of complaining to Moses about the food, but over the years in the dessert, the Israelites must have gotten pretty trusting of this system for getting their sustenance. A daily buffet from heaven probably seemed like the way things worked, and the way they always would be.


Our reading from Matthew is a parable about workers harvesting a vineyard. The gospels spoke in agrarian imagery that those who heard them could best understand. These people, by and large, were farmers, who did not get food daily from the sky but only through labor and cultivation of the land. They, too, could feed themselves and their families, but not by just waiting for it to fall from the sky. They had to till, and plant, and harvest. And they had to learn the predictable cycle of the seasons, the regular arrival of the rains and the sun and the frost. They had to be sure to harvest the delicate fruit of the vineyards between rains. Though they couldn’t count on the sky to provide food itself, but they could count on the sky and the land to follow a fairly predictable schedule of seasons.


For the agricultural people who tilled vineyards in Jesus’ time, who read the same Hebrew Bible as we do, the manna in the desert must have seemed like an amazing thing to be able to take for granted. “Do you remember the desert?” they must have reminisced. “When God was our caterer? When we didn’t have to do all this work to sustain ourselves, but when we just took for granted that, every day, manna would just fall onto our plates from the sky? Can you believe anyone ever complained about that?” the people must have said, as they climbed up ladders with tools to prune vines and pick grapes. “That was awesome.”


And what about us? We certainly don’t live like the Israelites in the desert, letting our food fall from the sky for us, although supermarkets and factory farming so separate us from the land that it sometimes feels that way.


But, there is increasing evidence that we may be on the brink of not living the way the farmers who first heard the gospels did, either. They could set their watches, and the rhythm of their lives, by a predictable cycle of seasons. There were good years and bad years, slightly early rains one year or slightly late ones another, but more or less the vineyards and fields and orchards thrived in a stable climate, and it probably seemed that it would go on that way forever.


Something is happening to our world. We are getting a message from the natural world around us.


For example, spring is coming over a week earlier all over the Northern Hemisphere. The cherry trees on the Mall, for example, are blossoming a week earlier than they did when they were planted in 1912. Our cherry trees came from Japan, where the dates of blossoming have been written down for over a thousand years. From the Middle Ages until 1800, the blossoms came more or less at the same time each year, give or take. Then, starting in 1800, the blossoms have come earlier and earlier. By the 1980’s and 1990’s, the flowering times in Kyoto were earlier than at any time in the last thousand years.


Early Spring by itself doesn’t sound like it’s necessarily a bad thing, but the natural thermometers like the Japanese cherry trees combine with many other pieces of natural and scientific evidence that the entire world seems to have gotten 1.4 degrees warmer since 1900. And that is definitely not a good thing.


The gardeners here today may be aware of another sign of what is happening to our world. On the back of seed packets, there is a plant hardiness zone map, which tells you when you can plant certain plants or seeds, depending on where you live. The National Arbor Foundation re–‐did this map a few years ago. And what they found is that warmer temperatures have shifted the entire map. If you put your finger on the new map, you can see that where you live feels like it used to about 200 miles south just 25 years ago. My guess is that our climate right here is now something like Mount Vernon, Virginia was 25 years ago.


Some of you may be familiar with an invasive vine called “kudzu.” It used to be known as “the vine that ate the South.” It was contained to that region by cold winter temperatures. But now, kudzu is not only growing all over our region, it is well–‐established in southern Illinois. And recently, kudzu was found growing in Ontario, Canada. The vine that ate the south is now the vine that is eating the continent.

We are getting a message from thousands of plants and other natural systems. And we need to pay attention, and to listen to what they are telling us. Why are the cherry trees blossoming earlier, and why is kudzu now happily growing in Canada? To talk about why, I’m going to need to talk about climate change.


But this morning, I’m only going to speak directly about climate change science for a few minutes, because it’s a really scary thing to think about.

I have a little bit of experience with this, so I can tell you that, in a few minutes, when I speak about the problem of climate change, some of you are going to feel like you don’t want to be here or don’t want to listen. You may feel like you want to think about something else, what you’re having for lunch, or something that happened at work this week. You may feel like there must be something on the internet that would debunk everything I’m saying. You may think, “Who is this woman? She’s not a scientist. I want to see some footnotes.”


It’s okay to have feelings when we hear about climate change. I have them too. I would ask that, for the next five minutes, you hear what I say about climate change as if; open to this as if it were in fact really happening, as if my facts are good, and as if all of us needed to reconcile ourselves and our lives to this reality.


When you feel those feelings of resistance, acknowledge them, but please keep listening. We are here together, all of us, in church, so we are not confronting these problems alone and when we feel scared, we are feeling scared together.


Temperature measurements from around the world indicate that global average temperature has gone up 1.4 degrees in the last 150 years. And because my husband is an algebra teacher, I want to also mention the importance of slope: as we get closer to the present, the slope of that temperature line is getting steeper and steeper. The temperature is going up faster and faster. We may have less than 150 years to adjust to the next 1.4 degree increase.


Out of nearly 160 years of records, the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1997. The warmest year ever was 1998, followed by 2005 and 2003.


In a recent book by Katherine Hayhoe, a scientist from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she explains what is happening to average world temperature this way: “When we graph temperature over the last two thousand years, we end up with a hockey–‐stick–‐shaped line. The cooler, flat line endures for almost two thousand years. This is the handle of the hockey stick. Then, there’s a sharp curve upward over the last two hundred years — the blade of the hockey stick. This depicts our recent warming trend … This warming is already greater than anything we’ve seen in the past, going back one, two, or even five thousand years.


The only explanation that can account for these changes is us. Our burning coal for electricity, flying airplanes, and animal agriculture, along with other activities, are producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. These gases trap heat. When the sun shines on the Earth, the increasing these gasses in our atmosphere seem to be trapping this heat rather than letting it escape, and the accumulated heat–‐trapping gases are warming our planet.


The only explanation that can account for these changes is us. Our burning coal for electricity, flying airplanes, and animal agriculture, along with other activities, are producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. These gases trap heat. When the sun shines on the Earth, the extra gasses in our atmosphere seem to be trapping this heat rather than letting it escape, and the accumulated heat–‐trapping gases are warming our planet. Scientists have said that the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million. We’re up near 400 already, and rising.


What would it mean if we kept emitting these heat–‐trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the Earth continued to warm? By now you’ve probably heard some of what that would mean:

• The massive ice sheets of Greenland and west Antarctica could melt, raising sea level by forty feet or more over the coming centuries, eventually placing the world’s largest cities, including ours, below sea level.

• Many of the world’s species of animals and plants that can’t adapt or move fast enough could be doomed to extinction.

• Extreme draught could threaten as much as a third of the world, drying up land that used to be farmland and leading to widespread human hunger and suffering.

• Our children and grandchildren could be living in a world increasingly characterized by severe droughts, massive heat waves, and worldwide conflicts due to food and water shortages.


I know this is difficult. Please stay open, and please keep listening. Since we read today about manna, and about the cultivation of food crops, I want to focus in particular on the hunger and disease that is already being caused by our changing climate. The injustice of this is hard to swallow, but the world’s poorest people who have done the least to cause this problem, are the first ones to be experiencing its effects. One estimate puts the worldwide death toll from climate change already at 300,000 people a year, many of them in Africa.


Oliba Peter is a farmer in eastern Uganda. “The rain comes very late here,” he says. “And when it comes it is rough, just like the wind. It’s not predictable, like it used to be. We no longer get enough food from the soil, which has increased starvation. There are also many diseases that come as a result of famine, which affect us very much. Author Bill McKibben was in Dhaka, Bangladesh during an outbreak of dengue fever. The mosquitoes that carry this disease thrive at the new warmer temperatures. “I can remember going to the hospital in Dhaka,” McKibben says, “and looking at this huge ward full of beds, a couple of hundred beds, and people in every one of them just shivering away. And I remember thinking, “God, is this is unfair. These people have done literally nothing to cause this…. You know, the 4 percent of us in this country produce 25 percent of the world’s CO2. It’s not perfect epidemiology, but the moral math works for me. If there’s a hundred beds in that hospital, 25 of them are on us.”


Okay, five minutes are over. Take a deep breath.


It is a strange situation we find ourselves in. The Israelites counted on the daily manna from the sky. The farmers who planted and harvested vineyards in Jesus’ time couldn’t get food from the sky, but they counted on a stable and predictable cycle of rains, where you could harvest the grapes at the right time year after year.


Now, we are in uncharted territory. We aren’t just farming for food in a given and stable climate. We’re also changing the climate itself, unmooring the natural seasons on which the agrarian traditions of every human culture, including the Biblical narrative, is based. Will we, and people in Uganda, and Japan, and everywhere, look back someday, to the world before catastrophic climate change, the way the farmers who heard the gospels must have looked back at manna in the dessert? Will we look back and say, “Remember when we knew when the blossoms and the rains would come? Remember when we could farm here?”


To confront the possibility that our society, in the process of industrializing, making electricity, getting us from place to place, has set in motion an unprecedented and global experiment in altering our atmosphere and climate is incredibly difficult.


But it is not too late to change course, to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and to prevent some of the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. That’s why I’m so grateful to be here today. We’re going to need everyone’s help!


Seekers is one of hundreds of congregations right here in our own community that are listening to the warnings from our natural world and are allowing that process to transform and renew their communities. I get great strength from seeing every day that caring people in congregations of every faith across the DC area are responding together to what they are learning about climate change with great integrity and compassion.


So if you feel alarmed and agitated after hearing about the causes and consequences of the climate change problem, please, don’t direct that energy towards shutting this out. Please choose today to direct that energy into joining with others and taking action. There are ways to respond personally. There are ways to respond communally. And there are ways to respond politically.


One place to start personally is with our own electricity use. The coal–‐fired power plants that create half of our electricity are the country’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Could you wash the laundry in cold water? Could you skip the dryer, and hang the clothes up to dry on a line? Could you get a professional audit and weatherization work to seal your home before the weather gets cold? Another place to take personal action is in transportation. Could you take metro, bike, or bus instead of driving? Could you carpool with someone to work? Animal agriculture is responsible for about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Could you imagine eating less meat?


There are ways to respond communally. Leaders from Seekers are already working with Interfaith Power & Light on reducing energy use, greening the operations of this building, and even installing solar panels.


And there are ways to respond by speaking out. Through Interfaith Power & Light, there will be opportunities over the coming months to speak out in support of clean renewable energy and against the climate pollution caused by fossil fuels. You can sign postcards after today’s service against the Keystone XL Pipeline which would bring thick crude oil across the entire United States from the Canadian Tar Sands, an oil extraction process that is particularly damaging to the climate. And those of you who live in Maryland will have an opportunity to support ground–‐breaking clean energy legislation this year that would enable the building of wind energy projects off of Maryland’s coast.


Of course, all of these responses require us to think about doing something really hard: change. It’s hard to change things about how we do the laundry, or how we get around, or how we eat. It’s difficult to change the way a congregation has “always” done things. And it takes some courage to speak out for a cause. The power of responding to climate change in a church like this one is that these are places that make us brave enough to believe we can change.


The idea that human activity is playing an unprecedented and irreversible experiment with the climate is deeply frightening. But I believe that even this scary time comes with a lesson for us.


We can go on acting like what we do today has no impacts on the Earth, as if our economy and our day–‐to–‐day lives are not dependent on the continued abundance of natural resources. We can act as if our choices have no impact on people in other countries, or on the lives of future generations. We can continue to live as if there is no “enough,” as if we can keep running around gathering manna from the sky for its own sake, and harvesting every grape the vineyard can produce without regard for how much fruit it might bear tomorrow or next year. We can do this, but in addition to it being incorrect, this way of living is … lonely.


The climate crisis asks us to do something very profound. It asks us to acknowledge that we’re not alone.


I read the gospels as a guest rather than as a practitioner. But the parable of the vineyard from Matthew today concludes with an affirmation that everyone, from the first to the last, ultimately receives the same reward. Those who have toiled in the vineyard of climate action for many years and those who just arrive at the task this morning; those who live in countries that have been polluting the climate for over a century and those whose countries are just now trying to develop in an altered climate; those species, like ours, that are able to shape the natural world to our needs and those species, all the rest, that now are at the mercy of the climate we have damaged. But in the end, for better or worse, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The planet we share is our reward. We share an urgent task. But we are not alone.


We’re not alone because we live and pray in community. We’re not alone because we inherit generations of tradition and hope to see those values live on in future generations. We’re not alone because we are interconnected with the rest of the natural world, with all the species of plants and animals. And we’re not alone because when we live in gratitude and mindfulness of our interconnections, God is present with us as well.


I am finding that, for me, this climate problem is a call to our fullest humanity. May we gather in the vineyard to work together. And may the task before us teach us something important about ourselves, and bring us closer to each other.




Most climate change science data, including data about Japanese cherry blossoms, are from A Climate For Change: Global Warming Facts For Faith–‐Based Decisions by Katherine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley, Hachette Book Group http://climateforchangethebook.com/


Quotation from Oliba Peter is from “Africa Talks Climate” BBC World Service Trust http://africatalksclimate.com/reports/stories–‐soroti


Quotation from Bill McKibben is from “The Moral Math of Climate Change” Speaking of Faith radio http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/moral–‐math/


Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light helps congregations of all faiths, throughout Northern Virginia and the DC metro area, to save energy, go green, and respond to climate change. GW–‐IPL can be reached at http://www.gwipl.org, or joelle@gwipl.org.

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