My friends in Christ, Peter is my favorite disciple. On the one hand, he is utterly devoted to Jesus. But on the other hand, he can be such a doofus at times. He puts his foot in his mouth, or he just does the wrong thing. Take our Gospel reading from today for example. Peter is up on the mountain with John and James and Jesus, and suddenly Jesus is transfigured by this heavenly light that washes over him.
Then Peter sees Jesus talking with what I presume to be the spirits of Moses and Elijah. And what does Peter do? He says, “Wow, it’s great to be here. Let’s build three dwellings: one for you, and one for each of the other two guys.” They aren’t even real in the human sense! The Gospel points out that Peter doesn’t know what he’s saying. And what’s even more amusing is that while Peter is saying this, God’s voice interrupts him as if to say, “Hush. Listen up, Peter!”
Needless to say, Peter never builds the three dwellings. But I want to focus on this doofus moment in Peter’s life because it has a bearing on the topic of my sermon today. What is Peter’s reaction when he sees Jesus transfigured? He wants to build on the mountain. And not just one dwelling, but a whole housing development. He wants to put up a separate dwelling for each person. And God stops him.
I bring up this ill-conceived gesture of Peter because it points to the excess of ingenuity and desire for growth that has led to what scientists call the most serious crisis in our time: the crisis of climate change. Climate change is one of the great moral issues of our time and one that we cannot afford to ignore. Scientists have been trying to lift the veil of our ignorance or indifference to the issue for decades, and now religious leaders are chiming in to get our attention.
As you may have heard, global warming, which has now been renamed to “climate change,” is the result of rapid increases in carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. These rapid increases are due to several factors, the most significant being the burning of fossil fuels and coal. We also release it when we cut down trees, which absorb carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere; the more tree cut down; the less carbon dioxide is removed. And the cows that we raise for our meat-centric diet release a great deal of methane as–to put it delicately–a natural byproduct of a cow’s digestion. The releases of methane and carbon dioxide have caused a dramatic increase in global temperatures. And this has led to several damaging effects.
For example, polar ice caps and glaciers are melting around the world, causing the oceans to rise about an inch and to become warmer. This is directly responsible for such effects as the damaging and expensive floods of Hurricane Sandy. But it’s also responsible for the salt water from oceans flowing into rivers in coastal farmlands around the world, where the poor often farm; this is making their farms less fruitful. As a result, people are starving.
To make matters worse, the melting of the polar ice caps is causing a rapid increase in the methane gas that is trapped beneath them. Methane gas is an even stronger contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide is. Thus, we are experiencing an exponential acceleration of global warming. It is happening faster than scientists predicted even four years ago, and they are adjusting their numbers every year.
Why is this a moral issue? Because the industrial growth considered so necessary for the global economy, and in particular the industrial practices and consumeristic lifestyle of the United States, is directly responsible for much of the damage to the environment. The richest 7 percent of the world’s population is creating 50% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The vast majority of those emissions are from the United States. Meanwhile, the poorest 50% of the world’s population has created only 7% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. And the poor suffer the most as their fertile lands become too drought-stricken or their water sources too salty to allow them to grow food. The fish that they rely upon for protein are dying off rapidly in ecosystems damaged by the overly warm waters.
On top of that, our environmentally damaging lifestyles are also leading to the rapid destruction and extinction of numerous plant and animal species. Although occasional extinction is part of evolutionary biology, biologists such as E.O. Wilson are shocked at the rate at which species are now dying—often as a result of practices related to climate change such as the cutting down of forests.
There is nearly unanimous scientific consensus about this dire news. The reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change come from 1200 authors, 2500 scientific expert reviewers, and over 130 countries. It is being called “the most extensively peer reviewed science document in history.” But for whatever reason, many of us want to ignore or deny this information.
When a doctor tells patients that they have a rare form of leukemia, do the patients say, “I don’t believe your data?” They don’t. They pay attention to the expert information of scientists because these scientists have patients’ well-being in mind. But we don’t pay much attention when it comes to climate change. Almost half of the human race says it doesn’t believe that human behavior is causing climate change. In contrast, 97% of climate specialists think that human behavior is causing climate change. We don’t want to believe it because we know we will have to sacrifice a great deal to rectify it.
Our situation reminds me so much of a very poignant scene from the movie Schindler’s List. It’s the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved many Jews from the Holocaust. He used his own money to bribe Nazi guards and to employ Jews who were headed for concentration camps in his factory instead. He sacrificed a great deal and saved many Jews’ lives. Near the end of the movie, when the war is ended, he was being thanked by the Jews whose lives he saved. He walked toward his car, and he wept and cried out: “I could have sold the car! I could have saved more people with the money!” He suddenly realized the direct connection between retaining his wealth and convenience and the loss of some Jews’ lives. Was he directly responsible for the Holocaust? No. He didn’t start it. But he recognized his moral responsibility to do what he could.
I think it’s time to acknowledge this direct correlation between the United States’ wealth and love of convenience and the damage done to ecosystems. Scientists have been begging us to see it. And so have major Christian leaders around the world: Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict the XVI , the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams; our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. All of them have urged Christians worldwide to pay heed to the damage being done to the environment and to work for change.
We can’t let our hearts and minds be hardened by this news. Instead, I urge us to consider it a type of epiphany, a revelation. The veil has been lifted, and we are looking at the blazing truth. This is a social justice issue because of the harm being done to the least among us. And it’s a moral issue because it is an affront to what God has created and loved. What God loves, we must love. So it simply won’t do to look at this through the veil of rose-colored glasses.
You may recall that I preached on Epiphany Sunday about there being two kinds of epiphany. One kind shows us something we don’t really wish to see about ourselves. I believe this is one of those times. I believe we need to acknowledge the damage done to God’s creation. People, ecosystems, and species are dying as a result of the United States’ lifestyle choices. We have fouled our nest. We have fouled God’s nest.
If environmental damage doesn’t worry us, then money might. This is an economic problem for all of us. The insurance industry is already realizing that it will have to make much larger payouts after all these disastrous storms. Our governments are already shelling out billions of dollars in rebuilding and relief. This crisis touches everyone.
Some scientists and environmental journalists are pessimistic about Christianity because they have not seen us respond to the moral issues being raised. I do share their concern about Americans’ lack of commitment and action. However, I am even more convinced of God’s abiding love for us, even if we have fouled the nest. I know I said on Epiphany Sunday that God vacuums up our messes. But God may not vacuum up every mess we make here on Earth. Or God may wait a while to intervene.
Nevertheless, the God who sent Jesus Christ to us will not abandon us. God will equip us with the grace and the means to adapt and survive. But we must repent and change. Climate change is already forcing us to change, but we can lessen the damage by responding quickly.
As Paul writes, we Christians are a people of hope. And we are capable of acting with a great boldness and ingenuity. I suggest that we do just that: look at this blazing truth in front of us. Then respond with hope. And act with great boldness. Some actions will need to be systemic and global in nature, such as a commitment to wind and solar power. But there are still things we can do locally to make a difference.
Specifically, I invite us all to a Holy Lent, beginning with the imposition of ashes this coming Wednesday. I invite us to fast on this holy day. And when I say “fast,” I mean don’t eat, as long it is medically safe for us to do so. Don’t eat anything. Just drink water. Feel that bite of hunger in our guts. And know that this is what many poor people around the world already feel because of the damage done to God’s world.
Fasting is a type of asceticism. It is not a form of masochism or self-punishment, but rather a form of exercise or training. In fact, the Greek root for asceticism, askesis, means exercise. As those who exercise regularly know, exercise has a way of focusing one’s heart and mind and attention upon a goal: to do the yoga stretch a bit farther, to run a faster 10K, to bench press a few more reps. Spiritual asceticism is meant to draw our focus away from our own will and onto God’s will. I feel confident in saying that God wishes us to sustain, not destroy, what God has created: God’s people. God’s creatures. God’s forests. God’s shores.
I also invite us all to consider ways we can commit ourselves to a radical reduction of our carbon footprint, and to try it out for the 46 days of Lent. Pick one environmentally sound habit to cultivate. I invite you to discuss it with your family, your coworkers, fellow church members. Can more of us walk to church or to errands? Or take the train into the city? Can we bring reusable mugs to Starbucks? Can we start using washable coffee cups at coffee hour here? Can we turn down the thermostat dramatically at home? Take shorter showers? Eat a lot less meat from those methane-producing cows?
I suggest that we each adopt one or more of these environmentally respectful habits and practice it prayerfully this Lent. Practice it with repentance for the damage we have caused to Earth. But more importantly, practice it with love. When we bring a reusable mug to Starbuck’s or coffee hour, let’s give thanks to the God who created us. When we take a short shower or eat a vegetarian meal, send up a prayer for those whose environments have become arid due to climate change. When we walk to church instead of driving, shout out your love for each species you see on the way. Shout out our love for the God who has created us wonderful human beings among all the amazing diversity of this creation. For God’s sake and all that God has created, let us heed the warnings. Let us respond with hope, great boldness, and ingenuity to this challenge before us.