Climate Justice

Hope is the Thing

A Sermon for Climate Justice

Hope is the Thing
Bishop C. Joseph Sprague at the Caretakers of God’s Creation Conference

On April 28, 2017, Bishop C. Joseph Sprague gave the sermon below at the United Methodist Caretakers of God’s Creation Conference. The daylong conference featured speakers, worship and workshops to help participants in their work on climate justice and to develop greener churches and communities.

Jeremiah 32:6–15; Matthew 10:16

On Fat Tuesday, I met with 80 participants in the multi-faith Horizon Prison Initiative at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

Among core components of this 10-month program of demonstrated personal and institutional transformation is an in-depth examination of the faith-specific traditions and beliefs of the inmate-participants, whether they are Christians, Wiccans, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Nativists, humanists or otherwise. Most are fundamentalist Christians.

As the participants delved into their personal religious traditions, experiences and values, while learning to better understand and respect the differences among them, they expressed growing interest in learning more about the intersection of faith and practice in the public arena. Truth be told, they wanted chapter and verse regarding the social justice involvements of the president of Horizon.

To honor their invitation, I presented a litany of a lifetime of social justice involvements in church, nation and world. At the conclusion of this narrative, an insightful young participant responded, “You’re an old man, who has done a bunch of things. When you look around at today’s mess, was it worth it?”

With this, the blunt young woman opened the trapdoor to the dark night of my soul. And, I suspect to that of many activists in today’s church. Was it worth it? Has my life counted for much of lasting value, given the increasingly reactionary state of the church and the tragic folly of a Trump-led nation? I am not sure. I admitted to the young woman and her other Horizon participants that sometimes despair and situational depression creep up the back stairway of my soul.

An Immense Complexity

Driving home from the prison in a driving rainstorm, while de-briefing this event, especially the young woman’s poignant follow-up query, which we will consider later, a segue emerged. I began to suspect that faithful Caretakers of God’s Creation, who would gather in D.C. in late April, might also be experiencing a similar weariness of the soul. That you would speak at least a silent Amen to the reality of surreptitious despair, even creeping situational depression, in the face of the immense complexity of climate change, global warming, and the potential disaster that lies ahead for this planet, our children, grandchildren, and God’s still- emerging creation in the age of Trump, in a church more concerned with the current belly-button, “inny-outty” exclusive heresy, as if anyone can be adjudged an “outty” from the inclusive, open door to the Jesus House, than with incarnating the Eternal Yes of the Great Mystery at the heart of the universe.

To get a handle on this suspicion, and to become more conversant with you, Caretakers of God’s Creation, being a print-media junkie, I engaged in clipping and digesting pertinent news accounts from the Columbus Dispatch, the New York Times, and the New Yorker magazine. Ponder a few of these gleanings.

First, from the historically quite conservative Dispatch (1/1/17), and the “Rod/Gun” section at that, this printed list of worries, developed from 2016 realities :

  • Carbon in the atmosphere held at more than 400 parts per million for the first time . . . Carbon content of 360 parts per million . . . is considered the trigger point for climate disruption.
  • The death of 100 million trees in California is blamed on a five-year drought . . . and a subsequent attack by the pine bark beetle.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the rusty patched bumblebee, a native North American pollinator . . . as an endangered species.
  • Tufted puffins were dying in a part of the Bering Sea where scientists suspect . . . warming currents have shifted the food web. Thousands of snow geese died during the autumn migration when bad weather forced them to land at Berkeley Pit, a flooded [and severely contaminated] former copper mine in Montana.
  • Since 2009 the bird-friendly Great Plains, which stretches from Texas to Canada, has lost 53 million acres of grasslands.
  • The world’s population of birds has declined by hundreds of millions compared with just a few years ago because of climate disruption, dwindling habitat, hunting and pollution. The deaths of 80,000 reindeer in Russia were being tied to the retreat of Arctic sea ice.
  • Deforestation in the Amazon River basin was 29 percent higher than in 2015.  
  • Satellite images revealed Great Salt Lake in Utah is drying up, five years of drought having reduced the lake’s surface by 40 percent.
Then there is this, from The New York Times on March 19, “ . . . the Great Barrier Reef is dying . . . There is no mystery about the reason — it’s global warming, caused by fossil fuels we burn . . . The death of coral reefs is a tragedy on many levels. There is the sheer beauty . . . they support a quarter of all marine life and provide protein for millions of people . . . ”

The Dispatch, again, in a telling front-page story about Ohio beekeepers, who “reported a 44 percent colony loss during 2015. The stakes are high. Ohio farmers rely on bees to pollinate about 70 crops . . . It’s estimated that bees play a role in the production of one-third of the food in the United States.”

And yet, this from the Times on March 17th, “Before he became President, Donald J. Trump called climate change a hoax. . . and mocked renewable energy as a plaything of ‘tree-huggers.’ So perhaps it is no surprise that Mr. Trump’s first budget took direct aim at basic scientific and medical research. . .   The White House is also proposing to eliminate climate science programs . . . including the Environmental Protection Agency . . . the director of the Office of Management and Budget said, ‘We consider that to be a waste of your money . . .’ The budget would eliminate money to carry out . . . plan[s] to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants . . .”

The Times further stated, “Industry tells Trump which rules to overturn” as EPA chief [Pruitt] calls for ‘exit’ from Paris climate agreement . . .”

And, the New Yorker opined on April 10th, “President Trump said that his order puts ‘an end to the war on coal.’ In reality, it is a declaration of war on the basic knowledge of the harm that burning coal, and other fossil fuels, can do. Indeed, it tells the government to ignore information. He chooses to cast such worries aside at . . . Mar-a-Lago, even as that property sinks into the rising sea, a process that has begun and, by many scientific estimations, will result in its grounds becoming one with the Atlantic during Barron Trump’s lifetime."

Clearly, committed Caretakers of God’s Creation have cause for hearts and souls laden with at least a modicum of despair.

The Antidote

Let us return to that brutally candid, young Appalachian inmate at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, “OK,” she said in response to my confession, “but when you are down, and believe me, we here in prison know down, what do you do?” Pensively, I responded, “I try to immerse myself in beloved community; to push my too proud self back into the care and company of intimate friends and fellow travelers that I/we might be helped to remember potent empowering stories and ponder anew the Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.”

To remember the biblical story of Jeremiah’s purchase of the field at Anathoth for 17 shekels of silver. You know its details . . . how the home place fell to Jeremiah, while he was incarcerated in King Zedekiah’s jail with Babylon at the gate of Jerusalem . . . it was his for purchase because no one else in the family was crazy enough to buy it . . . he did so saying, “Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says [that Great Mystery at the heart of it all]: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:14b–15).

To remember how in 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a West German pastor came to a global UMC meeting in New York City carrying a brown paper bag full of chunks of cement from the Berlin Wall. As he distributed these mementos of the captives being set free, he told us about his East German clergy colleague. For nearly three decades this unnamed pastor served a small congregation on the east side of the wall. The congregation, subjected to abuse and harassment, shrank. Pastor and family experienced indignities beyond words; their suffering was palpable. And yet, for decades, they “kept on keeping on.” Then, the day the wall fell, that faithful pastor hung these words, written in German, on the church’s outdoor signboard,  “THE LAMB WINS.”

To remember these telling words by Charles Dickens in Great Expectations, “The most important thing in life is to stop saying, ‘I wish’ and start saying ‘I will.’”

To remember Jesus of Nazareth saying to the Twelve, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

To remember Martin Luther King translating these words of Jesus for the Justice Movement Band, of which he was drum major, “Be tough-minded and tender-hearted.” King knew that, while God’s arm always bends toward justice, it moves judiciously and far more quickly with the help of those who, like Jesus, with tough minds and tender hearts, dare to trust and obey the Eternal Yes of the Great Mystery, walking, yea marching, in the Way of justice, kindness and humility, while saying  not ‘I wish,’ but singing and shouting, “WE SHALL OVERCOME.”

We Are not Alone

Therefore, as Caretakers of God’s Creation, who with tough, informed minds can document creation’s pain and with tender, caring hearts can prescribe some of the antidotes necessary for healing the many wounds inflicted on the unity of the whole created order, let us remember it is far more righteous to be disparaged as ‘tree-huggers’ than embraced by the arrogance of power that audaciously dances to the shock and awe of the “Mother of All Bombs” and other such destructive devices of moronic idolatry.

Let us remember we are not alone in this struggle. Introverted poets are writing and publicly reading verses of stinging protest; global artists are singing, dancing and speaking truth to power; children are learning, weeping and questioning; beekeepers among you have introduced solar panels to your homes and communities; Cloistered scientists and tweedy academics are in the streets; Earth/Science Day proponents gathered in record numbers around the globe; hundreds of thousands protesters will march here and in other cities in this nation tomorrow; Costa Rica ran entirely on renewable energy for more than 250 days last year; food deserts are being challenged by the produce from community and urban gardens; and even state and local governments here are beginning to realize that this is a movement, not unlike Civil Rights, that will not go away. As we sang in Selma, “Ain’t NOBODY gonna turn us around . . . ” So, NOBODY can stop this Justice Movement on behalf of God’s good creation.

I did not come here to presume to tell you, and your panel of brilliant experts on ecological justice, how to act as the Caretakers of God’s Creation. In the process, you will continue to discover what is demanded, and do it. What is needed, in church and state, are hope-filled tough minds that will teach, confront, organize, debate and nonviolently resist, coupled with hopeful tender hearts that feel Mother Earth’s travail as she is continually gang-raped and her offspring consigned to die agonizing deaths from neglect, misuse, arrogant gluttony and ignorant buffoonery that passes for leadership, as it did in Orwell’s 1984.

Vice President Gore was absolutely correct when he wrote “along with the danger we face . . . this crisis also brings unprecedented opportunities . . . [of] a compelling moral purpose, a shared and unifying cause, the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence, the opportunity to rise . . . Those who are now suffocating in cynicism and despair will be able to breathe freely. Those who are now suffering from a loss of meaning will find hope” (Introduction, An Inconvenient Truth).

Therefore, Caretakers of God’s Creation, sisters and brothers on the Way, let us remember with Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all . . .

May it be. Amen.

Bishop C. Joseph Sprague was assigned as Bishop of the Chicago Episcopal Area and the Northern Illinois Conference in 1996, and completed his term of service there upon retirement in 2004. Sprague served in the episcopacy after 27 years as a pastor and seven years as an ecumenical officer. He is known for combining biblical scholarship, personal piety, preaching and teaching with social justice ministries.

Posted or updated: 5/15/2017 12:00:00 AM