Earth Day Sermon
April 16, 2023
Genesis 8:20 – 9:11
I don’t exactly recall at what age or grade they began. All I know is that I quickly learned to despise them. The dreaded, deplorable GROUP PROJECT!
Sometimes you could choose your own group.
Other times it was assigned by the teacher.
It didn’t matter – they were almost always pretty dysfunctional.
I got to wondering – do other people feel the same about Group Projects.
A quick query online tells me I am not alone in my disdain.
Syd received this text: “Can you just do all the work and sign our names. I hate this class anyways. But try to get us a B+ or an A-…like, just enough to show we care, but not too much where our teacher will expect it from us again. You’re a smart kid, you’ll figure it out.”
Chloe posted a screenshot of a text exchange with her partner:
“Hey Chloe! What’s the date for our presentation?”
“It was last Monday!”
This is my favorite though – Ashley posted her High School portrait with this caption:
“When I die, I want the people I did group projects with to lower me into the ground.
That way they can let me down one last time.”
Group projects are the worst.
They are intrinsically not fair.
There’s always somebody who simply will not finish their work, pull their weight, do their share.
Our reading today comes from the book of Genesis – it’s the tale-end of the Flood story. To set it up, God had had it up to here with humanity and wanted a do-over. So God pulled the ultimate Control-Alt-Delete and caused the earth to flood, drowning out all creatures who walked the earth, except for a re-starter set. We pick up the story just as Noah and his family have completed a 9-month cruise in the Ark with an entire Zoo’s worth of animals. Before we read, however, let us pray:
The heavens declare you glory, O God, and just one look out these windows demonstrates your vast creativity. And yet we still have a hard time hearing. Speak to us through these old stories that we might renew our efforts to care for this creation. Amen.
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’
In the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, there is a small island nation called Tuvalu, home to about 11,000 people. Tuvalu is about 10 square miles of dry land. Its elevation is a mere 6 feet above sea level.
As the climate crisis causes ocean levels to rise, Tuvalu is at risk of being the first populated island to completely disappear. Leaders in Tuvalu are faced with the terrible task of planning the relocation of their entire population. But where does one move an entire people? What happens when an independent, sovereign nation goes under-water?
Last October, UPC member Katie Sanford and I went to hear a presentation from Maina Talia, a Christian theologian and climate activist from Tuvalu. He shared with us that one of the barriers some of his people face in confronting the facts of climate change is this story about Noah.
Talia said that it is not at all uncommon to hear a fellow Tuvaluan say “I’m not worried – God promised never to flood the earth again.”
It is also not uncommon for a wave to crash across the entire width of the island, washing away homes and destroying crops and contaminating fresh water sources. The continents themselves may not be in danger, but Tuvalu is without a doubt in imminent threat of sinking.
The likely culprit is greenhouse gas emissions that are rapidly warming the planet.
Denying climate change is nothing new and it’s certainly not unique to Tuvalu. But what do you do when that denial is aided and abetted by Scripture?
Next Saturday is Earth Day and so today I want to look at this Noah story with ecological eyes.
Those Tuvaluans are right to note that the Flood story ends with a covenant – a promise between Creator and Creatures. And no doubt, God promises never to flood the earth again, but the covenant has some rather difficult truths embedded within it. Difficult truths about us – about humans.
Implicit in the Flood story is this assumption that, with a do-over, humans could be different…that humans would be better this time. But after annihilating nearly all life on the planet and starting over, God realizes that humans have not changed at all.
“…the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth,” God says. Ouch! That is a low opinion of who we are. That doesn’t make you want to list God as a reference on a job application. And if that’s not enough, God adds “the fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal, every bird, every fish.” That’s not flattering either, and yet the 600-plus species of vertebrate animals who have been driven to extinction does little to improve our case.
God has come to grips with the fact that we are not going to be very moral creatures and we are not going to be very responsible stewards.
If anything is going to change, it will have to be the heart of God. Destructive anger will not make anything better. God will need to find another way.
So God makes a promise: “I will never again destroy all flesh… I will never send a flood again…as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” Then comes the Rainbow as a reminder.
But take a closer look at that covenant language. God says: “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you” – That’s us humans – “and with every living creature that is with you…as many as came out of the ark.”
This is a three-way covenant.
Which makes this…a group project.
God will do God’s part and not destroy us.
God will do God’s part and not rashly exterminate all creatures.
But what about us?
In this group project –
Are we pulling our weight?
Are we doing our share?
If Maina Talia were here, or any Tuvaluan for that matter, I wouldn’t blame them at all for saying “You know – Group projects are the worst!” Because the people most affected by climate change are never the ones who directly contribute to climate change. The scales are horribly out of balance.
Bill McKibben is an environmental author and activist who talks about the Moral Math of climate change. Years ago he contracted Dengue fever in Bangaldesh. Dengue fever is a viral infection that has often been called “Breakbone fever.” It’s extremely painful.
The thing is, before the year 2000, Dengue fever was exceedingly rare in Bangladesh. The rising temperatures have made the climate infinitely more hospitable for mosquitoes who carry the virus.
As McKibben sat in a Bangladesh hospital ward, shivering through the fever alongside countless other poor, Bangladeshi patients, he thought “God, is this unfair. These people have done nothing to cause this.”
When the United Nations calculates carbon emissions by country, Bangaldesh generates practically none. The United States however, with only 4 percent of the world’s population, generates 25% of the world’s emissions. “If there are one hundred beds in that hospital,” McKibben reasons, “25 of them ought to be occupied by an American citizen.”
That’s what the moral math ought to be, but it’s not.
Instead, it’s one American and a whole lot of innocent victims.
Group Projects are intrinsically not fair.
So…what does one do to balance this moral math?
How do we begin to pull our weight in the group project that is creation care.
In 2006 the Presbyterian Church adopted and published a resolution called “The Power to Change.” In it, our denomination challenged Presbyterians individually and congregations collectively to move towards leading carbon neutral lives. The benchmarks include reducing our carbon footprint by 50% by the year 2030 and reaching for carbon neutrality by 2040.
This is an ambitious goal. It would require major shifts in our patterns of consumption. It would hold implications for our budget as we invest in renewable sources of energy and a building that is much more efficient. In short, it would require sacrifice.
Ultimately, the Session of the Church – our governing body – would have to decide whether we make a formal pledge to pursue the goal of carbon neutrality.
You should know, however, that this is already a principle our Property Committee considers as we make changes to the building. Even now they are investigating smart thermostats as part of an overall heating/cooling strategy that seeks to be much more efficient than the “It’s either On or Off” system that we have now.
And I need to say that we couldn’t even begin to explore something like this if not for your extremely generous support this past Stewardship season.
It’s also why our Earth care team prepared a series of classes to educate you on the many ways you, too, can take part in creation care. If you missed those, you can view the recordings on our website.
It’s why we compost and divert thousands of pounds of methane-producing waste away from landfills.
It’s why we’ll be hosting a local CSA – or Community Supported Agriculture project – with our own parking lot as a pick-up spot for Chapel Hill families to receive fresh produce that was grown using techniques that protects and replenishes our soil.
We even have an opportunity for you to get your hands dirty and help out at the Spring Forest farm where that produce is grown in Hillsborough next Saturday to observe Earth Day.
I know that all of these feel like such tiny, little gestures for such an enormous and overwhelming problem like climate change. And you’d be right to say that any one of us practicing any one of these alone will not have the impact needed to halt climate change, much less reverse it.
So let’s get clear about the goal. The goal isn’t to single-handedly save the planet.
Our goal is far more modest than that.
Let’s just try – to the best of our ability – to do our part in this group project.
Let’s remember that we have siblings in Christ on an island that is six feet above sea level in the Pacific Ocean and let’s pull our weight.
Let’s envision those hospital beds in Bangaldesh and remember that we have a responsibility to them and a responsibility to God.
Whenever we decide to purchase locally grown food or when we bring our compost to church or we do any of these small gestures, we remember all of those interconnections and the covenant that holds us all together.
God needed a reminder, too…that’s why the rainbow appears in the clouds when it rains – to remind God “Oh yeah, I made a promise to all of that down there and I must keep that promise.”
By the way, did you ever wonder why the Rainbow is the sign of the covenant made with Noah? I mean, apart from the fact that rainbows appear after it…rains!
Genesis actually doesn’t call it “The Rainbow,” but rather “the bow.”
God says “I have set my bow in the clouds…”
God’s reminder in the sky is in the shape of a bow – as in “Bow & Arrow” – a weapon of war.
More specifically, it’s in the shape of a bow that is at rest – an undrawn bow.
The bow in the sky reminds God to be at peace with creation.
Wouldn’t it be something if we were at peace with creation ourselves?
If every animal, bird and fish did not live in dread of us.
Wouldn’t that be something.