STEWARDSHIP OF OUR PLANET
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, July 18, 2021
Yesterday evening, I drove through the winding mountain roads between Lynchburg and Buena Vista in a thunderstorm. I’d just officiated at the wedding of our own Haley Thompson to Davis Spurlin in a lovely antebellum estate in Forest, Virginia, in an area known for Thomas Jefferson’s summer home, Poplar Forest. It had been a beautiful celebration, and as I got in the car to head home, Google Maps told me that there was a significant storm approaching from the west. So I prepared my mind for a mountain downpour.
Now a summer thunderstorm is not an unusual thing. Indeed, the wedding of young people raised in this Fellowship is a significantly rarer event. And as someone who grew up on Illinois flat land in an old farmhouse surrounded by silver maples and cornfields, one of my favorite things in the summer was being on the open front porch during a thunderstorm. I would have been out in the yard getting drenched by the storm if my mother had allowed it. Indeed, she allowed me out on the porch during the torrent only because the house was well equipped with lightning rods. But I was aware of something yesterday evening in the mountains that was different from my childhood: global warming and climate change have already resulted each year in a greater number of extreme weather events of greater severity than used to be normal.
For more than forty years, it has been widely known as settled science that human practices of consumption of resources around us is doing something to the planet on a scale and with a speed unprecedented in human memory. Not that much of the human progress our way of life depends on hasn’t always been destructive. We’re talking about a sweep across this country that razed primeval forests, drained primeval wetlands, purposely killed off massive native populations of bison in order to destroy traditional ways of life of the original inhabitants of this land, sport hunting bird populations to extinction, fishing key species to near, polluting the land, the air, and the sea in a push to economic growth and wealth, the importation of invasive species both by accident and as part of an attempt to terraform this land to a greater resemblance to lands left behind. We’re talking about economic histories that treated the mass of humanity no better than the surrounding resources. Why would we expect that a society that enslaved fellow humans for economic expediency and that committed genocide on other populations as part of the control and theft of this land – why would we expect that such a society would be concerned with sustainability when dominance was the normative history. And in contemporary times, the shape of our economy and the expectation of growing comfort and convenience in our lives has led to the growing, intractable unsustainability conundrum we find ourselves in.
And so, with our sustainability and climate crisis fast approaching a point of no return, in June of 2017, after a year of preparatory work, we voted to adopt a new mission statement that included a goal and promise to: “Expand our commitment to the stewardship of our planet for future generations through personal and congregational action.”
The word “expand” is key to this formulation. This congregation was already engaged in reasonable, positive efforts like recycling. We were already thinking about achieving greater efficiency in our choice of light bulbs. We’d been having conversations for a long time already that could finally come to fruition after our capital campaign three years ago raised the money necessary to replace loose windows and to insulate the attic in Chalice House. The generous gift of a member who chose to be anonymous allowed the installation of solar panels sufficient to nearly eliminate net energy consumption in this Fellowship Hall. A key component in our program of improvements was a concern for sustainability and energy efficiency that rested on the philosophical foundation of a commitment to ongoing viability for future generations.
The hard truth, though, is that we are a small group of individuals in small towns. Our consumption is a miniscule part of our society’s pattern of consumption and exploitation of resources. We never used enough electricity that our own energy production would play a very big role in solving the larger problem. The very necessary, praise-worthy actions we have taken are not enough to turn the tide and put us on sound footing for our own benefit. Indeed, the systemic benefit our amazing solar panels can offer is communication of our values to the surrounding community. From the beginning of our solar project, we have articulated the importance of the visibility of the panel array to all traffic passing on 14th Street. Through this installation, we communicate to our neighbors and others passing by the fact that renewable energy is not something that can only happen in massive installations in other places but is feasible on a modest scale in our own community. We’ve already had Tree Streets neighbors express an interest in maybe doing their own conversion to solar at home.
Though it was never a formally adopted program of activity in the congregation, the ecological concerns of many in the congregation led to their action against the proposed pipeline through various local and regional organizations. Perhaps in clearer ways that in some other situations, actions against the pipeline led to clarity on ways ecological unsustainability always have greater impact and do more immediate harm to the lives and livelihood of people already marginalized and oppressed: the poor and communities of color. We saw this in pipeline plans that considered permanent disruption to the historic African American community at Union Hill, a community in Buckingham County that was founded by freed slaves after the American Civil War.
And this points up something important: in order to achieve the goal inherent in this part of our mission statement, we can’t just do the good and vital things we are already doing. We are small enough that the impact of our communication holds far greater potential than our action changing windows and adding insulation and solar panels will in itself. We have to see things systemically. We have to look for the political and economic action that we can do with others, the ways we can change the equation beyond what changing our own habits and our own consumption will ever achieve alone.
Yesterday evening’s thunderstorm in the mountains required some care in driving through it, though the greater danger actually came when the sun emerged and turned the pavement into a mirror, shining directly into my eyes. But the storm reminded me of a poem by Hilda Raz titled “Some Questions about the Storm” structured as a dialogue between two voices.
What’s the bird ratio overhead?
Zero: zero. Maybe it’s El Niño?
The storm, was it bad?
Here the worst ever. Every tree hurt.
Do you love trees?
Only the gingko, the fir, the birch.
Yours? Do you name your trees?
Who owns the trees? Who’s talking
You presume a dialogue. Me and You.
Yes. Your fingers tap. I’m listening.
Will you answer? Why mention trees?
When the weather turned rain into ice, the leaves failed.
So what? Every year leaves fail. The cycle. Birth to death.
In the night the sound of cannon, and death everywhere.
What did you see?
Next morning, roots against the glass.
Who’s talking now and in familiar language? Get real.
What’s real is the broken crown. The trunk shattered.
Was that storm worse than others?
Yes and no. The wind’s torque twisted open the tree’s tibia.
Fool. You’re talking about vegetables. Do you love the patio tomato? The Christmas cactus?
Yes. And the magnolia on the roof, the felled crabapple, the topless spruce.
There are so any questions to ask after every storm. The biggest is, “How can we participate in changing an unsustainable system? How can we communicate our values in ways that can facilitate real change so that future generations may not merely survive but flourish in a healthy world?
Amen and Blessed Be.