[Invite people to write their fear about climate change. Read a few of these aloud. Put them in a bowl on the altar and give them to God.]
When Nehemiah hears that his beloved Jerusalem has been sacked, he sits down and weeps for days. He grieves deeply. That is a normal reaction. He prays and fasts, trying to discern what God would have him do about this situation. That is also a normal reaction: to spend time turning inward, turning toward God, and discerning an appropriate response.
The matter is so important to him that he takes a leave from his job as cupbearer to the king of Persia so that he can travel to Jerusalem. Riding on an animal, he inspects the city walls by night. Enormous stones that had been in place for decades or even centuries were strewn on the ground. At one narrow spot the wall is so wrecked that Nehemiah can’t even bring the animal alongside but has to dismount and pick his way through the rubble.
The gates are burned. The beautiful wood pillars are black, the heavy doors, the bolts, turned to misshapen chunks of charcoal. The devastation is heartbreaking.
The people who remain in Jerusalem seem overwhelmed and immobilized. So much has been destroyed, so many people killed outright or hauled away against their will. The survivors live paralyzed by fear of their enemies and vulnerable to attack without the city wall and gates to protect them.
Nehemiah mobilizes the people, who commit to the work not just for their individual benefit but for the common good. Nehemiah later lists by name and by family all who worked on the wall and the gates, and which sections they restored. Their enemies find out about the restoration work in process and determine to attack, which means that the workers carry construction materials in one hand and weapons in the other. And they get it done.
And then consider Noah. At age 600 he receives word from God that God is tired of humans messing up creation and is just going to wipe out the whole endeavor and start over. To prepare for the disaster that is coming, and following God’s instructions, Noah builds this enormous ark, gathers pairs of animals, and puts them inside, along with his own family. Surely, like Nehemiah, Noah and his family must be grieving deeply for all that will be lost. But they don’t sit still and wallow. They don’t get overwhelmed at the enormity of the tasks before them. They prepare in every possible way for what is to come. And building such an enormous ark must take a long time. There are no power tools, and at 600 years old, Noah doesn’t move as quickly as he did at 300. But he and his family manage to save not just themselves but representatives of all creatures. They work for the benefit of all species—for the common good.
As you no doubt know, yesterday was Earth Day. We know climate change has put the planet in a dire situation. We hear it on the news with alarming frequency: floods, hurricanes, tornados, glaciers melting, the Arctic melting, the Antarctic melting, Greenland melting, the polar vortex bringing freezing weather to Texas, a year’s worth of rain falling in a day, 100-year storms coming every few years, temperatures shifting up and down from their normal ranges, wildfires, droughts, climate refugees. It is overwhelming. A normal reaction to all this news is to plug our ears, turn off the TV, get off the computer—to block it out and pretend that it doesn’t affect us. Or we may get depressed, paralyzed by fear like the survivors living in Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day.
Like Nehemiah, we see destruction around us and must consider what to do. Like Noah, we understand that things are about to get worse, and we need to prepare—not just for ourselves, but for the common good.
Noah is called to build an escape ship to weather the destruction of the planet and then start afresh. Nehemiah is called to rebuild and restore, to empower a traumatized people.
What are we called to in such a time as this?
I believe we are called to live in hope. To build hope, to cultivate it. This is not a flimsy, passive hope, as in we hope that our leaders will do the right things to stop climate change. Rebecca Solnit writes,
Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.... To hope is to give yourself to the future—and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable. [Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.]
There are a million ways to build hope. And hope needs to be built on the truth.
We do not look to the fossil fuel companies for truth. Their own studies, back as far as the 1970s and 1980s, told them that climate change was an existential threat caused by the very fossil fuels that paid their salaries. They buried those studies and hired pseudoscientists to sow seeds of doubt about climate change. As a result, the U.S. is the only country with a sizable population that doubts climate change is real.
At our Earth Day film on Friday evening, we heard one man from BP say that fossil fuel companies need to become carbon capture companies. We can hope that there are plenty of others like him in the fossil fuel industry, but the actions we see instead suggest that these companies are hell-bent on squeezing every last drop out of the planet even at the cost of our own species and many others species that are going extinct by the day.
Yesterday I attended an online UCC Earth Day summit focused on Minnesota, so a number of the examples I’m about to lift up are from that state. For instance, an Indigenous woman from Honor the Earth in northern Minnesota said that Enbridge, an oil company from Canada, drilled under the Mississippi headwaters in June 2021 to build a pipeline. In the process, Enbridge spilled toxins into the water that killed the fish and gave rashes to anyone who stepped in it. Back when I was giving environmental justice workshops in Minnesota, we met with Honor the Earth people and heard about this proposed pipeline project, which Honor the Earth was fighting tooth and nail. We wrote letters to the Minnesota authorities asking that they deny the permits for this pipeline or at least reroute it away from pristine lakes on Native reservations that depend on the wild rice in those lakes. And of course the wild rice needs clean water. So I am grieving to learn that, as predicted, Enbridge stomped onto the scene and left destruction in its wake. It is now time to clean, to rebuild, to restore, like Nehemiah.
If we’re going to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the fossil fuel industry will have to abandon assets worth about $100 trillion. They will have to leave that much fossil fuel in the ground and walk away. That’s a lot of money! No wonder they are working hard to avoid facing the reality of the situation.
So we do not look to fossil fuel companies to do the right thing of their own accord. We cannot count on the major banks to steer clear of this mess, either. Since the Paris climate accord in December 2015, knowing that fossil fuels cause climate change and that we need to be transitioning to sustainable energy as quickly as possible, four major U.S. banks—Bank of America, Chase, Citibank, and Wells Fargo—have funded fossil fuel infrastructure projects to the tune of over $1 trillion. Infrastructure projects for an industry that we need to abandon, not build out. I’m sure these banks would happily point us toward all the green projects they fund as well. But they have given their souls over to the making of money at all costs.
And yet somehow we are to live in hope? Where do we find that hope? Analyah Schlager, a 28-year-old who works with youth and one of the speakers at yesterday’s UCC Earth Day Summit said, “Every day is an opportunity to rewrite the narrative—not by power or might, but by spirit. That’s what gives me hope.” [Analyah Schlager.] Notice how active her hope is: We get to rewrite the narrative. The story isn’t over yet. It depends on us for a positive outcome.
So here are some reasons to have hope:
The Minnesota legislature voted this year to make the state 100% carbon-free by 2040. This legislation is among the five strongest in the U.S. This law requires decarbonizing the electricity sector and paying prevailing wages to the workers. It prioritizes in-state jobs. Getting this law passed was a five-year push by people who live in hope, which means they take action. People of faith were often at the center of these efforts. They had thousands of one-on-one conversations, they strategized, they built teams, they held retreats, they canvassed, they visited their legislators, they staffed phone banks. Out of their grief for what is being lost, and their understanding of the truth of the situation, and their love for this planet, and their hope for a good outcome, they kept working to pass this bill. They did not give up hope. And their hope has now become reality.
Mayflower UCC in Minneapolis is a church that lives in hope. Dwight Wagenius, the Community Minister, says, “The response to climate distress is community.” And the Team Lead Minister, Sarah Campbell, says, “When you are doing the work, you are so hopeful.” That church has installed 200 solar panels, switched their lighting to LEDs, and made their HVAC system energy efficient. Their goal is to be carbon neutral by 2030, and they are well on their way. Sarah Campbell says they are considering changing their baptismal vows to include a promise that this congregation will do everything in its power to save Mother Earth for the baby being baptized, and for that baby’s children and children’s children. That is a congregation that lives in hope, and out of that hope, it takes action. It does everything it can, like Noah, to build an ark to the future.
This summer, the UCC will be distributing postcards with art submitted by close to 1,000 UCC youth. We will get some of these postcards. The goal is to write to our legislators and other elected officials about climate-friendly legislation that we want them to support. The EPA, for example, will be reviewing 10 rules that regulate pollution, including coal ash, lead, and mercury. You can bet that industries are leaning hard on the EPA to relax standards. We have the opportunity to flood the EPA with postcards encouraging stronger standards. They will need to hear from us. We have a hope-filled role to play.
In 2021, Bill McKibben, who helped found 350, created a new organization called Third Act. This new group is aimed at people 60 and over—those of us in the third act of our lives. Because it turns out that about 70% of the wealth in this country is controlled by people in that age group. I once preached about what we can all do to fight climate change, and someone came up to me afterward and said, “Yes, but I think my days of riding a bike are over.” And I agreed. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have investments, both as individuals and as a congregation. Some years ago, after the UCC passed a resolution about transitioning off of fossil fuels, this congregation shifted its endowment funds into new funds that screened out fossil fuel companies. A few years later we changed our bank account to a bank that does not invest in fossil fuel infrastructure projects. We as individuals can do the same.
On March 21 of this year, thousands of people in their third act of life showed up outside of the banks that invest in fossil fuel infrastructure to rally, sing songs, protest—and cut up their bank cards. These protests took place all over the country, including right here on Capitol Hill. I was there, along with several hundred others. Bank of America closed for the day to avoid dealing with us.
This Tuesday, I will be back up at the Bank of America on Broadway in the early afternoon with a group of people telling this bank branch to tell their bosses that we want Bank of America to stop funding fossil fuel projects. If you feel called to join me, that can happen—the more the merrier.
Here are other things we can do to live in hope and love:
Eat less meat. Eating plants has a much lower carbon footprint than eating meat.
Take the bus, light rail, bike. Get an electric vehicle. Walk. Carpool.
Fly less. Air travel has a high carbon footprint.
Let your legislators know that climate change is a high priority for you. Thank them if they did something in this session to support a sustainable planet.
Make your house as energy efficient as possible.
Turn the thermostat down and put on a sweater.
The Inflation Reduction Act provides 30% incentives on solar panels. If you’re in a position to do so, put solar panels on your roof.
Eat with the seasons and from the farmers’ markets. Much of our food supply chain stretches clear to Mexico and South America. When we eat locally, our food doesn’t travel as far and has a lower carbon footprint.
The technology exists for the planet to get off of fossil fuels in time to make a difference, but there is no time to lose. Like Noah, we must be preparing for what is to come. Like Nehemiah, we are called to rebuild after disasters. You may recall that after Hurricane Katrina, churches sent work groups to New Orleans to help. My mother, who knew nothing about construction, went and tore out moldy drywall and had a great time. After Hurricane Maria clobbered Puerto Rico, some of us from the Northwest went down to paint and make houses livable again.
Let us be people who value the truth, who love our neighbors, who grieve what is lost, who cultivate hope, and who work in community to create the world we want to see—to rewrite the narrative every day. It will take all of us, pushing hard, participating however we are able. In the work there is grief, and out of that grief there is hope. Let us commit to the common good with hope, with love, and with joy.
We wrote our deepest fears about climate change and put them on the altar. As we pledge to live in hope, let us pray.
We give to you our greatest fears about climate change.
Help us to face the truth of how our world is changing.
Help us to grieve all that is being lost, but not to get stuck in that grief.
Out of that grief, give us the active hope to rewrite the narrative, to rebuild, to prepare, to transition.
In the face of greed and hate, teach us to live with resilience and love.
May we be builders of an ark to the future
for our children, our children’s children, and all of your creation.