Called to vulnerability – Intended for intimacy
Sermon for Earth Day / Integrity of Creation Sunday
David R. Weiss – April 22, 2018 (Earth Day) – St. Paul’s UCC
It’s not my parents’ world anymore. They’re both still alive—in their early 80’s. But this is no longer the world they grew up in. It’s barely my world anymore, for that matter. People my age and older, we live on a planet increasingly unlike the one of our youth.
But my daughter, Susanna, was born into a world altogether different than the one my parents knew. She 22, and within her lifetime—in fact, just since she was a toddler, she’s lived through all eighteen of the hottest years on this planet since 1880.
Why “since 1880”? That’s the year there were finally enough accurate temperature reports from around the world to calculate a true “average global temperature.” Since then we’ve kept very precise records. And according to those records, out of the past 138 years, every one of the hottest eighteen years has happened during Susanna’s lifetime.
I’ll read them off, because I want you to FEEL the weight of this heat. Susanna was born in 1996. The hottest 18 years since 1880 have been 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. It’s possible—in fact, it’s likely—that for the rest of her life, she’ll only ever add to that collection, year by year.
I’m going to be blunt. We face an APOCALYPSE. Not the once-and-for-all “end of the world,” but, true to its biblical meaning, the ending of oneworld—and the beginning of another. The world that we will bequeath to our children is notthe world we were born into. That world… is no more.
And while we measure the threat in temperature degrees, it isn’t just the heat. It’s the whole set of cascading consequences. Here’s just a small sampling:
As polar ice melts, sea levels rise, permanently flooding many coastlines, displacing tens of millions of people, as well as the industries, economies, and ecosystems found there.
Increasing carbon dioxide in the air drives ocean acidification, which, in turn, harms coral, shellfish, and plankton—the very infrastructure of the ocean ecosystem.
And warming oceans make stronger hurricanes, greater storm intensity, more flooding in some areas and increased drought and wildfires in others.
The ripple effects will fan out through human societies and wildlife communities. Some regions will see gains in agriculture, but overall crop yields will drop—even as population continues to rise. Whole ecosystems will shift . . . and sometimes shatter. By the time my grandchildren reach my age up to one third of all plant and animals species alive today will face extinction.
And nearly all the consequences of climate change will fall first and hardest on those least able to adapt: the poor. Well, animals, plants, ecosystems—and the poor.
The more I learn about this, the more I want to say to my own daughter, to all of my six children and nine grandchildren, I AM SO SORRY. Because we did this.
Not me, personally. And not my generation alone. But we humans, mostly in the West (although the rest of the world is rushing to emulate us . . . with a vengeance)—we humans did this.
Our economic systems and industrial structures were put in place over the last couple of centuries, but the impact of our unrelentingly acquisitive human society is spiraling upward. Scientists report that in just the last 50 years—less than my lifetime—human activity has warmed the planet more—in these past five decades!—than in any … 1000-year period … since the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.
I’m not exaggerating when I say we face an apocalypse.
So on this Integrity of Creation Sunday, I ask, how do we do theology—how do we think about God (and ourselves)—on a dangerously warming planet …in a time of apocalypse? And how does that spur faithful action in response to climate change?
These are—quite honestly—the pressing questions of our lifetimes.
We’ll die before we have fully answered them. But the welfare of coming generations—that’s our children and grandchildren and beyond—and the welfare of all beings for whom Earth is home, hinges on our answering them as faithfully as we can.
I’ll offer three guiding insights and briefly suggest how they can frame our actions.
The Genesis creation accounts are notpoor (or even primitive) attempts at science; they’re profound attempts at truth, which is why they’re worth our attention still today. The Latin phrase imago Dei comes from the tale in Genesis 1, where, as we just heard, God fashions us—human beings—in God’s own image.
People have debated for ages exactly what constitutes this “image of God,” whether our capacity for tool-making or language or reason or something else.
But the core Truth in the tale is this: somehow the creative impulse of the universe is reflected in us. Whether you conceive of that Impulse as a supernatural personal God or as the purposeful energy behind the primeval fireball, the creation story tells us that we carry an echo of That which birthed the cosmos in our souls. And in this moment of impending apocalyptic climate chaos, that truth is worth holding onto.
And yet, just how we understand imago Dei does make all the difference. How we imagine the God whose image we bear undeniably shapes how we relate to the planet. Across history we’ve tended to presume we image God by exercising power over the world around us—often over each other as well.
As my second insight, I propose that imago Dei is about Vulnerability.
We often look right past it, but the Bible portrays a vulnerable God. Yes, God certainly exercises power at times, but God chooses vulnerability—again and again. Look at the company God chooses to keep: second-born sons, enslaved people, slow-tongued leaders, women, Gentiles, and awkwardly outcast prophets.
These choices open God to a depth of emotion we rarely connect with divinity: God feels anguish at the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt; later, betrayal by their infidelity; then sorrow at their exile in Babylon. God even feels compassion for the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah. It might overstate it to call God an emotional wreck, but the God of the Hebrew Bible chooses to be whole not by avoiding vulnerability but by embracing it.
Jesus continues that pattern; he incarnates it. It culminates on the cross, where the vulnerability of both Jesus and God reaches a crescendo, but it’s at the very heart of his ministry all along. In daring to touch lepers and others whose illness has set them apart, Jesus heals by stepping into the vulnerability of others. By eating with outcasts in a society where table companions were carefully monitored and could cost you your reputation, Jesus’ mealtimes are choices to be vulnerable.
In calling us to love our enemies, to meet them with creative nonviolence rather than brute force, Jesus’ approach to social change is to become vulnerable. And in using his parables about the “kingdom of God” to turn our notions of kingship inside out and upside down, Jesus’ invites us to imagine a very different way of being imago Dei.
So I say, we image God in our willingness to be vulnerable. To be sure, vulnerability is one inescapable facet of our finitude. But when we embrace it as part of our vocation, we lean into it . . . with holy zeal. In the face of climate change—a fierce tutorial in vulnerability if there ever was one!—our readiness to embrace vulnerability as vocation will be crucial.
Which leads to my third insight: that truly, from Eden onward, we were—intended for Intimacy.
We have a kinship with creation that we have not yet fully acknowledged, but it’s been true for as long as long as human beings have been (and longer). We live thanks to the nearly countless creatures with whom we share an unimaginable intimacy. My relatively healthy human body is home to approximately 100 trillion microbes. These tiny critters are NOT ME. They live in and on me, aiding in digestion, supporting my immune system, and more. Some just call me home, keeping me company without ever making me sick. 100 trillion of them.
In fact, because their cells are so much smaller than human cells, right here, standing in front of you, there are more cells that are not David than cells that are David. Altogether, these intimate neighbors of mine weigh about seven pounds. That’s a lot of “not me” that is entirely interwoven with me.
I am my own ecosystem. And so are you. Both theologically and scientifically we are intended for intimacy. So I am convinced that the path forward for us, people of faith on a finite and fairly fragile planet, is by way of deepened intimacy: with each other, with our companion creatures, and with Earth itself.
To conclude: we stand on the precipice of a genuine apocalypse. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate and with such inertia that even the best technological gains will only mitigate the damage—and even then not soon enough for many of the least of these, our brothers and sisters and our companion creatures here on Earth.
So, as we face the prospect of life on this fundamentally different planet, as part of an ecosystem we’ve heated in ways that will ripple—and rip—through creation’s very fabric, HOW DO WE ACT—as individuals and as communities of faith—in a time of climate change? We can only really answer this question as we unfold our life … together.
But I believe if we remember that we carry the image of a vulnerable God in our very being, and that we were always intended for intimacy… across the whole web of creation, these insights can guide action that is faithful.
This will include opening ourselves to sacred lament. We won’t change the patterns of living that have wreaked havoc on our planet until we allow ourselves to feel—and grieve—deeply for the damage already done.
It will also include summoning forth sacred hope. We must lament, but we’ll only be able to endure that if we have hope that runs deeper even than our grief (and our grief must be nearly boundless).
Finally, faithful action, framed by vulnerability and intimacy, will include both mundane and daring innovation such as our Earthwise team has been pursuing for a decade now, . and ALSO prophetic resistance, as we seek new ways to honor the web of life—and bear new risks in defending it with love.
Called to vulnerability. Intended for intimacy. There is no work more worthy of our best faith and our best action. May we pursue it . . . with joy.
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Thank you for these beautiful, urgent words. I especially love the idea that, “we carry an echo of That which birthed the cosmos in our souls.” Wonderful fodder for mediation.