The Challenge of Climate Change – Charles Rush (9/21/14)

Psalm 24:1; Psalm 8
It is said that the single most influential photograph of the twentieth century was one taken of the Earth from the Moon. It just changed our perspective and it started in us a subtle but significant sense that we are all citizens of the planet Earth.
Now that we can place ourselves more accurately in our galaxy and our galaxy in the context of other galaxies, we are so much more aware of our own insignificance. Psalm 8 could have been written by a modern astrophysicist when it says ‘O God, who are we mere mortals that you would take any thought of us at all?’ Our universe has gotten so much bigger that we can experience a kind of vertigo as to how tiny and peripheral our whole existence is in the big scheme of things.
At the same time, we have an expanding sense of responsibility for the earth, largely because we have the technological ability to make such a huge difference. As Psalm 8 puts it in the very next phrase, “And yet, you have adorned us humans as just less than gods.” It is our capacity to work in coordination that makes us such an indomitable threat compared to all the other higher mammals.
Collectively, we not only started hunting together, we created higher civilization. And higher civilization itself became a collective force that has become almost a life unto itself so that today nearly the entire sweep of learning over the past hundred thousand years that our species has developed on this earth, is available in a few keystrokes on the internet. “Julius Caesar’s wife? Answer: “Pompeia, granddaughter of Sulla”, and she has her own entry on Wikipedia.
Buckminster Fuller observed that the rate of knowledge doubled approximately every century until 1900. By mid-century, it doubled every 25 years. At the moment, we estimate that our total human knowledge base doubles approximately every year.
Right now, we are also living through this period of compounding efficiency. You think of an idea, “I need a cover for my barbecue grill now that the fall is here?” You look it up, find your exact model, order, pay by punching your credit card and it is delivered to your back porch from California in 2 days. 20 years ago, this was not possible. Just think of the coordinated efficiency it takes to make that happen each and every day. It makes our world speed up and it brings faraway places into our immediate contact.
Sometimes when I’ve visited the investment banks in New York and watched the high-speed trading and I reflect on how broad and deep our inner-connectedness really is world-wide, you can almost start to envision humanity as one collective entity, this enormous colony of humans working in tandem to produce this huge collective impact upon our world.
Our efficiency has made us powerful and our power has made us successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. There were approximately 330 million people on earth when Jesus was alive at the height of the Roman empire. When I was born there were less than 3 billion people on the earth. Today, there are approximately 7.1 billion now, and we project that there will be over 9 billion people on the earth by the end of my lifetime- even as our experts predict that the world will eventually achieve a stable population of about half that number.
In just the span of a couple centuries, we have suddenly found ourselves with a moral dilemma our ancestors could not have imagined possible, dealing with the unintended consequences of our own wild success as a species.
Elizabeth Kohlbert (of the New Yorker) made a trip to Panama to visit Professor Dan Wake and see for herself the disappearing frogs. Professor Wake’s graduate students reported a sharp decline in the frogs they were studying in that area, which was troubling because similar reports were coming in from Costa Rica, Ecuador, California, and Queensland, Australia.
Eventually, someone at the Washington Zoo managed to isolate a Chytrid fungus on the skin of these frogs, as it tuns out, a new species of fungus that prevents frogs and other amphibians from absorbing electrolytes through their skin, inducing a heart attack that kills them.
What is different today than in previous centuries, is the inner-connectedness of humans across the globe, so that a fatal fungus that develops in Panama can be spread to Ecuador via truck, to California via tourists, to Queensland, Australia via a business flight home. We are not exactly sure about the how and why that the frogs are being besieged but the point is that it is not because of any single thing that humans do but rather as a by-product of everything we do in toto. We are becoming predominantly impactful on our earth just lately.
It is estimated that at the time of Jesus, about 7% of the earth’s land was under cultivation for farming. Today, close to half of the earth’s land is used for agriculture. For a hundred thousand years, our ancestors worried about the dangers of the deep forests that covered Europe and our children’s stories were about kids that got lost and had to learn a valuable lesson in becoming found.
In the past century, we tipped the boat so that less than half of the Earth’s land mass is wilderness.
A few years ago, Professor Paul Crutzen was reflecting on all of this when he was at a scientific gathering and the Chairman was giving a paper in which he kept referring to the Holocene epoch. The Holocene epoch began at the end of the last ice age about 11,700 years ago and runs up to the present. Professor Crutzen suggested that the Holocene epoch was actually over. From now on, we need a new phrase to describe our era. He proposed ‘The Anthropocene’.
It is an acknowledgment that humans have transformed close to half of the world’s land surface; we’ve dammed or diverted more than half of the world’s rivers. The nitrogen from our fertilizers is now greater than that produced by the rest of the natural order. Humans take a third of the fish off our coastal waters. I could go on.
And Professor Crutzen was also concerned about human production of green house gases. He won his Nobel Prize for discovering that certain compounds (from methane and burning fossil fuels) actually widen the ozone hole that opens every year over Antarctica. Left unchecked, he predicted that this ozone depletion would significantly increase the global temperature.
In short, human impact on Earth is now so substantial that it deserves to be the predominant descriptor for our age. Drawing upon Professor Crutzen’s insights, we have tried to measure just how much carbon dioxide is the by-product of human civilization. At the moment, we estimate that we contribute about 9 billion tons a year. We also estimate that this number is growing at a 6% annual percentage rate.
Projecting back, we have estimated that since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, humans have added about 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere, a by-product of our advanced civilization.
Projecting forward, as you know, is a much more difficult task, fraught with speculation. Sea level rise, weirding weather trends, and species extinction are all predicted if this trend is left unchecked. How long that will take is quite complicated, subject to greater speculation in projection models. So there has grown up a whole cadre of people that love to poke fun at other people’s faulty models and make sport of them, some of them regularly published in the Wall Street Journal.
Poking partisan fun at the exaggeration of the environmental left aside, we are quite likely to live through a few significant climate changes in this century that will dramatically impact us. It is quite likely that Artic ice cap will continue to melt. It is quite likely that sea levels will rise. And it is quite likely that our oceans will increase in acidity enough to have big implications for our coral reefs around the world. What it means for our actual weather patterns, we can’t really say with any confidence, but since our biggest weather patterns are largely determined by ocean currents, the changes could be quite significant.
I don’t know if you have seen the time-lapse photography of James Balog, who has been photographing pictures of the retreating glaciers in the Artic. It occurred to him that he was watching something that the future might not ever see, these massive glacier fields, so he started taking pictures of them once a day. And then he put them together in a film so that you could see what is taking place if we could only zoom out a bit for a better perspective. The result was a steadily disappearing river, just a bit at a time, but pretty quickly retreating if you think in terms of decades and centuries.
Surely one of the biggest challenges that we will face as we try to get our mind around this challenge. Across the short span of our lives, quite naturally we would like to have all the creature comforts we can have and all of the perq’s of advanced civilization. Can we actually expand our imagination to try to think and act in ways that are longer and broader than our lifetime?
As the CEO of a major energy company put it to me, “Americans want to be 1) environmentally healthy and 2) they also want to drive their SUV from a climate controlled home to a climate controlled office and 3) they want to do it cheaply. I can give you two out of the three, pick two.”
The challenge of global warming, of developing an environmentally sustainable higher culture, is probably the broadest moral challenge we have ever faced as a species. Professor Sagan is right in his video that we used to open this reflection, the challenge is how we are going to live together on this one planet we all call home. Few people understand exactly how the disparate symptoms of global warming fit together and fewer people still have a wise idea of what our sustainable living will actually look like in the future. As with all of our biggest challenges, the most important variables in coping with the future problems have not yet been invented and some of them will be real game changers.
And this challenge ought to bring us together quite broadly progressives and conservatives, developed countries and undeveloped countries because we are seeking an arsenal of solutions rather than just a few and the actual productive change will require all of us to play a new role in the future. We all want to pass on to our children’s children the same experience of wonder and mystery that we first experienced in our encounters with nature.
I’m marching today in New York, not because I have all the answers. But because I want my grandsons to know that I intend to pass on to them a world as wonderful as the one I inherited. I want them to know that I am willing to make changes sooner rather than later. All of us want to evolve towards less pollution, less of a negative human impact on our climate. This is our one and only home and no one will come from outside to help us solve this. This is our challenge.
Oh God, who are we mortals that you would even consider us at all? Who are we that You would care for us? And yet You have endowed us so that we are just less than gods ourselves. You have crowned us with honor. You have made us responsible for the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish in the sea.
O God, your excellence courses throughout our huge universe. Amen

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.