Climate Change: Lament, Repentance, Renewal, Action

A sermon given at St Michael’s Kelburn,
Sunday, 8 March 2020
Psalm 69; Isaiah 24:4–13; John 3:1–17

Kia ora koutou

Tim the vicar has asked me to address the theme of ‘climate lament’ this morning. He last week introduced us to that typical structure of lament Psalms: turn, complain, boldly ask, trust.

But as I read a bunch of the Psalms of lament this week, I wondered whether lament was exactly the right category for us to use to think about climate change.

Image for post
Image for post

Now this might be more about the way I personally bring together the world of the Psalms and the contemporary world as I experience it. Maybe as you heard and spoke Psalm 69 today, parts of it particularly communicated to you. There are such big emotions in there — you can find so many different states of mind reflected in the Psalms, they’re capacious — part of why they’ve lasted for 3000 years, I suppose.

But the typical psalm of lament expresses feelings like this: God! I am (or we are) being severely oppressed. I’m surrounded by wicked enemies. But I am innocent! I am righteous. I don’t deserve it. I have stuck to the narrow path. But I’m powerless. Now God you need to act as the righteous judge you’ve said you are — you need to deal with my enemies! Vindicate us — for the sake of your own reputation.

I asked myself, are we really in that position? Are we in fact oppressed? Are we powerless? Are we innocent?

I wondered if maybe repentance might be a more straightforwardly fitting category for making Biblical sense of the climate situation.

Thinking in the very big picture, broad-brush-stroke sort of way… In the Biblical narration of reality, right back at the start of the Bible in Genesis 2, God forms a human being out of dirt, puts the human into a garden, and the human’s job is ‘to till it and to keep it’. Or you might say to be a gardener and guardian of the garden.

Image for post
Image for post
Modified from source

If we think about the New Zealand garden, historically you might say maybe we’ve been good at the gardening, but not good at the guarding.

Our ancestors were very thorough in clearing away the ancient forests that used to blanket so much of the country. Those forests with all their complexity and richness, we’ve reduced to much simpler systems that support many fewer species.

Since humans arrived in New Zealand, almost 50 species of native bird have died out entirely. And right now many thousands more are not looking very well ‘guarded’ at all.

So looking at things in that very broad-brush-stroke perspective, thinking about ‘What is the human task with respect to Aotearoa’s land and creatures?’ I think we have to say, we are not innocent, we have sinned. Repentance seems appropriate.

When it comes more specifically to climate change and emissions — it’s also no secret that New Zealand is not doing well.

Image for post
Image for post

Right now our country is on track to have 20% higher emissions by 2030 than we had in 2005, despite our Paris accord pledges. Meanwhile, Ford Rangers are our best-selling vehicle. As a society, for a multitude of reasons, we just don’t seem to be playing our part.

Image for post
Image for post

Somehow there has been a lack of vision, of costly action.

For an illuminating contrast, we only need to look at the emissions story in the UK, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. There, CO2 emissions are now back to 1888 levels. I was sure that had to be a typo when I first read it, but it’s fair dinkum.

So that’s why I think repentance is necessary. A change of heart. I don’t see that we’re in an innocent position. Nor are we, broadly speaking again, oppressed; we’re not at the bottom of the heap.

The historian of global Christianity, Philip Jenkins, repeatedly makes the point that the Bible in its original context is largely written to poor people, people who understand crop failure, famine, lives torn apart by war. You can hear traces of that in our reading from Isaiah. Following Jenkins’ lead, I wanted to know how Christians from poorer parts of the world talk about climate change.

I came across a story from the Philippines about an environmental conference there that took place at the end of February. Catholic Bishop Gerardo Alminaza addressed the conference in this way:

Image for post
Image for post
Bishop Gerardo Alminaza leading a campaign for “Clean and Affordable Electricity”

“We acknowledge that our generation somehow failed in a lot of ways. And we need to really take responsibility as well and really ask for forgiveness not only from the young generation, of the generation yet to come, but also from the rest of God’s creation that we have abused,” he said.

That country is particularly vulnerable to climate change: it’s already very prone to cyclones, and much of the country is very low-lying, and most of the 104 million Filipinos live on the coasts. The average income there is about 1/15th of ours, and 86% of them are Christians.

I was interested that Bishop Gerardo framed the issue in terms of apology and asking for forgiveness.

A little like that confession in our Psalm (v5): You, God, know my foolishness; my guilt is not hidden from you.

But the Bishop didn’t stop there… he went on to call on the Filipino Department of Energy to stop building coal-fired power stations, on banks to stop funding them, and on his own Catholic church to use its investments to speed up renewable energy projects and get out of coal ones.

Image for post
Image for post

I think this is a really Biblical pattern — repentance leading to the works of repentance. A change of heart, taking responsibility for where we have sinned, and concrete acts that demonstrate the change.

For our particular context, come along Wednesday 8 April when Jonathan Boston I’m sure will give us much more detail on the kind of responses appropriate to the New Zealand situation. I have a hunch they’ll feature cars, cows & trees.

True repentance leads to action, but it should also lead to renewal, joy and love.

It’s on that note I want to change gears, and turn to the reading from John.

Image for post
Image for post

Like so much of John’s Gospel, there are lots of layers, and a sense of inexhaustible depth.

Nicodemus, a Jewish leader of the Pharisee party, comes to Jesus secretly at night. He’s intrigued by this man who is performing miraculous signs, and who seems to have God with him. He wants to understand what it’s all about.

Jesus answers with the famous phrase “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

I gather there is a deliberate ambiguity in the Greek, so that “born again” could just as easily be, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from above.”

This is a brand new life Jesus is calling people to. A renewed life.

When Nicodemus misunderstands, Jesus says “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”.

Just a couple of chapters earlier, John the Baptist has been baptising people, including Jesus, in the Jordan River — the place where Israel first entered the promised land, and really became a nation. “Born of water” — this is Jesus forming a new people group around himself. “Born from above” and “born … of the Spirit” — this new life, resurrection life, comes straight from God.

Jesus goes on to say, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Jesus is referring to that strange episode you might know from the book of Numbers, when the Israelites had escaped Egypt, but not yet entered the Promised Land. Many Israelites were bitten by venomous snakes, and God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Anyone who looked at the snake lifted up recovered from the poison.

How do we get this brand new life from above? By truly seeing Jesus, by properly recognising him — high and lifted up; both in the sense of lifted up on the cross, but also lifted up as the King of Creation.

I see this as another take on repentance — changing one’s mind about how the world works… but in this case it’s less motivated by a godly sorrow that’s turning away from sin. Ultimately it’s motivated by love.

The reading ended with “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Image for post
Image for post

At least one New Testament translator (David Bentley Hart) renders world as cosmos, which gives the sense of the whole creation being loved by God, and the whole creation being redeemed through the Son of God.

The invitation here is to join in God’s love of this world, to see its good future mysteriously already present in the person of Jesus, to join in his resurrection life, and to boldly act from that vision.

I guess I want to say that rather than anchoring our feelings of well-being or despair in the latest stats or headlines about the climate, the environment, or for that matter the latest news on Coronavirus — we should tie our sense of well-being to that ‘eschatological vision’ of a loved and redeemed world, and act faithfully out of that.

In that spirit, I want to give you all one small option for a ‘work of repentance’ in the context of the climate. Have a read of the flyer that you got with your pew sheet. If you feel moved to participate, that would be great. Talk to me with any questions or criticisms after the service.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Image for post
Image for post
Those calculators: Toitu & Ekos

Looking for a bright green Jesus politics

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store