A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, April 22, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Psalm 24
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Happy Earth Day to all of you!  Happy 43rd Earth Day.

How many of you remember the first Earth Day, back in 1970?  I have a sneaky suspicion that west coast natives that are old enough to remember 1970 are more likely to remember the first Earth Day than those of us who grew up on the east coast.  I think this may be the case because the real impetuous for Earth Day was massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat from Wisconsin, realized that if he could harness the anti-war energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda.  Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media and he persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressional representative, to serve as his co-chair.  I guess bipartisanship worked in those days, and the first Earth Day was born.[1]

That first Earth Day helped lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and a flurry of bipartisan legislation to address pollution.  Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, and the Superfund law in 1980.[2]

My memories of Earth Day go back to 1971, the second Earth Day.  I remember my teacher, Mrs. Dunlea, telling us that Earth Day was coming on April 22nd and encouraging us to do something.  I remember thinking, “Hey, that’s almost my birthday.”

The issues of pollution were much more stark than they are now – thanks in large part to the fact that the political pressure created by those first Earth Days pushed the Congress into action.  Air pollution was triggering breathing problems.  Contaminated tap water was causing disease outbreaks and exposing people to cancer-causing chemicals.  Heck, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted, it actually caught on fire in 1969.[3]

I don’t think I was aware of all these problems then.  I do remember the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, encouraging us to put litter into trashcans and not the gutters of the streets.  “People start pollution.  People can stop it.”[4]  To my almost 10-year-old brain, that’s what pollution was.  Litter – and if we just picked up our trash, things would be better.  I hadn’t developed any biblical sense of our relationship with the earth.

I ran across something earlier this week that surprised me.  According to this author,[5] there is no word in the Hebrew scriptures for “nature.”  There’s a word for “creation,” but not for nature.  What we would call “nature,” the Hebrew scriptures call “creation.”  And if the forest and the seas and the meadows – and their inhabitant – are parts of creation, well, there has to be a creator, and that creator isn’t us.

Now, if you read the second creation story, the one in Genesis 2, you’ll see that human beings have a vocation as created inhabitants in the Creator’s creation.  It says, “The Lord God took the human and put the human in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”  The world, “keep,” is the same word that’s in the great blessing in book of Numbers:  “The Lord bless you and keep you.”

Humanity’s vocation in the creation is to work it and to care for it.  And in case we forget who’s this creation is, we have our Psalm for today.  “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”  We, just like all the other creatures in creation, belong to God.  I know we like to think that we are free agents, our own people, but we really belong, along with the rest of creation, to God – which says something about our relationship to the rest of creation.  This is an awareness that St. Francis of Assisi had.  He thought of each element of creation, each creature and each thing in creation – even wind and weather – as sisters and brothers.[6]

“Christians have an obligation to care for the planet because it was made by God and does not actually belong to us.  So we cannot simply fail to care for oceans, or forests, or creatures.  That would be to fail to fulfill our obligations to God.”[7]

This is not a uniquely Christian notion – that we have a responsibility as caregivers of God’s creation.  It is not even a uniquely biblical notion.  “Virtually all the world’s religious and spiritual traditions proclaim that we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the Earth and all of its creatures and processes.”[8]  That’s why people from all sorts of religious traditions are banding together to address earth stewardship issues and to remind humanity (especially people with political and corporate power) of our vocation as caregivers of God’s Creation.

For a while, we could say that this issue is no longer (at least in the US) water that burns.  We’ve largely cleaned up our rivers and improved water quality.  But with the advent of fracking – using vast quantities of water and chemicals shot deep into the earth to break up shale to release the natural gas it holds – water is burning again.  Some people, typically living in rural areas with wells as their water source, are able to ignite what comes out of their faucets.[9]  And it was only two years ago that the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 people and initiating an oil gusher that lasted almost three months until it was capped, spilling millions of barrels of crude into the sea.[10]

Our addiction to fossil fuels is not only causing us to move backward in the reduction of pollution, it is causing the global warming and climate change.  “To disrupt the climate that is the cornerstone of all life and to squander the extraordinary abundance of life, diversity, and beauty of the planet is a moral failure of the first order.”[11]

When the warm weather of the past few days came, I enjoyed it.  Then it got warmer, and when it reached “hot,” I was uncomfortable.  I know there are some of you who enjoyed the “hot.”  I realize I’m a little on the sensitive side when it comes to “hot.”  But weren’t we all thinking, somewhere in the back of our heads, “this isn’t right.”

It’s not, by the way.  The normal daily high in April in Fremont is 67° F.  The record high (prior to the past few days) was 92° (set on April 21, 2009).[12]  I don’t know if we broke that record or not.  We certainly came close.

Now, I know that this weather anomaly is that – a weather anomaly.  But when March had over 15,000 warm record days in the lower 48 states,  when March was the warmest March on record (dating back to 1895),[13]  something’s not right.

The climates are changing.  A new normal is coming – and it’s hotter than before.

You remember Job from the Bible.  First, all his flocks died, then most of his children died, and it wasn’t long before he found himself living on a dung heap at the edge of town covered with oozing sores.  Far from the patient Job of legend, he was actually quite impatient and demanded over and over and over again through thirty-five chapters of the book of Job that God come and explain Godself.  Why had all these horrible things happened?

His friends kept telling him he must have sinned, or his children must have sinned.  Job wouldn’t accept these explanations.  “I was a pretty good guy – certainly nothing to qualify for this,” he rebutted.  “I want God to come explain what’s going on.”

And this sort of falls into the category of “be careful what you wish for,” because God does arrive and delivers what I think is the longest soliloquy that God delivers any place in the Bible.  “It’s a beautiful, beautiful long speech, the first piece of nature writing in the Western tradition and maybe the greatest.  And the message has very little to do with all these questions that Job has been asking about justice and how this could be right and how this could be happening.  The response is entirely in the form of a kind of sarcastic taunt.”[14]

We don’t generally read it that way, but it is pretty much a sarcastic taunt.   “‘Who are you to be troubling me – if you’re so smart you tell me where do I keep the rain – can you whistle up a storm – can you set the boundaries of the ocean’ on and on and on.”[15]  And after many, many verses of this, Job finally basically says, “sorry I asked,” and sits down.

But something has changed.  We no longer need to sit down and shut up.  We can taunt God right back.  We can pretty much spit in God’s face.  So, you think you set the boundaries of the ocean?  Not any more, buddy.  “Simply by raising the temperature of the water there’s a thermal expansion coefficient – warm water takes up more space than cold – [so] even before we melt anything we’ll raise the levels of the seas 2 and 3 feet.

“‘Do you know where I store the rain and the wind?’ [God asks.]  Yeah actually now that’s kind of our thing too – severe storms that drop more than 2 inches of rain in a 24 hour period, they’ve increased about 20% at this latitude in the last 20 years.”[16]

We have forgotten our place in the garden.  We have lost track of our vocation as caregivers of God’s creation.  “A spiritual voice is urgently needed to underline the fact that global warming is already causing human anguish and mortality in our nation and abroad, and much more will occur in the future without rapid action.  There is an urgent need to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, dramatically reduce wasted energy, and significantly shift our power supplies from oil, coal, and natural gas to wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable energy sources.”[17]

The urgency felt in 1970 to create a movement to force environmental protection onto the national political agenda must be recaptured.  The human energy that brought us our first Earth Day must be harnessed again.  And humanity needs to be restored to its vocation of caregivers of God’s creation.



[1] “Earth Day: This History of a Movement,” Earth Day Network, http://www.earthday.org/earth-day-history-movement (21 April 2012).

[2] Senator Barbara Boxer in an email sent 21 April 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] You can see an iconic advertisement from this campaign at http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/ce/People_Start_Pollution_-_1971_Ad.jpg (21 April 2012).

[5] John Ortberg, “Is God Green?” http://mppc.org/sites/default/files/transcripts/100314_jortberg.pdf (15 April 2012).

[6] See, for instance, the “Canticle of Creation,” http://www.catholicdoors.com/prayers/english3/p02704.htm (21 April 2012).

[7] John Ortbery, op. cit.

[8] “Call to Action,” Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, http://www.interfaithactiononclimatechange.org/call-to-action.html (21 April 2012).

[9] Peter Thomson, “Burning water, contamination and natural gas ‘fracking,’” Public Radio International, http://www.pri.org/stories/science/energy/burning-water-contamination-and-natural-gas-fracking.html (21 April 2012).

[11] “Call to Action,” op. cit.

[12] “Monthly Averages for Fremont, CA 94536,” The Weather Channel, http://www.weather.com/weather/wxclimatology/monthly/graph/94536 (21 April 2012).

[13] “State of the Climate, National Overview, March 2012,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/national/ (21 April 2012).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bill McKibben, “”It’s Time for Interfaith Moral Action on Climate Change,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-mckibben/interfaith-moral-action-on-climate-change_b_1413571.html (15 April 2012).