Sixth Sunday after Epiphany February 12, 2017
Deut. 30:15-20 Rev. Rona Kinsley

Choose Life

This has been a discouraging couple of weeks for those of us who are concerned about climate change and other environmental issues. The President has ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to move forward with permitting the Dakota Access Pipeline, endangering the waters and sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux. He also wants to open public lands in our national parks to oil drilling and fracking. In the meantime, a bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are so many issues calling for our attention, right now, but I can’t think of any more important than the future livability of our planet. The United Church of Christ has been in the forefront of the church-related environmental justice movement. According to a statement from UCC Environmental Ministries,

As people of faith, we look to the scriptures for guidance for the choices we make in our lives. Genesis 1 says that when God created the heavens and the earth, God saw that everything was “very good.” We learn in Genesis 2 that humankind has the freedom to make moral choices, and that each of us lives with the responsibility for our personal actions or inactions. . . We understand scriptures compel us to act on our faith grounded in wonder, reverence, love, and respect for all of God’s creation. But clearly, God’s creation is groaning under the burden of injustice, greed, and arrogance. Our choices have resulted in vanishing and degraded farmland, air unfit to breathe and water unfit to drink, unsustainable energy processes and consumption, and the perilous immediate and long-term worldwide consequences of global warming and climate change. Poor communities and communities of color will disproportionately suffer the unjust consequences of our choices. And now, we realize more every day that our choices threaten the voiceless natural systems that sustain all of life itself.

While, for many of us, our faith calls us to care deeply about the current ecological crisis and the racism and classism that determine who will suffer the most, others use their faith as a way to avoid or deny it. In The Great Spiritual Migration, our Lenten study book, the author, Brian McLaren points out that our religious beliefs can be “powerfully significant” in how we think and act: . . . if you believe that Jesus is coming soon to beam you and your friends up to heaven, you’ll find plenty of reasons not to protect the environment or address deep-seated racism. If you believe God has given you the right to take the lands of other people and subordinate their rights to your own, then your belief will lead to action, significant and tragic. Action, significant and tragic, is what we have been seeing in the violent response to the non-violent Water Protectors at Standing Rock.

Four years ago, I had the privilege of attending the UCC General Synod as our Northeast Association delegate. One of the highlights of the Synod, for me, was the keynote speech on climate change, given by Dr. David Orr., the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, at Oberlin, James Marsh Professor, at the University of Vermont, and a member of the United Church of Christ. Massachusetts Conference Minister, Jim Antal, had presented a resolution to Synod calling for the UCC to divest all its funds from companies that develop and market fossil fuels. Dr. Orr’s speech helped to underscore the importance of our vote on this issue. We passed the divestment resolution, and our action was considered newsworthy enough to be reported by the New York Times. It was one of those moments when I felt really proud to be a part of the United Church of Christ.

At the beginning of his keynote presentation, Dr. Orr projected a slide with these lines drawn from today’s reading from Deuteronomy: . . . I have set before you life and death . . . Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. God has given us a choice, and we are asked to choose life. But if we look at our behavior around climate change, Orr contends, No one can say we have chosen life.

Dr. Orr’s next slide showed the Keeling Curve, a record of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1958. At that point, we were at 315 ppm; we have now exceeded 400 ppm. There is a thirty year lag between carbon emissions and their effects. The warming and climate destabilization we are experiencing now are a result of the CO2 levels in the 1980’s, which were less than 340 ppm. The effects of our current levels won’t be fully experienced for another thirty years. And the fossil fuel CO2 that has already been released will remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. This is a bleak and frightening outlook. Dr. Orr called this the toughest messaging problem I’ve ever seen . . . Do you tell people the truth and take the risk of paralyzing them, or do you soft-peddle this and describe it as a “solvable” problem?

Earlier in his presentation, Orr had made an interesting distinction between optimism, pessimism, and hope. Optimism, he said, is a prediction that we are going to win, and can lead to complacency. Pessimism is a sin— we don’t want to go there. But hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. When it comes to climate change, Orr counsels, Remain hopeful, do everything you can where you are, in every way possible, don’t be locked in to despair. But, he continued, there is a different world coming, and we have to have the stamina to stay with our efforts to address climate change.

Now I know that many of you already care deeply about issues of climate change and responsible environmental stewardship. I don’t think I could tell you anything about the mess we are in that you don’t already know. Our planet is warming, the seas are rising, we are seeing more and more extreme weather events, agricultural production is increasingly challenged, and extinctions through habitat change are accelerating. I could go on, but I would rather try to take a look at what it might mean for us to choose life.

Interfaith Power and Light, an ecumenical organization whose mission is to address climate change from a faith-based perspective, produced a chart showing two global warming scenarios. If we continue on the path of using fossil fuels for energy, the chart notes, the warming will be much greater. If we begin now to transition to clean, renewable energy, we can reduce the warming and severity of the impacts. We often hear the word “sustainable” used in discussions of our energy use. Sustainable, Orr told us, means that we do what we do now in ways that honor the needs and requests of future generations. In other words, we Choose life so that [we] and [our] descendants may live.

We are probably aware, and already doing, some of the things we can do to choose life on an individual level. We can replace incandescent bulbs with compact florescent and LED lights. We can turn off lights when we leave a room at night. We can replace older appliances with newer energy efficient models. We can hang our clothes out to dry. We can insulate and weatherize. We can minimize the number of trips we make by car, and drive fuel efficient cars. We can educate ourselves on what contributes to the size of our carbon footprint— there are websites that can help us do that. When I was still making regular trips to Colorado to see my grandkids, I discovered that the largest part of my footprint was air travel. We can reduce our “stuff” and be conscious consumers. And we can pay attention to where our invested money goes, choosing to invest in those things that support life and divest from those that place it in jeopardy.

In our lives as community members, we can choose life by encouraging both public and private community organizations, including our churches, to practice energy conservation. When I started as the interim minister at First Congregational Church in Thetford, they had just converted their church heating system to a biomass furnace using locally sourced fuels. The neighboring Thetford United Church was about to install a roof-top solar system. Thetford and the next-door town of Strafford were looking into the possibility of joining together in a community solar electric project.

Dr. Orr mentioned that his home town of Oberlin, Ohio, would be 90% carbon neutral in 2013, and that they are aiming at 100%. They have achieved this through a 3 megawatt solar array, and through local organizations that have worked to bring solarization and weatherization to the whole town, including its low-income neighborhoods. Orr noted that the solar energy that hits the planet in just 13 days exceeds the energy gained from all the fossil fuel used on earth so far. At a climate change event in Irasburg, one of the workshop leaders presented projections showing that relatively simple roof-top solar installations could meet much of the world’s energy needs. The sunshine is there, the technology is there, it is even affordable. What is lacking is the political will to make it happen.

Which brings us to the question of what we can do to choose life in the political arena. Orr contends that politics is where we move from “I” and “me” to “we” and “us,” and that government is the institutions we create to conduct the public business. One of the biggest barriers to addressing climate change is that corporations have been given the legal rights of individuals, and that “the market,” in Orr’s words, “is God.” When it comes to conducting the public business, especially in terms of energy policy, government is heavily influenced by the interests and donations of fossil fuel corporations. These corporations have the legal right to market every last ounce of the fuels they own, even if the earth is destroyed in the process.

Some of you may have been present, four years ago, when the Green Mountain Monastery hosted the screening of a video, produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which documented the many issues surrounding the extraction of tar sands oil in Alberta. The video was heart-breaking in its depiction of the extreme environmental destruction going on there and the devastating effect on local First Nations communities. It was also horrifying to see the oilfired feeding frenzy of even some of the world’s most environmentally responsible governments, and to hear the predictions of what the extraction process itself, not to mention the burning of the oil extracted, will mean to world-wide CO2 levels.

We have opportunities, both locally and nationally, to raise awareness about tar sands oil and to try to block its transport through the United States. This is what the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are being built for. There have already been environmentally destructive spills of tar sands oil from existing pipelines. As one commentator has said, “Canada gets the money, China gets the oil, we get the pollution.”

This issue became up close and personal for my husband, Brent, and me, when Enbridge, a Canadian energy company, started maneuvering to use the Portland Pipeline to transport tar sands oil. This is an aging line— most of it is more than sixty years old— that runs from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, Quebec, through Maine, New Hampshire, and Northern Vermont. In fact it runs right through our pasture. At present, it carries refined oil from east to west. The proposal sought to reverse the flow, something the line was not engineered for, sending the much heavier and more corrosive tar sands oil through the pipe at much greater pressure. It was disaster just waiting to happen. Fortunately, activism in all three Northern New England states effectively blocked the proposal, at least for now.

I like Dr. Orr’s definition of hope “as a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” Returning to the statement from UCC Environmental Ministries: When confronted with environmental responsibility, people of faith now face an additional choice: to live in despair or to live with hope. We in the United Church of Christ are called to live with hope. We are called to go beyond lifestyle adjustment. We are called to spiritual and lifestyle transformation based on justice and reverence for all of God’s creatures and creation. We are called by Jesus to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. With God’s grace, we invite individuals to transform their lives and their communities to become hopeful, restorative, and just. We invite you to tell others of your concern and to work in your congregation for environmental justice.

Life and prosperity or death and adversity? This was the question God set before the People of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. This is the question God sets before us as we prepare to enter a very uncertain future for the entire planet. And it is clear what God hopes our answer will be: Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.