October 27, 2019
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Being an old Catholic boy, I need to begin with a confession. I confess that I’m using today’s well known reading from Luke as a pretext to talk about some concerns that have been pressing in on me for some time now: you know, some small, superficial things like loss, grief, pride, humility, denial, hope, and maybe even death. These are all part of preaching on a subject that hasn’t been talked about all that much from this pulpit: the global climate crisis. And I have to do all this in 10 minutes! This is a topic that I can’t seem to let go of. And, indeed, it is a reality that will not let go of us as a species. We Homo sapiens have, in many respects, had our way with the earth for the last 10,000 years, ever since we first tilled the soil and began the mining of carbon. And now the earth, it seems, is going to have its way with us, and, I fear, there is very little, if anything, we can do to stop it. We are already in the grip of an accelerating cascade of causes and conditions that are utterly beyond our control. The levels of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere continue to increase; the ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, storms are becoming more and more violent and devastating; in California they no longer call it the fire season but the fire year. Many scientists believe we are very near if not beyond the so-called “tipping point;” the point of transition where the changes humans have wrought on the atmosphere are irreversible, and catastrophic changes will accelerate. I have begun to think it is no longer acceptable even to talk about climate change. A more appropriate term is climate catastrophe.
In her homily last Sunday, Leora Weitzman pried open this Pandora’s Box with a beautiful and painful account of her own struggles with the realities of human devastation of the earth; our “common home,” as Pope Francis has called it. After the service, I thanked Leora for bringing up the subject. She replied that she had been reluctant to do so because it is so painful, and engenders strong feelings of helplessness and, sometimes, hopelessness. I reassured her by saying that, in my own homily this week, it was going to get much worse…that I planned to take the lid right off the box.
It is not typical of me to take a prophetic tone. I’m much more likely to reflect on the contemplative meaning of scripture. That tends to be my default setting. It’s not in my nature to call out against the principalities and powers, except maybe when I’m yelling at the news on television. It’s tempting to approach today’s gospel text from a wholly contemplative angle, but a very personal experience makes that impossible for me today: the experience of looking into the eyes of my 6 year-old granddaughter and knowing that her life is going to be so much more of a struggle than mine has been. Even pondering the prospects for the lives of my 41 year-old son and 37 year-old daughter gives me pause, as well as sharp pangs of fear, anger, and sadness. More difficult than anything else, there is the sense of being helpless to improve their prospects. In my rational mind, I know that I can’t prevent the inevitable pain and suffering in their lives; I never could and I never will. But that’s not what my emotional heart screams out against the uncontrollable impermanence of life, the inexorable global changes that will have their way with the lives of these young people I love so dearly. The great classical haiku poet and Buddhist, Kobayashi Issa, after losing a second child, put it so poignantly:
this dewdrop world
is just a dewdrop world,
and yet…oh, and yet
How are we to deal with Issa’s “and yet?” What is my “and yet?” What is your “and yet?” Well, let’s begin by going back to Luke and the two men praying in the temple.
At the risk of being simplistic, I see the Pharisee in today’s parable as the image of the pride, of the hubris, that is the source of the human attitudes and behaviors that have led to our trashing of the earth. The Pharisee is an image of our sense of separateness and exceptionalism. These are deeply rooted attitudes that we apply to ourselves, to those we like and love, to our community or nation. That we do this is obvious, particularly as our world seems to be getting more and more tribal. Also, it is a reality that obviously is dangerous. This is all plain to see. But there is another form of exceptionalism that is not so obvious: how we attribute it to ourselves as a species. Contrary to how the Jefferson Airplane put it in my youth, human beings are not the Crown of Creation, at least in the sense that we have some special dispensation from the laws of nature, particularly the laws of natural selection. If we take Darwin and the fossil record seriously, it is clear that we can go extinct as a species. If we destroy the conditions that will sustain our life as big-brained, biped primates, we will, indeed, die out. We won’t get a mulligan because of the deluded belief that our species is a special exception in the ever-changing web of life. Unfortunately, as individuals and as societies the world over, our continuing patterns of behavior, show that we live in denial of this fact. Greta Thunberg is pleading with us to stop pretending and wake up to the fact that we are destroying the very conditions for sustaining human life, but how many of us show that we are really listening?
So, why do we keep pretending? Psychologists who study health-related behaviors like diet, exercise, and smoking know that it is a major challenge to convince people to forego a current pleasure or comfort in order to avoid a long-term negative outcome. When doom is perceived as far off, we tend to continue with our current, ultimately destructive enjoyments. I think, though, that there is a deeper disturbance at work here. When we remove the clouded glasses of species pride and view what we have wrought through the clear lens of humility, what we see can be hard to bear; hence Leora’s reluctance to broach the subject. The patristic scholar and eco-theologian, Douglas Christie, argues that grief is the only authentic initial response to a clear recognition of what we have done and continue to do to our common home. The desert fathers and mothers used the Greek word penthos. Those who sought their wisdom were encouraged to weep; to accept the gift of tears–to learn that their tears would tell them the truth. This is a tall order in a civilization that is hooked on the next jackpot, whether it’s delivered by a slot machine, or by the high priests of technological solutions, or by the false religious prophets who preach pie in the sky after you die. In our country in particular, we are hooked on narratives of progress. We’re addicted to happy endings. We don’t want to see the truth of the past and present through our tears. We don’t want to face our helplessness to turn things around. We don’t want to embrace the attitude of the tax collector praying in the temple, accepting that we are, indeed, helpless and in need of mercy. We don’t want to accept that we need God and each other desperately; more now than ever before.
So, by now, my guess is that you are thinking, “Well, what can we do?” Our great American response is: “Let’s take action and turn this thing around!” “Let’s get busy and turn these lemons into lemonade!” “Let’s make a happy ending!” Alas, I don’t think there will be a happy ending; not in the form of some large-scale, global reversal of the inexorable march of global warming. There is no going back. As the writer and environmental activist, Bill McKibben, has argued, we have arrived at the end of nature; that is, the end of nature as an unchanging backdrop to human activity. Our human activity has changed the rules of the game, and those rules keep changing on every play. We are like Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice, in a laboratory full of endlessly multiplying mops, dancing out of control; only, in our case, all the mops are on fire. This is another source of our denial: the climate catastrophe is too big, too complex, too overwhelming…in response, we close our eyes, we turn away, we change the channel. If you are my age and older, there is the perversely reassuring thought that I’m gonna be gone before this gets really bad. I’m not proud of that thought, but I have to own up to having it. But how can I tell that to my granddaughter?!
What can I tell my granddaughter? I think the only thing I have to offer is hope. I know that may sound strange and contradictory, after all the doom I have preached this morning. So let me be clear. By hope, I don’t mean optimism. Obviously, I’m not optimistic. In fact, I’m profoundly pessimistic about the future of human life on our little blue planet. Hope is not the belief that, despite the obvious facts, things are going to get better. Hope is not about the future, it’s about the present. Hope is a kind of faith in the present: the conviction that the present, as it is, has possibilities. The opposite of hope is not pessimism. The opposite of hope is despair: the foreclosing of all possibilities. And what does the present call for? It calls for the same thing it always has called for: the simple but painfully difficult work of humility, mercy, and justice.
We must stop pretending and cultivate the humility that sees the world clearly. We must absorb and integrate the pain that inevitably results from that clear seeing; the pain that comes from the recognition that there is no exit…that there is no escape…that there is no God who is going to keep this from happening…that there is no God who is going to save my granddaughter from what is to come. And yet, our God is with us in every moment of our pain and fear, and even death. And yet, our God IS every one of these moments. As Jeremiah tells us today, “…you, O God, are in the midst of us.” We are in this together, with one another and with God. Isn’t this the message of our great stories of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion? Through our tears we must turn to one another in mercy and compassion, and work together to repair the world as best we can; not because it is going to turn out the way we want, but because it is the right thing to do, regardless of the results. As the late, great Leonard Cohen put it:
…love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Through my own cold and broken tears I say Alleluia! and amen.