Earthkeeper Jason Wood preached this homily at Epiphany Chapel on the UBC/VST Campus on Tuesday, October 3, drawing from the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the coming Sunday: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; and Mt. 21:33-46.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4 NIV
These words, from the NIV’s translation of Psalm 19, have always struck a chord with me. The way they capture this basic human experience of awe and wonder at the world. The way what is seen becomes a means of discovering what is unseen, the Divine reality creating, upholding, and renewing all things. Though we may not all speak in terms of “God”, who hasn’t experienced the marvel of the evening sky tinged an impossible hue of pink by the setting sun, or a humbling sense of the unfathomable expansiveness of the universe as they’ve looked up into the endless night? Theirs is indeed a voice, as the Psalmist says, that has gone out into all the earth.
At the same time, every time I encounter this passage, there is a question niggling in the back of my mind. It’s a question that continually unsettles me, that demands something of me, that won’t let me rest in the comfort of merely acknowledging the wonder of my own experience of creation.
Because sure, the sky proclaims the glory of God.
But what about when it doesn’t?
Hurricane Harvey was the first one that I heard about this year, devastating large swaths of southeastern Texas and Louisiana, displacing tens of thousands of people and costing an estimated 75 billion dollars. Then there was Hurricane Irma, ripping across Florida and the eastern Caribbean, decimating basic infrastructure in some of the most far-flung islands, leaving them without electricity, water, food. Then it was Hurricane Maria, wiping out power and leaving Puerto Ricans desperate for federal US aid. On the other side of the world, a violently strong monsoon season has precipitated flooding across India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, killing over a thousand people and affecting an estimated 40 million. In the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh alone, more than 100 people have died, over 3000 villages have been submerged, and almost 3 million people affected.
Now you tell me: how in hell does that proclaim the glory of God?
Now I could give you a well-thought-through, intellectually detached response to that question. Something about how such displays of natural power lead us to marvel at the greater power of God. Or maybe something about how God has so intricately designed the global climate system that even in these times, when that system is increasingly stressed and disordered, it has a way of speaking to us – shouting at us even – in order that we might pay attention to the impacts the human species is having on the rest of the planet.
But those responses don’t really get to the heart of it, do they?
The truth is, people are dying. Starving. Desperate. Terrified. There are people who have lost everything because of what the sky has done. Here in our rainy climatic bubble in the Lower Mainland, never too hot, never too cold, where even the poorest among us usually have access to clean water, food, and electricity; these storms and the wreckage they have left could not feel further away. While I look out my bedroom window and praise God for another sunny day that prolongs the inevitable turn to cold and grey, someone in Bangladesh has lost their child and only home to the floodwaters. A wife has lost her husband. A community has been displaced. A farmer’s crops have been flooded and his livelihood destroyed.
How do I process that? What do I do with that?
What on earth could a worshipful vocation possibly mean in the light of such violent skies?
God help me, I’m scared of the answer. Roused from my privileged, white, and wealthy slumber by the unspeakable terror of this planet, I find myself like those Israelites at Mt. Sinai in today’s reading of Exodus 20. Somebody else tell me what to do. Speak to God on my behalf. Distract me with the antics of some ridiculous politician, or lie to me and tell me such devastation is deserved, like some sort of divine judgment – anything to distract me from the horror which is my home. Whether thunder, lightning, and a smoking mountain, or category 5 hurricanes levelling cities, don’t make me approach this fearful reality on my own. It’s too much. I’m just one man.
Worse than that, I’m part of the problem! My fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyle is part of what’s wreaking havoc on the climate. My greenhouse gas emissions mean warmer air and seas, mean tropical storms that intensify much more quickly and often, mean many more Harveys, Irmas, and Marias in the coming years.
So what can I do that won’t demand everything of me?
Maybe nothing. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the life I and most of the Western influenced world live is an ecological farce, our whole society structured on an illusion of separation from and domination over the yet-untamed powers of creation. Maybe our artifices of technological superiority and unbounded material consumption have to crumble, giving way to the fearsome reality of limitation and vulnerability.
Maybe we have to die.
And I, like you, don’t want to die. Truth be told, I don’t know how. There’s too much in me and around me, clamoring for more and better and easier and faster. The persistent voices saying that I will not matter if I stop looking out for my own comfort, cravings, and control are loud, so very loud. I can try to drown them out for only so long, until finally, irrevocably, I am reduced to silence.
And in silence is my salvation. Here, in this place where I have nothing to say, no ego to defend, no explanations to provide, a thing happens:
I find God.
The Creator of this astonishing yet terrifying world is suddenly not merely the object of my rage, rage at the unspeakable injustice of a world where the poorest are victimized again and again by a destabilized climate they did not do anything to create.
No, now the Creator lives in me, weeps with me, rages through me. I still have no answers. Yet, by some miracle I might call “Christ in me”, I am becoming an answer. Not THE answer; this is no white male superiority complex, thinking that what the world needs is more of me and my ideas. Rather, it’s a humbled, liberating discovery that the love and grief and rage I feel were never my own in the first place. God is already groaning with each life lost to the floods and storms, trembling with each frightened soul at a planetary future that looks ever bleaker. In Christ, I share my tears with the world.
And from shared tears come the seeds of shared hope. We are not alone. Whether it’s in the way communities in Puerto Rico are organizing themselves to look after one another despite all they have lost, or in the friendship I have found working for climate justice with Earthkeepers, or in a growing worldwide network of people, churches, institutions, and businesses that are beginning to take seriously the demands of a planet crying for “LIFE!”, God has planted and is watering seeds of love, compassion, and restoration on every acre of this suffering planet. Our ecological travail is far from over – in fact, it’s only bound to get worse – but for those with ears to hear, a new way, born of silence, is opening up. As we hear again the speechless voices of creation and the distant cries of our suffering neighbours, we hear also an invitation to rediscover ourselves, vulnerable on a planet full of terrors and delights, yet held and cherished by Love.
Only from that place will we find the courage to risk new habits and systems, to reduce our insatiable desires, to sacrifice our entitlements and comforts, and to become the people this world needs us to be. It will demand everything – maybe even to the point of death – but Jesus has shown us a way through death to life, and we must begin.
In this age of climate chaos and impossible hope, may our lives, too, declare the glory of God.