Finding Hope and Right Relationship: A Climate-Change Sermon on the Conversion of St. Paul

Today, January 25, 2019, is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. ECN’s editor, the Rev. Deacon Nathan Empsall, preached a version of the following sermon this morning at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, linking Paul’s road to Damascus with climate science, Connecticut’s recent ice storm, and the much-beloved hymn “I the Lord of Sea and Sky (Here I Am, Lord).”

The associated Scripture readings were Psalm 19, Isaiah 45: 18-25, and Philippians 3: 4b-11.

New Haven, CT, 01-21-19

Wasn’t the ice this week truly awe-inspiring?

Every last twig, stick, and branch, coated and shining. It was especially breathtaking at night, the ice seemingly ablaze as it reflected the glow of the moon and street lights, the whole forest lit up in glory at 11pm. Nature, all by itself, put every ice sculpture I’ve ever seen to shame.

I couldn’t help but think of the God who made it all. And judging by what I saw on Instagram and Facebook, many others here thought the same thing!

The psalmist was equally aware of how nature can reveal God, declaring, “In the heavens [God] has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom… [and] runs its course with joy.” Each day, sharing its knowledge with the next, everything alive.

Yes, nature reveals God. Yet while the ice was breathtakingly beautiful, it also has another side. Cars crash, power goes out, the homeless suffer.

Nature is amazing, but when we are not careful, wilderness and weather do grow deadly. This has always been the case, but it’s truer than ever now, thanks to human-caused climate change.

We are living beyond our limits, ignoring the scientific balance that God made for the earth. For 250 years, we have ripped more and more carbon out of the ground and spewed it into the air. The resulting climate change is not just an environmental issue; it touches on literally every single aspect of this interconnected life. All are affected, but none more than the poor and historically marginalized.

Time and time again, Scripture powerfully and rightly uses nature to describe God, but how can people sense God in the heavens if their skies are filled with coal pollution, giving their children asthma? Who can see God in the field when drought strikes, leading to soaring food prices and growing refugee crises? What are we to think when the very waters we need for Baptism are poisoned?

Nature reveals God’s glory? What glory can possibly be revealed by the growing hurricanes and wildfires of this now-ravaged landscape?

Isaiah provides the answer: God, the prophet writes, “did not create [the earth] a chaos, [God] formed it to be inhabited!” And not just inhabited by humans, but by shrubs, trees, flowers, microbes, bunnies, birds, cheetahs, jellyfish, and even flowing water and dynamic rock cycles, all our relations, all cousins equally evolved from God’s big bang. Yes, the beautiful diversity of the earth really does say so much about God!

The chaos and the sinful destruction, on the other hand, speak only of us. God did not create the earth a chaos–we did.

Now scientists say we have just 12 years left to act, just 12 years to cut our fossil-fuel use in half. But I have hope. I say, we don’t “just” have 12 years; we still have 12 years, and that is a gift.

In the name of loving both God and our neighbor, it is time to set our old ways aside and seek a new, healthier relationship with the rest of God’s creation. It is time for a conversion: A personal, political, and above all, spiritual conversion.

And what an example we are given today, on this Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul!

Paul writes that he could have been confident not in the spirit, but in his own self—in his flesh. Zealous, righteous, blameless. And yet, once he experienced the love of Jesus Christ, he gave it all up.

Like Paul, I think we in Western society often believe that we have gained much. Higher GDPs, mass production, entertainment always just a click away. But then Paul says, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss… I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”

We are called to rethink everything to restore right relationship with God’s creation. We are called to lose everything. We are called to join Paul and join the rich man who Jesus told to give away everything: Called to lose our lifestyles, called to lose our capitalist conglomerates and our diets…

…called to gain something far holier. Love comes first. Love for God, and love for our neighbors, human and non-human alike.

It’s time for another conversion, and the church must lead the way. After his own conversion, after gaining new knowledge about God, Paul could have shrunk into himself. He could have spent his days flogging himself for his past behavior, hiding his face from his victims. But he didn’t. Instead, he led. He founded churches, he loved his followers, and he spread his message.

Leading won’t be easy for us. It’s hard to talk to uncertain congregations or angry loved ones about a charged issue like climate change. But I’m sure it was hard for Paul to face his old Roman comrades, those with whom he had persecuted Christians. Yet the work of Christ was too important, and he didn’t shirk away.

The church is well positioned to lead today, too, and not just because of our moral vision. When the world grapples with despair, loss, and grief in the face of climate change, we Christians can offer a very special gift:

Hope.

Thanks to Jesus Christ, we know that death does not get the last word. Resurrection, renewal, and liberation will carry the day once more—this time not just for individuals, but for the whole created order.

With that in mind, we’re about to sing the hymn “I the Lord of Sea and Sky,” a.k.a. “Here I Am, Lord.” This is a hymn of hope and call, but it also links God, nature, and human suffering through beautiful lyrics like “I, the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne my people’s pain,” and “I, the Lord of wind and flame; I will send the poor and lame; I will set a feast for them.”

Indeed, God, the earth, and humanity truly are intertwined, bound up together in both the love and life of the Trinity and in our planet’s scientific earth systems. As Professor Willie Jennings says about the Bible: You’ve got God, you’ve got the people of Israel, and you’ve got the land, all three together. You can’t pluck out just two.

On Monday night, it really was God making that ice glow, because the Word and Spirit dwell with us here in this interconnected earth. It is precisely because God is the Lord of sea and sky that God hears the people cry.

No, the God of sea and sky did not cause the chaos of climate change, but Christ is among us anyway, offering resurrection, renewal, and love. So like Paul at his conversion, let the church answer the call now: Here I am, Lord.

Amen.

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