I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's the week of September 21, as part of our Fall series on Justice. Preached the evening of the People's Climate March, the text is Psalm 104.
A few weeks ago I spent some time taping up fliers for St. Lydia’s outside the Gowanus Houses,
the public housing units just a few blocks north of us.
As I fliered, I noticed that someone had been there before me
and taped up big, colorful posters for the People’s Climate March which took place Sunday.
Later, I saw a picture on facebook of three women, Theresa, Elsa, and Carrie,
who are all members of FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality),
a local grassroots organizing group led by people of color who live in public housing.
The three women were out on the sidewalk with a display table,
encouraging public housing residents in particular to participate in the march.
The caption on facebook read,
“As residents of Gowanus Houses, Theresa, Elsa, and Carrie know first hand what climate change disasters look like.
Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call.
We will march in solidarity with other low-income families and public housing residents
in places like Gowanus, Red Hook, Coney Island, the Lower East Side and the Rockaways.
The tides may be rising, but we're rising up too!”
The tides may be rising, but we’re rising up too.
Psalm 104 imagines God creating the world, and almost the first step in that act of creation,
is coaxing the waters to recede.
In the very beginning, before God did God’s work,
the world was nothing but swirling waters covering the earth like a garment,
so high that even the peaks of the mountains were hidden.
The water, deep and unknown, was, for the Jewish people,
a symbol of chaos and all that is uncontrollable.
But at God’s word at the beginning of time the waters flee and “run down to the valleys,”
where they are safely contained in the oceans and lakes of the world.
The Psalmist writes,
God set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
But we have seen the waters breach their boundaries.
We have seen them breach the levies in New Orleans.
We have seen them swirl through the streets of Red Hook.
We have seen them carry away houses in the the Far Rockaways.
We have seen them seep over the walls of the Gowanus Canal
and creep right up the middle of this very street,
flooding out the basements of the Gowanus Houses
and leaving elderly residents stranded in their apartments without power,
refrigeration, or elevators.
We have seen the waters break their boundaries
and bring us to our knees:
us New Yorkers,
who believe that we can build skyscrapers that pierce the heavens.
The waters do not discriminate.
They carry away cars on Wall Street
and carousels on Coney Island.
They waters don’t discriminate.
But we do.
And just like in New Orleans,
in New York, it’s been those who are already the most vulnerable
who have fared the worst.
We have seen the waters breach their boundaries.
And we can’t blame God for it.
We can only blame ourselves.
After college, I lived in the Netherlands for a little over a year.
This was in 2002, so about twelve years ago now.
And I was struck, when I lived there, by the clarity with which the Dutch viewed Climate Change.
Climate change was real,
and everyone needed to be a part of reducing humanity’s environmental impact.
stores in the Netherlands, no matter what they sell,
simply do not provide disposable plastic bags.
If you buy an article of clothing or a set of dishes, whatever it is,
you need to put it in your own book bag.
If you go to the grocery store,
you bring your own shopping bag.
And if you forget it, you can buy a reusable on for three Euros.
The system there is not designed around your convenience or boosting consumerism.
It’s designed around the survival of the earth: bottom line.
The Dutch are a forward-thinking people in general,
but perhaps their stances on Climate Change and the environment
stem as well from their country’s geography;
much of the nation sits below sea level.
And by the time I lived there in 2002, the Dutch citizens I spoke with
simply accepted that Amsterdam would be under water in half a century.
That was just part of our their view of the future.
The waters were breaching their boundaries,
and the impeccable environmental record of the Dutch nation
would not be able to provide a counter balance to the environmental impact of nations like ours.
Psalm 104 has a sense of rhythm and music to it.
The author creates a sort of earthy orchestra,
a biotic cantata,
in which the mountains, the plants, every creature, and even us
have a line to play, each is in harmony with each.
There is grass for the cattle
and the birds make their nests in the cedar trees.
The goats belong in the mountains
and the coneys (which are sort like these little Middle Eastern guinea pigs)
search for food in the crevices of the rocks.
The sun and the moon conduct the proceedings
and each creature, from the smallest to the largest,
lives as part of this complex, unfolding score.
Each plant and animal has a part to play,
as well as the springs tumbling down from the mountains.
But music is about something more than simple utility or efficiency.
There is art in every orchestra.
And the Psalm communicates that the earth and all her inhabitants sing
not for just survival, but to experience a sense of beauty and joy.
The Psalmist writes that God,
brings forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
All of creation is singing
and God has created a world that asks us to join that chorus.
But the music we’ve contributed to this earthy orchestra
doesn’t sound like music at all.
We’ve stripped the mountains,
clogged the seas,
cluttered the cedars of Lebanon with disposable plastic bags.
I still find the statistics shocking.
The Sierra Club reports that,
though the US comprises less than 5% of the world’s population,
we use one third of the world’s paper and a quarter of the world’s oil.
We rank highest in most consumer categories by a considerable margin, even among industrial nations.
Our fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain,
and we create half of the globe’s solid waste.*
This does not happen by mistake.
We, as a nation, have put convenience and consumerism
before what matters so much more:
the survival of God’s world.
We are stifling the music of creation.
So those of us who care do our best to reduce reuse recycle,
dutifully rejecting the disposable plastic bags that are thrust at us at the grocery story
and bemoaning the wasteful packaging that seems to envelop everything we buy.
And it’s good to take up these daily practices -- it really is --
but it’s also going to take something much bigger, I think,
to cut those statistics -- to keep the waters at bay.
It’s going to take those who hold power in our nation
finally seeing that the discordant chords they’re hitting
cannot be born by this fragile earth.
Finally seeing that though their skyscrapers pierce the sky,
the water will bring them to their knees.
We cannot continue to value convenience and consumerism
over the survival of God’s world.
And to reject the earth is to reject the God who made her.
These are not days when hope comes easy,
at least not for me.
The power of human sin seems, too often,
to hold us all captive.
The tides are rising,
but I sense that something else rising too:
a people who are singing a melody that we have needed badly to hear,
a song that is in harmony with the earthy orchestra of God’s world.
They are holding up cardboard sunflowers
and signs that say, “For everything to change we need everyone.”
They are marching through Times Square,
that great center of consumerist frenzy
and chanting that the world must change.
They come from the Gowanus houses and from Red Hook
and from the Far Rockaways
because they have seen first hand what Climate Change means.
And they imagine a world in which the score of God’s earthy orchestra
has been redeemed.
Psalm 104 pictures a world that is so in tune with itself
that even the Leviathan,
that great, terrifying sea monster of the Ancient Israelites’ imagination,
takes part in the joyful music-making.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
the Psalmist sings,
there go the ships, and Leviathan
that you formed to sport in it.
This is an vision of humanity and the natural world truly at peace:
where the chaos monster of the water does not foam and rage
and breach the boundaries of the sea,
but makes the ocean a playground,
the ships that traverse the waters
safe and small, floating on the surface of the deep.
*Click here to read more about the Sierra Club's report