Love in a Time of Cataclysm

On March 19th I delivered the sermon at Northshore United Church of Christ in Woodinville, Washington. Here's the text, and you can click on more to find the video.

Good morning everyone, and thank you for inviting me here to speak with you. I haven’t given a sermon in over a decade so I did some research, because I want to do a good job for you all today: I googled “bad sermons.”

Fascinating, what’s being preached out there. I highly recommend “The Top 20 Worst Christian Sermons.” My favorite is Pastor Larry Brown. I won’t even try to do a South Carolina accent, but here’s Paster Brown ...

“People come to me and they say Brother Brown! The television; it’s bringing an unGodly worldly atmosphere into our home, but there’s nothing I can do about it!” And TV preacher Pastor Brown says, “Yes there is!” and he hauls out a fire ax and proceeds to smash a big screen television on stage.

There’s something both delightful and surreal in watching a TV preacher smash a TV on TV.

I don’t have a lot of agreement with Paster Brown’s theology, but I surely relate to Pastor Brown’s dilemma. How do you challenge the system of predominate values while living within the system that needs to be changed? 

Because that is the great dilemma before us today.

I’m not going to offer a lecture on climate change. Most folks have a sense of things being seriously out of whack. 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, so was 2015 and so was 2014. Massive ice sheets in Antarctica are slipping into the oceans at such speed that it outpaces scientists’ capacity to calculate sea level rise. Five feet by 2050? Nine feet? We don’t know. 100 year floods come every 10 years now. Spring arrives 3 weeks early.

As Dr. James Hansen puts it, the conditions that make civilization possible are in collapse, and this is no longer, as we thought just a few years ago, a thousand years off; it is measured in decades.

True apocalypse is upon us, and yet the the systems and institutions we might expect to help us face up to this ultimate existential crisis are turned to the business of profit-taking and denial, and the commercial and political forces driving us over the cliff are buttressed by powerful religious beliefs that support the status quo.

Here’s an example of what might be called “Fake” Christian thinking ....

“If you believe that God is in control of the world, as do most Christians, then Global Warming and it's consequences are irrelevant. Maybe God intends catastrophe, and Global Warming will change the face of the planet; if so, this is God's will and mankind will be powerless to prevent it. On the other hand, maybe God intends it all come to nothing; in this case "Nature" will recover no matter how much mankind pollutes things.”

So, what can one do when the very fabric of the society - with a debased civic conversation, failure to attend to stark realities, and the spectacle of religiosity turned to marketing - are wholly inadequate to the tasks before us? What to do when there is no room for reasoned discourse and the power of money swamps the power of reason? What can one do?

You go into the temple and overturn the tables of the money changers and dove sellers [Scripture lesson, John 2:13-22].

You disrupt business as usual. You create a point of moral conflict that forces people to think, and challenges corrupt authority.

We tend to shy away from the story of Jesus clearing the Temple because.... well because he’s angry and this can make us uncomfortable. But this merely shows us Christ’s humanity - it had to be a daunting thing, to march into the Temple like that; a lone person confronting that vast marketplace. A bit of anger was necessary, I think, to get going. But underlaying the anger, we know, was a deep love.

Last October, with four friends of mine, I took part in the “Shut It Down” climate action, in which we closed all five pipelines bringing Canadian tar sands oil into the US for a day, as an act of climate disobedience. For my action, cutting two chains and turning a safety block valve on the Transmountain Pipeline in Burlington, Washington, I face several felony charges. My first trial, in January, ended in a hung jury. I am set to be retried in May.

Since that action, I have appeared with my friends at many events and forums to talk about our action and we are often asked about the spiritual or religious basis for our action.

I didn’t know my fellow valveturners all that well before we undertook this action, and most of our time was spent on practical matters, so it is has been enlightening, I think for all of us, to listen to each other speak from our hearts about why we did what we did. In listening to my friends, each in their distinct voices, I hear these expressions of love. 

Love for all living things.
Love for our children.
Love for all peoples.
Love for our enemies.
Love of life. 

Love of all living things. There is a intimate link between biblical literalism and climate denialism.

The problem with biblical literalism is which parts of the bible you pick out to read and which parts you ignore or explain away.

Climate deniers point to Genesis Chapter 8, Verse 22, and God’s promise that “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and not shall not cease,” to argue that climate cataclysm is impossible. Senator James Inhofe, until recently, chair of the Senate Environment Committee has said that the point of Genesis 8:22 is that “God's still up there, and the arrogance of people who think that we, human beings, would be able to change what he is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

This may be one of the most egregious examples of cherry picking biblical scripture, for to pluck out the few lines of Genesis 8:22, one must ignore perhaps the most emphatic, repeated direct statement from God in all of the scriptures in the rest of Genesis Chapter 8 in which God pronounces the Rainbow Covenant, between God, Noah’s family, and all living things on earth.

1. And then God remembered Noah and every living thing, verse 1
2. Behold, I establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you
and with every living creature....verse 9
3. And God said, this is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you
and every living creature... verse 12
4. .... I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you
and every living creature.... verse 15
5. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God
and every living creature... verse 16
6. And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me
and all flesh that is on earth.” verse 17

Do we truly believe that God thinks it’s OK to wipe out the Lowland Gorilla, the Sumatran Tiger and the Hawksbill Turtle? Or the Giant Salamander, the Storm Petrel, the Red Jewel Beatle, or the Sicilian fir?

Emily Johnston who shut off two Enbridge pipelines in Leonard, Minnesota, with Anette Klapstein, is a climate activist and a poet.

In her recent book of poetry, Her Animals, which starts “I am sorry.” Emily grapples with this unspeakable agony of living through species holocaust. I’d like to read some now....

“Sentimentality may be part of the problem, but I cannot help my weakness for the greatest and smallest: massive elephants and vast whales, thumbnail-sized frogs, brilliant and paper-thin blue butterflies. For any viable cluster of those to survive until you read this, I’d give my life, painfully, every day for a year.”

Love for our Children. Michael Foster shut off the TransCanada Pipeline in Pembina, North Dakota. Among his many roles, Michael is a tireless advocate and supporter for the plaintiffs in the Children’s Atmospheric Trust lawsuit in the State of Washington, who won a decision last December against Governor Inslee and the Department of Ecology for failing to take action on climate change. The essence of the lawsuit, and others in a number of states, the federal government and in several other nations, is that our failure to act is a gargantuan inter- generational theft - a theft of promise, of hope and of life itself.

Michael speaks to our need to examine our own choices and behaviors with an eye to the practical and moral consequences for our children, their children and so on. Recently at a forum in Corvallis, Michael said...

“Chief Arvol Looking Horse says ‘’this is the moment in history, when all life to come depends on you and me. We are the only ones who can protect everything we love. Every experience you have ever had, every memory, every family tree on earth is threatened. It comes down to this moment in time.”

Michael is our strongest advocate for taking personal responsibility in addition to political action.

“We need everybody doing everything all the time, and that includes not being hypocrites; taking some really bold courageous actions to reduce our own emissions, as well as seeking to change the system. My kids will not survive my hypocrisy. I can’t take my family to Hawaii and take pictures of us swimming in the coral reefs that won’t be there in a few years.” 

Love for all Peoples. Annette Klapstein, who shut off two Enbridge pipelines with Emily Johnston in Minnesota, is a member of the Seattle Raging Grannies and served for many years as legal counsel to the Puyallup Tribe.

It is very clear, says Annette, that the harm done by climate change will be wildly disproportionate to the benefits that have been gained by burning fossil fuels, and the poor and the dispossessed - especially colonized peoples - will be those who experience the first and greatest injuries.

Our action was in response to a call for direct action and prayer from the Standing Rock Sioux fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, about whom Annette says, “We owe them a debt for their steadfast protection of land and water; the future of life depends on exactly such resolve and courage. But it is the obligation of the privileged to put even more on the line. If you’re an older white person, this is your job. It’s up to us to take these risks.” 

Love for our enemies. I struggle with this. That Exxon, Shell and a slew of corporations worked deliberately over decades worked to befuddle the civic conversation about the single greatest challenge to the sanctity of life on the planet is, in the words of Bill McKibben, an “unparalleled evil.” What do you say to the calculated and methodical destruction of what Dr. James Hansen calls the “conditions that make civilization possible”? How to grapple with this gargantuan awfulness?

Walter Wink, a “theologian who challenged orthodoxy,” according to the New York Times, said that Jesus Christ offers us an alternative to the two physiological responses to threat hardwired into our body - fight or flight. Faced with evil, violence and oppression, we naturally respond with violence or submission. But Jesus, says, Wink, showed us a “Third Way” of nonviolent disobedience and direct action. Wrote Wink... 

“Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.”

In so doing, we not only assert a powerful moral force, we also show love for enemies, for as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail....

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

To stand with dignity is an embarrassment to wrongful authority, but it also is an expression of faith in the humanity of the oppressor and this is a true expression of love. 

Love of Life. And finally, Leonard Higgins, of no fixed address, who shut off the Spectra Express pipeline near Coal Banks Montana, who describes himself as “the least likely person” to engage in such an action, is a living embodiment of the love of life.

To continue as we are now is to embrace death. The death of 40-50% of known species, by century's end, the death of untold numbers primarily from drought and attendant starvation, and the death of hope, as the very conditions which make civilization possible are eroded. This prospect is so awful that it is often easier to turn ones eyes aside.

But to do so is to accept death, but to embrace truth and act appropriately is to embrace life. Playwright and President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel wrote...

"A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accouterments of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person... Living within the truth... is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one's own sense of responsibility... It is clearly a moral act, not only because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not self-serving."

Leonard is a beacon of Living in the Truth.

If you come to our forum this afternoon, or go to our website - - you will see a video short of our action and listen to Leonard speak of the sheer joy at being given this opportunity to embrace life.

That's it then. 

By our action we hope to serve as a pivot point on which the course of history turns, but those odds seem long.

Given the choice, however, none of us would act differently. This is our expression of love for all living things, for our children, for all peoples, for our enemies and for life.

Thank you. Let us end with the very appropriate words of Reinhold Niebuhr’ Serenity Prayer.

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”


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  • Gary Piazzon
    commented 2017-05-03 18:54:26 -0400
    This is a truly inspired message. Thank-you for this gift. I am passing it forward as widely as I can. I tended the hearing today and was heartened by the outcome. I look forward to and pray for Judge Richert’s decision to allow the necessity defense. May it be so. We’ll be there May 22.