Sunday, November 14, 2010

Climate change sermon summary

I had the honour of visiting an old church of mine in the Brunswick area to preach on the importance of climate change. The readings were Psalm 104 (recited), Rm 8:19-23, and the parable of the Good Samaritan in Lk 10. The following is a brief summary outline - as a guide to sermons you might have the opportunity to preach on the topic.


Here I raised the issue of what place thinking about climate change plays in the life of people in the church, those who run Mother's Union, Op Shops, go to church regularly and do all the Christian things but don't necessarily think about larger issues.

I then pointed out that while polar bears might be iconic in the climate change discussion, there are other species that are under threat that are less cuddly. Did you know that since 1975, in Mexico, 12% of local lizard populations have gone extinct due to rising temperatures, and 4% of all populations world wide. Lizards are having to cool off during the afternoon because conditions are becoming too hot, and hence are not able to feed or breed. By 2080 local population extinctions are expected to reach nearly 40%. Now not too many people think lizards are cute and cuddly and so it won’t feel too much sympathy. So why should we care about lizards, or anything else? Let’s look at three objections.

Objection 1: We shouldn’t care too much because God sees humans as more important.

This idea notes correctly that humans uniquely bear the image of God, which is in fact central to proper creation care, but often focusses on the cross as Jesus dying for sins, thinking very much in individual terms. Without entering into that debate, a proper look at Psalm 104 expands our horizons and warns against human exceptionalism when it comes to divine love.

The plight of the Murray-Darling River basin has come to the fore of late. Australia has always been a dry continent and subject to droughts and flooding rains as the cycle of El Nino - La Nina has played itself out. Winter and spring rains have been good this year but a long term drought, likely associated with global warming has placed stress on water supplies. Farmers grow our food but the viability of rice and cotton is now under question. The right balance has not yet been struck between natural and human water use..

Psalm 104:10-16 highlights how God cares for the non-human creation by watering it. The human use of water is but a small part of his overall care. The tender care of the cedars reminds us that God is a gardener who waters what he has planted - and hence we do not have the right to deprive creation of the water that God supplies to it - there must be a right balance (to say nothing of salinity issues, etc) between trees, wildlife and appropriate agriculture on such a dry (and drying) continent, and combatting global warming means trying to halt the this drying so that neither society nor creation suffers.

The other point to be made from the Psalm is from vv17-26. It is God who alots space for each species to exist. In typically Hebrew functional ontology, the mountains are for the goats (v18), not for climbing. The modern preoccupation with mountain climmbing isn't in itself bad so long as it is recognised these places also (and primarily) exist for the creatures that live there. The dark exists for the lions to roam. Global warming particularly affects mountain species that have ranges restricted by temperature or moisture, for as conditions become warmer and cloud bases rise, species ranges contract further. This again violates a creature's right to exist in the place God has created for them.

Verse 24 sums it up nicely - 'O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; The earth is full of Your possessions' (NRSV). Just as one would not trash a furnished apartment or hotel room, it is not out place to ruin God's possession.

Objection 2: It doesn’t matter what happens to the Earth, God is going to destroy it all

There is a view popular based in readings of 2 Peter and Revelation that creation will be scrapped, and so what we do now matters little. Yet Romans 8:19-23 speaks against this quite powerfully (see my Zadok Paper on a Pauline ecomissiology, and God willing, the book one day).

Paul does acknowledge there is a problem with creation. The present state of creation: subject to futility (by God), in bondage to decay (Rm 8:20-21). Although some argue that the Fall introduced death into creation at large, the text in Romans is clear this only refers to humans. The futility and decay mentioned here probably refers to how human misrule is out of joint with creation since we are meant to oversee, tend and care for creation, not extinguish whole species. In his commentary on Genesis, Derek Kidner refers to creation now as 'a choir without a choirmaster'.

Note that deep ecology can critique humanity as evil and unnecessary, and evolutionary science as an accident of history. In his TV series 'Earth: The Power of the Planet' geologist Iain Stewart suggests that since over millions of years species have disappeared and been replaced, what is it stake is not creation (or nature to him) but human society. For example, there have been several reef building species over geological time, so one could argue in theory that rising temperatures and increasing acidity of the oceans will wipe out reef building species, but one day something else will appear. However, given Psalm 104 and Genesis 1, it is neither moral nor theologically correct that it doesn't matter that humans result in species being lost, since it is our duty to ensure that we do not interfere with God's creation in such a manner.

Paul also points out that rather than destined for destruction, creation shares in our hope. Creation waits in hope for the church to be revealed as the children of God (vv19-20). Likewise, we and creation are groaning for this (vv22-23). This points to the fact that part of what it means to be in the image of Christ, is to fulfil what it meant originally to be in the image of God - God's gardeners. Creation care (and global warming is the biggest present threat to creation) is part of what it means to be Christian, it is not an optional extra.

Note that creation care and combatting climate change does not mean we all have the same role or focus. Just as we are all called to give a reason for our hope but not all of us are evangelists, so all of us should learn to live more lightly, yet not all of us are called to be environmentalists.

Objection 3: Isn't the Christian faith more about personl piety than public policy?

Quite apart from the fact this is wrong - there are a couple of ways of linking the Christian faith and global warming. Australia may not be responsible for much of the worlds total green house gas output, but in 2007 was 12th in per capita emissions, which says nothing of the coal we export to China where cheap goods are made we consume. This says much about our lifestyle (as well as inefficiencies). Sylvannia Waters was a classic series that showed up the shallow materialism of the great Australian dream. While capitalism itself isn't the problem, rampant consumerism is (there was no time for a nuanced critique of this).

When one run an economy disconnected from ecology, it is a reflection of human hubris and arrogance. To combat global warming is to maintain a classic Christian critique of idolatry. This doesn't mean living in caves but a challenge and call to a simpler lifestyle. Wendell Berry suggests that starting with saying grace, as this reflects thankfulness rather than the desire to acquire more.

The other relationship of the personal to the public is the love of neighbour as ourselves, as typified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Tuvalu is a Christian nation living on a number of coral atolls. Other than rising sea levels increasing erosion and the effects of storm surges from tropical cyclones, the porus nature of coral means that sea water has intruded into taro crops inland. A few quote illustrate the problem quite well.

Former Prime Minister: 'We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change. For a coral atoll nation, sea level rise and more severe weather events loom as a growing threat to our entire population. The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.'

Yet at the same time, a certain naive aspect of the faith of some Tuvaluans makes it all the more tragic 'No. We are Christians. God will protect us.' 'Only the creator can flood the world.' 'I believe in God - I don't believe in scientists.'

Yet it is happening! The ~1000 inhabitants of the now abandoned Carteret Atoll know this well!

So, in a globalised economy with a shared atmosphere and ocean - everyone is our neighbour. To make the point further, Bangladesh is a Muslim nation. Muslims and Christians are sometimes in such opposition and Jews and Samaritans were yet we are to love them as our neighbours and ensure they don't sink beneath the waves. Note also that our children and grand children are our neighbours in space and time. What world do we want to leave them?

How should we respond?

Guilt paralyses, hope inspires. We should keep the message of hope in Rm 8 in mind, and use that to motivate us to act now.

Personal: energy efficiencies (lightbulbs, insulation, turning things off), transport (flying less, public transport, bicycles), etc

Church: I attend a church with a garden - we share the effort and the fruits. Whether it is a private or church or community garden getting our hands dirty helps connect us to the earth, reduce green house gases by eating our own food, reminds us of divinely imposed limits and teaches us to be thankful.

Wider Christian community. Get behind organisations like TEAR and Ethos. TEAR works with partners in the developing world and lobbies government. Ethos will be a resource of information and encouragement.

Global warming matters to Christians because it represents the degradation of his creation and the suffering of humanity, starting with the world’s poor. As we are remade in the image of Christ, part of our Christian walk is to tread more lightly on the earth and as God’s church to speak against greed and injustice.


  1. Hi Mick; Hope the new blog goes well!

    In my experience, it's most common to encounter one-line dismissals of climate change. Unusually cold weather in Sydney this month? "So much for global warming, eh?!" Next up will be a half-reference to an ostensibly scientific finding ("they found that"), or an obscure claim you can hardly confirm or deny the spot ("but in 1922 the glaciers in Finland were smaller that today"). In country areas there'll be some metanarrative about meddling Green politicians posturing for ignorant city voters.

    Is there a single, memorable URL which to you would recommend in such contexts?

  2. Well.... for some of the "they found that" - see for comments by professional climate scientists.