Psalm 8

Acts 5.27-39

Place Your Bets

Third Sunday of Epiphany

“The weather used to be a safe topic of conversation:  apolitical, impersonal, agreed upon by all.  And weathermen and women on local TV used to convey all those apolitical, impersonal, agreed-upon facts with goodwill and cheer.  They could be trusted to soothe your nerves, bantering with the news anchors about the likelihood of a snow day or dissecting satellite images of a summer storm.  [Not any more.]  Now, your friendly local weathercaster sees a new urgent mission:  to convey the climate crisis in their daily briefings to audiences around the world… With higher global temperatures contributing to frightening extreme weather events, from the wildfires raging in Australia to last year’s flooding in the Midwest, broadcast meteorologists have become unlikely foot soldiers in the battle to educate people about the climate crisis.  They say they’re ready – and so is the public.”

This is the first paragraph of a recent article about the annual conference of the American Meteorological Society, which was held two weeks ago in South Boston – ironically, during the two record-breaking days of 60 and 70 degree temperatures in the middle of January.

            A bit odd to think of your friendly local weathercaster as a foot soldier in the climate wars, isn’t it?  WW(H)KD?  What would Hilton Kaderli do!  But since none of the grown-ups in our nation’s capital appear to be able to tell the difference between climate and weather, we can only be grateful that the people who know the most about both are ready to communicate the climate crisis in their daily briefings to audiences around the world.

            “O Lord our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”  Deb Calamari just read one of the great creation hymns in the Bible, Psalm 8.  She reminded us that the earth and heavens alike belong to God, who has blessed them and called them good, and who has entrusted the earth and all that dwell therein to the dominion of humanity.  The question before us this morning may simply be, “How’s that dominion thing working out God?”

            I just finished reading one of the most terrifying books I’ve read in a long long time. It’s not a murder mystery or a whodunit; it’s not even a work of fiction.  If I may, I’d like to share the book’s first paragraph with you.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.  The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several other [climatological fairy tales] in an anthology of comforting delusions:  that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the ‘natural’ world, not the human one; that those two [worlds] are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.  None of this is true.”

I’ve got to confess, it takes more than a little willpower to continue reading after that grim opening paragraph.  The book is titled The Uninhabitable Earth:  Life After Warming, and it’s written by David Wallace-Wells, who has served as an editor for both New York Magazine and The Paris Review.  It’s not a difficult book to summarize; basically Wallace-Wells makes the point that even if we were to halt the use of fossil fuels this very moment, there is already enough carbon in the atmosphere to continue warming the planet for decades to come.  And if we do not halt the use of fossil fuels this very moment, the environment we bequeath to our children and grandchildren will be a hostile one by the end of the century.  The chapter titles in the book’s first half tell us what to expect:  Heat Death, Hunger, Drowning, Wildfire, Freshwater Drain, Dying Oceans, Unbreathable Air, Plagues of Warming, Economic Collapse and Climate Conflict.  Wallace-Wells is not a demonstrably religious person, but his book, for me, asks the fundamental question, Whatever have we done with God’s good earth?  If God has blessed humanity with dominion over the world, the sheep and oxen, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea – if we are indeed stewards of creation, what kind of care have we given her?

            Of course, we will only ask that question if we believe in climate change.  I deliberately phrased it that way, “Believe in climate change,” because those who deny that it is happening will say to us, “I don’t believe in climate change.”  My reply to that is, it’s not a matter of whether you believe it or not – you might as well say, I don’t believe in gravity, but that doesn’t change the fact that you and I are tethered to the earth, and it does not change the fact that the planet is warming.  Whether you believe it or not, doesn’t it make sense to behave as though it is really happening, and try to save it, rather than behave as though it is not and risk losing it all?  Where will we place our bets?

            This morning may be the first time you’ve heard the story of Peter and the apostles and the Sanhedrin and Rabbi Gamaliel.  In the church’s earliest days, Peter and the apostles were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin because the council took offense at their telling the story of Jesus. And frankly, who could blame them?  Peter and the apostles were not exactly subtle in their testimony:  “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” Peter said.  “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.”  At that point, the Sanhedrin were ready to kill Peter and the apostles just for good measure.  But Rabbi Gamaliel urged caution.  First, he said, we’ve already seen short-lived revolutions come and go.  Remember Theudas, who had about four hundred followers, but when he died they all dispersed.  Remember Judas the Galilean; when he died, his followers also scattered.  (By the way, a little bit of Bible trivia can be found in this verse:  “Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him.”  This happened in the year 6 AD; it was the second census, or enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  When was the first census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria?  During the story of the nativity.)

            Even so, Rabbi Gamaliel reasoned, the same thing may be at work here, so leave these men alone.  Their cause may also peter out – sorry about the pun – when it runs out of steam.  This is what will happen if it is merely a human effort.  But – and this is an important “but” – but if this effort is divine – “if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found [to be] fighting against God!”  In other words the prudent thing would be to let them do what they are doing:  if it is just a human effort, it will fail, and you’ll be none the worse off; if it is divine, then there won’t be anything you can do about it anyway, because you will not prevail against God.

            I’ve always thought Gamaliel’s reasoning to be a kind of New Testament version of “Pascal’s Wager,” named for Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French mathematician, inventor, physicist and theologian.  Pascal’s wager had to do with the argument for the existence of God.  It goes like this:  either God exists, or God does not exist.  So how will you live your life?  If you live as though God exists, and God does exist, then you’ve wagered with your life and you’ve won.  If you live as though God does not exist, and God does exist, then you’ve wagered with your life and lost.  But if you live as though God exists and God does not, then you’re none the worse off, right?  You will have lived a moral and upright life, and that is a reward in itself.  So if you live as though God exists, whether there is a God or not, then you have won Pascal’s Wager.  So it is with Rabbi Gamaliel:  if these apostles are just a group of delusional religionists, their cause will soon fade; but if they truly represent the one true God – and remember, the Sanhedrin were faithful Jews – then they will prevail regardless of what you do. So leave them be.  Let them tell the gospel story.

            So what does this semi-obscure episode from the church’s earliest days have to say about the ways that you and I care for creation, or the ways we do not?  The answer to this is on the back of this morning’s bulletin.  It’s kind of a Pascal’s Wager and Gamaliel’s dilemma rolled into one.  I still don’t like the phrase “Believe in climate change,” so I’m going to reword this a bit:  “If those who believe climate change is real are wrong, then we will have needlessly created a cleaner world.”  Nothing wrong with that, right?  I think we can agree that a cleaner world is a win-win for every member of creation.  But – and once again, this is an important “but” – “But, if those who do not believe climate change is real are wrong, we will die.”  And so like Pascal and like Gamaliel, the prudent wager is to live as though climate change is real and care for creation, because even if we are wrong, even if climate change is not real and scientists and weather forecasters and climatologists alike are wrong, the worst thing that happens is that we inhabit a cleaner world, we are faithful to God’s trust in our stewardship, and we get to live here a little while longer.

            But as David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, we do not have the luxury of time to debate the question.  This is not something we can get around to tomorrow or next week or next year or after the next election.  This is something we need to do yesterday. The good news is, there are many who are reducing their carbon footprint yesterday.  Jet Blue recently announced plans to become carbon neutral by the end of the year.  A handful of European airlines have already accomplished this.  And here in our little corner of the world, our United Church of Chester, has been gently caring for creation for the past nine years.  I’ve asked Rick Holloway to bring us an update about our church’s solar panels, and our commitment to care for creation this morning.

[Rick’s comments:]

As of January 20th, the solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the south roof our church has been in operation for 9 years.  In that time, it has generated more than 157,600 kilowatt-hours of energy.  To give you a sense of  scale, that is more than double what a typical home would have used over the same period. 

 What is really important is the environmental benefit.  Our system has prevented the emission of over 219,000 pounds of carbon into the air we breathe, and has avoided the burning of over 487,000 gallons of oil.  Pretty good.  If those barrels of oil were stacked in the Sanctuary, they would make a pile well over the top of the church.  

There are those pessimists who say that solar isn’t worthwhile because of all the energy required to manufacture the panels.  Not so.  It takes less than four years of use for solar panels to match the energy required for manufacture, shipping and installation.  If we account for this energy, we still have avoided burning enough oil to fill this sanctuary to the ceiling — and the pile grows higher every year. 

 But, don’t be smug about what a great job we are doing here at the UCC; we should continue to reduce our carbon footprint.  It was nine years ago that we installed solar panels, added thermal insulation to piping, and installed storm windows everywhere.  Any suggestions for what we might do now? 

What are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?  Have you had a Home Energy Solutions assessment of your house or business?  This is one of the most effective measures you can take.  Do you know of any neighbors who would benefit?  Simply go to the Eversource website to sign up or call 800-WISE USE.  And… the Chester Conservation Commission will reimburse any Chester resident 100% for the cost of this service.  Apply to them now. 

And all creation will dwell together in harmony, and a little church shall lead them.

Amen.

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