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Facing up to climate change – a revised version of a challenging sermon Haddon Willmer recently preached at Trinity URC in Sheffield

7 November 2018

If you dislike this sermon, blame it on this, that I have recently been reading both Jeremiah and the Guardian.   So I think I ought to talk about climate change, though it is difficult to do.  May I do so?

The IPCC ( recently warned  that  if the rise in global temperature was more than  1’5◦ above pre-industrial levels environmental problems would run out of control and could not be survived. They gave the global community till 2030 to take drastic measures, to prevent the rise to 2 and even 3◦ becoming unstoppable.  

Thus they present the challenge: will the human community together do what is necessary?  And behind that lurks the frightening question, Can we, the global community, do what is necessary? 

The signs of dire trouble have been around us for a long time, getting louder and louder. Human pressures have brought 60%  of animal  species to extinction since 1970 – in the lifetime of our children. Insects are declining: we often see them as a nuisance and too late come to appreciate how vital they are to the whole life-sustaining web of nature.

Sea levels are rising, and already low-lying countries like the Maldives have plans to move whole populations, as their lands go under the sea. What will happen along our east coast?

Polar ice is thawing; the polar bears are beginning to starve;  and the tundra is defreezing and releasing methane.

Coral reefs, on which so much marine life depends, are being remorselessly destroyed. Whales are dying of plastic poisoning.

The Amazon rainforest is being stripped, to grow soya, to feed the animals we want for food and so there are fewer trees to host many creatures and to combat air pollution.

Fossil fuels are not everywhere being left in the earth as we now know they should.  We are putting faith in fracking and China and India are still increasing the use of coal for generating electricity.  

And we are caught up in this history personally: just look at consumer patterns which we can’t get out of. 

Jane Goodall who spent much of her life learning about and with chimpanzees, says: ‘The most intellectual creature to ever walk Earth is destroying its only home’.

All this causes many sorts of distress.  I want to discuss two sorts of distress which I feel, even while I am protected for the time being from threats to my life.  

First, I fear for the future, though not greatly for myself, I imagine. What will my children and grandchildren have to live through? I refuse to protect myself from this fear by being like that dreadful old king Hezekiah (II Kings 20.12-19). When the prophet warned him that all his treasures would be taken from him by the invaders from Babylon, and his own sons would be taken away to be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon, he said piously to the prophet, ‘The word of the Lord is good’, but he exempted himself by thinking in his dark heart, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days.’ ‘I’m alright, Jack, my children are dispensable’. 

But, As Bonhoeffer said more than once, the responsible man does not think how he can engineer an heroic (or convenient) death for himself, but how the next generation will live…

My second distress is the widespread paralysis and inertia that leads to silence about this issue or evasion of its challenge.

There is nothing that can be done about it, so let’s not talk about it. 

I feel this distress acutely in church, and as I share in the kinds of conversation Christians mostly have when they meet together. The Church is a place of much talking: that is why it is valuable to many people who would otherwise be very lonely. But this talking community is so silent on many big issues. Brexit has rightly been worrying many people but I have not heard a sermon that addresses any aspect of it.  And the same goes for climate change. I think the principle behind Matthew 23.23 is not a bad guide to our talking in Church. 

Deep down, do we not want church to strengthen us in our self-esteem and to assure us that God is with us and ‘it is well with my soul’? Jeremiah criticized the people who denied that disaster was coming to Jerusalem, putting their trust in deceptive words, ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ (7.4,8-10,15 ). We want faith as a haven from the worry of the world. But the Bible and Christian life experience tell us that is not God’s offer. Romans 8 not only tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, but it invites us to live in the Spirit who intercedes with sighs beyond words in a creation which is groaning in frustration and longing. 

Jesus talked about disasters that were to come upon Jerusalem and the whole world, in discourses we don’t read much. He said  people’s hearts would fail for fear and foreboding of what was to come upon the whole inhabited earth (Luke 21.26).  

Our silence may be a sign that we are overwhelmed by the terror of what we can see may be coming. 

When Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, facing the disaster closing in on him, the bitter cup, and the Father’s will, the disciples could not pray with him, but rather ‘slept for sorrow’ ( Luke 22.45).

When we are faced with the possibility of the end of the human story on earth, and think of all the suffering, and justified disappointment, and the cruelty and ruthlessness unleashed as people struggle for survival, do we not want to ignore it for as long as we can, shutting out the sorrow which is too hard to bear?

How hard it is to find words to pray. And if we can’t find words, how hard is it for most of us to be focused and realistic and faithful in prayer. If we simply give up public prayer which requires some words, and there is silence when each person is left to pray privately, the problem is not solved.  Rather, the burden of not knowing what to pray or how to pray is put on to each lonely  person, whatever their capacity – so I would not be surprised if, in the silence, some fall asleep for sorrow  and some think about other things.     

I think you can see something of the difficulty of praying in this time of climate change when you look at the splendid hymn we are going to sing at the end of the service. Fred Pratt Green wrote it  in the early, optimistic stage of environmental concern around 1973, when it was easier to believe that humanity would rise up to do the work of stewarding the earth and keeping it in a steady sustainable condition. 

It confesses sin honestly: 

Long have our human wars ruined its harvest;

Long has earth bowed to the terror of force;

Long have we wasted what others have need of,

Poisoned the fountain of life at its source

It affirms the goodness and beauty of the planet and the positive worth of human beings within it as God’s stewards, who in their work reveal the love and light of God in the world –

God in his love for us lent us this planet

Gave it a purpose in time and in space

Small as a spark from the fire of creation

Cradle of life and the home of our race

It witnesses to God’s love and looks for his salvation

Earth is the Lord’s, it is ours to enjoy it,

Ours as his stewards to farm and defend.

From its pollution, misuse and destruction,

Good Lord, deliver us, world without end!

But though it uses the word, destruction, does it speak from within the terrifying crushing experience of living through the destruction?  

I think for the living of these days, we need something much stronger than the optimism that once was plausible, at least to people who lived in privileged circumstances as many of us still do.  I think we are in a situation where the confidence that it will all work out, that we can muddle through, or  that, though it may be hard for a while, we will eventually reach the ‘sunny uplands’, is not enough. 

We fear we may be on a runaway train, brakes not working…

Perhaps we need to listen to Jeremiah 45. When young Baruch was in distress because he saw his future was being taken from him, Jeremiah did not try to argue him out of his realism.  Jeremiah’s advice to the kings and the people had always been, You have no choice but to face and live through the earthly reality coming to you. There would be no escape from the power of Babylon, no help in the broken reed of Egypt. The coming disaster is deserved. It is God’s judgment, and God is so serious about it, he is unmaking what he had made, unmaking creation. That is a terrifyingly way of seeing what may well be happening to the human world  in our time. Jeremiah said to the people in this situation, There is nothing to do but to live through what is coming. If it is exile for 70 years, that will mean that many of you will not see the end of it, but all the same, accept it, God has sent you into it, it is your mission. So settle, live life fully, don’t just look after yourselves, building families, making gardens: Pray for the well-being of the city where they Lord has sent you into exile. What does this say to us today, as we live our specific exile, in a time of unmaking? The message is, Don’t deny. Don’t try to escape what you are being taken into. Don’t stop being responsible people. Don’t despair. Do whatever good things you can, day by day, love others, enjoy with gratitude. And so hope with God, who is with you. 

In this situation, Jeremiah said to Baruch: 

Don’t seek great things for yourself. 


 I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go. 

We are called to see ourselves between these two sayings, which don’t easily fit together. The prize we naturally want is ‘great things for myself’.  

What is it to have one’s life as a prize of war, without having great things for ourself? That is the puzzle.

The apostle Paul may help us here. He  gave up seeking great things for himself when he met Jesus Christ, and found himself ‘crucified with Christ’, with all  boasting in his life achievements empty and finished (Galatians 2.20; Philippians 3.7-11). And the life he then had as a servant of the gospel of Jesus was full of trouble and ended in prison and death in Rome under Nero. What a prize!   

But he could say, ‘What has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.’ (Philippians 1.12-14). 

Finding our way between these two words, not seeking great things for one self and but trusting that God will enable us to live fruitfully wherever we go, may be the gift of God to us every day even when we have to live through the Creator’s ‘unmaking’. 


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