Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Celebrating Earth Day's 40th

Scripture appointed for the 4th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Forty years ago last Thursday, the first Earth Day was observed. I was 23 and completing my first year in seminary in Manhattan, and I’m pretty sure Earth Day happened without me. It’s sobering to admit that 40 years later, Earth Day has happened without me, again. First, I was busy as a student; 40 years later, I was busy as a priest.

At Compline Thursday night, I chanted in place of the usual collect a thanksgiving for the created order, complete with the richness of mountains, the songs of birds, and the loveliness of flowers. At least the twenty of us gathered that night nodded liturgically to Earth Day, and some of them very likely kept the day more intentionally than I did.

It’s not for lack of persuasion or passion, my yearly tendency to catch Earth Day out of my rear view mirror. I applaud all that has happened on campuses and in schools, in board rooms and legislative chambers, and in churches and at kitchen tables to raise conscious care for this fragile earth, our island home.

I admire in particular our neighboring congregation, the First Congregational Church, for their systemic commitment to ecological education and action, and other area initiatives such as Williamstown’s COOL project.

It’s not as if we’re dormant here. The gas furnace we installed, several years ago, is a model of clean-burning high technology. Charles Bonenti has championed the replacement of incandescent and old-fashioned fluorescent lighting, not everywhere in these old buildings, but we’re more that way than not. Stuart Crampton single-handedly trucks our recycling results to the landfill. Since installing the galley kitchen, we’ve moved from paper to china. Motion sensors, light sensors, and timers govern our outdoor lighting. Automatic light controls in our church school rooms drive us nuts as they operate with a mind of their own, telling us we’re not there when we know darn well we are… but we’ll figure that out, in time, and we’re glad to be making progress. Soon, we’ll make more when we actually reduce our footprint, removing the old curate’s apartment, cutting the waste of heating and lighting space we’re confident we don’t need (and creating parking we know we do need).

Would we have taken these steps in a life without Earth Day, without minds and hearts and imaginations wakened to responsibility? I don’t believe so. And that tells me that Earth Day deserves a 40th that celebrates achievement, both local and national.

Our story resembles that of the disciple Tabitha. We’ve been raised from our deathbed. And it has taken apostolic zeal to achieve that.

To achieve what? Associated Press journalist Seth Borenstein answers: “Forty years later… smog levels nationwide have dropped by about a quarter, lead levels in the air are down more than 90 percent. Formerly fetid lakes and burning rivers are now open to swimmers…” and are habitat again for loons and herons. These improvements took shape in the form of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and changes in the way businesses treat the environment—reforms that grew out of the first Earth Day, 1970. Some would say that this is the most powerful, sweeping, society-wide change America has made since the New Deal.

The need for such change was dramatic in the months leading up to Earth Day 1970. Cleveland’s main river, the Cuyahoga, caught fire every now and again. An epic oil spill contaminated 30 miles of Southern California beaches.

Now, Borenstein says, “The challenges to the planet today are largely invisible—and therefore tougher to tackle.”

He quotes William Ruckelshaus, first head of the Environmental Protection Agency: “What we’ve done is shift from the very visible kinds of issues to those that are a lot more subtle today.”

Since 1970, carbon dioxide levels in the air are up by 19%, raising the average annual world temperature by one degree Fahrenheit, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them…”

We encounter those words at funerals and hear them describing heaven. Consider them describing God’s new creation, the universal renewal of life that God is accomplishing in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

And the metaphor the Church gives us on this Sunday in Eastertide is that of the shepherd. We are to understand God’s universal renewal of life requiring the tenacious responsibility of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, the brave guardian who will battle wolves and frustrate thieves to fulfil his promise to his flock, “You will never perish. No one will snatch you out of my hand.”

Let’s not be too busy at other things to hear an Earth Day application of this metaphor: We who belong to Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd have his care by listening to his voice and doing what he calls us to do. He calls us to his mission, the universal renewal of life. He asks us to share his own passionate responsibility for the whole shimmering orb of life that God has placed in his hands, and in ours… in his compassionate care and in ours.