Most of you recall that I’m originally from Rifle, Colorado, a town that is 190 miles west of Denver on the banks of the Colorado River, which means the town itself sits in a beautiful mountain valley. As a boy, I spent as much time as I could outdoors—deer hunting, trout fishing, mountain climbing, river rafting, and fossil hunting. The area is rich in natural resources. It’s a beautiful part of the country and I have fond memories of growing up there. The residents of Rifle work in the tourism and service industries. They are farmers, miners, and ranchers, and their lifestyles are active and rooted in nature, seemingly as far from Wall Street as you can get.
One memory from my youth is a little strange. In the fall of 1969, just outside of town, there was an underground nuclear test of a 40-kiloton nuclear weapon. This explosion was three times larger than Hiroshima and twice the size of Nagasaki. I didn’t know it at the time, but Wall Street and the nuclear test were very much tied together. As far back as I can remember, people have talked about the oil shale around Rifle; it seems to be everywhere. When my family planted gardens, we always jammed our shovels into a slab of shale. When I dug for worms to go fishing, or when we replaced a fence and needed to dig post-holes, the shale made the digging much more difficult. If the shale is not on the surface then it lies just below. For me, the flat layers of sediment only meant I had ready access to great skipping rocks.
In the 60s and 70s many investors and many oil companies were interested in figuring out how to extract the oil from the solid rock. And, where you find oil shale, you find natural gas. They were interested in that too. The nuclear test was one of the nation’s first attempts at fracking. Today, there are more than 46,000 fracking wells throughout Colorado. It’s a depressing sight. Some of those wells are just a few feet from the Colorado River.
In the Old Testament text we heard today from Deuteronomy, the Israelites have gathered at Mt. Sinai during the Exodus and Moses delivers a speech to them. In the Exodus story, the gathering at Mt. Sinai happens twice—once when Moses sees the burning bush and God calls on Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead the people out of their captivity, and again after they return from the wilderness when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments.
In this passage from Deuteronomy the people are returning from Mt. Sinai. They are tired and hungry from their travels–and they are frustrated. Throughout this part of the story, Moses had told them that God gave him messages that he in turn passed along to them. Chief among these messages was that God would bring them out of Egypt, that God would save them from Pharoah’s cruelty, and that God would take them to a rich and fertile land. But this hasn’t happened yet. The people are restless. In part to maintain a sense of order, Moses lays down the law. God will send a messenger to speak on God’s behalf and anyone who doesn’t listen to that messenger will meet a bad fate. The Israelites are so focused on what they haven’t received, that they’ve forgotten about the gifts they have already been given. They no longer work in slavery for Pharaoh. Moses has led them out of their captivity. They’ve forgotten that they were fed with manna from heaven and that they drank water that flowed from a rock. So Moses reminds them of the importance of honoring their relationship and covenant with God—a God who sustained them with the gifts of water from the earth and food from the sky.
The “Justice for Each Generation” campaign also seeks to remind us of God’s gifts. Gifts that far too many of us have taken for granted, or abused, or forgotten about. In 2015, Juliana Olsen of Eugene, Oregon—along with dozens of young people ages 10 to 21 from around the country—sued the federal government for failing in its duty protect the environment for themselves and for future generations. They argued that the government’s affirmative actions cause climate change, that they have violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and that they have failed to protect essential public trust resources. This lawsuit became the basis for the campaign.
It will come as no surprise that the fossil fuel industry intervened in the case as defendants and joined the U.S. government in trying to have the case dismissed. Since the first international climate agreement to reduce CO2 in 1991, which the United States signed on to, CO2 emissions have increased world-wide by 61%. The US is second only to China in CO2 emissions. Government regulators and industry insiders know that oil pipelines leak. The Dakota Access pipeline leaked at least five times in 2017. The biggest was a 168-gallon leak in Patoka, Illinois, on April 23. DAPL went into operation on June 1, along with its under-the-radar sister project, the Energy Transfer Crude Oil pipeline. ETCO leaked at least three times in 2017. There was a 4,998-gallon leak in Dyersburg, Tennessee, on June 19. And the proposed Line 3 project’s environmental impact statement has found that damage to tribal lands and natural and cultural resources along that pipeline’s pathway are so significant as to be “not quantifiable” and that they “cannot be remedied if harmed.”
Along our southern border, we face another crisis if Trump’s sinful border wall is built. There already is a wall in place along much of the border and the ecological impacts of extending it are unknowable. Thousands of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and arachnids migrate back and forth across the US-Mexico border. The pictures and videos of a desert fox mother being separated forever from her vulnerable young pups are heartbreaking. More walls equal more ecological devastation.
These problems can feel overwhelming. But, if we are inclined to throw up our hands in despair all we have to do is look around—even here in this sanctuary—and we can see capable and assertive resistance to these tragedies getting organized in the leadership of our young people.
Kiran Oommen is one of the 21 youth bringing the Each Generation lawsuit. He is the son of Melanie Oommen, an ordained UCC minister. Melanie asks, “What does it look like to live hope when the very fate of our planet is at stake? In the enduring hope of those young plaintiffs, our God abides,” she replies. And, in a few minutes, our own Kristen Anderson will have some important and prophetic things to say on this subject. I urge you to listen to her. This sermon is part of our pledge to participate in the Justice for Each Generation campaign by engaging with our young people and delivering one of the 1,000 sermons across the country about climate change in the coming months.
While our own government stated its intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which has reductions of CO2 emissions as a primary goal, we can also look to the example of other countries for what can be done when our words match our deeds. Last spring, Cuba’s Council of Ministers initiated Tarea Vida, or Project Life. Even though Cuba remains impacted by economic sanctions levied against them by the United States, they will spend $100 million on reducing the island’s impact on rising sea levels, mangrove and coral reef restoration, and coastal engineering that makes homes and the environment less susceptible to severe storms. The damage that has been done and that continues to be done to our climate is an issue of justice that particularly impacts the young who are now inheriting our world and the actions we take today will impact their present and future.
As the young child in our video clearly showed, when it comes to the damage done to our climate, no voice is as morally powerful and persuasive as that of our youth. Our youth are the ones who will inherit the consequences of our society’s action or inaction in addressing our climate crisis. One possibility for taking action is YouCAN (Youth Climate Action Now), a program that trains and supports youth, their families, and other supporters to engage in civic participation with local government. YouCAN youth advocate for lasting legal protection for the atmosphere, oceans, and the Earth’s natural resources in the form of binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and climate recovery planning consistent with the best available science. Youth participate directly in local government decision-making and petition City Councils for adoption of locally tailored climate recovery laws, testify in public meetings of the City Council, and advocate at work sessions with local government leaders.
The decisions that the city of Rifle made may well be irreversible. Fracking water, which is composed of some of the most toxic substances known to man, have begun to leak towards the river. Everyone knew this would happen. Everyone. We won’t know the long-term impacts that fracking has on the entire environment for decades to come, if we ever do. My hope is that they have some young people in Rifle that are as informed, dedicated and passionate about climate change as those here at First Church.
In closing, I offer one final scripture passage specifically for our young people, from 1st Timothy 4:12: “Don’t let anyone disrespect you because you are young. But be an example for everyone in the way that you live—charitably, compassionately with faith and with love.”