Welcome to the first of four services focusing on environmental stewardship. We are looking at the elements in these services. Earth, Water, Fire and Air. All of these need to be preserved and celebrated as God’s creative activity in the world.
Summer is when I like to be out in the fresh air. I like riding my bike, going on a run, swimming in the outdoor pool. I know of at least one UBC member who says, I commune with God and worship by the lake on a pontoon boat. See you in September.
I like to sit out on the deck and read the paper early in the morning, sometimes wrapped in fleece, just to enjoy the fresh air, to see the wildlife dance through the high grass, listen to the choir of birds and bask in the serenity of a fresh-air morning. After being cooped up inside for over six months, we deserve it. I’ll even choose to be outside in the sweltering heat sometimes eschewing the shock of air conditioning (at least I say that now). I just love the fresh air. I breathe deep and it helps me to face the day. The popular song dances in my imagination. Breathe, just breathe.
Who here has not been tempted to hang clothes out to dry outside, just to get some of that fresh smell, not to mention how much we’ll save on our electricity or gas bill.
Union Theological Seminary in New York City, my alma mater, recently made news when it declared it was going to divest itself of its holdings in fossil fuels. There is enough power in the wind to make a big dent in the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity. It’s also a Christian imperative to care for the earth. By the way, the dumping of fossil fuels only reduced their income by 0.5%—a decent trade-off.
Air, wind, spirit, Ruah, Pneuema, they all carry a similar meaning. John’s Gospel says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Holy Spirit.” We can’t have life without air. And we can’t live a fulfilling life without clean air.
Like many of you of a certain age, I grew up with cigarette smoke. When my aunts used to get together, they would all talk at the same time with this cloud hovering around them. We used to call them the smoke sisters. The background music of my childhood was my dad hacking carbon out of his lungs. Fifty years of smoking did a number on him and he spent the past years of his life with oxygen tubes in his nostrils, the result of COPD.
I ran the Grandma’s Marathon two weeks ago on the north shore. I heard a Boston Marathon veteran comment, “I’ve never breathed air this clean.” Let’s try to keep it that way, shall we? I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the town of belching smokestacks and permanent cloud cover over Lake Erie (an aptly named lake). Even though it’s colder here in the winter, I’ll take fresh sunny air and zero degrees over perma-smog and 20 degrees any day.
Air is vital to all life. Think of the ozone layer melting the polar ice caps. Think of Minnesotan Anne Bancroft’s quest to the North Pole several years ago thwarted by the fact that the North Pole is now on water, not ice. We need to do all we can to preserve the air we breathe as good Christians and citizens of the world.
Ecclesiastes asks cynically, “What do people gain from all of their toil? Generations come and go. The sun rises and sets, the wind blows, the rivers run. It’s all been done before. What do we have to add to all of this?”
Just this. Remember that our place in this world is small in comparison to the eons that have come before us. And yet, because of our technological abilities and our ways of harnessing power, we have more of an impact than ever before. And not only that, we have the power to destroy what has taken years and centuries to create. The ozone layer, which protects us from massive floods, is shrinking and we have a responsibility to do something. There is scientific consensus that air pollution is causing global warming. It’s not a debate. It’s fact. I saw a “Doonesbury” cartoon a few Sundays ago that spoke to this:
Ecclesiastes says that our toil is vanity and striving after wind. I say yes. Let’s strive after wind. Let’s harness that power. Let’s use it to offset our dependence on fossil fuels. Let’s make it a sea of change for the better. Our work is striving after wind. So be it.
Years ago we thought about putting a windmill on top of the UBC non-steeple. It seemed like a good idea, until one of our physicists said it wasn’t practical. We just didn’t get enough wind. That’s probably even more true with all of the buildings going up in Dinkytown. But First Church has a much higher steeple, above the treeline. Hmmmm….Imagine, “The Church of the Spinning Cross.”
I’m reminded of a song by Charlie King and friends. The third verse goes like this: “Sister wind we’ve heard on high sweetly singing o’er the plain. And the windmills in reply echo back their glad refrain…Solar power, inexpensive energy.”
Okay, we all know about environmental stewardship. I’m sure we’re all going to do our part. It’s what liberals and progressive thinkers do. Dare we say it? It’s even conservative to conserve energy. Something liberals and conservatives agree on. Woot Woot.
But there is an air that needs to be cleared in another way. There is another toxic brew that pollutes our atmosphere. I’m talking about judgementalism. I’m talking about hate-speech. I’m talking about cynicism that writes people off as hopeless. I’m talking about the titillating toxicity that demonizes people who disagree with us. Maybe we need to do something about that air.
Last weekend was the pride festival. I know lots of people in this room were there. We weathered monsoons on Saturday and held off the rain gods on Sunday for a very nice day with low humidity which made getting through the sea of people a bit easier.
One of the things that put a damper on the festival, however, was a group of people that took it upon themselves to try to trick people into their church. Members of 30 churches planned for five years for the pride festival. Going to a Boot Camp put on by Trinity Works—a parachurch organization famous for its provocative anti-abortion protests. They infiltrated the Pride festival telling people that they could pray their way away from HIV. Affiliated with a so-called ex-gay movement, they also invited people into the halls of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis with free water and corn after the parade. “We want to hear your story.” It’s the same thing we said when we worked on the marriage campaign. Wanting to hear the story is pretty non-threatening.
But then some reported that the story-hearing turned quickly into a condemnation. “How could you do this to Jesus who loves you…”
I heard someone was at the church with a sign, “Just say no to the corn.”
But this is no laughing matter. People were traumatized by the toxic air inside the church. Outfront Minnesota made chaplains available to people who were victims of this spiritual abuse. One said, “Thank God for the Outfront chaplain talking me down. I was planning to commit suicide after going to the corn feed. You saved my life.”
I have no doubt that these Baptist sisters and brothers were sincere. I believe that they were sincerely wrong. We ought to be careful to condemn their actions, not them as individuals. And we can say that they are victims of air pollution.
It is the pollution that poisons our airwaves condemning people different from them.
It’s the air pollution that poisons our political climate that lifts up the most egregious as the best candidate.
It’s the air pollution that blows through us that tells us there is nothing we can do about it.
But there is.
We need to clear the air.
We need to have toxic-free zones.
We need to have safe havens where people can breathe and live and celebrate as God called them to.
This is the wedding season. There are outdoor weddings that happen during the summer months. Some of those weddings are happening now in Kentucky and Indiana and Utah. Weddings that have been waiting for decades to happen. And the wind is blowing. It’s blowing love and beauty and courage. It’s blowing joy and family and bravery. It’s a mighty wind and it’s stronger than the wind of hate and ignorance. Gandhi said that if you are on the right side, first people will laugh at you. Then they will ridicule you. Then they will fight against you. And then you win.
Nelson Mandela said, “To be free is not simply to cast off one’s chains but to live in such a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
So let’s toil after the wind. Let’s join the wind in directing its path toward hope and love. Let’s harness the wind, the Spirit’s power to imagine a world of joy, of love, of hope of fresh air.
And we can do that together. We can create in this gathered community a sense of hope and imagination that will lead us to a better tomorrow.
But for this week, I invite you to breathe. Just breathe. Breathe out the stress.
Breathe out the toxicity.
Breathe out the cynicism.
Breathe out the hopelessness.
Then breathe in the fresh air.
Breathe in beauty.
Breathe in imagination.
Breathe in hope.
Breathe in intelligence.
Breathe in compassion.
Breathe in courage.
And remember that there is a whole room of people clearing their lungs and minds and filling up on the breath that we know as the Spirit of God.
And we, the people of God, strive after wind. And it is good.