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Grazing on Ashes

Sermon by Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)

First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo

June 16, 2019

Sermon Texts: Galatians 5: 13-18

A few weeks ago, my mother returned some shoes she purchased to the mall. She asked for a receipt, and the clerk then asked her for her email address. My mother said, “I really don’t want to give that out. Why do you need my email?’ The clerk retorted, “Ma’am, we want to email you the receipt: we’re trying to save the planet! “

My mother gets home, and there are two emails from the shoe company. Neither is the receipt. Both are trying to sell her more shoes.

Welcome to America, where saving the planet always involves some renewed plan to sell you. If only we make smarter purchases, or switch to more efficient products, then we will indeed save the planet. Consumer capitalism figures out the angles to get you to purchase more and more in order to change the world. This is the capitalist ideology. Their world is driven primarily by business and consumerism.

Yet the quote from Einstein on today’s bulletin suggests that business as usual is not the remedy to solving the problems that are coming about from business as usual. I am very skeptical that the profit motive can cure the mess that heedlessly seeking a profit regardless of environmental impact has caused.

Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah this morning is the Bible’s signal and unique message regarding the scale and misuse of fuel combustion. In this passage from Isaiah, the idol maker is charged with diverting combustible resources away from personal warming and cooking toward the creation of idols.

14 He cuts down cedars …. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” 17 The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!”…

20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?”

In contemporary terms, that fraud in his right hand is our economy’s idol of luxuries produced by the diversion of combustible fuels away from God’s intended provision for subsistence needs.

The Prophet Isaiah in this centrally marked text is to my reading condemning an idolatrous carbon combustion economy.

Some of you may be following the ‘Juliana’ lawsuit-- “Trial of the Century”- that began last week in Portland. 21 children are suing the government for violating their Constitutional rights to life by subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. My children know that their elders in prior generations have created the climate crisis while they display continuing moral inertia neglecting to change our ways. Older generations are providing the young with unassailable grounds for moral grievance, not just the foundation for an innovative lawsuit against government.

Not only is grievance culture toxic to community, it brings down the church and the Kingdom of God in four ways. First, grievance by the young delegitimates institutions, like the church, promoted by earlier generations. Second, grievance interferes with a healthy appreciation for Creation’s goodness, running down the idea and our message of a Creator. Add to this the environmental destruction resulting in mass extinctions, where the totality of God’s worshiping community is disrupted. I refer you to the vision of the assembly of animals praising God in Psalms 104 and 148. Finally, Is. 44 specifically condemns the combustion-fueled economy that diverts from subsistence as idolatrous and thus counter to God’s intended Kingdom.

Isaiah’s message to us is to consider our profligate combustion-fueled economy as both idolatrous and an immoral wrecking of God’s Kingdom purpose. Our heat-trapping pollution is a source of grievance by God as felt in God’s favored future, today’s children. As Christians, we must take this prophetic challenge seriously. Not as a moral scolding (prophets like preachers can be moral scolds), but as a message to align your lives to be Saints with the direction God intends.

And I believe that God’s intention for the planet involves humanity developing the virtues that preserve the atmosphere, specifically the virtues of thrift, self-denial, and loyalty.

The virtue of carbon thrift takes stock of daily decisions to consume and pursues the path of least combustion. After worship this morning, in our Sunday Seminar, Marin Interfaith Climate Action will present some steps we can take to pursue carbon thrift in our living situations and lifestyle. I hope you all will attend. The virtue of carbon thrift is the most compelling of our calls to reduce carbon emissions. Individual thrift in combusting carbon compounds is the foundation for directing society toward sustainability and Atmospheric Care.

The virtue of asceticism, or self-denial, is not taking that jet vacation to exotic, long-distance locations even though we can afford it. We Christians are not part of today’s culture of self-creation, where diverse and flashy experience determines or fleshes out our identity. We are people created anew in God’s love. We are people of the Holy Spirit, not of the jet. Our identity is not self-created but realized in the love we’ve experienced of God and that we reflect outward. The selling of capitalism’s idea of a jet-travel bucket list is pure consumerist propaganda. Christians are meant to be counter-cultural. At my stage of life, exotic travel is not essential to my growth in character or in effectiveness. The bucket list is capitalism’s implant into our desires. I have given up the goal of worldwide travel in retirement for the sake of the atmosphere. As I’ve learned to testify from my good friend, Royce: I will only fly for family.

The next virtue, loyalty, applies to planet and place. Loyalty to the planet is not falling for the Hollywood, NASA fairy tale that humanity has a destiny on another planet so that we can trash this one getting there. Loyalty to place encompasses people vacationing far closer to home and purchasing food from local farmer’s markets. Two people driving a car to Los Angeles emits about ¼ of the carbon compounds and its equivalents than those two people flying to L.A.

Loyalty to place displays to neighbors the changes in personal lifestyles one is making for the benefit of the atmosphere.

I’ve brought to you this morning the message that profligate consumerism founded on a carbon-combustion economy negates the Kingdom of God in many ways, and that the solution is found in our commitments to pursue the virtues that commit ourselves to the care and stability of the atmosphere. I mentioned that the prophets were moral scolds when they called ancient Israel’s attention to God’s intention for society. I want to try to suggest how this prophetic scolding for the sake of the atmosphere and reduced carbon-combustion consumerism is actually pastoral. In other words, my message this morning is intended to stimulate saintliness and the rewards of virtue brought about by carbon thrift, loyal, and consumer self-denial.

I mentioned at the outset of my reading from Isaiah that the passage Is. 44.9-20 is not in the Protestant lectionary. That is, it is not part of the usual cycle of worship readings in the Church. I have come across only one person who has heard this passage preached before in the Presbyterian Church, and that was 40 years ago. But I want to point out that this passage is integral to the yearly cycle of Bible readings in the Jewish synagogue.

Reform Judaism employs Isaiah 44 (including 44.9-20) in its annual sequence of parashah (Torah) and haftarah (non-Torah portion of Hebrew Bible) readings.[1] That sequence of Isaiah’s condemnation of fuel idolatry is particularly linked in its readings with God’s Final Judgment. In the year 2020, the Va-yikra service of 5 Nisan 5780 (March 28) has as its haftarah reading Is. 44.6-23, with the description, “God’s greatness contrasted with the sin of idolatry.” The following week (Tzav) has a haftarah reading of Malachi 3.4-24, described as “Approach of the Day of Judgment.” This sequence of haftarot that follows the betrayal of God through idolatry with the Approach of the Day of Judgment is repeated in the year 2021. This sequence is instructive regarding how seriously Judaism takes the sin of idolatry described by this morning’s reading of Is. 44. 9-20: It is to be followed by God’s Judgment.

So as a preacher with a pastoral intent for his call to virtue this morning, I hope to direct your path to saintliness in your economic and carbon-consuming life. God’s final judgment awaits us all. And here’s why I believe that matters existentially beyond solely the legitimate fear of a powerful and demanding God holding us accountable. I believe God’s final judgment will assign us to our eternal destiny. While no one knows what happens after death, our Reformed predecessors thought long and hard on our final destiny as Christians. They believed, and it makes sense to me, that our final destiny with God will reflect the values, virtues, and commitments that we display in our current life of freedom. If our values, practices, and virtues pursued in freedom in this life support God’s natural creation (including atmospheric care and thrift in carbon combustion), then I believe that our final destiny at God’s assignment will include God’s ongoing richness of natural creation.

On the other hand, if our values and commitments in the freedom of this life focus solely or mainly on technology and material consumption, I believe it is possible that our final destiny would involve an environment of primarily human-derived features. I don’t know about you, but I choose the destiny of Saints who rely on God’s ongoing creative, infinite goodness more than the limited and flaw-infected creations of humanity no matter how seemingly spectacular and impressive. If we pursue the values of self-creation through consumerism, it’s possible that will be our final destiny. If instead we pursue the values and virtues that serve God and God’s creation, then I believe that we will receive the exceeding overflow of benefits in the eternal destiny of God’s goodness and creativity.

Scientists have their ear to the tracks: they can hear the massive vehicle of climate change off in the distance, but the enormity of the signal they pick up complicates their prediction as to the timing of arrival and magnitude of the effects:

The refugees, the droughts, the famines, the extinctions.

The problems loom catastrophic, and many of the effects of climate change have already begun arriving.

In addition to the cultivation of the virtues of carbon thrift, self-denial, and loyalty to planet and place, I suggest a visualization exercise for atmospheric trusteeship. Of course, carbon dioxide and its gaseous equivalents are not visible, which is part of the problem. However, I’ve begun to visualize products and processes as the “ashes” that result from their production.

When I look at my unconsidered purchases of two gadgets for my kitchen, I wince as I visualize the ashes embedded in their production and operation, and the dust of rust from their obsolescence.

When I see a plane’s contrail (which scientists are still studying as a potential, significant source of global warming), I visualize it as a train of ashes.

The Prophet Isaiah is warning us: Is. 44’s image for the modern combustion-fueled economy is feeding upon ashes.

The vision I want to leave you with is the picture of ashes as the material goods and services one consumes. Ashes of injustice against the poor and other species, ashes of the futility for material consumption to enable happiness and satisfaction.

Try visualizing ashes yourself, and you may find your resistance to the carbon combustion-intensive tragedy increasing and your participation in it abating.

Radical political and social change is necessary, but even more so is rapid change in personal lifestyle practices and responsibility.

Our children and grandchildren are begging, poignantly begging, that we panic over global warming, but panic with purpose. Let’s turn aside their basis for grievance against us.

We can have vast carbon-fueled luxuries, or we can give our children and their children a decent life. We can’t have both.

Let us stop grazing on society’s consumer ashes.

Let us learn instead to embrace and Kiss the Sky. AMEN.

[1] Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK. “Calendar of Torah and Haftarah Readings: 5779 – 5781/2018 – 2021.” The Movement for Reform Judaism, 2017. Accessed April 13, 2019.

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