"The Birds and the Bees and the Life in the Seas"

Lamentations 5:19-22

Luke 12:6-7, 24

It was one of those weeks when the possibilities for sermons just kept popping up.

The rise and fall of Iowa’s Carson King, whose quest for beer money snowballed into—what?—over a million dollars for the Stead Family Children’s Hospital only to have racially offensive social media posts from his teen years surface, followed by the rise and fall of the Des Moines Register reported who uncovered the posts, only to have his own earlier racially offensive posts uncovered, called for a reflection on accountability and forgiveness, on privacy and public life and left me wondering what both of those people were thinking.

By the end of the week, well, it was the President’s phone calls and the whistleblower complaint and the beginning of a congressional inquiry that grabbed our attention as people talked about accountability and privacy and I was left both wondering what the people in the White House were thinking and a being little astonished that twice in my career I would be preaching as a president faces impeachment.

Those issues and others need to wait for something more pressing—what we have done and what we have left undone is being called to accountability by the earth, our home, by the earth, which does not care, which is not  forgiving.

We’ve been marking the relatively new liturgical Season of Creation in these recent weeks. We are reminded almost daily that the future of our planet is in jeopardy. So this morning, I want to continue to focus on the care of creation and both the challenges and the hope that we encounter even now.

We listened this morning as the prophet cried out in lamentation: Have you, o God, forgotten us completely?...Restore us to yourself that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry beyond measure.”

Heard in our contemporary world, those words sound like a plea that we might yet renew our relationship with the earth and that the earth itself might be restored by our new actions in the same way that our current actions are destroying it—unless things have progressed too far already.

Last Monday, Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old Swedish high school student addressed the United Nations on the issue of climate change. Thunberg lives with autism and with a fiery passion for the future of the world. She has received a lot of attention and publicity in recent weeks.

I’m fascinated by the photograph that shows her at the first student climate strike that she organized. It was just Thunberg, all by herself, sitting with a sign outside of the Swedish Parliament.

Now the student climate strike is a worldwide movement.

And her speech to the United Nations?

Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development in London, said: “Speaking as a climate change scientist who has been working on this issue for 20 years and saying the same thing for 20 years, she is getting people to listen, which we have failed to do.”

Sally Benson, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University, said: “She has been a catalytic leader…she’s creating a movement where young people are pushing communities, cities, states and corporations and saying, ‘we’re not going to wait.’”[i]

We are seeing again the power of one individual to bring change.

I’m not trying to make Thunberg into a flawless hero, because we constantly learn, as we did again last week, how each of us and all of us are flawed human beings.

But last week her work and her speech reminded me of a theological tension.

At the Divinity School friends in a church history class told of learning about synteresis. It’s the Latin word for what some regard as the “spark of good” in each person that allows us to choose the right, the good.

In my class on John Calvin, however, I learned about the Calvinist claim of “total depravity”—the sense that each of us—and all human beings—are captive to sin and unable, apart from the grace of God, to seek or choose the good.

My guess is that each of us could point to any number of experiences—even in the past week—that would confirm either synteresis or total depravity. And while I lean toward “total depravity” as a good explanation of most things, along with others, I see examples of goodness and compassion that seem to arise spontaneously in people of all ages. And yet, on any given day, in any given week—maybe especially last week—we also see what appears to be only callous self-interest and disregard for others.

The spark of good.

Total depravity.

Hold those two in tension for the coming minutes.

As we look around at the earth and its threatened life in this Season of Creation, theology can help us.

Consider, as Jesus suggests, the birds of the air.

Maybe you read the recent report announcing that birds are vanishing across North America. Over the past 50 years, the number of birds has declined by some three billion. Nearly 30% of the birds in the United States and Canada—gone. A similar decline has occurred in Europe.

A decrease in the number of sparrows  or blackbirds isn’t as readily noticed and doesn’t cause the same kind of general alarm as the decline of, say, bald eagles. But the impact on ecosystems is much greater. The common birds control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds, and regenerate forests.

Development has been a cause of this decline. Every field plowed under, every wetland drained, every new housing tract—think of the west side of Iowa City over the past fifty years—results in a loss of birds.

So, too, does the use of pesticides. Rachel Carson warned us of this decades ago in Silent Spring—but here we are. Neonicotinoids in particular have been found to make it harder for birds to put on the weight needed for migration.[ii]

Jesus gave his followers as wonderful image of God’s love: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight…Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

It is, perhaps, a great boost to our self-esteem to remember this. But let us also keep in mind the great love in which God holds even the insignificant sparrow. If even the least in all creation is held in such care, should we not show a similar concern and compassion?

Consider, too, the bees of the air.

Honey bees — wild and domestic — perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but fruits, nuts and vegetables are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops — which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition — are pollinated by bees. And the bees, like the birds, are declining. The National Agriculture Statistics Service shows a honey bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60 percent reduction.

Scientific studies are inconclusive right now, but there is much that suggests that the same pesticides harming the birds—neonicotinoids—are also harming the bees. As one person put it: “In the last four years, the chemical industry has spent $11.2 million on a PR initiative to say it’s not their fault, so we know whose fault it is.”[iii] Obviously someone who believes in total depravity.

I know that it can be dangerous for a minister in Iowa to raise the issue of pesticides and their impact on animals, land, and water. But we need to look at, to consider what is happening so that we might find new ways forward that will allow people to be fed and that will allow the pollinators to do their work as well.

As we consider the birds and the bees, let us also consider life in the seas.

A report this past week from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that “Climate change is already having staggering effects on oceans and ice-filled regions that encompass 80 percent of the Earth, and future damage from rising seas and melting glaciers is now all but certain. The warming climate is supercharging monster storms, and fueling deadly marine heat waves and record losses of sea ice. Such effects foreshadow a more catastrophic future as long as greenhouse gas emissions remain unchecked.”[iv]

As grim as that sounds, we are finding hope in the seas.

Recently, Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, suggested that we look not only at the problems of the oceans but also at the solutions that can be found in the seas.

She finds opportunities “to sequester carbon in coastal habitat by restoring mangrove forests, salt marshes, and sea grass beds, which, though disappearing, have the potential to store more carbon than land-based systems per unit area. That restoration will also make the seas healthier, boosting fisheries by protecting and creating habitat used as nurseries for juveniles of many species.

“There are ways to reduce emissions from shipping and fishing activities, to take advantage of the ocean’s biological pump (which moves carbon to the sea floor as biological life dies and drifts downward), get renewable energy from the ocean itself, and to shift human diets toward seafood, which is less resource-intensive and healthier than land-based meat diets.”

“It is time,” she says, “to change our narrative around the ocean.”[v]

In his latest attempt to spur action, U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres, told world leaders last Tuesday: “The climate emergency is a race we are losing — but it is a race we can win if we change our ways now.”[vi]

The UN report tells us that “given current emissions levels, a number of serious effects are essentially unavoidable.” Yet even at this late date, scientists say the world still has time to avert even more severe consequences.[vii]

Here, then, is where I began to find hope in the past week—a hope that can carry and sustain in the days ahead. It is a hope that suggests a spark of good still to be found in humankind—or if not, perhaps we can sense that the grace of the living God is at work to overcome our depravity and tendency toward the alienation that is sin.

In our own nation and around the world, scientists are looking at the facts and working tirelessly to address climate change. They are doing this in the face of political and economic opposition. They are doing this even in the face of all that we who consider ourselves so enlightened on these issues continue to do daily to increase our carbon footprints.

In our own nation and around the world, young people are calling for change. They are doing this in the face of political and economic opposition. They are doing this in the face of a culture of denial. And they are finally being heard.

Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said something, well, theological, recently. He said: “There’s a really dangerous arrogance to the notion of hopelessness. Total hopelessness assumes that we know everything there is to know. … When we think we know everything, we preclude opportunity.”

And so I dare to hope. And I invite you into that same living hope.

We don’t know everything there is to know.

We listened this morning as the prophet cried out in lamentation: Have you, o God, forgotten us completely?...Restore us to yourself that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry beyond measure.”

As long as there are birds in the air, we have a reminder that God has not rejected us, that the Creator is not angry beyond measure and continues to call us to care for creation.

Let us hope. Let us speak. Let us act.

One person can still make a difference.

Think of what all of us can do together.


[i] https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/climate-scientists-say-greta-thunberg-s-efforts-are-building-real-ncna1059321

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/science/bird-populations-america-canada.html

[iii] https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/save-the-bees/

[iv] https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2019/09/25/new-un-climate-report-massive-change-already-here-worlds-oceans-frozen-regions/

[v] https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/panel-discussion-honoring-james-mccarthy-brings-experts-and-innovative-ideas-to-campus/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily%20Gazette%2020190923%20(1)

[vi] https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2019/09/25/new-un-climate-report-massive-change-already-here-worlds-oceans-frozen-regions/

[vii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2019/09/25/new-un-climate-report-massive-change-already-here-worlds-oceans-frozen-regions/