Shishmaref is a fishing village in Alaska on an island only three miles long and a quarter-mile wide in the Chuckchi Sea, just north of the Bering Strait. The village has 560 residents and one church—an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation. It’s the same denomination as our neighbors over at Gloria Dei and Zion Lutheran churches.
Shishmaref is the kind of place where nothing seems to change. For generations, the people have been hunting and fishing for food like their ancestors. But slowly, the island has been changing.
A few years ago, in a letter to the US Department of the Interior, twenty-year-old Shishmaref native Esau Sinnok wrote about the situation: “Over the past 35 years, we’ve lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet of land to costal erosion. In the past 15 years, we had to move 13 houses from one end of the island to the other because of this loss of land. Within the next two decades, the whole island will erode completely.”
In August 2016, the residents actually voted to move the entire village inland after homes began falling into the sea due to land erosion from the lack of barrier ice. Confronting the new reality that many people in many places are encountering, they voted to stay together, to endure.
Communities matter. Especially in the face of devastation brought on by our changing climate, communities matter. The good news in these days is that people are going to great lengths to protect and strengthen our communities. It’s become increasingly clear to me that one key to our survival is flourishing communities—organized groups of people: voluntary organizations, churches, neighborhoods, blocks, business associations, political parties, towns, and cities.
The 2018 Iowa Climate Statement was signed by a record 201 science faculty and researchers from 37 Iowa colleges and universities. Addressing the need to design both buildings and communities for the future climate in Iowa, the statement says: “Climate change in already here, and it is affecting people, plants, animals, and large sectors of our economy….By midcentury heat wave temperatures in Iowa will increase by 7 degrees Fahrenheit for the average year….The strongest rainfall events of the year covering areas as large as a third of Iowa are projected to double in intensity by mid-century, with most of this change coming before 2025.”
Houses and other buildings in Iowa will need to withstand a hotter and more humid climate that will include more frequent and extreme storms and dry spells. More trees are needed as are local plans for runoff management and other flood mitigation actions.
We need not travel to the Arctic, or to Somalia, or to Pakistan to see both the effects of climate change and the need for action now. We need only travel across our state.
During the adult education session this morning, one of the signatories of the Iowa Climate Statement, our own Chuck Connerly, helped us think about the importance of building sustainable communities.
I used that word, “sustainable,” when I invited Chuck to talk. It’s the “go-to” word when talking about climate change. The University has an Office of Sustainability. In recent weeks we’ve had adult education sessions on sustainable building and sustainable living.
But I recently re-read something by Bill McKibben that suggested a little course correction in the words we use. He says: “The problem is that we lack the vocabulary we need for our new life in this new world.” So we often use what McKibben calls the “squishy” word sustainable, with its implied claim that we can keep on as pretty much as we have been, but, you know, sustaining things. As alternatives he offers five words that might help in our thinking about the future and in developing the kinds of communities that we need:
You don’t have to remember these—I used them as the title of this sermon so that you’d have them in print to reflect on in the days ahead.
These words, McKibben, says, are “squat, solid, stout words. They are words we associate with maturity, not youth; with steadiness, not flash. They aren’t exciting, but they are comforting.”
They also are good descriptions of the kinds of communities we discover in scripture—communities from the past that might help us so that we can move into an uncertain future with hope.
Yes, both the book of Joshua and the Acts of the Apostles give us idealized pictures of these groups, not necessarily historical records. As the notes about the book of Joshua in my Bible put it: “The book’s presentation of reality does not necessarily reflect the actual course of events.” This is not “fake news”—what we find in scripture are theological interpretations of what happened, religious pictures of what was that show us how we, too, might model the durability, sturdiness, stability, hardiness, and robustness that will be needed in the years ahead.
The Book of Joshua tells us of the people who have endured slavery in Egypt and decades in the wilderness coming into the land promised to Abraham and Sarah centuries earlier. As the story nears its end, Joshua, their leader after the death of Moses, gathers the people together.
After reminding the people of God's promise and God's providence, Joshua presents them with a final opportunity.
“Choose this day,” Joshua demands, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
It can be the gods of your ancestors—the old way of doing things.
You can seek to preserve the musty relic of the piety of past generations.
You can serve the gods all around: success, power, status, appearance.
You can worship at the many altars that promise much but take everything.
Or you can serve the living God.
It is always a choice rather than an obligation, a commitment rather than a commandment, a covenant rather than a mandate.
Those who were given that choice were a diverse group. Some would have known the time in Egypt. Some would have known the trials of the wilderness.
Many others would have joined these people at some point along the journey. They hadn’t been a part of the group forever. They didn’t have all the shared experiences.
It is the choice, however—“We also will serve the LORD who is our God”—that makes these disparate people one people, heirs of the covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
A robust community is not an insulated group but one that is open to new people, new visions, new ways of moving toward shared goals. A stable community is not one that never changes, but one that exhibits stability over time as it draws in new members and successfully adapts to the changing world of which it is a part.
Community develops when diverse people come together for common purposes while respecting one another. Community happens when individual preferences and agendas give way to a larger, more compelling, shared vision. A durable community flourishes because it is open the people that have been excluded.
Reflecting on the anthem, “Cornerstone,” that the choir sang this morning, its composer, Shawn Kirchner said:
The people at the margins—of any family, of any religious community, of any society—are never marginal. They matter in every way. They are central to the future of the whole. The latent positive energy trapped within the situation that resulted in their marginalization is powerful enough to build a whole new world. Humanity has barely scratched the surface of its capacity for cooperation. To contemplate the blocked positive energy in all of the personal, communal, and societal conflicts that are as yet unhealed, is to contemplate an extraordinary supply of energy quite sufficient to build “a whole new world.”
That’s the kind of energy we need for these days. Building community is not always easy, but it is essential for the future of this new world.
The theologian and social ethicist, James Luther Adams, spent his life and his career in Unitarian congregations and at Harvard Divinity School exploring and extolling the importance of voluntary organizations—congregations and other groups in which people freely assemble. Adams felt that participation in such organizations was a primary way in which social change occurred. “Church,” he said, “is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human.”
We practice openness to others here so that we can live with and encourage such openness in other communities. As we work to make this congregation a sturdy community, as we receive with gladness the gift of robust community that this congregation already is, we are building something that endures, something of lasting value that can support us as we seek to be a part of other communities as well.
We read the idealized picture of the early church in the book of Acts, where we are told: “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…everything they owned was held in common…[and] there was not a needy person among them.” They seem to be living out the words of the psalmist that we spoke this morning: “How good and pleasant it is, when the community lives together in unity!”
As I suggested, the reality of the church was—and is—much more complex. Even in Acts we learn that greed, selfishness, lies and the quest for power could be found in those communities of faith.
In the church—and in all of our communities—we cannot escape the reality of sin.
Sometimes sin shows itself in pride, in a desire to dominate.
Sometimes sin shows itself in humility, in a desire to “help.”
At its root, our sin is not a specific action but the alienation that we know—our separation from the best in ourselves, from one another, and from God. That separation is a fact of our existence and part of the reality of our life together. We aren’t always the nice, likeable people that we think we are. We aren’t always kind to one another. We disappoint each other and ourselves.
Shawn Kirchner gives the example of Elias Chacour, the Palestinian Archbishop, who writes of the release of this trapped energy in his book Blood Brothers. Presiding over a bitterly divided village, Chacour is at his wit’s end to help reconcile his people. Finally, in a stroke of desperate inspiration, at the end of a dismal Palm Sunday service he locks the double doors of the church, and pledges to hold the feuding congregation there until they forgive each other. After long minutes, a brave man stands and asks for forgiveness for hating his own brothers. The floodgates of reconciliation open, and, as Chacour recounts, the church is transformed into “a chaos of embracing and repentance.”
The often difficult ability to forgive is essential for a robust community.
At their best, congregations are like this. At our best, this congregation is like this.
But, as we know, it takes work to develop this kind of sturdy, open community, doesn’t it?
So we keep at it here and in other places, seeking to create communities that will shape the future as much as a changing climate is shaping both our present and our future. It is an act of hope to live this way.
As a Christian community we live in the faith and hope that God is redeeming us—remaking us into new people for a new world.