Amos 5:8-15, 24
“It really boils down to this,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, in a 1967 sermon on Christmas Eve—what proved to be the last Christmas sermon he would ever preach: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” [i]
Slowly, that awareness has been dawning on most people. Over fifty years later we have discovered that our lives and our choices affect not only unknown people in unknown places but also the polar icecaps, the Pacific coral reefs, and even the drinking water of Iowans. As climate change continues to impact our world and our lives, this morning I want to work backwards to help illuminate some of the connections between all things and what our interconnectedness tells us about the way forward.
Let us start where we are this morning. As you know, our Mission Board is sponsoring a series of Sunday morning adult education classes on climate change and how we might respond as individuals and as a congregation. Most of the leaders of these sessions are members of this congregation. This tells us that we are not coming late to this discussion. Out of faith and concern for the future of this world, we have been thinking about climate change and responding to it professionally and personally for some time.
And we are part of a denomination, the United Church of Christ, that has long called for action on climate change.
You might know that our national church meeting occurs every other year—it’s called the General Synod. When the General Synod issues a resolution, we say that it is speaking to the church, rather than for the church. Our consent to what the General Synod says is not mandated—you know that one of the unofficial mottos of Congregationalists is “Nobody is going to tell me what to do or believe”—but we are called to give serious consideration to such statements.
At the General Synod in 2017, as the current administration was defunding the Environmental Protection Agency and just days after it had announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, our denomination recalled that one of its Core Purposes is to “serve God in the co-creation of a just and sustainable world.” It issued a resolution calling on congregations and every person of faith to set a moral example through our words and actions. “As individuals and as communities,” it said, “let us commit to making decisions of integrity in our energy choices, undoing the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color, indigenous communities, and poor white communities around the world even as we commit to hold all our religious, political, corporate, and global leaders accountable to do the same.”
How are you—how are we—living up to that?
Another part of this resolution called on clergy to accept the “mantle of moral leadership” on this issue,” stating: “Now is the time for clergy to speak from their pulpits about the moral obligation of our generation to protect God’s creation. Let the world know that whatever the current American administration may say or do, we who follow Jesus will not back away from God’s call to protect our common home.”[ii]
How am I living up to that?
Yes, I know I’ve preached at least one sermon on climate change in the time I’ve been here. But I’ve given other issues far greater attention. I’ve certainly addressed gun violence, same-sex marriage, the refugee crisis, and immigration issues more from the pulpit. But as the old hymn says: “New occasions teach new duties.” Now is the time.
Ten years earlier, in 2007, our General Synod meeting warned that “experts speak with a profound sense of urgency and clearly state that the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change is rapidly diminishing.” It added that “the predicted impact of global warming will have a disproportionate impact on those living in poverty, least developed countries, the elderly and children and those least responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases” and urged
recommitment to the Christian vocation of responsible stewardship of God's creation.”[iii]
Did you hear in both the 2017 and 2007 resolutions the concern that communities of color and poor people around the world will bear the greatest burdens from climate change?
Since 1982—for over thirty-five years—the United Church of Christ has been raising similar concerns and making people aware of the need for environmental justice.
Through the leadership of the Rev. Leon White, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., and the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice, the United Church of Christ served as the leading organizational force in the birth of the environmental justice movement.
In the late 1970s a group of residents formed the Warren County Citizens Concerned (WCCC) to protest the state of North Carolina’s designation of a landfill in their county for the disposal of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a toxic chemical substance whose production was banned by Congress in 1979. With a population that was roughly 62% African-American, no other county in the state had a higher percentage of African American residents—roughly 62%—and only a few of the state’s one hundred counties could claim higher poverty rates. The placement of the landfill became to be regarded as an instance “environmental racism.”
Both White and Chavis ultimately played leading roles when in September of 1982, the first trucks carrying PCB contaminated soil drove into Warren County but were met by hundreds of protestors who laid down on the highway to prevent their arrival. On the first day of action, 55 protestors were arrested. The protests lasted six weeks and by the end, 523 arrests were made.
Under the leadership of Chavis, the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice issued its landmark 1987 report Toxic Waste and Race. The study found that race rose to the top among variables associated with the location of a toxic waste facility. Three out of five Black and Hispanic Americans lived in a community that housed what the EPA called an “uncontrolled toxic waste site,” a closed or abandoned site that posed a threat to human health and the environment.
The UCC has actively provided support to a variety of grassroots groups addressing specific instances of environmental racism such as hog farming in North Carolina, the environmental destruction from military activities in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and pollution along the Mexico-US border. [iv]
The United Church of Christ has a long history of involvement in environmental issues. And we find the roots of this action in the ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In a speech at the EPA marking King’s birthday, Former US Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out that by the late sixties, it had become clear to Dr. King and his supporters that integrating schools and public spaces, securing voting rights, and advancing the Civil Rights Act did not solve a series of other problems. People of color still suffered, unequally, from the prevalence of toxic substances in their neighborhoods. Poor communities of color were more likely to be home to hazardous facilities. Residents in these communities were not only living in our country’s most polluted places – they were often doing the dirtiest, most dangerous work.
In March of 1968, Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to lead black sanitation workers in a strike. As part of his growing environmental and economic justice mission, he returned to Memphis several days later, where he planned to march with these workers again on April 5th – a day he would not live to see. [v]
Dr. King did not have the chance to witness the impact of the movement he began. But he left us with the growing awareness that “all life is interrelated” and that, as he said in the Christmas Eve sermon: “We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”
And, of course, King’s growing sense of interconnectedness finds its own roots in the biblical tradition and particularly in the Hebrew prophets.
Writing from the Birmingham jail, speaking on the National Mall, and on many other occasions, King echoed the stirring call of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like and everflowing stream.” We heard those words that remind us of the power of water again this morning.
For Amos, the call to justice, the imperative to seek good and not evil grows out of the creation understanding that the earth is God’s and the fulness thereof.
Who is it that calls us to “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate?”
It is, Amos tells us, “The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth.” It is the God who creates and sustains all things.
Creation is not a scientific explanation but rather a theological interpretation of reality. We on this beautiful and wondrous planet are a small part of the great web of Being that includes the distant constellations and the intricacies of the atom. Made in the image of God, we are given two tasks: care for this creation, this earth, our home and love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the way our universe is structured; this is its interrelated quality.
This weekend, amid the cold and the snow, as we give thanks for the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us remember how near the end of his life he didn’t so much pointed us in a new direction as he helped us see that when we struggle for the civil rights of people, when we seek peace in a world of war, when we work for economic justice, we are walking the path of concern for and commitment to all human beings as well as the entire planet on which we live. We hear the call to care for this earth out of the faith that this is God’s creation and that we are the stewards of this planet, responsible for the wise use of all things on it.
“It really boils down to this,” Martin Luther King, Jr. told us over fifty years ago—and even now we are only beginning to understand and live into the truth he proclaimed. “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”