Envisioning the Future


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

December 29, 2019

Texts: Psalm 147:1–11; Luke 2: 21–40

        "The land is going away," said Shelton Kokeok, an older Inuit in Alaska, whose home is on the tip of a bluff that's been melting in part because of climate change. "I think it's going to vanish one of these days." In another part of Alaska, climate change has already impacted many small Inuit towns and villages. The indigenous people of Alaska have stood firm against some of the most extreme weather conditions on Earth for thousands of years. But now, flooding blamed on climate change is forcing at least one Eskimo village to move to safer ground.

        After voting to relocate, the community of the tiny coastal village of Newtok is now packing its possessions and the 380 residents are now moving to the new home, nine miles away, up the Ninglick River. The village, home to indigenous Yup'ik Eskimos, is the first of possibly scores of threatened Alaskan com-munities that could be abandoned. Warming temper-atures are melting coastal ice shelves and frozen sub-soils, which act as natural barriers to protect the village against summer deluges from ocean storm surges.

       "We are seeing the erosion, flooding and sinking of our village right now," said Stanley Tom, a Yup'ik Eskimo and tribal administrator for the Newtok Tradi-tional Council. The crisis is unique because its devast-ating effects creep up on communities, eating away at their infrastructure, unlike with sudden natural dis-asters such as wildfires, earthquakes or hurricanes. 

       The residents of Newtok are among the first of climate-change refugees. Thawing permafrost and sinking land has forced these residents to finally move. Almost twenty years ago they realized that something was terribly, terribly wrong on the land. They know we do not face climate change but a climate crisis that will displace 150 million people by 2050. This is not some dystopian fairy tale; this is real and affects real people living now. And the problems do not exist just in Alaska but in all countries with rising sea levels.

       In our reading from Luke this morning, Jesus already shows his independence from the expected norms of a child. He’s already feisty, and, in some households his retort would have been considered talking back, worthy of punishment or at least a reprimand. Adults, we of the older generation, have polite discussions while those of the younger gener-ation move out into action. There are times when governmental or societal powers want to hold them back, have them behave like us, rather than going off and doing what we would consider foolish things. But the Greta Thunbergs of the world will not be held back by restraint or nasty tweets from ignorant leaders who go bump in the night.

        Ah, how we forget what we were like forty or fifty years ago when burning issues of the day pro-pelled us into action. Some of those burning issues are still with us: racism, government secrecy, corruption, environmental degradation, to name a few. For many of us living here in New Jersey, the issue of climate change as a result of global warming is not just a possibility that might take place in the distant future. It is a real and frightening probability as we see the sea levels rise along our own shoreline while greedy devel-opers push for more so-called luxury housing with views of the water. They may get their views of the water, all right, possibly in their own living rooms.

        The Climate Action Summit and the Youth Climate Summit just held this December in Madrid called for nations to bring real plans to address the crisis we now face. We have been stuck in an old paradigm for too many years. The 1997 Kyoto agree-ment called for the rich nations––that includes us in the United States––to cut carbon emissions. Called a treaty, the Congress refused to ratify it, citing “harm to the U.S. economy” so dependent on big oil and coal lobby. There’s a reason these are called fossil fuels––fossilized thinking among them.

       Some of us here have grandchildren and one among us even has a great-grandchild, and most of us here want a world that is better for them than it has been for us. It is this that drives us into supporting alternative energy sources, which, quite frankly, if members of Congress from the coal producing states really looked into the future, they would see changing the economies of their states not just a necessity but a welcome benefit. But the minds against acknowledg-ment of climate change are short-sided, small, and probably stupid as well.

        How is it that we can envision a future? Based on our current approach toward the climate crisis, the Rutgers University Department of Earth Sciences issued a report which provides a dire warning for our 130 miles of shoreline as well as Trenton and Camden, cities affected by river flooding. The not-so cheery projection is 1.7 feet by 2030 along much of the shoreline. 

        That doesn’t sound like much until you realize that as salt water moves into areas that were once totally fresh water fed, trees and fish die and the landscape changes irrevocably. But the builders and developers still forge along and towns greedy for revenue permit them to build where they should not.

I fear that we in New Jersey have been lulled into magical thinking because we have not had a major storm since Sandy in 2012. 

        As we envision our future, we must take hold of this question, which is paramount to the survival of so many species on earth. And, more often than not, impertinent youth, like Jesus, are leading the way. Look at Greta Thunberg, who will be 17 years old next week on January 3. She speaks for the future not the past. The question is: will the politicians listen?

         The Gospel reading this morning has a young Jesus just as impertinent as Greta and the many other climate activists who have joined her. Chided by his parents just as the old often chide the young, Jesus retorts with a statement that puts off the anxious parents. While I was waiting for a flight from Helsinki to Copenhagen back in 2013, I began talking with a young woman who was volunteering for Greenpeace. You know that group––they go after whalers and oil companies through direct action on the high seas. She was on her way to music festivals to sign up young people to alert us to the real dangers of climate change. In the Nordic countries, caribou and reindeer are heading further north earlier without the susten-ance to support them.

         The Nordic countries and Germany have moved toward total renewable energy. Wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and some low level nuclear have reduced the dependence on fossil fuels. This past August a joint Nordic study looked at the importance of wind and alternate energy for their region. Tiny Denmark pro-duces more energy than it can consume and actually sells excess energy to other countries. 

         This stands, of course, in contrast to this past week’s invective on wind power causing cancer to which Steven Colbert responded that all of Holland must be dead. Seriously, though, attacks on low-water use toilets and LED lightbulbs reflect more than what seems to be just a desire to support a fossil fuel economy. 

         Some of this ties into the anger over wind tur-bines on the Scottish coast and a President’s desire to build a golf course in Scotland with a clear view of nothing but water. If he is so concerned about turbines killing birds why did this administration eliminate pen-alties for companies that kill birds as a result of their industrial practices? 

         The appeal is actually to something deeper, just as it was with Jesus in the temple speaking to teachers of the law. None of us like being shown up by people who are so much younger than ourselves. Most of us don’t like change, the real changes that affect the way we are used to living. 

          Let me give you one small example. The town where I live, Plainfield, set up a new recycling plan: one week would be paper and another week plastic and metal. One month into these changes and you would have thought the world was coming to an end. At a meeting of the PMUA, the local authority that handles all our trash dozens of people came out to complain. Dozens. When a rate hike was proposed, only a half dozen showed up to ask how the hike was connected to the salaries of the Authority adminis-trators and board. 

         In a more stratified culture as existed in the Palestine of the first century, the idea of a twelve-year-old Jesus teaching the teachers would have caused more consternation. Jesus represented the future, a future that many in his time could not have imagined. Those teachers probably had different ideas, not to mention other interpretations of the meaning of the Scriptures. Most probably looked for old solutions to their plight of being ruled by Rome. Jesus would offer another way.

        As we envision the future we must listen to the voices of the young so often more impatient than we are. It also means seriously planning for it. We can really do the same in spite of the know nothings who try to dominate our political landscape. We simply need to make those commitments to the kind of action that is required. We’ve done it before and with God’s help we can do it again.

          Let us pray: Holy and creating God, you have given us this earth and its resources so that we might be its stewards. May we have the willpower and energy to continue caring for it as you care for us. In the name of him who points the way to a new way to live, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.