Envisioning the Future


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

December 30, 2018

Texts: Psalm 145:1-13; 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.

        In 2015  the community of the tiny coastal village of Newtok voted to relocate its 450 residents to new homes 9 miles away, up the Ninglick River. The village, home to indigenous Yup'ik Eskimos, was 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 Traditional Council. The crisis is unique because the devastating effects creep up on communities, eating away at their infrastructure, unlike with sudden natural disasters such as wildfires, earthquakes or hurricanes. Newtok is just one example of what the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned is part of a growing climate change crisis that will displace 150 million people by 2050. Last year the village asked the Federal government to declare it a disaster area as the permafrost melts and buildings begin to crumble.

          Needless to say, the cost will be astronomical: between $80 and $130 million to replace the infras-tructure for the village which considers it essential to its identity to relocate as a unit. Who could have foreseen this disaster in the making? Actually, quite a few foresaw it. Prophets in their time.

         Prophets. Scripture presents us with several kinds of prophets. One is the person who interprets the will of God, speaking authoritatively to the people; another is a person who sees into the future. Sometimes one merges into the other. Prophets tell us, they reveal something about God, about our rela-tionship to God, about ourselves. We use the word “prophetic” to describe these qualities. And we gen-erally we use that word to describe such a person after he or she has died; while he lived Martin Luther King was not thought of as a prophet, just a royal pain. Death does wonderful things for people––improves their standing in the world.

         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, corrup-tion, 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 developers push for more so-called luxury housing with views o the water. They may get their views of the water, all right, possibly in their own living rooms.

        The 21-page agreement drafted under the aegis of the United Nations spells out the reality of climate change, something the know-nothings in our society want to deny. We have been stuck in an old paradigm for many years. The 1997 Kyoto agreement called for the rich nations––that means 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 the coal lobby. There’s a reason these are called fossil fuels––fossil-ized thinking among them.

         Some of us here have grandchildren and one among us will 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 support-ing 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 at their states a not just a necessity but as a welcome benefit. But the minds against acknowledgment of climate change are short-sided, small, and probably stupid as well.

        In this morning’s reading, the infant Jesus is the subject of two prophetic utterances. One of them, known as the Nunc Dimittis, “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” is the Canticle of Simeon; this lovely poetry attributed to Simeon has been set to music by various composers, most famously by Thomas Tallis, and is a part of the Anglican service of evening prayer. Like many of the stories in Luke’s infancy narratives, it is the subject of paintings and frescoes by Bellini and Fra Angelico. This short narra-tive continues Luke’s theme of universal salvation––not just salvation for the Jews. The second part of our reading, the revelation by the prophet Anna was used in the early church to support the proposition that women, too, had something to say about salvation and redemption, a theme that also runs throughout Luke’s Gospel.

          Nice stories, but what do they say to us today? What can we glean from this short reading about our understanding of how God wants us to live our lives?  First, I believe that the writer is telling us that no one, no one is without redemption no matter what has occurred in the past. No matter how we have lived over this past year, no matter what we have done––or not done––we are not without redemption. God always gives us an opportunity to begin again. But Simeon’s words tell us something else for after the lovely canticle, he warns us that there is a cost to redemption, and that cost is giving up what we have thought ourselves to be up until the present time. We must give up our illusions about ourselves.

       All of us have illusions about ourselves. We may have certain qualities, such as intelligence, abilities, even goodness, but these qualities become illusions when we think that our good––or bad––qualities define us. And it is very dangerous when we believe our illusions about ourselves.

         We have individual illusions and images. The loss of a job can trigger some really painful adjust-ments in our image of ourselves; retirement does the same thing. It is really painful to let go of the past. We have social illusions. If you read the new “Living In Monmouth County” magazine, you might think we have only the new rich, spending money like crazy and great downtowns like Red Bank. The reality, of course, is quite different. Red Bank is more than Coco Pari and the restaurants that dot Broad Street, just as Middletown is more than Hovanian housing develop-ments. And we have national illusions full of compet-ing ideals of what we once were and can be. Shaking free from any illusion causes pain because it’s more than shedding our skin.

         But this passage in Luke tells us that it is truly possible to let go of the past and to look into a new future for ourselves. Not only is it possible, but it is required. We no longer need to see ourselves as victims but as people who have the power to change our future. Sometimes the world seems so over-whelming. I mean, what can we, that is, you and I, do about global warming, for instance? It’s an issue that seems so large, so beyond our control. But each one of us has the power to make small changes in our lives that result in redirecting our society. If we use less energy, buy fuel efficient vehicles, recycle what is recyclable, then our individual behavior can not only make a dent but can result in national changes.

           If we shake ourselves free from our illusions of what we can and cannot do, then we can with God’s help make changes in our lives. I’m not just talking about New Year’s resolutions, but about changes on a deeper level, on the level of the spirit. As I said before, shaking ourselves free sometimes is painful––perhaps almost always. Vision is not enough. It’s not enough to stare into the heavens; we actually have to begin to climb the stairs. One way to begin climbing the stairs is to deepen our prayer life.

          We usually think of prayer as asking God for something. Prayer is actually a conversation with God. We listen, we listen some more, and then we re-spond. Our response to God is not measured in words but in deeds, how we actually live, how we actually love. Simeon’s Canticle gives us a clue––God’s revelation and promise of redemption is not just to us, but to all people. So, how do we respond? By letting go of our illusions of the past and moving into the future.

         Let us pray: Gracious and Eternal God, who gives us the promise of new life, help us to shake free from the illusions that bind us, embrace the love you share with us, and with courage move into your kingdom of justice and mercy. Amen.