Sermon 10/20 Anxiety and Action

Scripture Lesson: Psalm 65
Sermon: Anxiety and Action
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I went to a social justice community organizing event this past week sponsored by
the Florida Council of Churches. At the beginning of the gathering, we were asked
to introduce ourselves and what issues we were working on. Several people,
including me, mentioned they were working on climate change and
environmentalism. After the introductions, we were asked to think about one issue
or experience that got us really mad and worked up. . . Something we are
passionate about.

We all picked our story. When we shared, no one mentioned anything directly or
even tangentially related to climate change or the environment, including me. I
thought about that. Why was this something we are working on but not something
we would mention as a hot button topic? No one said: I am furious that the sea
level is rising. That the coral is dying. That there are fewer birds. That these
continuous extreme weather events are taking lives and costing millions of dollars?
No one said anything like that. I think there are lots of ways to think about this. I
mean, the person next to you mentions how upset he is about the children separated
from their parents and put in detention centers that are less humane than the SPCA.
And then you mention, The glaciers are melting. Yes, the glaciers melting is going
to cause a lot more human suffering than ICE, but somehow it doesn’t sound right.
But I think there is more. I think sometimes, it is just too painful to think about or
talk about the environmental crisis. The climate situation can feel too enormous,
too cataclysmic, too overwhelming. What can we say?

This situation was made manifest in the last debate among Democratic contenders
for the nomination for president. As former candidate Jay Inslee pointed out in a
Not one single question about the climate crisis.
Not one single question about the climate crisis.
Not one single question about the climate crisis.
This is the existential crisis of our time.

Not one single question, and that’s completely inexcusable.

For Christians, this situation is even more fraught because we believe the Earth is
sacred, of God, holy, God’s self disclosure. A gift provided to nurture life and
sustain us. So for us, the unfolding devastation of the planet is even more
problematic for it involves our deepest held religious convictions and beliefs. We
are responsible for devastating the handiwork of God, the Divine masterpiece, the
material expression of the ineffable, the inspiration of awe and wonder and
mystery. So, for people of faith, the environmental crisis may be even more
horrifying and maybe more immobilizing than for the random population. And
we know that a common path of self-protection is denial.

Here, let us turn to the psalm. As we have mentioned in past weeks, the people of
Israel were dealt a devastating blow in the exile to Babylon. Their country was
overrun by the Babylonians and most of the people were deported to Babylon as
the spoils of war. Their country, their capital, Jerusalem, and the Temple were
destroyed. Their homeland lay in rubble and they were devastated. This situation
was seen as punishment for not being faithful to God. They did not follow God’s
way of justice and compassion. They worshipped other gods. They saw this take
over and exile as punishment for their sins against God and one another. They
were overwhelmed with guilt, shame, and regret. They had no idea how to go on.
And so they repent. They re-turn their life as a community to God. They seek
God’s forgiveness. The whole society concedes guilt and seeks mercy. And we
are told in the Psalm, God answers prayer. “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.” There is a public celebration of divine
forgiveness. Later, the people extol, “By awesome deeds you answer us with
deliverance.. . . you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest

The term used for forgiveness in the psalm is a theological rather than a legal term.
It does not just mean pardon in the judicial sense. The term implies the image of
covering the guilt to rob it of its power. When forgiveness is given, guilt and
shame no longer have the power to inflict despair and immobilize the people. The
God with power over the whole Creation also channels that incredible power toward the forgiveness of humans so that the Creation may flourish. The people are
freed by forgiveness to take action directed toward a new future.

The Jewish people survived the exile in Babylon and eventually they were restored
to their land. They rebuilt their society. The power of forgiveness liberates the
people and they rise up, out from under their shame and guilt. They redirect their
energies to faithfulness and eventually they are restored.

To me, this psalm speaks to our situation regarding the climate crisis. We feel
overwhelmed about how to think about this problem and how to address it. There
seems to be no future as we know it, as we would expect it to be. The crisis seems
insurmountable. This is how the Jews felt about their exile to Babylon. They got
out from under the rock of guilt and shame by taking responsibility for their
actions; repenting and seeking forgiveness. The psalm is a celebration of liberated
people who have made it to the other side.

This psalm invites us to consider our need for forgiveness to liberate us so that we
can co-create a new future with God, a future that in some way preserves life as we
know it on this precious planet. A future that results from a vigorous attack on the
current conditions that are contributing to the climate crisis. But forgiveness is not
an easy matter, especially when the actions and decisions of society rather than an
individual are involved. We may be willing to seek forgiveness for a wrong we
have personally committed such as lying or saying something hurtful. But when
the wrong is committed by society as a whole, this is more difficult, though it can
be done. The psalms tell us of corporate forgiveness for the wrongs committed by
society as a whole. Germany went through a process of repentance following the
atrocities of World War 2. South Africa sought reconciliation as it emerged out of
the apartheid system. We do not have a good example of this kind of collective
repentance in US history. Lincoln sought that kind of response following the Civil
War but because of his assassination those ideals were never fully implemented.

In thinking about collective repentance in the modern United States, Walter
Brueggemann, premier biblical scholar and theologian, has this to say. He wrote this in 1984 in reference to Psalm 65: “Let us not miss the dramatic claim. The
whole people (together with the king, presumably) concedes its guilt and celebrates
its forgiveness. Such a scene is nearly unthinkable in our public life. Of course,
our society is not a theocracy. Religious pluralism makes it problematic, but the
main problem is not pluralism, for we have sufficient resources in common
religion for that. The problem is that public imagination is so filled with pride,
self-serving complacency, and moral numbness that we could hardly imagine an
act of public repentance or acknowledgment of forgiveness, for to ask for and
receive forgiveness is to be vulnerable. If we were to use this psalm, we might
reflect on the dimensions of guilt which vex public life, e.g., colonialism,
exploitative economics, or misuse of the ecosystem of creation. Our public life is
not lacking material for such a liturgical act.” [Walter Brueggemann, The Message
of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, p. 135]

And that was in 1984. It seems all too clear that this condition has only gotten
worse. Did you notice the three issues Brueggemann raises: colonialism. Have
you read about how the money allocated to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief was
never delivered? Exploitative economics. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders
won’t let us forget about that. Misuse of the ecosystem of Creation. There’s a
climate crisis, as Jay Inslee repeatedly reminds us. These issues from 1984 are still
with us.

While repentance and forgiveness are difficult to conceive of on a societal level, I
think we can consider the process within in the church, within the faith community.
Typically, the church is known for prayers in which we ask God to do things for us.
As the psalmist says, “O you who answer prayer,” So, we pray: Holy God, we ask
for this, we ask for that, we plead for this, we want that. We tell God what we
want and how to fix things. We seek divine intervention. The psalm invites us to
come together with our shame and guilt and fear and make our honest admissions
while opening our hearts to receive forgiveness. This is a public act of
vulnerability rooted in trust. Knowing there is another way, a way of life, in the
wake of devastation. And seeking that new future.

In this, the church can be a model for society: Listening to the shaming words of
prophets like Greta Thunberg. Calling for repentance about the climate crisis and
trusting the God of forgiveness. The process of cleansing, healing and renewal, as
we see in the psalm, will liberate us to joyful praise and radical action. The
considerable energy we spend in denial, in keeping silent, in ignoring the elephant
in the room, in suppressing our horror, guilt, and shame, can be redirected into
creating a different future for ourselves and humanity and the planet. Working for
the mitigation of climate change and environmental devastation. Advocating for
new policies that promote clean energy. Finding creative responses to the
challenges we are facing, instead of simply trying to stay in a losing game.

This process and this power do not only apply to the climate crisis. Repentance
and forgiveness create power that is healing for relationships, injustice, oppression,
and for the soul. When you find yourself stymied around a bad situation, a
relationship, a problem, an issue, maybe what is needed to move forward is
repentance and forgiveness. As the psalm says, “When deeds of iniquity
overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.” And then, “By awesome deeds you
answer us with deliverance. . .” Repentance leads to deliverance. When we are
liberated, we are freed to act.

In society today, people who are concerned about the climate crisis are often seen
as prophets of gloom and doom. Climate activists are seen as unrealistic fanatics.
Later this month, author Nicole Seymour is talking about her book, Bad
Environmentalism, at the Museum of Fine Arts. She explores this negative view of
concern for the environment. Apparently, sociologists have found that the more we
know about alarming issues, the less likely we are to act. And this applies to
climate change. So Seymour is encouraging the use of humor and irreverence and
play to bring attention to environmental issues. We need to work on this from
every front. Unfortunately, I cannot go to Seymour’s talk.

The psalm reminds us that the church has a unique role to play in encouraging
honest repentance to overcome our anxiety about this issue that will lead to
significant action. Our faith gives us a path that is, as the psalm says, “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” The seas that are clogged with
plastic and dying. The Earth that is crying out in fire and storm. We can see this
as a literal hope for the health of the land and the water of the earth. The church
can pursue repentance and make a bold witness as a liberated people energized and
passionate about creating a new world – healthy, safe, sustainable for all flesh, all
forms of life.

In the psalm, the people who praise the power of God made manifest in
forgiveness and in Creation speak from the other side – they have overcome. And
they show us what awaits us when we trust and repent and are empowered. The
power of creativity is seeking to be manifest in us. We are created in the image of
the creating God. We are being called to make amends for the past and seek
reconciliation so that through forgiveness we might be unleashed as a category 5
force in the world. Not timid and scared. But bold with the power of the Divine
that establishes mountains and stills seas.

When we engage in the process of being freed from guilt, shame and fear, we join
creation in the profusion of life –
“The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.”

As we overcome our anxiety and take action to address the climate crisis, we bring
this reality into being. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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