Sermon: Beyond Us

September 16, 2018
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Season of Creation: Sky Sunday
Jeremiah 4:23-28, Psalm 19:1-6

On January 8, 1902, a New York Central Railroad train entered the Park Avenue tunnel on Manhattan Island. The engine burned coal, which heated water to steam, which entered pistons and turned the wheels. Coal smoke and steam then billowed out the stack as the train rolled through the tunnel.

The smoke of his own engine mixed with the smoke left by previous engines, so thick that the engineer could not see the red light of the stop signal. His train rammed a commuter train stopped in the tunnel, and fifteen passengers died.

In the very next year, state legislators in New York passed a law banning steam locomotives and their coal smoke from Manhattan. By 1906, the New York Central Railroad had converted to electric power to bring trains into the city. And the skies overhead, as well as in the tunnels below ground, became just a little bit clearer.

In 1990, the dream of fifty-five years was achieved. East and West Germany re-unified, becoming one nation again after being divided between the eastern and western Allies following World War II. The new government found massive disparities between rich and poor. And they also found a devastated environment. This is an extended quote from the New York Times in April 1990:

“In the bleakness of early spring, the drawn faces and grubby homes take on the grays and browns of the landscape. Acrid smoke from rows of chimneys darkens the streets. The lignite and brown coal that is used to fuel the homes and industrial plants of much of Eastern Europe is cheap and abundant. It is also high in sulfur and ash and intensely dirty.

“For years, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe denied that the coal was a health hazard. Or that steel and chemical works, operating with few or no emission controls, could endanger the environment and human life.

“But the governments knew. The military, watching strategic areas along the borders, noted that the forests were dying, and foresters warned that rain, laden with sulfur, was sapping the life from trees. Physicians and biologists called attention to toxic metals collecting in human tissue and blood; to the many babies born early or with deformities; to the high incidence of asthma, bronchitis, eye and skin ailments and heart disease.”

In the fourth chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet warned – promised, actually, because he was done with warnings by the time he wrote this text – that God’s judgement on the faithless rulers of Jerusalem would affect not just the nation but the entire earth. “Because of this, the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”

It’s quite stunning, isn’t it, that we human beings, ourselves, took that ancient threat and made it into a reality. You’d think that sort of thing would be beyond us, that we did it to ourselves. Yet we did it, we do it, over and over again. The cities of nineteenth century Europe were notorious for their foul air and skies darkened by coal dust. They experienced much higher death rates than the country, partially because of the easy transmission of disease, but modern researchers suspect that a third of those increased deaths were the result of air pollution. England, however, did not regulate air quality until the Great London Smog of 1952, which killed 4,000 people in a week.

Air quality in 19th century Europe was notorious. As notorious as it is in contemporary India. As notorious as it is in Beijing today.

That power is not beyond us.

Learning from the past – I wonder, is that beyond us?

Today’s threat to the sky – and to the water and to the land – is not as visible as the coal dust that coated East Germany, or the daily petrochemical haze that blankets Beijing. We’ve managed to knock down the particle size as we transfer carbon from where it had been stored in trees and coal seams and oil fields and natural gas pockets up into the atmosphere. Average global temperatures have already risen by one degree Celsius. When people began burning coal, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million, as found in trapped air in polar ice. Today it’s over 400 parts per million and climbing.

It’s not beyond us to do this. Is it beyond us to turn back from it? Are the interests of those whose wealth depends on transferring carbon from the ground to the air so powerful that we let it go on and on?

It was, it turned out, beyond God to utterly destroy heaven and earth because of the faithlessness of Jerusalem’s elite. Jeremiah saw it himself. The worst day came in his lifetime: the day that the Babylonian army entered the city, wrecked its walls, destroyed its temple, and ended the independent nation. And the next day, the sun rose. There was a dawn. The sky was blackened by rising smoke, I have no doubt – but it was not a full end.

If it had been, we would not be reading that gloomy prophet’s words today.

Jeremiah himself turned to speaking words of hope as the sky looked blackest. Even as the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem, he went, at God’s direction, and bought a field in his home village of Anathoth. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:15).

Restoration is not beyond God. Let us see that it is not beyond us.

The heavens are telling the glory of God, wrote the Psalmist some centuries before Jeremiah. The heavens also tell the goodness of God, and the wonders of God, and the beauties of God. The heavens tell as well of the folly of humanity, our power exerted in hubris, pride, and arrogance. They tell of the judgement of God: that God lets us do this thing to ourselves.

But let them also tell of our ability to learn from the past. Let them also tell of our ability to repent and renew. Let them also tell of our ability to accept judgement and change our ways.

Our governor recently attended a climate change meeting on the mainland. Whether you voted for him or not or plan to vote for him or not, let him know that you support efforts to reduce our carbon footprint on this planet. Let him know, let your legislators know, that you support the goal of 100% renewable energy use in this state by 2045 – and that we should work to meet that goal even earlier if we can.

This current administration has been outright hostile to the skies. This past week, the federal EPA proposed loosening methane release monitoring on oil wells. It would save $484 million a year. But according to Bloomberg, methane is 25 times more powerful as a warming agent than carbon dioxide over a century.

Ask them in the Marshall Islands or in Chuuk if they’re willing to risk sea water contamination of their ground water as the oceans rise for $484 million. Ask them on the Carolina seacoast of they’d like a more powerful version of Hurricane Florence for $484 million. Ask them in the Maldives, where nothing is more than six feet above sea level, if their homes are worth $484 million a year.

This administration needs to be deluged with letters. They need to know that the American people will not stand for the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.

That has got to be beyond us.

When Jeremiah looked up to the sky, I wonder if the words of Psalm 19 floated through his mind. I like to think they did. Perhaps it gave him comfort in a life that was, in truth, terribly hard. He wasn’t popular. His nickname was apparently “Terror on every side.” He complained that he felt utterly alone, abandoned even by God. He bought that field of hope while imprisoned in the royal fortress.

I pray that he looked up to the sky and thought, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Look at that: so far above me, so far beyond me, and so filled with beauty and glory.”

The heavens declare that there is still One far beyond us, whose glory is beyond us, who beauty is beyond us, whose goodness is beyond us. The heavens declare as well that though this One is beyond us, this One’s love is right with us. God’s love is beyond our imagination or understanding, to be sure: but it is right with us, God’s love is never ever beyond us.

Let the heavens declare the glory of God. And let the heavens declare as well that we will honor that glory as God has shown it to us:

And change our ways.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon


If the recording is closer to the text this week, well, it’s because we adjusted some of the text. 

The image, which shows passenger trains on the Harlem Flats Viaduct with the entrance to the Park Avenue Tunnel at upper left (around 1876) was extracted from page 260 of The American Centenary; a history of the progress of the Republic of the United States during the first one hundred years of its existence, by Lossing, Benson John. Original held and digitised by the British Library. This file is from the Mechanical Curator collection, a set of over 1 million images scanned from out-of-copyright books and released to Flickr Commons by the British Library. Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on September 16, 2018

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