The Rt. Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori (CDSP '94 '01), 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, gave this address at "This Fragile Earth:  the Church Responds to Climate Change," a conference held at CDSP on October 22. 

We all know that words are powerful, in spite of what our mothers tried to teach us:  “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  They do hurt, deeply, but they can also heal:  “you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased,” words of courage and strength spoken at Jesus’ baptism and echoed at every one since.  Words said often enough can tear down and dishearten as well as build up and help us dream new possibilities. 

The big story we share as children of Abraham is about the power of divine word, from the beginning of creation and through the ages – unto ages of ages.

“In the beginning, when… the earth was a formless void… the breath of God moved over the deep… and said, ‘let there be light.’  God saw its goodness, and separated the darkness from the light – and there was evening and morning, day one.  God spoke, named distinctions, and blessed the goodness of all that began to emerge. 

The creative word has never been silent for long, and human beings who have shared in giving voice to it have in one way or another echoed Isaiah:

“I don’t think the way you think.
    The way you work isn’t the way I work.”
        God’s Decree.
“For as the sky soars high above earth,
    so the way I work surpasses the way you work,
    and the way I think is beyond the way you think.
Just as rain and snow descend from the skies
    and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth,
Doing their work of making things grow and blossom,
    producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,
So will the words that come out of my mouth
    not come back empty-handed.
They’ll do the work I sent them to do,
    they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.              Isaiah 55:8-11 The Message

We, and the word spoken into us, are part of the assignment.  That doesn’t mean we always understand exactly what’s asked of us, yet it does mean that God’s word eventually has its way – in this generation or millennia hence.  We don’t come to the work empty-handed, and we have companions on the way to help the discernment and creative re-imagining.

Some are the prophetic voices, inviting us to discover new visions, new stories, new understandings of where the divine creative urge is leading.  The word comes in all sorts of packages – expected and surprising, aggressively offensive and in gentle sighs – John the Baptizer and Bob Dylan,[1] Francis of Assisi and Francis of Rome, Sojourner Truth and Sally Bingham.  The wisdom of the ages informs the holy voices pushing us to search for more creativity, true freedom of spirit, and life in its fullness.  Those voices include critique of the current state of things and eager hunger for the more.  They are echoed by poets, including not only Bob Dylan but Common, George Herbert, Maya Angelou, Leonard Cohen, Rumi, and all who build narratives of meaning that lean and lead toward life that is healed and whole and holy.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t demonic or destructive stories, ways in which human beings try to build fortresses of exclusion and exploitation – like the myths of Aryan superiority undergirding National Socialism and apartheid and not a little of American exceptionalism.[2]  Some have noted that myths about Britain’s empire underlie the politics of Brexit, even to the point of recommissioning a royal yacht[3] – one presumes it will rule the seas of the lower Thames, at least above the flood barriers.

We share a powerfully creative story about a healed world that provides abundance for all God’s creatures.  It’s Isaiah’s banquet on the hillside, the new heaven and new earth of Revelation, a garden alive and fruitful for every creature on the planet.  It contains the dunamis of God’s effective word – both the dynamite to subvert and transform what stands in the way and the dynamic spirit to create an as yet unfinished world of peace with justice for all. 

We recognize that we are a long way from that vision, and that the distance is increasing and the road getting rockier in tandem with the pollution we’re pouring into the atmosphere; the heating of ocean, air, and land; disappearing coasts and islands; and vanishing species across the planet.  The hard work of redirecting our collective course begins in the ability to tell the truth we know about the story of both what is and of the future we yearn for.  There is substantial good news about that truth-telling work – not only do a strong majority of Americans finally recognize that climate change is a legitimate hazard (even if they don’t all think it’s actually happening yet[4]), but we are beginning to forge effective and dynamic partnerships to create a more just future. 

Let me share a story about the challenges of futuring for the common interest of an entire community.  The pioneer cemetery in Reno is adjacent to the University of Nevada’s burgeoning campus (there might be parallels here, but the goal is a seminary, a seedbed, rather than a cemetery).  That Reno cemetery hasn’t seen a burial since 1959, and in recent decades it’s been a frequent site of student parties and desecration.  The current owner of the land wants to disinter and move the remains of those buried in the oldest half, with the ultimate goal of using that land for student dormitories.  Some in the community are upset at the possibility of moving their ancestors’ graves, some want to profit from the development opportunity, some are concerned for students’ welfare and access to the campus, and hope to reduce traffic congestion in the process.  Others are worried about disturbing the remains of a man who died of anthrax in the late 1800s.  Anthrax spores are infectious for a very long time.  Others are simply offended by any thought of moving human remains.[5]  This is a community problem.  It wasn’t caused by one individual or group, but its solution is going to require persistent conversation and eventual collaboration, for the sake of the whole community.  There is no perfect outcome, but there is a way forward, even if its details aren’t yet perfectly clear.  At the moment, the protest and engagement of those who want to keep the burials intact has led to a temporary moratorium.[6]

We’re here to talk about a similar yet far larger challenge.  Since life began on this planet, the garden in which we’re planted has always been a cemetery, a place where dust returns to dust, and one generation gives way to the next.  We know of five times when the garden has experienced great dyings or extinction events.  Usually they’ve been the result of cosmic collisions, large-scale volcanic eruptions, chemical changes to the oceans and atmosphere, and resulting climate shifts.  This is the first time a great extinction has been caused by actively digging up the dead.  Coal, natural gas, and petroleum are the remains of plants and animals that died some 60-600 million years ago.  This is also the first great dying that’s pretty much the result of the action of one species, unwittingly and ironically named ‘wise human.’  Time will tell if we deserve the name we’ve given ourselves.

The good news is that there is an alternate vision, a story – and group of related stories – that are lending dynamism to those who seek a different future.  The Lakota and their allies at Standing Rock are also resisting disinterment.  They do not want their own burials profaned, they don’t want the earth or their water sources polluted by digging up ancient remains, nor do they want to see their sacred sites, water sources, and homeland desecrated yet again by treaty violations.  They are standing in solidarity not only with their own families, but Aho Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ, with all our relations – all the creatures of this earth.  They have a vision for a life-giving garden, rather than a place of expanding death.  We might note the contrast with the narrower tribal self-interest of those encamped at Malheur earlier this year.The ironic reality is that our Judeo-Christian heritage has not often been a dynamic resource in this yearning for a different future.  Our tradition has too often emphasized an understanding of the divine word to ‘have dominion and subdue the earth’[7] as encouraging self-centered exploitation of land and its resources for narrow self-interest.  We’ve mis-heard and misremembered the story in ways that would never have made sense two and three millennia ago.  At the very least, ‘having dominion’ means caring for the garden like a benevolent ruler – and the deeper roots of that word meant house or home before they ever meant kingdom.  The work we’ve been given is to be husbanders and housekeepers of the home of all creation. 

The ironic reality is that our Judeo-Christian heritage has not often been a dynamic resource in this yearning for a different future.  Our tradition has too often emphasized an understanding of the divine word to ‘have dominion and subdue the earth’[7] as encouraging self-centered exploitation of land and its resources for narrow self-interest.  We’ve mis-heard and misremembered the story in ways that would never have made sense two and three millennia ago.  At the very least, ‘having dominion’ means caring for the garden like a benevolent ruler – and the deeper roots of that word meant house or home before they ever meant kingdom.  The work we’ve been given is to be husbanders and housekeepers of the home of all creation. 

Subduing the earth, if you go back and look carefully, is about helping the earth be fruitful, not dominating it or stripping it of every life-giving resource.  The Israelite settlers had rocky, dry earth to work with, that needed moisture to bring life, and working and tending to be fruitful and produce bounty.  Their job was to build a fruitful seedbed – a seminary, even!  The same reality applies to the second creation story – human beings also come from the earth, need moisture for life, and guarding and tending to be ultimately fruitful.  This reality is part of the deep structure of creation – which might be seen as its fractal nature – it’s self-similar at different magnifications, and all of it reflects its origin.  It begins to remind us that all the parts of creation are connected, all have their home in the One who created, and that the whole cannot be healthy if the parts are not.

 This is the story the Lakota and their siblings are telling at Standing Rock.  It is the story we must keep telling and retelling with as much dunamis as we can muster:  that we are all relatives, made for truly loving and fruitful connection at the deepest level.  It is a story that has too long been forgotten or suppressed in the imperial, industrial, technological processes and philosophies that have so shaped western societies.  We have replaced that original story of connection with trompe l’oeil networks and proximity substitutes in cyberspace.  Those lighter links may have their own kind of beauty and utility which can certainly foster some kinds of connection, but they cannot be incarnate expressions of story told, tears shed, bodies embraced, and meals shared.

There is good news of awakening awareness of our intimate connectedness.  Just a week ago an agreement was signed in Rwanda to limit the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons.[8]  If you remember Freon and the ozone hole, this is a similar, second-generation accord to limit the use of refrigerants which have far greater heat-trapping potential than other greenhouse gases, and while at present they only comprise about 3% of emissions, their use is growing, particularly in developing nations.[9]  The agreement gives evidence of creative compromise, recognizing the differential contributions of various countries and the longer timeframes for adaptation needed in developing nations.  It’s a diplomatic and economic nod to our interconnectedness – and it was signed in a nation well aware of the cost of war between siblings and neighbors.

There is good news in the Paris climate accords of last December, another dawning affirmation of our global connectedness and the need for cooperation and creativity in seeking a more abundant future for all.

But there is plenty of reason to continue to be concerned and active – dynamically involved.  Warming brings climate change, more extreme weather, stronger storms and floods.  It is causing species extinctions, crop failures, rising sea level, melting glaciers and icecaps, coastal and island flooding, as well as drought and wildfire.  It’s making the ocean more acidic as more CO2 dissolves in sea water, and life’s getting harder for corals and planktonic snails (pteropods) that are an important food source for others, like Pacific salmon. 

A number of the ways in which we produce all those GHGs contribute to other kinds of pollution – heavy metals and mining waste entering surface waters and aquifers; and soot particles that (by reducing albedo) make ice melt faster.  The loss of polar ice pack and permafrost not only results in coastal flooding here and in Florida, it is reducing the viability of polar bears, caribou herds, and the native peoples who depend on them as food sources.  A vicious feedback loop means that warming thaws permafrost and frozen methane deposits, which add even more CO2 and CH4 to the atmosphere.  Rising sea levels in the South Pacific are forcing the relocation of island communities as their gardens are infiltrated by seawater and their homes disappear beneath the waves.  Those aren’t just land losses, they’re cultural losses – the extinction of ancestral homelands and lifeways. 

The coastal waters west of here have experienced unprecedented changes and die-offs in the last couple of years.  The “blob” of warm water that lingered offshore brought toxic algal blooms and shut down large segments of the fishing industry.  It also brought starvation to birds and sea lions, plummeting salmon runs, and unprecedented whale mortality from toxins and infection.  It was accompanied by changed weather patterns and unusual beach visitors, including tropical and subtropical fish and other species as far north as Alaska, and a blue jellyfish-like creature, Velella velella, that washed up in droves on Pacific beaches a year ago.[10]

Those unusual events exemplify what is likely to expand across the globe.  The emerging diseases that have killed and terrified human beings in the last decade are similar harbingers.  Many spread from other species:  new flu viruses (often hosted in pigs or birds), HIV and Ebola (which originated in other African primates), and mosquito-transmitted viruses like Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika.  Closer contact between human and wild animal populations, eating bush meat when other food sources are scarce, and more densely populated cities are all factors in these increased and emerging zoonoses and epidemics.  So is the increasing geographic range of a number of disease vectors, mosquitoes in particular.  A parallel can be seen in the decimation of bats and bees in North America, and the consequences for pollination failures in food crops.

Perhaps the most central truth of this lament is that it’s all connected.  We are part of the whole; we’re not in charge of the whole, and whatever our socioeconomic status, ultimately we cannot avoid the destruction that results from misusing the whole.  Yes, we can still grow enough food in this country to feed its inhabitants.  The world can still grow enough to feed its current population.  But what is continually in the news?  Food shortages, food insecurity, the fact that half of American school children qualify for free and reduced meals, and homeless populations are continuing to rise.  We may have enough now, but we do not have the will to distribute it equitably.  The refugee crisis in Europe and Africa, and  the migration pressures in Latin America, are a result not just of political instability, but of economic inequality and the basic human yearning for enough to eat – and the yearning to be free of worrying about enough to eat. 

The want in this world is not going to be cured by building walls or fences.  San Diego realized quite graphically that sewage pays no attention to border security, but a partnership between Mexican and US agencies has helped to fund and improve treatment in Tijuana.[11]  We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, whether we want to be or not – and they are ours.  Pogo said it decades ago, “we have met the enemy and they is us.”  We are responsible for the health of this global system, and we all suffer or thrive as a consequence of how we care for it.

The spiritual response to truth-telling lament is a turn-around, moving in another direction, i.e., conversion and amendment of life.  The wisdom of our ancestors tells us that a life-giving story gives dynamism to the turning.  Where are we bound?  What do we seek?  Can we give voice to the hope that is within us?  Will we turn in at Dame Wisdom’s urging, and share the meal she offers to all? 

Will we continue to focus inward, spiraling down the drain of self-centered nihilism, or will we face outward to embrace all that is life-giving?  My friends, it begins in showing up – physically, consciously, and spiritually.  Being fully present is what it means to love God, self and neighbor as oneself.  Take a deep breath, and notice how your body opens – even more so if you reach out to a neighbor.  That’s where our tradition locates the gift of life – the divine breath given and breathed into us – and not just individually but together as a community. 

Remember those blue jellyfish-like things that washed up on the beaches?  Velella is actually a colony, a community of different organisms with different functions and abilities.  Each of those little rafts thrives or dies as one, blown where the wind wills.  They come in two varieties (isomers), a left-handed one and a right-handed one – and the winds sort them out.  One kind mostly ends up on this coast and the other kind on the far side of the Pacific.  Each is important to the survival of the species.

It’s past time for us to awaken to our need for one another, and the great gift of the diversity of creation.  We all die a little each time another species disappears from this earth and its possibility is removed from the created order. 

We CAN change the trajectory, and the possibilities are all around us – eating locally and lower on the food chain (more plants and less animal food), planting gardens and sharing the produce, turning cities into food forests.  We CAN shift from fossil fuel to renewables, and the solar panels we’re going to bless today are a wonderful example!  The green roof that is emerging below them is another – it will cool what is below, remove CO2 and return oxygen, and clean and diffuse the roof runoff, and maybe it will eventually have some veggies!

We CAN remember the gift of sitting in the garden and giving thanks for what God has given – and spending more time in the garden and less in the air is going to be necessary.  A cross-country flight costs about as much as each person’s annual share of carbon.  We’re not likely to find a technological fix in the very near future, and we’re going to have to limit our frequent flier miles if we’re going to keep the warming to a manageable level.  The friendships and awareness of other global realities that come with air travel will have to be nurtured locally or virtually until we find cooler alternatives.

We CAN and must limit our consumptive[12] lifestyles – reduce, reuse, recycle, and re-examine our ‘needs’ from a spiritual base that considers the needs of all our neighbors.  Doing this work in community strengthens our interdependence.  We become far more creative when we draw on the gifts and insights of others – and we have immensely challenging political work to do that will need all the creativity and courage we can muster.  The capacity for creative work, done in partnership, is what it means to be made in the image of God, and the story we tell about that is key to the future the earth will inherit.

The Anthropocene Age[13] has at least two potential outcomes – the next mass extinction has already begun, but this one might expand as far as the human species.  Or it might result in a new kind of cosmic biotic consciousness and collective will to encourage the flourishing of all life on this planet.  The necessary spiritual undergirding for that is already with us and within us, if we will only show up and tell the truth about what is, and share the dream for a different future.  The choice is ours – we can continue the self-centered death spiral, or we can pray and work for the death of self-centeredness within us and our communities, and learn to live far more abundantly for the health and wholeness of the entire creation. 

There is no question about God’s word of creative life-giving possibility – it will prevail.  The question is whether that future will include human beings and whether our actions today will leave an expansive or a deprived future for those who come after us.  The dynamic word has been planted in us – are our hearts vulnerable enough to reflect that word and respond with dynamite and dunamis


[1] Recent and surprising Nobel Laureate!

[2] Cf. Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  Orbis: 2015.

[4] http://www.gallup.com/poll/190010/concern-global-warming-eight-year-high.aspx  Though 31% don’t believe we’ve yet begun to see the effects.

[7] Genesis 1:28

[9] For example, the people of India are beginning to be able to afford small air conditioning units

[12] Consumption used to be another term for tuberculosis, a “wasting” disease.

[13] The current geologic age characterized by human contributions to the fossil record – plastics, radioactive nuclides, changed carbon signatures, garbage, concrete, among others.