Sermon – June 12th 2011
By Rev. Martha “Missy” Shiverick
Psalm 104: 24-34 & Acts 2:1-4
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Before starting this series on our faith and the environment, we wondered if two months might be too long.  Are we doing too much?  Maybe a week or two on environmental issues would be sufficient.  Even the Earthkeeping task force wondered if we had bitten off more that we could chew.  But three weeks into this, we have barely scratched the surface of the issues facing people of faith in terms of our stewardship of God’s creation.  And the issues are so important.  So instead of asking if the series is too long we need to ask what if we didn’t…. What if our youngest members of Fairmount in the years to come when they are adults dealing with the consequences of our despoliation of the environment ask the same terrible questions asked after the abolition of slavery, after he fall of the Third Reich, after the civil rights movement finally put an end to the shame of legal segregation – the same awful and incredulous questions asked of every human being complacent in the face of evil:

          How could you not have known?

          Knowing what you knew, how could you wait do long?

It is the job of the Christian to face the ecological issues straight on and see what we as children of God and stewards of God’s good planet should be doing.  The Rev, John Small writes in his article “The Greater Sacrifice” that environmental issues are faith issues.  He writes, “Automobile fuel economy is an environmental issue.  But when our dependence on cheap gasoline drives a tanker aground and the spreading slick deprives an Inuit family of seal meat, that’s an issue of justice and compassion. 

Recycling is an environmental issue. But when a Chicago woman who has never smoked cigarettes gets lung cancer from breathing fumes from an incinerator burning recyclable trash, that’s an issue of justice and compassion.

Deforestation is an environmental issue.  But when tree root systems no longer hold soil in place and a mudslide sweeps away a peasant village, that’s an issue of justice and compassion.”

And clean air is an environmental issue.  But when 2 million children die each year from respiratory ailments making air pollution the second leading cause for children under four, that’s an issue of justice and compassion.

When environmental issues become issues of Justice and compassion they become religious issues as well.  We are a people whose faith is wrapped up in our world, wrapped up in insuring not just that God’s creation stays good, but that each member of God’s creation enjoys it and is able to live fully.  This morning’s topic is on the air as the life giving breath of God.   And as Christians, we are connected and theologically care about the air, care about the wind, as in it we experience our God.  Throughout the Hebrew and New Testaments, God is experienced through wind, through breath, through air. 

Listen know to the Psalmist as he sings to the glory of God the Creator in Psalm 104: 24-34.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.

There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.

When you send forth your breath they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works – who looks on the earth and it trembles. Who touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. 

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This morning is Pentecost, when we celebrate receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.   This morning is Pentecost when God came down as a fiery wind and gave us the Holy Spirit which remains with us as close as our breath.  It is a good day to talk about air as it is a celebration of wind, of air, of the knowledge of God with us at all times in our very breathing and as close as out breath.  Listen now for the word of the Lord as we hear of that Pentecost day in Acts 2:1-4.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly their came from heaven a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each one of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

The word of the Lord.  Thanks Be to God.

I sent away for this earth ball several weeks ago when I began to think about this summer and our emphasis on the environment.  The earth ball is fantastic, and I invite you all to pass it around.  It is a ball made from the photos taken from outer space.  It shows what the earth would look like to a traveler approaching earth from deep space.  The first thing the traveler would notice is unusual blue glow of our biosphere.  This fragile layer surrounding our world contains the oceans, mountains, and the atmosphere, encompassing life as we know it.  The atmosphere protects us from radiation and the extreme cold of space, nourishes us with vital gases, and distributes the essential ingredient of life – water, across the planet’s surface.  Like fish in the sea we have evolved and lived for millennia within this ocean of air, never fully aware of this pervasive medium which supports and sustains us.  This atmosphere which we call our air, is so thin that, at the scale of the earthball, everything would lie within a film less than half the thickness of a piece of paper.  When you think of our air in terms like this it seems so fragile.  And, it has become that way. 

We can only imagine the purity of air that existed when God’s breath first swept across the waters.  Today, our industrialized societies have made smog, haze, and our hazardous days where young children and older adults must stay indoors in some cities.   Major contributors to poor air quality include power plants, industrial factories, cars, trucks, planes, and trains, and natural occurrences such as wild fires and wind blown dust particles.   Among the largest sources of air pollutions in the Unites States are coal-fired power plants.  These plants emit 67% of the sulfur dioxide, 23% of the nitrogen oxides, 34% of the mercury, and 38% of the carbon dioxide that is in the air. 

Human health is affected by air pollution through directly inhaled polluted air and also through “indirect” exposures such as drinking water or eating foods that have been contaminated by pollutants emitted into the air which  then fall back to earth.  Unfortunately while air pollution affects everyone on God’s earth, certain populations suffer a disproportionate impact.  Among those who are suffering the most from the burden of our lifestyles choices are often the ones which contribute the less to the problem.  Pound for pound, children breathe 50% more air than adults and therefore inhale a greater portion of the polluted air.  The world health organization estimates that 2 million children die each year from respiratory ailments making air pollution the second leading cause of disease for children under four.  Blacks also suffer the effects of air pollution as 68 % of African Americans live within a coal-fired power plant.  Today, asthma attacks send African –Americans to the emergency room at three times the rate of whites.  Yes, air pollution is an environmental issue, but when it affects the least of these it becomes an issue of justice and compassion.  Then it becomes and issue for us who follow a god of justice and compassion to address!

Today is Pentecost.  It is the day that the Holy Spirit descended like a rush of wind upon the followers of Jesus and they spoke in other languages.  The spirit came and the distinction between Jew and Greek or people from far away nations dissolved.  All were able to hear God’s word and all were able to receive God’s Good News.  I think of Pentecost as a time when the whole world was seen as God’s.  It is a story of the world becoming one, of becoming a small planet where everyone could talk together.  This movement outward to other people besides the Jews is the story of the Books of Luke and Acts.  It is a story that proclaims all are God’s children.

And this view of the world as seen by the astronauts.  In the little booklet that came with my earth ball there are  quotes from astronauts about their reflections on being able to look back at our planet from outer space.

Russian Aleksei Leonov said: “The earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic.  The earth was absolutely round.  I believe I never knew what the word round was until I saw the earth from space.”

Sultan Bin Salmon al-Saudi from Saudi Arabia said, “The first day we all pointed out our countries.  The third and forth days we were pointing to our continents.  By the fifth day we were aware of only one earth.”

Sigmund Jahn for Germany said, “ Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.  

And finally form Loren Acton from the USA, “Below was a welcoming planet.  There, contained in the thin, moving, incredible fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama dn comedy.  That’s were life is, that’s where the good stuff is.”

We can no longer see the issue of pollution as an issue for China, for the people of India or other developing nations.  We all breathe the same air.  Just as a message of Pentecost is that distinctions based on nationalistic pride are no more, we need to see our work as one with everyone on this planet.  We need to enter into a personal relationship with God and nature which will inform our prayer, guide our actions, and define our sense of mission and stewardship to God’s wonderful creation.  Like the astronauts that first pointed out their own countries, then their continents, then the whole earth, we too must  begin to live as though we are truly one human family.  Amen!