Friday, October 21, 2011

Loving Our Neighbors in 2011

Part 1 of 3. Gospel for Proper 25A.

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

Faithfully loving God and our neighbors has been a challenge for Christ’s followers ever since he said these words. In the 21st century we have two comparatively recent circumstances to take into account in attempting to follow these commandments.

First, we live in a truly global community. Increased travel and communications, and especially the sorts of communications and relationship building possible through the internet, have brought us to a very different understanding of what it means to love our neighbors. When a newsworthy event happens anywhere in the world, we know about it immediately. When there is some sort of disaster, the world can respond immediately.

Second, our climate is changing rapidly and significantly. A warmer global atmosphere holds more moisture. This means there is less moderate precipitation; instead, there are at the same time both areas hit by heavy precipitation and areas of drought. Sea levels are rising, the ocean is becoming more acid, and coral reefs are dying. Changing temperatures bring changes in insect and disease patterns.

Just this week, exceptionally heavy rains from Hurricane Jova and a tropical depression hit Mexico, parts of Central America, and southern Haiti, affecting around 100,000 people.  The Episcopal News Service reports on the flooding in El Salvador, which Anglican Bishop of El Salvador Martin Barahona has described as “a catastrophe unparalleled by other disasters” in El Salvador’s recent history.Episcopal Relief and Development reports:

In El Salvador, the hardest hit country, the Lempa and Grande rivers overflowed onto already-saturated ground. The severe flooding that resulted has killed more than 30 people and destroyed more than 18,000 homes. An estimated 65 people have also died in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

This is one example of the way increased precipitation can affect our neighbors. The church in El Salvador and Episcopal Relief and Development are responding in the name of Christ by helping people who have lost their homes. As we will see in tomorrow’s post, this flooding is one of many climate-related events affecting people right now. Every day we fail to address climate change, the chance of these sorts of disasters affecting more and more people increases.

In the introduction to Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, authors Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson describe a typical suburban autumn evening with people outdoors doing common things: a teenager driving a car, a little girl playing, someone using a leaf blower. After describing the scene, they say:

The scene feels odd, almost fictional, the way life goes on. It seems almost as if we were watching a herd of dinosaurs grazing on giant fern-trees, oblivious to the shadow of the asteroid that will strike Earth and forever change the conditions under which they will live – or die.

For some reason, even though we know what is happening in our world and know that we have very little time to change the way we do things so that the changes future generations face might be more bearable, life goes on pretty much unchanged. It’s as if we don’t realize what is happening or don't care.

Even those of us who care passionately and are intentional about keeping up with the issues of global warming and climate change find it easy to slip into acting and speaking as if nothing is changing. In a poem entitled Warsaw on the Eve of My Departure[i], poet Aaron Zeitlin wrote about the days before he left Warsaw in another situation where reality was difficult to grasp, knowing that the time for Jews living in Warsaw was short. He wrote: Everything that you own and that you see / a desolate darkness will soon envelope. / A voice tells you so, but you forget…You do and do not feel from day to day how final is / the city. In a similar way, as accelerated and increased climate change approaches, we both do and do not know what is coming; we both do and do not feel the finality of the changes taking place on our planet.

In the next couple of posts on this blog, we will look at the climate change situation and how it affects our neighbors near and far, some of the questions this raises for Christians and the institutional church in particular, and the question of how to talk about what is happening in a meaningful way.  The larger question asks what keeps us from doing the work we need to do to ensure our survival and that of our neighbors.

I’m suggesting that the time has come to make sure that the reality of climate change becomes part of our conversation any time we in the church plan for the future and talk about doing ministry. To avoid the topic intentionally for fear of upsetting people, or to let it slip out of our minds, or even to give it a quick nod before turning to our usual business is to ignore our neighbors and to deceive ourselves if we think our own lives as individuals and as a church will continue in familiar ways for many more years.

We need to talk now about mitigation of climate change, considering where and how we might decrease our carbon footprint as the church and how to help individuals learn good environmental stewardship. We can figure out how to gear up to provide disaster relief as the frequency and severity of floods, fires, droughts, and storms increase.  And the church especially needs to be thinking about how to meet people’s spiritual needs as the crisis becomes harder to ignore and people cope with a crisis different from any other in human history. What spiritual practices will be helpful? What language will we use to talk about it?  How do we stay faithful and find meaning in the years to come?

[i] Zeitlin, Aaron. Poems of the Holocaust and Poems of Faith, ed. and trans. By Morris M. Faierstein. iUniverse: 2007, p. 1.

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