Tenth Sunday after Pentecost - August 1, 2021
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
2 Sam. 11:26-12:13a + Psalm 51:1-12 + Eph. 4:1-16 + John 6:24-35
Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
Two disclaimers about my sermon today. First, it is not a reflection on the readings today, rich as they are. Sorry God. And second, it is depressing. Sorry congregation.
But I want to speak with you all about something that is heavy on my mind in anticipation that by putting it out there, we all may come to embody a new hope born of action, not because what I say is hopeful, but because what I have to say is sobering.
Several weeks ago, I read a New York Times article about the politics of climate change that was as depressing and catastrophic as any to be published in these times, but made a particularly salient points that I had not heard before, but have not stopped thinking about since.
Basically, the article compared people who, on the one hand, accept the science of climate change and those, on the other, those who are in denial of it. Climate believers, as it were, versus, climate deniers.
But a poignant insight that the article highlighted, much to my consternation, is a disturbing similarity among most members of each of these ideologically opposed group. In short: that there is little to no difference between how members of each group behave in response to their convictions. In other words, by and large, there is little, if any, difference in climate action among those who accept the looming threat of climate change and those who deny it.
This is a profoundly disturbing question that we need to look at thoughtfully. What is the cause of inaction among those of us who know, accept, and embrace the science of climate change? Why broadly speaking, do our lives look only slightly, if at all different than those who deny that climate change is real or human-caused.
Sure, there are more electric cars among climate-accepters for those of us who can afford one. Yes, we may be more conscious about recycling or conservation. But why are there so many of us who are not rallying for more change, faster change, making demands of the powers-that-be as if our lives were on the line. Because they are on the line. Why is there so little difference in the average day-to-day life of climate believers and deniers?
Anecdotally, amidst the many vignettes of drama and stress these past weeks, an incident occurred that gave me insight into why this might be. The story begins about a month ago when Fernando and I serendipitously (or perhaps Providentially) met a young man, Henry, at the birthday part of a friend here in Inverness. We did not know it at the time, but Henry and his close network of friends would quite literally carry us through these past weeks.
After learning about Henry and his carpentry skills, I solicited his help with the innumerable tasks we needed to perform to ready our house for market: Fence building, stair repairs, electrical upgrades, plumbing issues, and so on. For every problem that arose, Henry had a friend with a solution. A friend who usually showed up the following day to take care of whatever we needed done. But none who worked as closely with him as his close friend Azi.
The two of them were like a dynamic duo. They exuded an optimism and “can-do” attitude that was not only comforting but inspiring. No problem was too big to solve, no project untenable. The two of them are strong as ox’s and have unbounded energy. They knew their trade and everything they touched turned out right. I cannot say enough how much they carried for us these past weeks: not only the ability to get the job done but to put us at ease during some of the most stressful and tense moments that transpired.
So just this past Sunday, we were readying the house for the photographers and videographers that were to come the following day on behalf of the realtor company. The house, we were told, had to look perfect inside and out – and it was far from it. Piles of old wood, left over bricks, discarded junk from their many construction projects in piles outside the house. With 75 steps from the street to our back yard, we had our work cut out for us. Henry pulled his truck up along the side of the road with his flat-bed opened so we could begin loading it up with everything that needed to go. Meantime, he took another van with his fiancé to make a run to the lumber store so he could finish up one of many projects we were working on simultaneously.
Azi and I began to make the long trek up and down the steps with piles of bricks, wood, and other material they would re-use or recycle. It was hot, the work was hard, and we were exhausted. Sometime later after more trips to the truck than I could count, the flatbed had gotten pretty full. I was making my way down the front steps with an armful of old wood to add to the pile when I suddenly saw Henry’s truck pull away.
“That’s strange,” I thought. “Where would he be going? A dump run? No that would take too long. Maybe he just needed gas.” Then I realized, “Oh he is probably just turning the truck around to make it easier to pull out to the main road once it is full.”
So, I put the wood in a pile on the ground where the truck had been and made my way up the long winding stairs to the back yard. Azi was there creating piles to be brought down in manageable chunks. Before we had a chance to say much to one another his phone rang. It was Henry. Being just a short distance from Azi, I could hear him on the other end of the phone. “Why did you leave the back of the truck open?” he asked Azi, somewhat irritably. “There are bricks laying all over the street.”
My mind began to race. Why is he irritated with Azi? Henry’s the one who drove the truck away – he should have closed the back of the bed. As I was thinking this, I could hear Azi’s bewilderment, “What do you mean?” He asked, “I am in the yard with Vincent. We are not done loading the bed yet.” There was a momentary silence between them as the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place for all of us at once. I suddenly realized, “Oh my God! Henry’s truck was just stolen.”
Empty handed, I darted down the stairs, with Azi trailing my heels. I found Henry standing where the truck had been now on a 911 call to the police. I wracked my brain to try to remember what I saw. Did I see a person? No. Could I identify the thief? No. Did I recall the back door being left open? Bricks falling out or lying in the road? No and No.
All I remember was the truck suddenly pulling away. With Henry having been on an errand, I assumed he had returned and drove the truck away. Only in hindsight had it occurred to me that the van he took to run his errands was nowhere in sight at the time. How could he have returned home if the van was still gone?
As it happened, after I had left the wood in a pile along the side of the street I went back upstairs. Moments later, Henry did arrive back with his van and noticed the bricks lying in the street and his truck missing. Assuming that Azi had been the one driving it, he called Azi to berate him about leaving the door open, and bricks falling out the back. That was the conversation I heard up in the yard and it was the moment that all of the pieces fell into place.
As we spoke to the police officer who came to take the report, I realized that somewhere deep in my consciousness as I saw the truck driving away, there was a small voice, maybe a “red flag” that felt something was wrong. The pieces did not fit together. ONLY in hindsight did I realize this little ‘flag’ or ‘voice’ had poked at me. Something isn’t right here.
I didn’t pause, I didn’t stop long enough to notice there was no van, bricks were lying in the street. I did not stop long enough to realize how non-sensical it was that Henry would have driven the truck away at all in that moment, and so on. In short, I ignored the subtle warning in my head. Theft never even entered my mind. Not here, not in this town, not on my street. I realize only now there was no “category” for me to make sense of what I was seeing right before my eyes. Because to my mind what I was seeing was impossible.
It is important that we understand the power of this “disbelief.” Had I been in a different neighborhood – one that is crime ridden or over run by gangs, I might well have jumped to the conclusion immediately: my friend’s truck is being stolen. But it was my belief that Fairfax was impervious to such crimes that prevented me from correctly interpreting what I was seeing before my very eyes. So, rather than take action, I simply carried on with the task at hand, unperturbed – unaware even, that I had just witnessed a crime.
And this, I believe, may serve as a useful insight in answer to the question posed by the NYT article: Why is there such wide-spread inaction among those who believe in the science of climate change? I wonder if it is the case that even those of us who accept the abstract science of climate change, whether we have really been able to accept the reality of it.
I wonder if the reality of it is just too big. As much as I had no ‘category’ in which to place ‘car theft’ in my neighborhood…no lens by which to interpret what was unfolding before my eyes. I simply didn’t see it. I couldn’t see it because car theft was “impossible” in my neighborhood.
I recall a documentary some years back about a major airline disaster in the 1980’s. Of the over-200 people on board only a dozen or so survived. While interviewing one of the survivors (a seasoned airline pilot who happened to be onboard as a passenger) – I was struck by his account of the event. As the plane was careening out of control, descending rapidly to the ground, he recalls thinking, “This can’t be happening. The plane is not crashing. Airliners don’t fall from the sky. It just doesn’t happen.”
The extreme rarity of catastrophic failures aboard modern jetliners, prevented this seasoned pilot from accepting what, in fact, was happening. Minutes later the airplane would be strewn in pieces on the ground.
So, it occurred to me that accept the abstract truths of climate science is much like realizing that cars can, theoretically get stolen from my neighborhood and that on very rare and tragic occasions planes do fall from the sky.
Yet the moment it becomes my car, my plane – my response is one of disbelief. Of not seeing what is in fact happening. And this, I believe, may account for the similarities between those who believe in climate science and those who do not.
The prospect of the “End of the world as I know it” is just too big. We have no category by which to interpret end-of-the-world scenarios. We have no lens by which to interpret that incontrovertible signs of climate collapse are happening before our very eyes.
We don’t really believe our car will be stolen, that our plane will crash or that our civilization is on the brink of collapse. It’s not really possible, is it, that ours is the generation in which the ever-dependable seasons and cycles of life as we know it will unravel, reverse, and collapse, at an unprecedented rate, threatening not only human life but all of life as we know it. But as surely as a week ago today I watched a truck get stolen and did nothing to stop it, we are all watching the world unravel before our eyes. And what are we doing to stop it?
What good is belief in Climate science if our lives, our actions, our commitments as a whole do not look substantially different from those who deny it? Climate catastrophe is not coming. It is here.
As many of you know, in her straightforward speeches to the United Nations and other World Organizations, Greta Thunberg drives this point home relentlessly: “I am not here to give you hope,” she says, “I don’t want you to have hope! I want you to panic.”
So, why aren’t we panicking? Panicking as if the flames of the next fire were licking at our doorsteps; panicking as if we have no water left to drink?; panicking at the collapse of the chain of supply and demand?; Panicking at the wars we will fight not in far-away lands, but between towns and counties and states over supplies and resources?; Why aren’t Panicking about the mass migration of climate refugees and the political, economic and social mayhem their desperate plight will bring within our borders?; Panicking at the loss of wildlife – trees, animals, insects – on which our own lives are utterly dependent?; Panicking about the devastating loss of glaciers on our poles, the subsequent rise of sea levels, the acidification of our oceans, the vortex of plastic in our oceans larger than the states of California and Texas?; Why are we not panicking?
The reason is because other people’s cars get stolen. Not mine. Other people’s planes crash. Not mine. Other people’s civilizations collapse. Not mine.
In other words, to some degree, I think we are all in denial – even if we accept the abstract science of it all. And Denial can often disguise itself as Hope.
And perhaps the vast majority of us still live somewhere between the two. The existential threat posed by climate change is so overwhelming, so vast, so all-encompassing that even we who feel the deep-down anxiety of it, who follow the science and see the signs, can hardly get ourselves to believe there won’t be some solution, some ‘fix’ to make it go away.
Greta Thunberg finds this kind of hope both naïve and ultimately self-destructive – because it really is nothing more than denial disguised as hope. So, I am looking for hope from all of you. Because I have very little to give at this point. I am looking for us to become hope for one another. For us to see what is happening before our eyes and to create a category for it. And we need to label that category:
The End of The World as We Know It
I need you to make room in your minds and hearts, in your lives and commitments for the reality of that category. Because as Greta insists, only once we accept that concrete reality (not merely the abstract science of it) might we panic enough to become the very hope the world so desperately needs.
May God disturb you this day. May the Spirit of the Holy One empower you to see what you would rather not see, go where you would rather not go, do what you would rather not do.
+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.