The stories about Jesus, the night he was betrayed, arrested and brought to trial, include this bewildering observation: the disciples slept, even as Jesus asked them to pray and watch with him. Decades later many of those sleepers became persons of great courage, witnessing to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, but not that night.
It is human to sleep around and through awful times. Psychologists name this behavior as a coping mechanism called “denial.” Chaplains are witnesses to denial behavior nearly every day, as families face grim news about the health of a loved one, or patients react to their own serious health conditions. Some years ago I witnessed the reaction of three adult sons who were informed by a physician that their father was actively dying. When the doctor left the room, one son said, “It’s time to buy that boat.” The other two sons agreed. They had promised their father that they would take him to the Gulf of Mexico for a fishing trip. It was unacceptable that he was dying. It didn’t fit their script. When I asked the physician to come in and again explain what was happening to their father, they were shocked. They finally understood. They began to grieve and within the hour we stood with the dying father and commended him to God’s eternal care and keeping.
Sleeping through bad news happens to individuals and families, but it also happens to large populations. Thus, bringing up the topic of climate change and the alarming changes in weather and in sea levels is often met with anger and resistance. The anger is, I believe, related to how this news fits in with our vision of how things ought to be. To face the likelihood that our planet, our home, is in deep trouble, means being accountable, it means changes for all of us, adjustments in lifestyle that are unacceptable. Profound theological issues challenge us instantly -- of control, of sharing, of loving our neighbor, of loving our enemies, of using our talents wisely for the good of everyone, of sustainability, of grace, of hope. To address the alarming changes we can name and number requires deep faith and trust.
And more than our making changes, it involves our repentance. We are all involved in the problem. Pope Francis in his remarkable Ecology Encyclical articulates the problem yet forbids family planning (birth control) in a seriously overpopulated world. I walk the stairs at Albany Medical Center, but drive a spiffy car and am addicted to electronic devices that help us remain in constant contact with everything, and too often deeply engaged with unimportant trivia. We are in the shoes of Isaiah, who confessed, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5) Our very lifestyle is the problem in our affluent world. Poverty brings its own global threatening issues as people extract the last tree from the forest.
So as a congregation, a community, we hold on to ninety-five acres (give or take a few, to be exact). What a gift. And we may claim some legal ownership of a bequest from Stephen Van Rensselaer who gave us the property so long as it was dedicated to the work of the church. For nearly seventeen years I missed its deeper meaning. On this fragile planet, we have been given a gift, a great treasure. It is not trees to be harvested, or houses to be built, or even the gardens. It is tangled woodland, filled with all the hazards that go with wilderness, including various ticks bearing dangerous diseases. While restoring order and selectively harvesting may be in order, the primary role of this gift is that it becomes our teacher, our major professor. The real gift is the space and setting for us to again learn and practice reverence for the earth; to express awe at what is at arm’s length, under our noses and before our eyes. What Stephen gave us was/is far more precious than gold. I experience it as a challenge to us, learning how to tread lightly, how to relate to the earth. And to do this as a community with all our different opinions and values will be the real challenge, just as the challenge for the world population will be to learn to live in harmony and to plan for planet survival. To intentionally begin this happening, we will need to engage someone or some peoples to help us shape a plan and a process. Your consistory will be pondering these issues; Classis and the Synod of Albany may have much needed resources to bring someone on board for two years, specifically addressing this encounter with nature. Our own Spenser Fund may help us with resources. Your input is important. Talk to consistory members. More information and thought regarding this project will be coming your way.
In Faith and Hope,
Pastor Harlan Ratmeyer