GUEST BLOG: Preaching Climate Justice


The Rev. Andrew K. Barnett serves as Bishop’s Chair for Environmental Studies and Food Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and pianist with Theodicy Jazz Collective.

NOTE: The Theodicy Jazz Collective  will be offering a workshop open to the public at St. Paul’s School on Thursday, October 19, at 11am, in the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, entitled, "I Hear Freedom in the Air: Liberation and Theology in Sacred Music.”

Strolling About Genesis

Imagine strolling about creation with those first lucky few. God makes nothing into something, and it is very good. Look around! Squint at the sun governing the blue sky day. God gives us the sun and it fuels the earth. Enjoy the giant trees, unfurling emerald leaves in the wispy clouds. This is the charity of sunshine and plants, and God says they are very good.

Feel the rich, dark soil, tickling your toes, cushioning your feet. Scoop up a handful and drizzle it between your hands – you just brushed 1,000 living things. They root around underground, turning old bodies into new soil, breathing new life into the garden. This is dry land, and God says it is very good.

Listen – can you hear the sweet water gurgling past mossy stones? Follow the stream as it splashes over a waterfall into a bubbly blue lake. Cup your hands for a refreshing drink. Dive into the lake – be soothed as the water glides over your skin – head to toe! Open your eyes and watch beaver, fish and bugs frolic amid watery sunbeams. Swim across the lake, rest on a smooth sun-warmed rock and trace the river that carries sweet water to the ocean. Smell the salty sea breeze, glimpse the shoals of fish gorging on the river’s nutrient buffet. Watch the dolphins, otters and whales chomp the smaller fish. This is water and life, and God says they are good.

Take a deep breath. [Pause. Breathe.] Taste the crystal air as it runs over your tongue. The oxygen in that air came from land plants and billions of tiny ocean creatures who breathe our atmosphere into being. Wide eyed, speechless with gratitude, we listen to God’s instructions for creation care:

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Genesis 1:28, 31).

Dominion? Really?

Now, God had options for that opening phrase to all of humanity. In these first breathless words, God welcomes us to earth and teaches creation care. As Genesis gives us sovereignty over creation, a close reading of that word “dominion” – Radvah in Hebrew – teaches us to care for “this fragile earth, our island home” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 370).

Radvah implies “care-giving, even nurturing,” the very antithesis of exploitation (“New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis”, Abingdon, 1994). It’s fascinating to watch the way people used this word Radvah in non-biblical literature. They often used it to describe a beloved king. Sure, the king could rule with an iron fist, hoard the food, waste the water and forget about the next 100 years. But those kings tended to lose their heads in revolutions.

Through this word Radvah, Genesis calls humanity to treat creation the way God cares for us: with love and wisdom, with care, with stewardship for the long haul.

Dear people of God, the truth is that we are spoiling our beautiful home. That great dome in the midst of the waters has a fever from too much fire. We need to preach about climate change because it epitomizes our ravaging of creation. And we need to preach climate justice because God calls us to tell a new story.

What Kind of Story Shall We Tell?

Hear Jesus’ summary of the Law:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Hear the prophetic words of former Secretary-General Kofi Anan: “The impact of climate change will fall disproportionately on the world’s poorest countries,” and the poorest communities bear the brunt of the pain.

Now is our time to act on climate change. On a hot and crowded planet, we can no longer talk responsibly of loving our neighbor until we fight with all we have for a stable climate and for a just society.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells all the gathered nations, “I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, and sick.” The truth is that climate change affects every single one of those issues. And Jesus isn’t just talking to individuals.

In Matthew 25, Christ the King addresses all the gathered nations, panta ta ethne in Greek. Scientists tell us that we are on the brink of disaster, and tinkering at the margins will be too little, too late. A new light bulb here, a few seawalls there? No. The time has come to rebuild the way that all the gathered nations conduct our business. We love our neighbors – or not – each time we decide how to heat, cool, travel, ship and farm.

As we seek to love and serve Christ in all persons, may we also come to know Christ in the vital links between climate change and hunger, thirst, refugees, sickness and “the least of these,” who are all members of God’s family.

Preaching Climate Justice

I offer these thoughts as a general primer on climate change preaching. I hope that they will be received, not as advice from an expert, but rather as discoveries from personal experience.

First, as with all preaching and worship, the telos of our work is prayer. Through the Holy Spirit, our sermons help people to deepen their faith and to grow in their walk with Jesus Christ. Another way to say this is, “Preach the gospel and keep the sermon about Jesus.” By the way, that’s not hard to do when we preach about climate change. Any responsible treatment of the summary of the Law, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself,” necessarily engages global climate stewardship. Carbon emitted from my car will circle the globe in about 26 days, and remain in the oceans and atmosphere for centuries, wreaking more havoc on poor countries in the global south than on the rich countries responsible for the vast majority of climate pollution. And within poor countries, the most impoverished communities will feel the most pain. How would Jesus respond to this raging injustice? What does God call us to say and do in this unprecedented time?

Second, climate change is a gospel issue, one that we must reclaim from the political rancor of our day. It is a political artifact that climate change makes for fightin’ words in America’s halls of power. With the exception of Russia, this is not true in the other advanced economies of the world. No serious statesman in Europe, for example, would stand on the parliamentary floor and question the science of human-caused climate change, much less pass a resolution declaring it a hoax in the middle of the hottest year on record. Yet these things have recently taken place in the United States. It is time for us to change the conversation. This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue, a squabble to pit red states against blue. Climate change is a moral issue, a threat that faces all humanity, whatever our political allegiances, and we can address this crisis effectively only if we do so together. Cynical efforts to divide us will only squander precious time that we will later wish we had spent cutting pollution and growing healthy communities.

Consider naming the political tension around this issue, and reframing it during the sermon. The preacher might say something like, “I understand this is a divisive topic in today’s media landscape, and it may be hard for us to discuss this together. But I believe we have the courage to bring our faith to this conversation. May we all grow in the dialogue we are about to share.” It can also be helpful to send a draft of the sermon to a more conservative member of the congregation for pastoral feedback. We all need a way to pray together, and it is important to talk about this as a moral issue rather than simply a political one.

Third, climate change is a gospel issue because climate change is a justice issue, affecting poor people first, hardest, and longest. “First” because low-income countries and communities tend to have less warning about extreme weather events, and many of the poorest countries are located in the global south, where climate consequences such as drought, floods, famine and storms are already causing pain. “Hardest” because poor folks often live on cheap land, whose value is reduced because of vulnerability to disaster. For example, property values in New Orleans correspond to elevation, with much of the city below sea level. The lower the land, the cheaper the house, and the more likely that a family will be flooded. “Longest” because poor communities typically lack the resources to rebuild, and when donations come in, the money doesn’t always go to the intended recipients. These injustices are compounded by the fact that rich countries are responsible for most of the global climate’s high levels of greenhouse gas pollution, and poor countries suffer the brunt of the ensuing disasters. The gospel of Jesus Christ can bring compassion and urgency to this conversation on food, water, land and health – and just, loving communities.

Fourth, we can name specific regional consequences of climate change with scientific accuracy and without exaggeration. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changepublishes regular peer-reviewed articles on climate impacts, as do the United States Environmental Protection AgencyYale Project on Climate Change Communication and others. These trusted resources can help preachers stay abreast of the most recent science.

Here’s an example of a peer-reviewed fact that would make compelling sermon material. The United Nations Refugee Agency predicts that climate change will lead to tens of millions of refugees by 2050. The migration of desperately poor people presents a challenge that few countries have met with compassion.

Fifth, we can craft beautiful prayers, songs, liturgy and symbols that honor creation. Think of how many Christian sacraments involve the stuff of earth: bread and wine at Holy Communion, oil for anointing, clear water for baptism, the wood of the cross, flowers on the altar, dust at the grave, and more. Rituals connect us with the transcendent. As we enter a period of increasing loss and instability, we will need more than ever the solace and wisdom that come from rituals that center us in the love of God.

Finally, we can start where we are, with what we know and what we have. When we build local climate solutions that are small enough to manage and big enough to matter, we mobilize pockets of willingness, catalyze local know-how and crack open a window of opportunity. Good things happen.

Parks and bike lanes get built, community gardens get planted, solar panels get installed, strong laws get passed, new markets emerge. Praying shapes believing, but so does action. God has work for us to do.

The work has begun already. God is already at work in our communities, inspiring countless people to search for ways to build a more just and sustainable society. Let’s join that mission – and help to lead it. And even if we have all kinds fears and concerns, let’s look for reasons to start anyway!

I’ve never done this before! Start anyway.

This could be hard! Start anyway.

What if we make mistakes? Start anyway.

I’m too busy and I don’t have enough volunteers! Start anyway.

How will we pay for it? Start anyway.

Who’s gonna lead the committee? Start anyway.

Who will be on the committee? Start anyway.

Should we even have a committee? Start anyway.

It’s not that those questions are irrelevant. We do need to address them. But we can answer them as we go along. Let’s dare to be like the early Christians. Like them, let’s live God’s new story, and see what possibilities emerge – “like wheat that springeth green” (Hymn #204). Let’s find out together what new relationships will grow, what new capacity for love will emerge and what God has in store for us.

The time has come for bold leadership. We follow Jesus, who led boldly and even gave his life. Tables might get turned, and the mighty might tumble, but we follow an even mightier God who stared down Pharaoh and led Israel out of Egypt.

Announcing the dawn of a new age is risky. But that’s what Jesus did. And what we, too, must do. God says, tell a new story. God says, live a new story. For the sake of our children and theirs, a new movement is building. May the incarnate God grant us courage to transform the course of history.

— The Rev. Andrew K. Barnett serves as Bishop’s Chair for Environmental Studies and Food Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and pianist with Theodicy Jazz Collective.