Mustard Seed Faith

This past week we all received a just and well-deserved scolding from a sixteen-year-old girl from Sweden.  Greta Thumberg at the United Nations Climate Action Summit.  

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and you can only talk about money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?[1]

Her warning is no different in kind than that of the prophet Habakkuk.  He castigates a political leadership that has distorted justice and perpetrated violence upon the land.  And for this reason the Chaldeans, the predatory nation to the north shall be God’s rod of chastisement.  Swift and terrible, they descend on Israel.

Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on…They come for violence; terror of them goes before them.  They gather captives like sand.  At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. (vv. 1:6-10).

Every bit as urgent and as terrible as Habakkuk’s warning, Greta does not mince words in her message to the leaders of our day. 

You are failing us but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here and right now is where we draw the line.[2]

To reinforce Greta’s message, millions upon millions of young people and their friends and parents poured out into the streets in cities all around the globe.  Here in Claremont many gathered on Foothill and Indian Hill to sound the alarm.  To warn our politicians that the time for empty words and half measures is over. 

The science is clear.  More than clear, as we celebrated this past week the patron saint of Mother Earth – St. Francis.  Already we are in the middle of the Sixth Extinction, as many scientists refer to the great die-off presently taking place around the world.  America has lost one third of its birds.  Some 2.9 billion birds.[3]

Our oceans are in peril.  Acidification and ocean warming are proceeding at breakneck speed.  We run the risk of killing off the very plankton that produces some fifty to seventy percent of all the earth’s oxygen — some current research estimates it at eighty percent.  It’s not all trees that keep us alive, but little creatures in the trillions that we can’t even see with the naked eye.[4]  That study is now almost ten years old.  Has it gotten better in the meantime?  I highly doubt it.

And on and on it goes.  We have really fouled our nest.

So, what to do?  We might dismiss and ridicule such folks like Greta Thunberg and the scientists.  Fake news.  Nothing to see here, folks.  Just move along.  Or try vituperation as did our president on Twitter: “disturbingly redolent of a victim of a Maoist ‘re-education’ camp.”  Or like Laura Ingraham we can label Greta and her companions the pathetic victims of “climate hysteria.”  But no amount of ridicule will make this problem go away.

Or we can resort to complacent, magical theology, throw up our hands and proclaim that it’s now all in God’s hands.  There’s nothing we can do.  That option reminds me of a story of a country preacher walking along a dirt road when he spotted a farmer out in his field.  He hadn’t seen this guy in church since he’d been there.  He motioned the farmer over and noted that this was a mighty fine farm the fellow had.  “If I had a farm like that, I come to church and let God know how thankful I was.”  “Well, Sonny,” drawled the farmer, “I want to tell you — it certainly didn’t look like this when God had it all by himself.” 

When it comes to creation care, some stewardship activity is required on our part.  Further, as God did not poison the oceans or heat up the place, why should God take the rap for it?  God didn’t do this.  No, it is not all in God’s hands.

Peter W. Marty proposes another consideration.  Repentance and restitution.[5]

The other day he was surprised to receive a letter from his seventh-grade science teacher.  He hadn’t thought about Mr. Erickson in almost fifty years.  Included was an old photograph of the Amateur Radio Club with a few of its members.  There were the club officers in the front row with Mr. Erickson and off to the side in the back was a kid named Eric.  Eric was physically disabled with few social skills.  He had halting speech and a definite limp.  Needless to say, Eric was the laughing stock of his classmates.  Enthusiastic, but just not fitting in. 

Eric was on the receiving end of ridicule and insults.  Classmates lobbed nasty names at him and pushed textbooks from his arms.  They dumped his milk at lunch when he turned his back.  A few kids were practiced at bumping into him as he carried his food tray.  If he swatted back at those who teased him, they only bullied more.  This wasn’t just a small group of hooligans; it was a whole cadre of outwardly pleasant middle schoolers.[6]

As memories came flooding back, the most painful of all was the recollection that he had done absolutely nothing to stand up for Eric.  Yes, he sat with him occasionally and helped pick up the things the other boys knocked from his hands.  But Peter did nothing to really include Eric.  He never spoke up.  He never admonished those cruel classmates.  He never invited Eric to the cool kids table.  As he admits, his moral compass was frozen.  No compassion here.

Looking back on all those years, Peter realizes that there is no real way he can make his repentance meaningful in anyway to Eric.  Too much time has past and he has no idea what ever became of Eric.  So how does one make restitution at this late date?

Peter concludes that perhaps there is no real way to atone for past wrongs and shameful behavior.  But that doesn’t mean we must just wallow in the sins of our past. 

Confession can deepen compassion.  It can instill a greater kindness and promote understanding and empathy.  It can be the beginning of serious midcourse correction.  And that is what Greta would urge up on us adults in the room.

I used to scoff at what I took to be small, half-way measures to environmental remediation.  How could changing out lightbulbs be restitution for all the damage we have wrought?  What difference did recycling really make?  I derisively called it “eco-pietism.”

Then one day, I read that changing lightbulbs for more efficient versions really was important.  Not in the small amount of electricity saved and the less coal burned to produce that electricity.  No!   Changing out lightbulbs and other small actions was often the beginning for most people of a serious midcourse correction.  It led to other things – like walking more and riding one’s bike for local errands – taking the Metrolink into L.A. instead of sitting for hours in exhaust fumes on the 10 Freeway – joining a group like Citizens’ Climate Lobby or  Changing that lightbulb, for many people, was a first step to an environmental sensitivity that could build the political will for change.  Repentance does not mean feeling sorry for past misdeeds.  It means turning around and amending your ways.

Like the Chaldean horsemen with rapier edged swords, CLIMATE CATASTRPHE will soon be upon us.  Few, if no prisoners will be taken.  Just ask the Pacific Islanders or the farmers of Bangladesh.  Devastation will be swift and complete.

In a past issue of Time magazine, Bill McKibben, the prominent writer on the threat that global warming portends, lays out a possible alternative future to impending disaster.[7]   In his piece, Bill writes as if from the year 2050.  He lays out a somewhat hopeful scenario.  Yes, we will still have to take our lumps for our past foolishness and inaction.  But he describes a future that, though tough, is livable.

My takeaway from his future world is that we will have survived by wising up and acting on what was easily done – the low hanging fruit.  Doing a bit more of what many are already doing, only much, much more rapidly.  We will have survived by educating ourselves and our children.  We will have survived by electing leaders at all levels of government who understood the existential threat to our planet and who acted.  No matter be they Republican or Democrat, the only qualification for office – were they willing to move on positive solutions.  And do it quickly before it was too late.

Yes, Greta, there are sincere people in both parties willing to join forces.  Citizens’ Climate Lobby has proved that.  CCL’s tax — they call it a fee because politicians do not get to spend it — on carbon is a plan that both Republicans and Democrats have endorsed.  It is a plan that reduces CO2, creates jobs, and does not grow the government.  This fee is returned in its entirety back to the American people less a small fraction for administrative costs.  Those at the bottom of the economic pile benefit the most – mainly because they consume less.  No airplanes or yachts for them.  No ten-thousand-square-foot McMansions for the destitute.  So, of course, the poor will come out ahead.  And if other nations cheat or refuse to tax their own carbon pollution, we can extract the tax at our shores.  It can be calculated relatively easily.  I’m sure Russia, China or India would rather collect the money themselves than have us do it – and keep it.

Mr. Habakkuk is correct in his warning of eminent danger.  I do not believe that God sends invading armies to punish wayward nations – we’re perfectly capable of punishing ourselves.  It’s called consequences.  Warnings are a means of grace.  They’re an opportunity to understand where our behavior is taking us, and to change.  Bill McKibben is a hopeful prophet in that he lays out a plausible future. 

Yes, we all have an impact on the planet.  Every time we turn on the stove or fill up our gas tank, we impact the planet.  Every time we board a plane.  None of us is pure.  Even Greta. But there are actions each one of us can each take.  Change that lightbulb.  But more than that, we can vote for political leadership that will allow us to take collective action on climate.  Folks, the government is not some evil behemoth out there.  It’s us.  The “Deep State” is the Constitution.

With faith as big as a mustard seed, we can move the climate mountain.  Maybe not move sycamore trees, but with mustard seed faith, you might be like that proverbial tree planted by a clear, ever-flowing stream.  A tree that bears its fruit in due season, a tree that prospers in all seasons.  And this is how we will save this earth, “our island home.”  Only needed is the mustard seed faith that I can make a difference.  That you can make a difference.  That we can make a difference.  Add water, sunshine and love.  Amen.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Carl Zimmer, “Birds are Vanishing from North America, New York Times, September 19, 2019.

4 Lauren Morello, “Phytoplankton Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950,” Scientific American, July 29, 2010.

[5] Peter W Marty, “Dealing with Past Sins,” Christian Century, September 25, 2019, p. 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bill McKibben, “How we Survived Climate Change,” Time, September 23, 2019.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

Habakkuk, 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Proper 22, Year C, October 6, 2019

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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