Apocalypse II: Earth Day

While the sage, Honi, was walking along the road,
he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honie asked him,
“How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

“Seventy years,” replied the man.

“Are you so healthy a man, that you expect to
live that length of time and eat its fruit?

The man answered, “I found a fruitful world
because my ancestors planted it for me.
Likewise I am planting for my children.”

(from the Babylonian Talmud, taanit 23a)

Today is Mother’s Day. I am fortunate to be the mother of two kids who like to cook. So tonight, I can look forward to a delicious supper prepared by my daughters.

But I am not only a mother, but also a daughter. My Mom died some 25 years ago. What gift can I give her? How can I honor her, on Mother’s Day?

The story of Honi and the Carob Tree suggests an answer. It is a simple tale, with a simple moral: We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants. Not a bad message, really, for Mother’s Day: We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

It is a lesson easily understood, but less easily followed.


Last week the United Nations released a report on the state of the planet. It summarizes the results of some 15,000 scientific and government studies, and concludes that of the earth’s 8 million species, some 1 million are in danger of extinction within the next few decades. Some of us in the room right now, will live to see this happen.

As luck, or providence, would have it, that report hit the headlines at the same time that the common church lectionary cycle turned to the Book of Revelation.  It was hard to miss the parallel between the two. The great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth used to tell his seminary students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other, but, honestly, as I went back and forth between the two, between the scripture and the news, it was hard to know which was which.

On the one hand, I read that “land degradation has reduced productivity in 23 percent of the global terrestrial area,” that habitat integrity has declined by 30% globally, that from 1990 to 2015 we cut down over twice as much forest as we planted, with a net loss of some 180 million hectares of trees.

In the other, I read that “a third of the earth was burned, and a third of the trees were burned, and the green grass was burned.”

On the one hand, I read “33 percent of global fisheries are overexploited.”
On the other, “a third of the living creatures in the sea died.”

When the daily news starts sounding like the Apocalypse, something is very wrong.


Around the year 100 – some three generations after Jesus was born – a follower of Jesus named John was exiled to the island of Patmos. It was there, the book of Revelation tells us, that John one day fell into a trance, and dreamed a dream – or a series of dreams – about the End of the World. His dreams are filled with cycles of seven – which in Hebrew numerology, meant cycles of completion. Seven lamps, seven seals, seven bowls, and, in today’s reading, seven trumpets, each bringing a new revelation.

The blast of the first four trumpets reveal massive environmental collapse. A third of the green earth perishes, a third of the sea creatures perish, a third of the waters are poisoned, a third of the stars are dimmed. (Revelation 8:6-13)

For John, this was a dream of unimaginable disaster. For us, it is still unimaginable, but it is no longer a dream, but a looming reality. We fell the forests, we empty the seas, we pollute our waters, even our view of the stars is dimmed by human activity; compared to the sky our ancestors saw, our own night sky is impoverished of stars.

We are living John’s dream, and it is time to wake up.


Now, in saying this, let me be clear: I do not necessarily mean to say, that John’s dream was a prediction of our present day crisis. I know that some see in these events the fulfillment of a prophecy, and come to the conclusion that somehow all of this is part of God’s plan, if not God’s actual doing. But the belief that God has ordained the destruction of our planet is a poor reading of scripture, not to mention a poor basis for environmental stewardship.

The first four blasts of the trumpet are followed by two more, which we skipped over in today’s reading. These bring a vision of suffering and death which will afflict the human species. For how can humans prosper, if earth perishes? But as terrible as they are, none of these events are punishments, or judgments. Judgment comes with the seventh trumpet.

The trumpet sounds, and the hosts of heaven declare:

The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God;
the time has come for judging the dead, for rewarding the saints,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Rev 8:15-18)

This devastation is not God’s doing. It is ours, and we are accountable for it.

The First Earth Day was in 1970; I was six years old. We were supposed to be the green generation. There was – and still is, I think – this belief that if we just teach our children about the environment, then the future of the planet will be secure. But the problem is, the world is not run by children, and children, unfortunately, turn into adults. Look at us. We knew better, but we have failed to do better; if anything, we have burdened the planet in unprecedented ways.  We currently extract around 60 billion tons of resources from the earth each year – that’s twice as much as generation ago.

We have eat the fruit of the carob tree; but instead of planting another, we cut the tree down, and paved over the orchard.

I’d like to be able to point the finger here, to blame our problems on someone else, on Big Oil or Big Government or people who drive Big Cars. But the truth is, we are all complicity, because our entire way of life is built on a wrong attitude toward nature. And – as T.S. Eliot once remarked – a wrong attitude about nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude about God.

Today, both nature and scripture, both science and religion, both speak to the urgency of our condition.

For here is the conclusion, of the UN report on the environment: “Goals for conserving… nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and… may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” [emphasis mine]

To rephrase this, in the traditional language of faith: Repent, for the time is at hand.


About five years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who was part of the church I was serving at the time. At the time he was about seventeen, so I guess he would be around 23 now. We met at a coffee shop, and talked about his life, and toward the end of the conversation I asked him, What does your generation want from the church? And he said: Hope?

The children of today can see what is happening, to the planet, and they fear for their futures. They know our climate is collapsing, they know our environment is degrading, and they are afraid. They are afraid that we can’t do anything about it. But even more than that, they are afraid we won’t do anything about it. As children protest, in the streets of London, in the streets of Greenfield, they are looking to us, for some sign of hope.

We are the grownups now. We have eaten the carob fruit. It is time to plant some seeds of hope.

The story of Honi and the carob tree is a simple one. Its lesson is easily understood, but less easily followed.

We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants.

We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

May it be so.


Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 12, 2019

Desolate Trees in the Sandy Desert of Deadvlei Hiking Trail. These trees perished when the local climate changed some thousand years ago. (Photo by Marcel Novais;  Wikimedia Commons)


Revolutionary Repentance

“What then should we do?” — Luke 3:2-18

In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells the newly created humans to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”

I think we can safely cross that one off our to-do list.

When Jesus was born, there were fewer than half a billion people on earth, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere was less than 300 ppm – as it had been for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, there are over seven billion people on earth, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is over 398 ppm.

Now, here is a problem our ancestors never saw coming. So what does our faith tradition have to say to those of us who live in this brave new world of overpopulation and industrialization, of climate change and environmental degradation? When we read in the headlines of 500-year droughts and raging wildfires, of melting ice-caps and vanishing species; what scriptures do we turn to? Where do we find resonance? Where do we find hope?

Thursday morning, I was among the millions of people who tuned in to watch Pope Francis as he spoke to the United States Congress. In the middle of that speech, he told the lawmakers, “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference. I am sure.”

This is the sort of language that caused Fox commentator Greg Gutfield to describe the Pope as the most dangerous person on the planet. Dangerous, because he calls upon us to change our course. Francis has asked for nothing less than a “bold cultural revolution” to liberate both the planet, and the planet’s poor — and he talks as if he believes it could happen.

In the past year I have been struck by the fact that many of the same people who used to deny the possibility of climate change, are now saying that climate change is already here and there’s nothing we can do about it. One minute it was too soon to tell; the next minute it was too late to act. We seem to have jumped straight from complacency to resignation, without any room in between for urgency. Without any room for hope.

But here is the Pope, claiming that we not only should, but could, do something. Here is the Pope, expressing both urgency and hope.

Of course, there are some who might point out that the Pope is not an authority on climate science, any more than Donald Trump is an authority on pediatric vaccinations. But the Pope makes no claim to know the science better than the scientists. His information comes from published research, not special revelation. But his urgency, and his hope – where do they come from?

Well, I can’t speak for Francis, but let’s go looking for ourselves:

John the Baptist appears at the River Jordan, fresh from the wilderness. He wears a coat of camel’s hair, he eats locusts and wild honey,he is a nature freak if ever we saw one. He stands there, with his feet in the flowing water, and says: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

I suspect that for most of us, a call to repentance wouldn’t really qualify “good news.” In fact, public calls to repentance often produce something of a backlash. No one wants to be publicly taken to task for their errors. It makes us feel ashamed, or defensive, or both. We don’t want to hear that we are “to blame” for global warming and so we tune out the science that makes us feel guilty.

But the word, “repentance” – or rather, the Biblical word metanoia – that word does not mean, “to feel ashamed.” The Biblical word metanoia means to change. To change our hearts and minds, and to change our lives, to change direction. Or, as Pope Francis puts it: “to redirect our steps.”

A better translation might be, “revolution.”

And so it is with John the Baptist; when the people ask John, “What then shall we do?” he doesn’t tell them to fast or to do penance or say five hail Marys . Instead, he tells them: If you have two coats, share one. If you have extra food, share that. If you have power, stop using it for your own profit.

John the Baptist comes along, wearing his cruelty-free clothing, and eating his macrobiotic diet, and calls the powerful to repent. No wonder Herod decided the John was the most dangerous person in Judea. He was calling for nothing less than a “bold cultural revolution.”

“Revolution” may seem like a strong word, but the truth is that repentance is always revolutionary, that hope is always revolutionary. “For who hopes for what he already has?” So asks the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans. Such revolutionary hope, Paul believed, was not confined to the human race, but was shared by all creation:

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Paul may never have envisioned a world with over 7 billion people, or a climate endangered by human activity, but he understood that the redemption of creation and the redemption of the human race were inseparable. And he had hope, that such redemption was possible. A hope based not on a clear vision of the future, but on a firm grounding in the past. God had liberated Israel from Egypt; God had liberated Jesus from the grave; and just as miraculously, God had liberated Paul  from his own prejudice and hatred. If God could do all this, then surely, God might liberate creation as well.

God of creation:
Fill us with the hope of Paul,
and the urgency of John.
May we believe the good news,
and repent.

PHOTO is of street art installation by Isaac Cordal; click here for the source, and for more images of his extraordinary work (blog text is in French, but the images need no words…)

TEXT from sermon originally preached by Rev. Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ, September 27, 2015.