By Sheri Hostetler
About a month ago, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) released another landmark report saying that, yes, climate change is really happening and we’re already seeing the effects of just one degree Celsius of warming and those effects are bigger than we even thought they were going to be. Droughts are more devastating, hurricanes are more damaging, wildfires are more intense and frequent. We know what this is doing to people and other living things from Yemen to Puerto Rico to Paradise, California.
Because these effects are bigger and happening more quickly than scientists thought they would, the report said we need to keep warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, not the 2 degrees originally agreed upon by world leaders in 2015. This half degree of difference could make a world of difference. It could leave our children with a planet that sort of looks like our own. There will be big environmental challenges and changes with 1.5 degree Celsius warming — there are already with 1 degree. But with 2 degree Celsius, we’re talking more about the end of the world as we know it, especially for the poor and vulnerable. Says Debra Roberts, the co-chair of an IPCC working group: “(1.5 degrees Celsius) is a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now.”
Because we still have time to act, the scientists say. Not much, but enough. We have 12 years. We have 12 years to make massive changes to our energy infrastructure, to the way we grow food, to the way we transport ourself, to the way we build buildings and make things. And here’s the thing: It’s doable. We have the technology and knowledge to do this. We know what to do. And we even have the money — it’s not that expensive. And it’s far less expensive than not doing it. It is possible.
So how many of you are sitting there thinking some version of, “We’re beep.” Like: game over. The economic and political structures behind climate change are simply too big, too massive, too powerful to ever change, and especially too big and powerful to change in that period of time.
I wonder if this is how Jesus’ disciples felt when they were sitting opposite the temple, the setting for our Gospel passage today, and they were staring at those massive stones that made up this even more massive building? We know that they were in awe of this structure. “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And you can see why they felt this way. Just one of the corner stones of the Temple weighed 517 tons. That’s the weight of 41 city buses. One stone. That corner stone is 44 feet long, 10 feet high and almost 11 feet wide. That’s one massive stone. It took thousands of hours of human labor to cut this one stone out of rock and then dress it. And the Temple is made up of hundreds, maybe thousands, of these kinds of massive stones. Can you imagine how much work went into creating that Temple? The millions of hours of labor?
So, you can see why Jesus’ disciples are more than a little impressed. They’re gobsmacked by the grandeur, the massive inevitability of this structure. Which is exactly what architecture like that is supposed to do. It’s supposed to impress you and make you think that the building you are looking at and the worldview it embodies is impervious to change, almost eternal. Somebody once said that you can tell a lot about a society’s worldview, what it values, by looking at which buildings are the most impressive and grand. So, in the Middle Ages in Europe, people built cathedrals like Chartres and Notre Dame. Later, secular democracies built grand government buildings like San Francisco City Hall. And now, we have… the Salesforce Tower.
These massive structures make visible in stone or steel the invisible social structures of a society. So, the Temple was a structure in stone symbolizing the Temple political and economic system and the religious story that legitimated it — the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. Jesus was a vehement critic of this Temple system, and he was a critic for one reason — this Temple system exploited the poor. (These insights are from Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strong Man.) He has already said in the passage right before the one we read that this wondrous Temple that everybody’s oohing and aahing over had been built off the sweat and exploitation of widows and the poor. This is why he predicts the destruction of the Temple. This is why, he says, not one stone is going to remain. He’s talking not only about the destruction of the actual Temple, but the destruction of a social structure that exploits poor people, that divides them into the rich few and the poor masses, and the destruction of a story that makes it okay to do so. Jesus is saying, while this structure seems strong, impervious, it’s actually fragile because it is built on a rotten foundation, one based on exploitation and inequality. He’s saying this structure is going to inevitably collapse. These stones will fall.
It turns out Jesus knew something about societal collapse. In 2015, a group of scholars studied societies that collapsed over 5000 years of history and determined that such collapses are not inevitable; they are not just the normal life cycle of civilizations. They are caused by humans for two central reasons, and here I’m quoting from the study: 1) “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” or 2) the “economic stratification of society into elites and the masses” or both. (This information is from the book A Finer Future: Creating an Economy in Service to Life.) So exploitation of the planet and people causes collapse. A society that does one of them — and certainly a society that does both of them — isn’t going to last. Do I need to even say that our global economic system does both? These stones will fall.
In Jesus’ time, this prediction of collapse causes the disciples to, understandably, get nervous. Jesus is telling them the world, as they know it, is going to end. They begin asking anxious questions, like, when is this going to happen? how will we know it’s happening? Jesus basically says, stay awake — keep your head about you. Don’t go off all half cocked following one doomsday guru after another. Don’t even get alarmed when you hear about wars and rumors of wars, when you hear about earthquakes and famines. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” he says.
When you hear IPCC scientists saying that we have 12 years to turn this around, when you read about the erosion of topsoil, the colony collapse of pollinators, the acidification of the oceans, don’t be alarmed. Don’t start hoarding canned food or arming yourself or deciding that you might as well party like it’s 1999 because we’re all going to die anyway. Don’t shut down and distract yourself with Netflix, at least not too much. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. When you hear about growing inequality, that eight men now own the same wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, when you hear of millions of refugees streaming into Europe and the U.S. because of wars and economic policies that make the global poor poorer and the rich richer, don’t listen to the fear mongers and fascists who will arise to lead many astray. This is but the beginnings of the birth pangs.
This is but the beginning of the birth pangs, because out of the rubble, a new world can be born. These stones will fall, Jesus says — not one stone will be left upon another. These impressive structures that seem unshakeable are actually made by human hands, and they can be dismantled by human hands. And, in fact, that is what happened to the grand and imperious Temple. The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.. That structure and the symbolic-social order it represented collapsed. And the Jewish people had to come up with a new structure and a new story. And they did. Out of the rubble, a new world was born.
I think this is the place we find ourselves in now, at the beginning of the birth pangs. We’ve got a global economic structure called neoliberal capitalism that is teetering on the brink and that has brought us to the brink of planetary ruin. This structure can’t last because it’s built on the exploitation of people and the planet and it will collapse like every other structure based on even one of those. In fact, even now, it’s collapsing.
And it’s up to us what kind of structure will be born out of its rubble. It is going to a fascist, authoritarian structure? Because that’s the way some parts of this world are heading, and there are people building those stones. Or is it going to be a structure that leads to dignity and quality of life for all people — all beings — on Earth? That’s the way other parts of this world are heading and there are people building those stones. Lots of people.
I’ve been reading and doing some research about these stone builders, and it’s fascinating and hopeful. There are farmers growing food in such a way that it actually reverses climate change by sucking carbon out of the air. It’s called carbon farming, and it’s being done by small-scale organic farmers using both ancient wisdom and modern science to grow more nutritious food and sequester carbon in the process. This way of farming is more labor intensive but that’s great, because it creates jobs for people. There’s one big stone — definitely a cornerstone. Solar and wind energy prices have become so competitive — they are now cheaper in most of the world than coal, gas or nuclear —- that a Stanford professor predicts the entire world will be running on renewable energy in 12 years. And we’re not reliant on politicians to drive this change. It’s true that they can influence the pace of change, but much of the pace is being driven by the market. Renewables are cheaper and easier. There’s another big stone — definitely a cornerstone.
And, as we’ve recently seen, people at all levels are getting involved in politics, making their voices heard for a more just and equitable society. That picture of the Democratic members-elect of the House of Representatives has got to make you smile. It is the most diverse group of people ever to enter that House, in terms of gender, race and religion. More stones.
And then there’s us. People in this church are doing amazing things — we just hard some of it during the children’s story. Whether you are combatting antibiotic resistance globally or buying your vegetables from a small-scale organic farmer at a famers market or knocking on doors during the election or teaching kids or giving money to all the amazing non-profits and NGOs like Tobi’s out there— we are builders of that new world. We are among the millions of laborers putting millions of hours into the making of new stones. Sometimes we are taking old stones, gathered from the rubble, stones that we refashion and repurpose. Sometimes we are carving stones out of new rock.
So, here’s the thing, builders: We have 12 years. Twelve years to be a part of the great work of stopping and reversing climate change and inequality. Achieving this challenge is our great work and, as Buckminster Fuller said, our final exam. And this is a great work to which each of us is called. And I’m including our younger people in that. Each of us, no matter our age, should be asking: What is our call right now, at this point in the history of our planet? What am I called to build? Which stone am I begin called to fashion? Maybe you’re already doing that work. Maybe you’re not. We should be taking this question to our prayer, to our discernment, to our conversations with each other. We should be calling upon God, upon the Spirit of Life, to guide us, to show us the way. Because our work, our building, is going to dramatically influence the next 10,000 years of humanity’s future. Can you imagine a better time to be alive? Amen.