The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - April 22, 2018
Scripture Reading: John 10:11-18  

Sermon Title: God Counts Everyone

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     It’s a shame that so many of the stories of Jesus revolve around sheep and shepherds.  I am sure that it was a wonderful illustration for that time, but I don’t have any experience with sheep.  I have seen sheep at petting zoos and fairs, but also seen pigs and cattle there, and don’t know much about them either. 

     Jesus implies that a good shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep.  The hired hand would just run away and let some sheep be killed, others scattered, but save his own life rather than protect his sheep.  In the other well-known sheep story, the good shepherd leaves his 99 sheep to go and find the one that is lost, bring it back into the fold.  The main point of both of these stories is that each sheep is important.

     If the shepherd runs away, the wolf will kill one sheep, the rest will scatter – but if you save your own life, you will be able to round up the scattered sheep.  That makes sense.  If one sheep wanders off, stay with the 99, might not even find that lost one, but you are putting the others at risk by going off to look for the one.  Jesus paints a picture that is very different than what we experience today.

     When drug companies today develop a new drug, they test it on animals, work their way up to tests on people.  Usually during those studies someone has a bad reaction and dies.  Just read one of those pamphlets that you get when you pick up a prescription, page after page of negative effects, and very often one of those negative reactions can lead to death.  One death in a study does not mean that the drug will not be sold, and it does not mean that when you take a prescription that it will be safe and do what it is supposed to do for you.  It all has to do with benefit risk analysis.  Is the potential benefit of this drug greater than its potential risks? 

     Isn’t that the exact opposite of what Jesus says the good shepherd does?  When a sheep wanders off, or a wolf comes, there is no cost benefit analysis, 99 is not more important than one.  At least in God’s eyes.  And if God is interested in that one, I think we are also being called to care for each of our fellow human beings, not just the greater good. 

     Today is earth day, and it is appropriate to spend at least one day a year talking about the earth that God has given us, and that we all live on.  For some this has become a political issue, but I don’t view it as that, I view this as a religious and moral issue.  Just as Jesus tells us that the good shepherd looks out for every sheep, we need to be aware of how our actions and inactions affect everyone on the earth. 

      There are some people who still question climate change, so I did a bit of research and now over 99% of all scientists believe that the climate is changing, and about 98.5% of those believe it is changing because of human action.  There is statement that is signed by thousands that say that the climate is not changing, or that if it is, humans have no role in that.  There are statements signed by thousands that say just about anything you can imagine, even things that most accept as facts.   I don’t think you will ever get 100% agreement on any single issue.

     We are starting to see the effects of climate change.  Hurricanes destroying huge parts of Puerto Rico and other islands.  The flooding from Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.  The wildfires in California, and the mudslides that followed.  Remember those three Nor’easters we just had last month, the flooding those caused? How about the island in Hawaii that got 28 inches of rain in 24 hours?  There have always been hurricanes and Nor’easters and flooding, but this is all in the past 9 months.  It is hard, even if you are not a scientist, to see what has happened in the past 9 months and not admit that things appear to have changed. 

     There is some good news.  The oceans have absorbed more heat than was expected.  Water is great as a heat sink.  We use it in our cars to keep our engines cool, and in many of our homes to keep us warm.  And water temperatures have only risen one half of one degree Fahrenheit.  If the oceans did not absorb this heat, the earth would be about 22 degrees Fahrenheit higher.  And there is some evidence that the ice in Antarctica is getting thicker in some places, as the earth gets warmer, more water evaporates from the oceans and falls as snow in Antarctica.  But these short term delays are not going to stop the world from being very different when our children, or grandchildren or great grand children, are here. 

     This past summer I went to the UCC General Synod in Baltimore at the end of June, start of July.  In the United Church of Christ there is no hierarchy, ultimate decision making happens in each individual church.  But when an individual church sees something they feel we should be addressing, they bring it to their conference annual meeting, and if the conference feels it is something that church should address, it goes to Synod.  At Synod a group of people will wrestle with it, and I imagine it is kind of like being a politician.  We have hearings where people can tell us why we should, or should not, support it.  Often some wording will be changed, and then the final resolution is set to be voted on.  And as you go to the area where we will hear final arguments and cast our votes, there are people with signs, people handing out pins, and post cards, and fact sheets. 

     We voted on about 12 resolutions during out time there, and it was an intense time.  We talked about Israel and Palestine, adopted adults being able to get birth certificates listing their parents’ names, dignity in dying, and even boycotting Wendy’s.   Not all resolutions passed, some were amended on the floor, some were turned down, and there were some very, very close votes.  But they don’t have any teeth - Once passed they go back to churches as recommendations, and some churches pick up on certain issues that are important to them.  And we can say that these resolutions are supported by the church, so not teeth, but do have some weight. 

     But this summer there was an emergency resolution.  This is where a resolution is submitted right before Synod to a group to see if this is something that needs to go before Synod that year, or if it can wait two years and go through the regular process.  The title of the emergency resolution was  “The Earth is the Lord’s, Not Ours, to Wreck.”

     Part of the resolution read: “Now is the time for congregations and for every person of faith to set a moral example through our own words and actions. As individuals and as communities, let us commit to making decisions of integrity in our energy choices, undoing the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color, indigenous communities, and poor white communities around the world, even as we commit to hold all religions, political, corporate. and global leaders accountable to do the same.”

     There was very little debate on this.  There were no pins or postcards or fact sheets.  Earlier in the week we welcomed the Water Protectors from the Standing Rock Tribe where the Dakota Access Pipeline was being built.  It was extremely hot those days in Baltimore, so hot that events  scheduled for outside were cancelled.  When the microphones were opened for people to speak in favor of a motion or against a motion, there were long lines in front of the in favor of, and very short lines in opposition to.  Those who spoke in opposition to this motion mostly said that it was not strong enough.  And when the vote was taken, it easily passed, about 97% of the people voted in favor of it.  I think only one vote was higher than that, which was to elect a woman to serve on the national staff. 

     The easy part is making the statement, but the harder part is doing it yourself.  Many of you know that I have solar panels on the roof of my house, and we produce just about the amount of power we use over the course of the year.  During the day we sell power to the grid, and at night we buy it back.  When we decided to do this, it was almost fully an economic decision.  We were told that we would have a set monthly bill for the next 11 or 12 years, and once we paid off that loan, we would have free power until the system wore out.  No power bills for hopefully several years, makes sense.  When we bought our house we had an oil boiler and hot water tank.  As we moved in, we got quotes, pulled out the old system and put in a very high efficiency natural gas boiler and tankless hot water system.  We pay about $900 a year for heat and hot water, with a teenager at home who does not understand what a short shower is.  Natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel than oil, but economically we are spending about half what the last owner paid to heat our house.  Again, the economics were the driving factor.    Maybe even though our motivations were not initially though of as environmental, the outcomes were.

     Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea had a population of about 2,600 in 2006.  Since that time the population has been decreasing, as the islands are slowly being evacuated.  These people are the first in the world labeled environmental refugees.  The sea is rising in that area only about a quarter of an inch a year, but when your islands are only a few feet above sea level, each inch makes a big difference.  8 inlands in that area have already disappeared, now under water. 

     And to be honest, environmental change is probably not going to be a huge factor in anyone’s life here.   Major cities are not going to be underwater in the next 40 or 50 years.  There will be more flooding, there will be stronger storms, sea levels will continue to rise, but how do our actions today affect the type of world we will leave to future generations?  And this is bigger than all of us in this church.  Even if we were to do all that we could, it would be a drop in the bucket.  But the bucket eventually will get filled drop by drop.  Together we can make a difference. 

     But really, why should we care? We are a church that believes in science, and we have a God who cares about each person.  God cares about the girls on the Carteret Islands, whose family farms have been flooded with sea water and no longer produce food.  God cares about our Native Americans who have been pushed into reservations where access to water is limited.  God cares about communities of color, like Flint, Michigan, whose water is still not safe to drink.  God cares about children whose asthma is made worse by pollution.  God cares about those in Charleston, West Virginia, whose water is not safe because MCHM, used to wash coal, leaked into the river polluting the drinking water supply.  God cares about those along the gulf coast who made their living fishing, but whose lives changed after the BP oil spill in 2010. 

     And God cares about each of us, and those who will come after us.  The world tells us that cost benefit risk analysis is the way the world works.  Our Bible tells us that each person is important.  This is why I believe this is not a political issue, but a religious and moral issue.