From the Ground to the Road: A Sermon on Race and Climate Change by abby mohaupt

Job 2:11-13, Luke 24:13-35


From the Guest Director: In Advent, we are waiting for the coming of the Christ who will turn the world right side up and heal the brokenness we each encounter every day. For those of us working in care of creation, we see this brokenness keenly in the intersection of racism and environmental degradation. The collection of essays this week respond to that intersection, and come from four women. Historically, women and gender non-comforming people have experienced the effects of environmental devastation before men, and this is true of climate change as well. The reverend abby mohaupt shares a sermon about environmental racism and climate change. Jiyoung Kim reflects about the migration of the endangered monarch butterflies (and her piece is available here in both Korean and English). Elizabeth Welliver responds to her time visiting the border wall in Arizona and includes a letter to the U.S. Administration (in Spanish and English). The Rev. Dr. Neddy Astudillo reports back on her time at 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference (her reflection is available in both Spanish and English). 


Earth Day is the time when we usually remember how God calls us to love and care for creation—to be in awe of the ecosystems teeming with plants and animals and air and soil. It is the time when we lift up God’s good creation in light of the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection for all, calling us to beloved community with God, creation, and each other.

But every moment in time is the right time to remember God’s call to us to love creation and each other, and I believe that in these days of anticipation in Advent, we wait with all creation. We wait with a creation that is groaning, waiting for a Christ who will come to this earth that God loves—and that even the stars will swell with joy at his birth.

When I am not preaching or teaching, I make multimedia art—taking different pieces of garbage and assembling them together into something new with the help of various kinds of glue and adhesives. That training informs an interdisciplinary discussion of race and climate change and faith—and I glue together these pieces into what I hope is an assemblage of surprising hope.

The first piece is about sin.

We aren’t so good about talking about sin. I remember being a young adult tasked with leading worship at church. When it got to the silent prayer of confession, I would make that time as short as possible—what did I have to confess? I sped past that time in worship to get to the much more comfortable time of forgiveness.

But when we unpack a definition of sin, we realize that we all have something to confess. We humans are made in the image of God and called to live in relationship with God and each other with “mutual openness and help.”[1] Sin emerges when we break those relationships, when we break the web that connects all of us.  Sin happens when we forget to love others and when we forget that we ourselves are loved.

One sin, racism, is about institutional power, not personal prejudice. Racism is the second piece of the collage we’re creating. We live in a world that gives more power and agency to white bodies and people.[2] It means that people who are white don’t have to worry about being followed in a store or finding a Band-Aid that matches our skin color or being denied a job or a spot in university because of the color of our skin. This system of racism is why people who are white usually have better access to health care and education, positions of power and decision making.

It does not necessitate that each that individual white person is bad—or more sinful than other people. It does not mean that people who are white—people who are connected to historical and institutional power—have the intent to be racist. It means that even when we who are white don’t mean to be hurtful, pain still hurts.

But racism is a sin precisely because racism breaks our connections to each other and God and creation.

Our connections run deep if we let them. In Genesis 2 we can read the story of God forming the human out of earth and breathing life into us earthlings.  The text says, “The Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” (Genesis 2:7, Common English Bible)

This is a story that reminds us that we—all of us—are made in the image of God and connected to the ground. When we break connections, when we sin, we forget that we metaphorically come from the same ground—from the same ashes, and dust and topsoil, later to return back to the same ashes and dust and topsoil.

Racism is a sin because it means we forget our common ground.  The sin of racism infects other parts of our lives, other things we need to confess and don’t want to. Last year I was leading a retreat with a church in California about how ecology and earth care could be incorporated into worship. We spent an hour on each section of worship and when we got to the section on confession, we started a litany of all the ways creation is hurting.

If we are creating a faithful response to the assemblage of racism and climate change, we have to be willing to take an honest look a third piece: the environmental crisis.

We throw away things that could be recycled or we leave the lights on in empty rooms.

We drive too much and eat too much meat.

We emit too much carbon and raise the global temperature

Higher temperatures mean melting glaciers.

Increased ocean rising means that there’s less fresh water to drink.

But in that retreat I was leading, as we started working on the list of things to confess as our ecological sins, the group wanted to know if we could stop after just 15 minutes. Just like my young adult self, the group wanted to skip to the forgiveness of sins.

As you might imagine, I said no. We needed to confess—we needed to stretch out that time of confession when we named the ways we broke our relationships with God and creation and other people—because to shorten it would be an act of privilege. We needed to take the time to know the depth of the problem, so that we could imagine the possibilities of solutions. This meant we had to wait in our discomfort, wait with longing for something better—just as we do in this season of Advent.

I want to suggest to you that these ecological sins are connected to racism and classism. People of color and people who are poor—populations that often but not always overlap—are hurt by environmental destruction first and worst. This is called environmental racism.

Environmental racism is a concept coined by the Reverend Benjamin Chavis[3]and points to the fact that toxic waste sites and refineries are placed in communities where people of color live, that people of color have historically be kept out of leadership position in the environmental movement and in the systems that have made political and governmental decisions related to the environment. Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai says that climate change is environmental racism on a global scale.[4]

So these pieces—sin, racism, the environmental crisis—prepare us for the fourth piece: climate change.

We live in a world whose climate is already changing. Last year we passed a tipping point in climate change that climate scientists have said will be irreversible in our lifetimes—that there are 400 parts-per-million carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, more than ever before.[5] The people who are already experiencing the effects of these changes are people who live in the global South and on islands populated by people of color, people who are least responsible for climate change. The people who have emitted the most carbon are people who live in the Global North and West, communities who have yet to experience many of the effects of climate change and who sit at the powerful tables of climate policy making.[6]

Climate change policy has in effect been made in ways that don’t recognize the humanity of other people, of people who are poor and people who are on the front line of climate change. The president of the tiny island nation of the Maldives has been trying change that, has tried to get the global community to see his people before their suffering disfigures them and their home beyond recognition. In 2009, he held a cabinet meeting underwater, for example, symbolizing that soon his whole country will be underwater.[7] An entire country: gone. And the people of the Maldives are just a small fraction of people whose earthliness will be disfigured.

They are not the first people to wonder why everything they have is lost. The Bible reminds us of this in Job, and we know his story—of the deep and horrendous suffering and angst of a man who lost everything. His land was wiped out and his family was killed and he lost his livelihood. He so desperately wants to know why this has happened to him.

And we often read the story and quickly skip to the part when his wife tells him to curl up and die and his friends try to come up with all the reasons why this is happening to him—responses we might have to people who suffer from all sorts of issues, including climate change.

We tell that story as if they too want to skip to the part where things get better. But before they do anything, they come to be with him. The text says they leave their homes and come and see their friend. His suffering has been so great that they do not recognize him.[8]

Their hearts break open and they weep for his plight.

The word that gets translated for us as “console” is the Hebrew word and it means really to shake one’s head—to be speechless in one’s commiseration.[9] They throw dirt—a symbol of our connectness and createdness—above their heads in a ritual act of aching despair. And they sit in solidarity with him for seven days—they sit with him and wait for him to speak.

They wait with him on the place that connects us, the ground on which we live and move and have our being.

They wait in that time of confession until they feel the weight of just how much Job is hurting.

What will it take for our hearts to break open and to sit on the ground—the ground that connects all of us from our beginning?

What would it take to sit with the suffering of creation? How long can we sit in silence before we skip to an assurance of pardon—or a hope that somehow climate change and the racism that is implicit in it will simply go away?

Before we can do anything, first we have to recognize and name those pieces—those sins of racism, environmental crisis and climate—even though it makes us uncomfortable.

These last pieces of our collage—the biblical texts—remind us of the great suffering, the deep groaning of creation and our sadness when we feel the disconnection between us, God and creation. They remind us of our need to stay in those moments of silence, recognizing and confessing our sins. They remind us that we are supposed to be waiting for a better world—and that we are to do that waiting with people who are grieving and suffering.

In Luke, on the road to Emmaus, the disciples are grieving and confused, so consumed by those feelings that they do not recognize Jesus. I am a huge fan of the disciples in the Bible because they’re impeccable symbols of who we are in the world. Of course they should recognize Jesus, just as of course we should recognize the dignity of other people and other parts of creation. They do not yet believe that Jesus the Christ is alive—they only know that the man they loved so dearly has been killed. They have been sitting on their own suffering ground, and they have just heard the impossible stories that the body of the man they knew and love is no longer in the ground. They’ve waiting for a few days, and now they’re going back to the road because they don’t really know why they should wait any longer.

In the questions they pose Jesus-who-they-don’t-recognize, can you feel their confusion and despair? This is just how I feel when I spend too many days focused on the realities of climate change that disproportionately hit communities of color and then come across someone who asks me, “what are you talking about?”

They are surprised to meet someone who seems not to know about Jesus’ death. They think everyone should know and understand the heartache of Jesus’ death, because it has broken their own hearts open.[10]

Jesus explains to the disciples what they don’t know—teaching them as always about the connections around them—and even though they don’t recognize him, they ask him to stay with them.

And then—in those moments when they stop to listen and wait—they recognize him and then they feel all their broken pieces being refit together.

And that’s when we get the glue.

Christ’s birth comes into a crumbling world. A world marked by the sin of racism and disfigured by climate change, a world in which people anguish because their life is not recognized, a world flooded with emissions that are killing us all but the most vulnerable first.

Our disconnection is so great that we cannot recognize a way out of our pain until we are reglued back together.

I don’t know if we can turn the tide on climate change. I don’t know if we who are white will ever fully give up the sin of racism. These are sins that we must see, recognize, and confess. But I do know this: in Genesis the ground we’re made from is the topsoil[11]—the hearty two inches of earth from which life comes. In the coming days, we will welcome the birth and life of Jesus—who comes into this broken world to be with us, and to work alongside us in our brokenness. This is the baby who will show us how to love each other, creation, and God, and who will love us in all our pieces.

And with all creation we proclaim—Alleluia. Amen.


This sermon was originally preached at Second/First Church in Rockford, IL for Earth Day, and has been revised  for Advent.


abby mohaupt lives in New Jersey and California, having grown up in Illinois. An ordained PCUSA minister, she is a PhD student at Drew Theological School who writes about antiracism, ecofeminism, and climate change when she’s not running, drinking coffee, or making art. 

[1] Guthrie, Shirley. Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 213.

[2] Alonzo Johnson and Mark Koenig, “Antiracism Next Steps” (presentation at Compassion, Peace, and Justice Day, Washington, DC, April 21, 2017).

[3] James Cone, “Whose Earth is it Anyway?” in Earth Habitat, ed. Dieter Hessel and Larry Rasmussen (Minneapolis, MN: Fotress Press, 2001), 27-8.

[4] Wangari Maathai,. Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (New York, NY: Double Day, 2010), 169.

[5] Brian Kahn, “The World Passes 400 PPM Threshhold. Permanently.” Climate Central. Published September 27, 2016, Accessed April 22, 2017,

[6] See more on climate debt in Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 408-410.

[7] Olivia Lang. “Maldives Leader in Climate Change Stunt.” BBC. Published October 17, 2009, Accessed April 21, 2017,

[8] Marvin H. Pope, Job: the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), 24.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I wonder if this shock is akin to the shock of people on the frontlines of climate change, who think everyone should know the suffering they are experiencing. Or is it the shock of we who have privilege—who don’t know the whole story and have to be taught by people who are on the front lines?

[11] Theodore Hiebert, The Yahwist Landscape (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 6.


Para los hombres con las hojas y la tierra.