The following sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day is adapted from a sermon I delivered in 2011. It is posted at (January 5, 2020).

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84: 1-8 
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19
Matthew 2: 1-12

                                                Journeying with the wise men

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. – Psalm 84:4

When I think of the three kings, what leaps first to mind are the crèches I unpack every year a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the piano in the living room I put the tall, earthenware figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby, of the shepherds and sheep, and — yes — of the three kings and their camels. On the mantelpiece goes a miniature nativity set in which each teeny-tiny figure is made of clay, delicately painted, and no more than one inch high. On the coffee table I put the plastic figures and the cheap wooden stable that children can play with to their heart’s content without making their grandmother worry that something will break. No crèche is complete without its three kings, and when the Twelve Days of Christmas are over, back go the kings and camels into their boxes, where they spend the rest of the year stored in the basement.

Reflecting on today’s Gospel, I got to thinking: what would happen if the wise men walked out of those crèches and into our lives? What would happen if these figures — so easy to trivialize as nothing more than decorative props for a mid-winter festival that we pack away when the festival is done — what if the wise men actually came to life for us? What if their journey informed and deepened our own spiritual search, and propelled it forward? So I began to read the story for its spiritual significance, wondering if it might be read as a sacred, archetypal story about how we grow in intimacy with God.

Four parts of the story stand out to me.

First, of course, is the star, that mysterious, shining presence that startles the wise men and launches their search. Ancient tradition held that an unusual star could appear in the skies to mark the birth of someone special, such as a king. That is how the wise men interpret what they see: something out of the ordinary is taking place, something truly significant is afoot, and out the door they go, leaving their ordinary lives behind as they follow the light wherever it leads.

Let’s pause to note that even though every painting, movie, and Christmas card that depicts the journey of the wise men shows a dazzling star above their heads, we don’t actually know from the biblical story whether anyone but the wise men can see that star. King Herod, the chief priests and scribes don’t seem to know anything about the star until the wise men arrive in Jerusalem and tell them about its rising. So the star may be visible to the eye or it may be perceptible only to one’s inward sight; it may be seen or it may be unseen. Either way, it signals the birth of something new in the world. It heralds a presence and power just now being born. The wise men are wise because they spot the star and set everything aside to follow where it leads.

Maybe every spiritual journey begins with a star. At some point we get a sense — perhaps a very vague one — that there is something more to life than the ordinary round of tasks and responsibilities, something above, beyond, or maybe within material reality that can give a larger meaning and purpose to our days, something that is beautiful and shining and that lights up the world. So we set out on a quest to follow that star and to see where it leads. We may name the quest in different ways — maybe we call it a search for meaning or wholeness, a search for happiness or peace. Maybe we seek to know that we are loved, or to draw closer to the divine Source of love. Maybe, as some Greeks say to Philip in the Gospel of John, we express our desire in a simple, straightforward way: “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). However we name that desire, deep down we want to know God. And so, like the wise men, we set out, and what beckons us forward is a star, a subtle, shining presence that keeps company with us, and that we follow as best we can.

For most of us, most of the time, following the leadings of God is not like having a GPS in the car, delivering clear-cut instructions: “Turn left in .2 miles; take the freeway; turn right in 4.3 miles.” Like it or not, the star of Bethlehem is more elusive than that, so we have to develop a stance of careful listening and open inquiry, and a practice of prayer that makes us more sensitive to the glimmers of the holy. It takes practice to stay attentive to the star, for, as Boris Pasternak once wrote, “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.”

The star is the first thing that catches my attention in this story.  The second is Jerusalem. Where does the star lead the wise men? Straight to Jerusalem, straight into the center of political and economic power, where King Herod the Great, a client king appointed by Rome, rules with the same ferocity that Stalin wielded over his own country in the 1930’s. We might wish that following a spiritual path were only an individual and interior enterprise — that following the star meant nothing more than developing a personal practice of prayer or going away on periodic retreats. There are plenty of contemporary books and speakers out there that define spirituality in a very individualistic way as being mindful of your own mind and cultivating your own soul — and of course that is definitely part of the journey. But right from the beginning, from the very moment that Christ is born, it’s clear that following his star also means coming to grips with the social and political realities of one’s time. Being “spiritual,” for Christians, is not just an interior, individual project of “saving your soul” — it also has a civic dimension, a political dimension, and as the wise men faithfully follow the star, they are drawn straight into the darkness and turmoil of the world, where systemic power can be used to dominate and terrify. Without intending it or knowing it, the wise men even contribute to Herod’s program of terror, for Herod takes the information that they give him and uses it to order the slaughter of all the children under the age of two who live in Bethlehem.

Following the star evidently means being willing to become conscious of the darkness of the world, and even to perceive how we ourselves are implicated in that darkness. The taxes I pay help subsidize fossil fuels; the clothes I wear and the electronic devices I use may have a vast but hidden social and environmental cost.  If I drive a gas-powered car, with every turn of the ignition key, I add to global warming. Until I recognize how I am caught up in and contribute to the contradictions and injustices of our political and economic system, I am not following the star and accompanying the wise men into Jerusalem.

And let’s notice, too, that King Herod trembles at news of the star — in fact, its rising frightens him. The powers that be are terrified when God in Christ draws near, for God’s love is always a threat to those powers; it opposes everything in us and around us that is selfish, greedy, and motivated by the wish to dominate, control, and possess. As I read it, the wise men needed to get to know those powers, both within themselves and in the world around them, if they were going to find and follow Christ.

So they entered Jerusalem and faced the darkness. Then, keeping their eyes on the star, they kept going, “until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9b-10).

This is the third part of the story: the encounter with Christ. What a beautiful line that is — “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” The long, long journey with all its uncertainties and privations, its cold nights and its restless, ardent searching, has reached its fulfillment. The star has stopped, and the wise men can be at peace at last, they have arrived at last, they have found what they were looking for, at last! They enter the house, they see Mary and the child, and they fall to their knees in a gesture of deep reverence and humility.

Do we know what that’s like? Of course we do. We glimpse such moments whenever time seems to stop, when, for instance, our minds grow very quiet in prayer, we surrender our thoughts, and we seem to be filling with light. Or maybe it happens when we gaze at something that captures our complete attention — maybe a stretch of mountains or the sea, or when we take a long, loving look into a child’s sleeping face, or when we are completely absorbed in a piece of music. In moments like these, it can feel as if we are gazing through the object on which we gaze, and seeing into the heart of life itself. Love is pouring through us and into us, and all we can do is throw up our hands, fall inwardly to our knees, and offer as a gift everything that is in us, just as the wise men open their treasure chests and offer everything that is in them. Worship is what happens when we come into the presence of what is really real. When we come to the altar rail at the Eucharist, whether we choose to stand or whether we kneel as the wise men did, like them we stretch out our hands to offer everything that is in us, and like them we receive — we take in — the living presence of Christ.

Finally, the fourth part of the story is its closing line: “… having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). In other words, the wise men refused to cooperate with Herod. They deceived him. They resisted him. The wise men have been called the first conscientious objectors in the name of Christ. They are the first in a long line of witnesses to Christ who from generation to generation have carried out acts of non-violent civil disobedience in Jesus’ name. The journey of the wise men is our journey, too, for, as Gregory the Great reportedly remarked in a homily back in the 7th century: “Having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

So, as we set out together into a new year, I hope that you will join me in keeping the wise men at our side, rather than packing them away somewhere in a box.

Like them, we can attune ourselves to the guiding of the star and renew our commitment to prayer and inward listening.

Like them, we can enter Jerusalem and all the dark places of our world and soul, following where God leads, and trusting that God’s light will shine in the darkness.

Like them, we can make our way to Christ, and kneel in gratitude.

And like them, we, too, can rise to our feet with a new-fired passion to be agents of justice and healing, and a renewed desire to give ourselves to God, for “happy are the people whose strength is in [God, and] whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.”


This article by reporter Steve Pfarrer of Daily Hampshire Gazette includes an interview with Margaret Bullitt-Jonas about her new book, ROOTED & RISING, co-edited with Leah Schade. The original article includes many photos (Dec. 24, 2019).

As the digital revolution has sped up the pace of life, with cell phones, Twitter, Facebook and 24/7 news coverage seeming to leave no “off” switch, so does the news of climate change seem to come at an ever-increasing clip.

Glaciers in Greenland melting faster than had been predicted? Check. Worldwide carbon dioxide levels reaching record new levels? Check. Animal species going extinct faster than had been expected? Check. July 2019 determined to be the hottest month ever since record-keeping began more than a century ago? Check.

If you’re experiencing anxiety — or something worse, like hopelessness or despair — about the future of the planet, you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association published a guide for therapists two years ago to help them counsel patients about what some have also called “eco-anxiety.” The report stated in part that negative psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, hopelessness, fatalism and fear — even aggression and violence — were growing.

“These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency,” the report added.

Beth Fairservis, a pastoral counselor and climate activist in Williamsburg, has talked to some of her clients about climate change over the past several years. But this summer, she says, “There seemed to be a real shift … it seemed like every client was talking about it, that people were starting to feel a sense of ‘Oh my God, this is different from anything in recorded history.’ ”

Fairservis, who also develops theatrical productions that address climate change, believes the high visibility this year of young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who attracted worldwide media attention with her calls for immediate action on the issue, may have raised awareness on climate issues in a way that myriad scientific and media reports have been unable to do.

“I think for a lot of people, there’s a certain sense of mortality,” said Fairservis. “We’re in shock. We’re looking at profound changes to our way of life. Climate change could upend so many things we take for granted, like food supplies, electricity, the typical changing of the seasons.” Client change is not necessarily the only thing troubling her clients, Fairservis notes, but for many “it’s at the core of their issues.”

Seeking community

But she and others in the Valley who are grappling with the disturbing changes to our environment — and the prospect of more severe problems in the future, from crippling heat to rising seas to depletion of food supplies — say there are ways to address this. There’s no one solution, they say, nor can we expect some last-minute technical solution to save the planet. But Fairservis, for one, says there’s much to be gained by continuing to push government leaders on addressing the issue, finding value in day-to-day life, and forging stronger connections to one’s community.

“One simple thing you can do is write down what you’re grateful for,” said Fairservis, whose background includes the study of Buddhist traditions and mindfulness. “And we can reconnect with our bodies and our emotions. We’ve become distanced from them by our society and technology.”

Geoffrey Hudson found some perspective on climate change by doing something he loves best: composing music. The Pelham cellist and classical composer remembers reading a newspaper article a few years ago on climate change in which a scientist expressed frustration that what he and other climatologists were documenting didn’t seem to be resonating with people — at least not emotionally.

“That really struck a chord in me,” said Hudson. “I had never seen a connection between the issue and my music, but now I did. Music can really build emotional connections, on a lot of different levels.”

Hudson wrote an hour-long oratorio, “Passion for the Planet,” scoring the piece for adult and younger singers and a 12-member chamber ensemble. The music looks both at the ominous side of climate change, with a reference to the famous “hockey stick” graph from the 1990s that revealed a dramatic rise in global temperatures in the 20th century, but it also offers a message of hope in its later movements: a sense that, as Hudson puts it, “We’re all in this together. You don’t have to be alone.”

When the piece had its debut at Sage Hall at Smith College this past summer, it sold out, he said, and the line of would-be concert-goers extended out the door and down the block. It was performed by the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble — including Hudson’s wife, singer Alisa Pearson — and the Hampshire Young People’s Chorus. Afterward, Hudson said, people seemed deeply moved and happy they’d been part of the event.

“Music is not going to solve climate change, but it can bring us together and give us a greater sense of community and how we have to work together to confront this,” he said. He noted that he and Pearson have an 11-year-old daughter and are very concerned about what the future may offer her. But he suggested climate change be viewed as a large boat that people are slowly trying to turn around and steer in the opposite direction.

“You work as hard as you can to turn it around, and you may think it’s not turning, but eventually it does,” he said.

Lives of the spirit

Margaret Bullitt-Jonas has been concerned about climate change for over three decades, ever since the problem was first tagged as “global warming” in the 1980s. A former Episcopal minister for Grace Church in Amherst, Bullitt-Jonas has devoted herself to climate activism for 20 years and for the last six years has worked full time for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts on climate issues — writing, leading retreats, speaking on the issue and taking part in interfaith services.

Bullitt-Jonas, of Northampton, sees climate change as a vital issue for people in the faith community to address, just as U.S. churches previously responded to social justice issues such as the civil rights movement. On an individual level, she adds, it’s also important for people to take stock of what’s important in their life. Like Fairservis, she counsels people to stop and consider what they feel grateful for as a way to keep climate grief at bay.

“It’s clear that our way of life is not working for a lot of people or the Earth,” she says. “And it can feel that whatever we’re doing to try and lower our footprint on the planet is just so insignificant … but in a way, we have an opportunity now to reassess how we want to live our lives.”

Bullitt-Jonas has also co-edited, with a Lutheran pastor and academic in Kentucky, Lean Schade, a recent collection of essays, “Rooted & Rising,” on the topic. The contributors — faith leaders, climate activists, scientists and others — write about their own responses to climate change and the need to be resilient.

And Bullitt-Jonas and Schade write in an introduction to the book that the crisis could become “a catalyst for spiritual and societal transformation. It is our deepest, most fervent hope that the wisdom of the world’s religious and faith traditions can help to midwife whatever new life will be born out of this cataclysmic time.”

Another climate activist, Sarah Metcalf of Northampton, says she went through a period of serious depression a few years ago after giving a sermon on climate despair at the Unitarian Society in Northampton, where she serves on a committee examining climate change. “The situation seems so dire and disheartening … it felt like whatever I was doing [to fight climate change] was nothing more than a symbolic gesture.”

But Metcalf, while not claiming any sudden burst of optimism on the issue, says there are some basic steps you can take to counter that sense of hopelessness. “Go outside a lot — love being in the natural world in all its beauty and variety. Meet other people, stay active. Help others. Become more self-sustaining. Being alone and obsessing on this subject is not the way to go.”

And Metcalf, a writer and singer — she sang in “Passion for the Planet” with the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble — has also reconsidered the value of the personal steps she’s taken to try and reduce her carbon footprint. Though stressing she’s fortunate enough to be able to swing some things financially that others cannot, she said that, as one example, replacing her old Subaru with an electric car “has made my heart feel a little lighter — you know, ‘Here’s something personal I can do.’ ”

And Metcalf holds out this hope: that when facing an emergency, humanity can rally and show collective courage and action. “We rush into burning buildings to save strangers,” she said. “And right now, our planet is burning.”

This op-ed, co-written by Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, was published in newspapers in Louisville, KY; Frankfort, KY; and Northampton, MA (December 18, 2019).

The picture of Greta Thunberg on the cover of Time magazine as its 2019 Person of the Year is both inspiring and sobering.

Standing on an outcropping of rocks at the ocean’s edge, she gazes toward the sea. The splashing waves at her feet are a poignant reminder that signs of the climate crisis are all around us.

The world’s oceans are rapidly losing oxygen — it’s as if they are beginning to suffocate. Many of the oceans’ vital ecosystems are at risk of collapse. And new research indicates that rising seas due to global warming could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought.  Some of the world’s great coastal cities will likely be erased, sending the number of climate refugees into the millions.

Given this dire projection, along with news about wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods and mass species extinction, the effects of climate change have reached biblical proportions. This is why Greta Thunberg is a prophet for our time.

In August 2018, at age 15, this teenager stood with her sign, “School strike for the climate,” on the steps of the Swedish Parliament. Since then, her lone voice has struck a chord that has reverberated around the world. She has inspired young people across the planet to organize climate strikes calling on adults to take action on global warming.

Greta Thunberg at a climate strike rally in March 2019. Photo credit: Klimastreik_19-03-01_0177″ by campact, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Millions of students have mobilized in protests worldwide. Her stirring speech at the United Nations was a prophet’s call to repentance for the ecological sins we have committed against this planet and those who will inherit the mess we have made.

Of course, she is also vilified by many, including the presidents of Brazil and the United States. They mock her, attack her and ridicule her. That’s what happens when prophets speak truth to power. But people are listening to her message. World leaders are paying attention. She is cutting through the hubbub of noise, distraction, and lies, and telling the truth without apology.

This is exactly the time for faith communities to step up alongside Greta and the climate generation to offer support and leadership during this climate crisis.

More and more people are asking: “What can we do?” Through collaboration and community-building, houses of worship can help their neighbors find innovative answers to that question.

Pastors, priests, imams, rabbis and spiritual leaders of the world’s religions are perfectly situated to address these issues from a theological and scriptural perspective in order to galvanize the faithful to respond. Just as churches and synagogues were the moral engine that powered the civil rights movement, so now are houses of worship needed to harness the energy of the faithful to act.

In many ways this is already happening. Organizations such as Greenfaith, Interfaith Power & Light, ecoAmerica’s Blessed Tomorrow, and the Poor People’s Campaign are reaching across religious and political divides to educate and activate people of faith.

Churches are installing solar panels. Mosques are planting community gardens. Synagogues are hosting sessions on community organizing around climate change. People of faith are protesting pipelines, willing to be arrested for their nonviolent civil disobedience.

This is a moment when the faith community must not stand on the sidelines. If you are a member of a congregation, encourage your faith leader to preach and teach about what your scriptures say about this good Earth. If you are a faith leader, talk with your colleagues about how you can spark the sacred fire that has the power to ignite a revolution of justice.

This is an issue that affects every person on our planet, especially “the least of these” who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. The climate crisis is a global, national, state and local issue, and faith leaders must not only become well-informed and well-read on this topic, they must also be bold prophets for justice.

The climate emergency offers the opportunity for new life to be breathed into community movements as people of faith join efforts to combat climate change.

As Greta has shown us — it’s time for us all to be prophets.

Pray for Boldness

The path that most of society has traveled for the past two hundred years has led to an unprecedented human emergency: we are hurtling toward climate catastrophe and watching the web of life unravel before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished in less than 50 years. In what scientists call a “biological annihilation,” human beings have wiped out more than half the world’s creatures since 1970. The relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests are pushing our planet to break records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities and accelerating wildfires. Low-income communities are the people hurt first and hardest by a changing climate, but everyone will be affected: unless we change course fast, we won’t leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world. Civilization itself is in peril.

A poignant prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer puts it like this: as a society we “have wandered far in a land that is waste.” It is easy to feel overwhelmed and to become stuck in anxiety or inertia, wondering if it’s worth taking action: maybe it’s too late to change course and maybe we’re too far gone. Besides, what difference can one person make? Paralyzed by fear, we can get caught in a sort of death spiral, in what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon denounced as a “global suicide pact.”

Climate change brings us to our knees. It takes moral courage to face the predicament in which we find ourselves and to recognize the part we have played in creating it. How do we pray about ecocide? How do we pray with our fear and anger, our grief and guilt? One place to begin is with our bodies: to develop prayer practices that slow our racing heartbeats and quiet our agitated minds. In the midst of trauma – and directly or indirectly, all of us are experiencing trauma – we need contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer or mindfulness meditation that bring us into the present moment. Breath by breath, we breathe in the presence of God, who has loved us into existence and who sustains us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Breath by breath, we release our struggles and fears into God’s loving embrace. With every conscious breath, we experience the divine Presence more fully and we touch into the still center that abides within us, beneath the turbulence of our lives.

Contemplative prayer can teach us trust and patience. We learn to sit quietly, maybe even serenely, in the midst of uncertainty, to wait in the darkness, to relinquish our anxious and futile quest to stay in control. We learn to listen for the inner voice of love that we can only hear when our thoughts lie as quietly as leaves that drift on a tranquil pond. “Be still… and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11).

Yet we also need vigorous and visceral forms of prayer – expressive, noisy prayers of protest and lament. Again, our bodies can lead the way. How will we declare our love for a world that is in such desperate peril? How will we name our need for God and our fierce desire to be of use? We may need to drum and dance, to weep and groan, to sway and stamp our feet. We may need to sing or wail, to write poems and read them aloud, to call out prayers of petition and intercession, to light candles or to walk in pilgrimage or procession. In these precarious times, we need to sink our roots deep into the love of God, to remember how loved we are, how cherished we are in God’s sight, how nourished we are by a love that will never let us go and that will give us strength for the journey ahead. We need to join hands with our brothers and sisters in other faiths, for together we form one human family, all of us created by the one God who yearns for our flourishing and for the flourishing of all Creation.

When we open ourselves to contemplative and expressive prayer, to solitary and collective prayer – when we come to our senses and awaken from a dull acceptance of things as they are – who knows what the Spirit of the living God will be able to do through us? Our prayers will be manifest in faithful actions, as we march and lobby, as we push political and corporate leaders to keep fossil fuels underground and advocate for a fair price on carbon, for massive investments in green technology, and for a just transition to a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and that improves public health.

Climate change brings us to our knees, but it also brings us to our feet. I can think of no more beautiful way to spend ones life than to participate in what leaders like Joanna Macy and David C. Korten call the “Great Turning,” the epic transition from a deathly society to one that fosters life. Our wholehearted effort to create a more just and life-sustaining society is what philosopher Thomas Berry calls the “Great Work.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls it the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ, who came to reconcile us to God, each other, and the whole of God’s Creation.


The first followers of Jesus were filled with a wave of Easter hope. When they saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, and when they met the Risen Christ in their midst and in their hearts, they realized that life and not death would have the last word. Nothing could separate them from the love of God.

Their lives were now filled with fresh meaning and purpose. They realized that they belonged to a sacred mystery that was larger than themselves: to a love that would never let them go. Although they were still mortal and frail, still imperfect and vulnerable people in a big, chaotic world, they understood that they participated in a long story of salvation to which they could contribute, every moment of their lives, by choosing compassion over indifference, kindness over cruelty, love over fear. Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).

Their prayer and witness got them into all kinds of trouble. The early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). Their commitment to God apparently led many of them to spend as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail. Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society.

That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and carries us now, every one of us who feels impelled to join our Creator in re-weaving the web of life and in building a gentler and more just society. Like the early Christians, we pray for boldness as we face the many threats that imperil our precious world. Like them, we turn to the God “who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them” (Acts 4:24), and we pray:

“And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.                              (Acts 4:29-31)

The Christian community, and people of faith everywhere, were made for a time like this, a time when God is calling us to become an Easter people, to step out of despair and inertia and to join, even lead, the joyful, prayerful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care.

This piece is included in “Standing in the Need of Prayer, Volume IV, Climate Action for Peace – UN International Day of Peace Boston 2019 Edition,” Spiritual Voices: Envisioning Just Peacemaking with the Earth. A link to the whole PDF is here.

Margaret contributed a prayer to the new collection, “Standing in the Need of Prayer, Vol. IV,” SPIRITUAL VOICES: ENVISIONING JUST PEACE WITH EARTH, distributed through Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, available online here.

Sermon for the Convention Eucharist, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, held at Tower Square Hotel, Springfield, MA                                                                                                                              November 9, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” — Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1981), 281 John 10:10b-15

   A sacramental life: Rising up to take climate action

Friends, it is a blessing to be with you. Before I say another word I want to thank the many people who helped turn this windowless hotel room into a sacred space. Because of their creativity and generosity, we have four stunning new banners that represent elements of the natural world – banners that we hope you will borrow to use in your own church1 – and we have a baptismal font adorned with nature’s beauty. Thank you – and thanks to everyone who had a hand in creating this service. I especially want to thank Geoffrey Hudson, composer of “A Passion for the Planet” and the musicians and members of Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble who are here to bring this music to life.

I am particularly moved to see the image of Earth placed on our altar. As you may remember, this photograph was taken in December 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the moon. It’s called the “Blue Marble” because when the crew looked out the window, around 18,000 miles from the surface of the planet, the Earth was about the size of a marble. You could cover it with your thumb. Everything we know and love, every part of human history and experience is on that precious marble whirling in the darkness of space. That photo gave us our first glimpse of Earth as a whole, allowing us to see for the first time its unity, its fragility and vulnerability, and its preciousness. This flag has traveled with me to countless climate marches and rallies, and it touches me to bring it home to this altar, to lay it on this table where in every Eucharist we remember “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) that God loved into being, redeems in Jesus Christ, and sustains by the power of the Holy Spirit! This is a good time to uphold the Earth in prayer, for we know that the living world is in a precarious state. Last year the World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that globally the number of animals has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Humans have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. We are in the midst of what alarmed scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” Then came a major report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which showed that planetary warming is well underway and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe. Because of the burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet keeps breaking records for heat. Of course it is the poor and racial minorities and the historically marginalized that suffer first and hardest from the shocks and disruptions of climate change, although in the end, all of us will be affected. Earlier this week more than 11,000 scientists from around the world issued a report that warns of “untold suffering” if we don’t change course fast. Scientists are generally a cool-headed, understated lot, right? So it’s worth noticing when for the first time a large group of scientists calls climate change an emergency. Last year’s IPCC report told us that in order to avoid runaway climate change we must carry out a radical transformation of society, from top to bottom, at a scale and pace that is historically unprecedented: today we have maybe eleven years in which to set a new course and to cut our emissions in half from their levels in 2010. Never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast. So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes and only a short time in which to heal our ecosystems and create a more just and sustainable way of life. Well, when you hear stark news like that, it’s easy to shut down. It’s hard to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. When we feel powerless to imagine, much less to create, a better future, we tend to put our heads down and carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. I’m very interested in how we move out of fear, inertia, and despair and into the movement to tackle climate change and social inequality – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisishas just been published. So I ask you: Where do you find courage to take action, even when the forces against us are great? What are your sources of strength and resilience in a perilous time? As for me, I draw strength from the living presence of Jesus Christ within us and among us. “I came that they may have life,” Jesus says to us today, “and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That’s a mission statement: he came then and he comes now to bring life – and not any old life, but a life that is lit up with meaning and purpose, a life that is animated by a fierce love that seeks to create a beloved community in which people live in harmony with God, with each other, and with the whole of God’s Creation. Jesus, the Good Shepherd of our souls, lived close to the earth. He walked in the desert and along the shores of a lake. He felt the wind on his face and he watched the night stars. He climbed mountains to pray, and in his teaching and parables he used earthy images of vines and bread and seeds, of lilies and sheep. Jesus was steeped in the rhythms of the natural world, and maybe it’s no accident that when Mary caught her first glimpse of the Risen Christ, she mistook him for the gardener. In a time of climate crisis, we are blessed to meet the Good Shepherd in every celebration of the Eucharist. This is where we find strength for the journey and where our moral courage is renewed. Maybe we should think of Holy Communion as our superpower. God has so much to give us and to show us in this sacrament! For starters, Communion is good practice for living well on the Earth.2 As we heard in the reading from Wendell Berry, everyone lives by eating. The question is whether or not we ruthlessly grab and grasp, turning into greedy “consumers” who must constantly replenish ourselves with material things in order to reassure ourselves that we’re powerful, that we matter, and that we exist. Holy Communion is a radically counter-cultural practice that can heal unholy consumerism. We savor a morsel of bread, take a small sip of wine, and in our attentive reverence to Christ’s presence, we are filled. We share one loaf and one cup, and there is enough for everyone. In every Eucharist we discover to our amazement that in taking only what we need and in sharing what we have, our hearts our satisfied. What’s more – every Communion also reminds us how much God loves the whole Creation, not just human beings – as if we happen to be the only species that God cares about. When the celebrant lifts up the bread and wine during Holy Communion, all of Creation is lifted up. When the celebrant blesses the bread and wine, all of Creation is blessed. The consecrated bread that is placed in our hands is made of wheat, earth and sunlight, of rainwater and clouds, of farmers’ hands and human labor. When we stretch out our hands to receive the bread, we take in what is natural and we take in Christ. The bishops of New England described it like this in a Pastoral Letter3 a while back: when “we nourish ourselves at the Eucharistic table… Christ gives himself to us in the natural elements of bread and wine, and restores our connections not only with God and one another, but also with the whole web of creation.” We are making that crystal clear in our prayers today, so you will notice that in the prayer after Communion, we have added five words. We will pray, as we usually do: God of abundance, you have fed us with the bread of life and cup of salvation; you have united us with Christ and one another; and you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth, and then come five new words: “and with your whole Creation.” Why is this important? Because we come to this table so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed, so that everything in us and around us can be caught up in the redeeming love of God – not only we ourselves, and not only the bread and the wine, but also the whole of God’s Creation, every leaf of it and every speck of sand. In every Eucharist we bring the Earth to the altar. We offer the world to God. And when we leave this table, we’ve been filled with the divine love that reconciles all things on heaven and Earth and that strengthens us to join God in healing and protecting our precious, wounded world. When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, there are many actions that we can take as individuals and as communities of faith! I’m not going to list them here, because we’ve distributed a handout of suggestions and because the resolution we’ll discuss this afternoon is also full of suggestions. But I will say this: Now is the time to preach boldly about the climate crisis. Now is the time to take clear and courageous action to safeguard the web of life that God entrusted to our care. Now is the time to join the climate justice movement and to bear witness to the Christ who bursts from the tomb and who proclaims that life and not death will have the last word. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Will we be successful? Will we avert runaway climate change? I don’t know. But I do know that every choice matters. Every degree of temperature-rise matters. I’m told that “even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.” I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I hold that title on your behalf. Each of you – everyone in this room, every single one of you – you too are missioners for Creation care, because you, too, are fed at this table where we meet the life-giving and liberating and reconciling presence of Jesus Christ. I’d like to end with a story about risking arrest for the first time and what it taught me about the Eucharist. Back in 2001 I was desperate to find a way to address the climate crisis, and I decided to join a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, which was gathering in Washington, D.C., to protest the Administration’s energy policy and its plan to drill for more oil in the Arctic. Here’s what happened: On the first day we learned about oil drilling and the Arctic, about climate change and fossil fuels. On the second we lobbied our members of Congress and studied the disciplines of non-violent civil disobedience. On the third, about a hundred of us marched down Independence Avenue in religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, an enormous stone structure surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. So far, everything was legal. Then came the part that wasn’t. I’ll read from an essay I wrote4 about what that was like. The worship service was coming to an end. We sang “Amazing Grace,” and then the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy. I felt us cross an invisible boundary. With the others, I stepped over a threshold I could not see. I walked out of my ordinary life. I am neither a law-breaker nor a thrill-seeker. More often than not, I follow the rules – even enforce them. I fasten my seat belt, don’t cheat on taxes, write thank you notes, and stand up when the band plays our national anthem. But here I was, intentionally and publicly breaking the law. As if some inner revolution had quietly taken place, the old “me” was no longer in charge. Whatever security I’d felt in operating within the rules was gone. That’s partly why I felt so frightened as I left the safety of the circle and moved toward the door: I hardly recognized myself. I hardly knew who I was. §§ We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard. At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray. Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone. I lift up my hands. I’m dressed for Holy Communion. I might as well hold out my arms as I do at Communion. Instead of pews filled with parishioners, I see ranks of police and a cluster of supporters. I am afraid. I’ve never been arrested before. Years ago, as a VISTA volunteer in Mayor Rizzo’s Philadelphia I heard countless stories of police brutality. It’s not that I really expect the same thing to happen to me – the punch in the gut, the assault behind closed doors. Still, my body tenses as I place myself against the cops, the Feds, the law. I close my eyes. One by one we pray aloud, words thrown into space, words hurled against stone. Is this whole thing ridiculous? I briefly open my eyes and notice a well-dressed man watching us. He strokes his tie, leans over and says something to a fellow nearby. The two of them chuckle. I have no idea what they’re talking about but I wonder if they think we look absurd. I suppose we do. Here we are with our jerry-rigged signs, our predictably earnest songs and prayers of protest, a foolhardy band straight out of the ‘60’s. Defensively, I imagine confronting that mocking man with the arsenal of our credentials. “We’re no rag-tag bunch,” I want to tell him. “We’re people with doctorates and master’s degrees – nurses and ministers, writers and accountants. Thoughtful people, educated people, professionals.” I am distracted from prayer by this indignant outburst. “Let it go,” wisdom tells me. “None of that matters — your degrees, your skills, your status in the world. The privileges of race and class mean nothing now. You’re a woman on your knees, that’s who you are — one human being pleading with God.” I turn my attention back to prayer and continue to stretch out my arms. Suddenly I realize that beneath the tension, beneath the fear and self-consciousness, something else is welling up. I am jubilant. “Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at Communion. “We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response. How did I miss it? After years of going to church, after years of celebrating Communion, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance. That worship is an act of human liberation. The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released? I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt. It is God I love, and God’s green earth. I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great. So what if our numbers are small? So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power? I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering. We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand. This is what I love. Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.” I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy. That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy. I invite you to take a moment to remember a time when you took a brave step toward fullness of life, a time when you made a decision to do the right thing, even though you knew it would be difficult or costly. Who inspires you to be bolder than you thought? With whom do you hold hands, literally or figuratively, when you step out to make a difference in the world? And if you knew you could not fail – if you were set free from fear – what would you do for the healing of our world? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. If your church in the Diocese of Western Mass. would like to borrow the banners, please contact the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very. Rev. Tom Callard (413/736-2742, ext. 1; email: tcallard (at) 2.This and the following three paragraphs are adapted from “Second Friday of Advent,” Joy of Heaven, To Earth Come Down: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), 35-36. 3.To Serve Christ in All Creation: A Pastoral Letter from the Episcopal Bishops of New England,” issued February 2003. 4. Adapted from “When Heaven Happens” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (NY: Seabury Books, 2007), 74-85.    

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas gave the keynote address, “Rising as Fire,” for the conference, “Reality, Hope, and Action in a Time of Climate Change,” held on October 20, 2019, at St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT. Video credit: Steve MacAusland.

Here we are this afternoon, gathered from our different neighborhoods, towns, and faith communities, like embers coming together to build up a fire. If you scatter the embers of a fire, they fizzle out. But if you bring them together, maybe blow on them a little, maybe add more fuel, before long you’ve got a roaring blaze. So let’s talk about fire.

Fire is on our minds these days. Many of us have watched videos of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager with the round face and the straight blonde hair and those fierce, unyielding eyes, speaking with such intensity to the US Congress, to the UN COP meeting, to the World Economic Forum, telling the world – telling the adults who have failed to take action – “The house is on fire.” Our planetary home is on fire. It’s going up in flames.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Three kinds of fire

Last week I listened to Naomi Klein speak about her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (NY: Simon and Schuster: 2019), and what I want to say is inspired by her remarks. Naomi Klein pointed out that actually we are dealing with two fires: one is the fire of a scorching planet as the climate crisis deepens. We know what that looks like: extracting and burning fossil fuels is warming the global atmosphere and setting new records for heat, month after month. Climate disruption is sparking wildfires in the Arctic and around the world; it’s causing massive droughts and record floods, monster hurricanes and rising seas. Parts of the planet will soon be too hot to inhabit, and the space in which human beings can survive is contracting. Last year the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that in order to avert a catastrophic level of climate change, anything beyond a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature, we have only a short span of time – at this point, maybe eleven years – in which to initiate a transformation of our society and economy at a scale and speed that is historically unprecedented.

That’s Fire Number 1, the fire studied by climate science. Fire Number 2 is the fire of hatred. When people feel threatened, they can turn to a “strong man,” an authoritarian figure who promises to keep them safe by denying the humanity of other groups of people, by “othering” people who are weak or vulnerable or historically marginalized, the people who are not like us. This second fire is also raging, jumping from country to country: it’s alight in Brazil, in Turkey, and here in the U.S. Hatred says that some people are more worthy than others, that some people – the other people – should be left to drown or starve or die of heat – that’s not our problem, since we are the winners and they are the losers. Hatred is the voice of white supremacy and of every form of domination, greed, and exploitation.

So two fires are ablaze around the world, and feeding each other, but Naomi Klein pointed out that there is a third fire, too: our fire, the fire of our movement coming together at last – the youth climate strikes, the indigenous rights movement, the fossil fuel divestment movement, the climate justice movement, the frontline movement – and, I would add, the faith and environment movement – all of us coming together to douse the first two fires, and forge a path to a better future.

Naomi Klein didn’t say this, but I would call the third fire, the fire of love. This is where communities of faith have a vital role to play, for our task as faith communities, our vocation – indeed, our very reason for existence – is to tend and build the fire of love. How do we access that fire? How do throw off our helplessness, inertia, and despair, reach into our deep reserves of wisdom and courage, and rise up to take part into the movement to heal the web of life? I’m very interested in that question – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith and environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays will be published on November 15 and it’s called Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.

Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, ed. Leah D. Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas

Three ways to build love’s fire

I’d like to name three ways that individuals and communities of faith can build the fire of love in this precarious time.

First, we can teach practices that nourish the heart. For instance, go outdoors and fall in love again – or for the first time – with the natural world. Let the wind or the tree, the hoot of an owl or the shining face of the moon – let them speak to you of the love of God. The natural world saves us just as much as we save the natural world – the healing is mutual, for we belong to each other; we are kin.

Rediscovering the sacredness of the web of life can nourish the heart.

So can the practice of gratitude, the discovery that everything is gift – this moment, this breath – ah! It’s all gift! What a blessing to be alive just now, and at a time when our choices make such a difference!

Or again, we nourish the heart when we move through each day mindfully, paying attention, remembering that every person we meet is precious in God’s sight and worthy of care and respect.

That’s the first great gift that communities of faith can give the world in such a frightening time: practices of prayer and community, practices of meditation and story-telling, practices of singing and ceremony, that connect us with a sacred, loving Power beyond ourselves. Sharing practices that nourish the heart – that’s the first thing we can do to tend the fire of love.

Second, we can create spaces and ceremonies that allow our hearts to break. All of us need to grieve. We have lost so much, and we face more loss ahead. How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? The climate crisis can overwhelm us and make us go numb. But it is important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. What’s more, our emotions can become a source of energy for action to address the emergency.
So I’ll tell a story about grief that I included in my chapter for Rooted and Rising.

Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty. They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees. Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.1

Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines. Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose. I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species. I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests. I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part. I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation.

I feel God’s presence when I pray like that. I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me. Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love.

Here’s a third way that faith communities can tend the fire of love: we take up actions to heal the planet as a form of spiritual practice. When it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Drive electric. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well.

Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. So we’ll need to use our voices and our votes and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Now is the time to join the climate movement that Naomi Klein described – we might start by signing up with, the world’s first global grassroots climate network. Because of the fire in our hearts that burns for a better world, a world in which our children and all beings can thrive, we may feel called to carry out acts of civil disobedience to interrupt the runaway juggernaut of “business as usual” that is wrecking the planet.

Everything we do for Earth and her communities, human and other-than-human, can become a spiritual practice – something we do mindfully, gratefully, and with love for God and God’s whole Creation.

Will our efforts be successful? Will we avert runaway climate change? I don’t know. But I do know that every choice matters. Every degree of temperature-rise matters. “Even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.”

And love matters. Love matters most of all.

So let’s do it, friends. Let’s make it happen. Let’s set the world on fire.

  1. “We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018 (

This is the text of the keynote address that Margaret gave at the forum,”Reality, Hope and Action in an Age of Climate Change,” organized by Inter-Religious Eco-Justice Network and held at St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT, on October 20, 2019.