Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Turners Falls, MA.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Get up and go
“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)
I am blessed to be with you this morning. Thank you, Molly, for inviting me. As some of you know, after a good 25 years in parish ministry I now work for the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, a job that recently expanded to include working for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to protect and heal God’s Creation. Just a few days ago, on Tuesday, October 4, the Feast Day of Francis of Assisi, our diocese launched its third annual Season of Creation, so here on the very first Sunday of Creation Season I’d like to say a few words about the sacredness of the world that God entrusted to our care.
What’s been striking me lately is the power of nature to heal. Since August my husband and I have been living in an old farmhouse in the hills of Ashfield, not too far from Turner’s Falls. We’re building a house in Northampton that won’t be ready until sometime this spring, so between now and early March we have a rare opportunity to live closer to the natural world. In the mornings I’ve been walking outside to watch the mist as it floats above the pond. I’ve been breathing in the cool air as the sun rises, and studying the array of spider webs that sprang up overnight in the grasses. I’ve been listening to the occasional cry of a blue jay and watching the birches bend over the pond, dropping their yellow leaves one by one into still water.
I know you know this for yourselves: when we immerse ourselves in trees and wind and birdsong, our minds grow quiet. Spending prayerful time outdoors confirms all those research studies that show what intuitively we already knew: conscious contact with the natural world can be healing. Our blood pressure returns to normal, our racy minds slow down, our breathing becomes deeper and more even, and our anxious worry and striving fall away. Being in nature can restore our capacity to see and hear, to connect and relate: we start to notice the multiple shades of green; we spot bugs and plants we’ve never observed before; we may even be graced by the visit of a blue heron that lands on a rock beside the pond and stands motionless for a time out of time, as if ready to dissolve into sunlight and shadow.
Thanks to that contemplative gaze – to a long, loving look at the real – the barrier dissolves between us and the living world around us. The longer we look, the more clearly we understand that everything is connected, everything is alive with Spirit, everything is held together by a divine presence that sustains and upholds all things. Moment by moment God is giving God’s self to us in the natural world, and it becomes obvious that nature is not a machine; nature is not a commodity; nature is not just an object or “resource” for us to exploit, consume, and dominate – nature is a living mystery, a sacred, living web of life that reveals God’s glory.
That’s the vision of Francis of Assisi, who spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
That’s the vision of poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
That’s the vision of theologians like Martin Luther, who said, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.”
That’s the vision, I believe, of Jesus himself, a man who lived close to the Earth, whose ministry began by immersion in a river and who prayed and lived and walked countless miles outdoors. In his parables and stories, Jesus talked about God in terms of natural things: seeds and sparrows, lilies and sheep, rivers, wind, and rocks. Jesus was deeply aware of the sacredness of the natural world and it’s no wonder that in our sacraments we, too, make contact with simple earthy things, with bread and wine and water. We trust that God is in these things – that when we take in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist, we take in God’s presence.
Like the ten people in today’s Gospel story who suffer from leprosy, many of us could use some healing right around now. “Leprosy” comes in many forms. Maybe we are eaten up by malice or resentment, or gnawed by self-doubt and insecurity, or plagued by worry and stress. Heaven knows this year’s presidential campaign is keeping many of us by turns agitated, excited, appalled, and on edge. Yet God in God’s generosity is always pouring out God’s self to us at every moment and in every place, always ready to heal us, to restore us to sanity, and to make us whole. There is nowhere we can go that God is not, and it’s in nature that many us experience the divine touch afresh.
When, in the midst of our agitation or anxiety, our grief or stress, we feel again our kinship with our Creator and with all created things, when we are caught up again in the healing flow of divine love that connects us to ourselves, to each other, and to everything that is, we experience a deep response. Like the tenth leper who turns back, “praising God with a loud voice” (Luke 17:15), we, too, want to fall on our knees and give thanks. We, too, want to prostrate ourselves, for we are filled with gratitude. Thank you, Jesus.
And then comes that magnificent last line of the story, when Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). “Your faith has made you well”: all ten lepers were physically healed, but the one who gave God thanks experiences an even deeper, more complete level of healing and wholeness. He is spiritually alive, and well, and awake – perhaps on a path to enlightenment, for such is the power of the gratitude. “Get up and go on your way”: there is work to be done, says Jesus. Yes, stop to give thanks and praise, and then get up and go: you are healed, you are well, now go out into the world and join in my mission of healing, justice, and mercy.
Just as God brings us healing, so does God call each of us to become healers, too. We know that we are living at a time when the natural world is under extraordinary stress. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. We’re on the edge, or in the midst, of what some experts call the sixth major extinction event on this planet. And in just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than our species has ever experienced before. That extra CO2 is forcing the average global temperature to rise, and what’s so worrisome to scientists is that this process is happening very fast. Already oceans are heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains intensifying in others. 2016 is the hottest year in history.
This week we watched a massive hurricane, fueled by unusually warm seas, roar through the Caribbean and up the southeastern coast of the United States, killing hundreds of people and forcing millions more to evacuate. I hope you will join me in making a donation to Episcopal Relief & Development, which has set up a special fund for hurricane relief. Hurricane Matthew has been described (by May Boeve of 350.org) as “exactly the kind of stronger, wetter, more dangerous storm [that is] produced by an overheating planet” As we see in Haiti’s suffering, it is often the poorest people and poorest countries that are hit first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate. And according to the World Bank, unless we quickly rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – in the next 15 years. We have only a short time in which to avert a level of climate disruption that would render the world ungovernable and possibly uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children and our children’s children.
When I look around, I see a planet in peril, but – thanks be to God – I also see person after person reaching deep into their souls and then standing up to join the struggle to re-weave the fabric of life and create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, propelled in part by the release last year of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, which makes a powerful connection between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. I see people rising up for life, refusing to settle for a killing status quo, and proclaiming with one voice that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a new social order being born. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice. We see unexpected alliances taking shape. A few weeks ago I joined a group of religious leaders that met with the White House Council on Environmental Quality to press President Obama to take bolder action on climate. We ended the meeting in a powerful way: we stood up and joined hands around the table, and I prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But you don’t have to go to Washington, D.C., to join the climate movement. Right here in the Pioneer Valley we have an unusually strong grassroots group, Climate Action Now. If you sign up for the weekly newsletter or attend a meeting, you’ll be hooked into a vibrant local effort. After today’s service I’d be glad to share a handout of other actions we can take as Christians to become healers of the Earth. Along with so many others, we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy like sun and wind that are accessible to all communities, including those that are low-income or historically under-served. As climate activist Bill McKibben has pointed out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care.
Like the ten lepers in today’s Gospel story, you and I experience God’s healing presence. We know that God has power to save. All the lepers had faith in Jesus and all of them were healed, but only one of them, the tenth, knew the joy of turning back to say thanks, and the joy of being sent out to bear witness to God’s power to heal. May that joy be ours as well.