Sermon for the “Green Gathering,” Diocese of Connecticut, held at Grace Episcopal Church, Newington, CT, September 8, 2007. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas.

Genesis 9:8-13Hebrews 12:1-2
Psalm 65:5-14Luke 12:49-56

Healing the Planet: Blessed Unrest

This is an unsettling Gospel passage, one that some of us heard in church several weeks ago and may not have liked very much the first time around.  But even though it’s an edgy and uncomfortable Gospel, I chose it because I needed to hear it again today and because I wanted to reflect on it with you.  Why?  Because Jesus wants to set us on fire. 

That’s how he puts it, right off the bat.  “I have come to start a fire, and how I wish it were kindled!”  Jesus comes with fire – that traditional biblical image of judgment and purification. “I have come to change everything,” Jesus says.  “I have come” – and now I’m quoting a contemporary rendering of this passage – “I have come to turn everything right-side up.”1  He is on his way to Jerusalem, facing his passion and death, and you can hear the urgency in his voice.

Fire is what Jesus brings this afternoon – the loving fire that burns away apathy, indifference, and every tinge of despair, the fiery, passionate, and steady love of God that alone can stand up to the fires of hatred and violence.  Jesus has come to kindle the divine fire that alone can stop the scorching of the planet, and that alone can heal and mend a world that is crying out for our care. 

Divine love is a tender fire, a gentle fire, and the only resource that is always renewable.  But it is also a disruptive fire.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to earth?” (Luke 12:51, NRSV) asks Jesus. “Do you think [that I have come] to smooth things over and make everything nice?  Not so.” (Luke 12:51, The Message)  I have come not to bring peace, but division.  “I’ve come to disrupt and confront!  From now on, when you find five in a house, it will be – three against two, and two against three; father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother….” (Luke12-51-53, The Message) And so on.  You know the rest.

It’s not that Jesus wants us to be troublemakers for trouble’s sake, or to incite division for division’s sake.  Heaven knows the ordinary family has enough conflicts and misunderstandings of its own, and doesn’t need anyone, even Jesus, to encourage further division.  But when we wake up to the crisis this planet is in, and cast our lot with love, we start making waves. 

Oh, sure, it may begin quietly enough – a few compact fluorescents here, a little recycling there, maybe a decision to use public transportation from time to time, or even to spring for a hybrid car.  But before long who knows what we may get into?  Maybe we’ll start eating local, or eating less meat.  Maybe we’ll downsize our house or move closer to our place of work.  Maybe we’ll quit buying new stuff and start buying second-hand.  Maybe we’ll walk away from the voices and values that urge us to shop till we drop and that claim that happiness is found in things.  Maybe we’ll start refusing the enticement of going to sleep in front of a screen and instead wade ankle-deep into the blooming, buzzing, living world that begins outside our door.  Maybe we’ll start figuring out a whole “re-do” of a society whose economy is based on the fantasy of endless growth and on gobbling up the living resources of our planet and throwing them away as trash.  Maybe we’ll not only abandon our energy-intensive lifestyle, but also push our lawmakers to lead.

Who knows?  Maybe we’ll end up finding our way to a life that is more connected with the natural world, with our neighbor, and with God.  A Gospel life, the very life to which Jesus is calling us with such urgency in his voice.

And you can count on it: a Gospel life is always disruptive.  When we commit ourselves to following Jesus, we dare to upset the status quo, to be passionate, to be set on fire, to give ourselves utterly to the quest for the wholeness and flourishing of all beings.  We become willing to stand up for the deepest truth we know, the truth of God’s all-embracing love, even when it risks disrupting some long-standing patterns, behaviors, and relationships.

Blessed unrest – that’s a good term for it, our refusal to settle for a status quo in which the poor go hungry, landfills overflow, lakes die, entire species disappear, gas-guzzlers foul the air, and the global climate is scorched.  Blessed Unrest is the title of a new book by environmentalist Paul Hawken that traces the extraordinary upwelling going on around the world right now as people and groups devote themselves to the renewal of life on this planet.  You won’t read about them in the newspapers.  You won’t see them on TV.  Most of their work is carried out under the radar of politicians or the corporate media.  But, Hawken writes, across the planet, “tens of millions of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people [are] willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world” (“To Remake the World, Earth Letter, Summer, 2007, p. 12).  “They share no orthodoxy or unifying ideology; they follow no single charismatic leader; they remain supple enough to coalesce easily into larger networks to achieve their goals… [And] they are bringing about what may one day be judged the single most profound transformation of human society.”2  This, Hawken believes, is the largest social movement in all of history.

I believe Jesus is calling us to be part of this sometimes disruptive transition to a more just and sustainable world, and Jesus is challenging us to choose.  Today we stand in the crowds with him, watching as he points out the clouds and lifts his face to the hot desert wind.  He knows that we can interpret the appearance of earth and sky.  The scientists have done their job: we know that global warming is upon us, and that human beings are to blame.  “Why,” asks Jesus, “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  In other words (as I hear it), are we willing to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into tending the Earth that God has entrusted to our care?  Are we willing to choose life rather than death?  Are we willing to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and… run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus”? (Hebrews 12:1-2a)

That is what I hear in Jesus’ words today: a call to passion, a call to fire, a call to stay true to God’s longing for the flourishing of life within ourselves, within our families and communities, within the world at large, even when standing up for life means that we go against the grain, provoke controversy, and refuse to do business as usual.

Healing the planet is demanding work, but it can be work that heals our soul.  Working together to restore and renew life on this planet can call out the best in us, so that we tap into and take hold of our deepest reserves of courage and creativity and compassion.  

If you have some time to give this great work, now is the time to give it. 

If you have a word of hope or encouragement to share, now is the time to share it. 

If you have some love to give, now is the time to give it.

If you are a person of prayer, now is a good time to pray. 

Now is the time to draw upon the sacred Power within us and among us that calls us to choose life, the divine Power that can sustain us for the journey ahead.

I pray that the words we hear, the prayers we say, and the sacrament we share will strengthen our intention to become people of fire.  Dear Jesus, give us courage to stand with you and to become fearless agents of God’s healing and reconciling love, in your name and for your sake.  Amen.

1. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs, Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1993, p. 155.

2. Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, NY, NY: Viking, 2007, from dust jacket.