Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sutton, MA.
Exodus 20:1-7 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Psalm 19 John 2:13-22
O beautiful for spacious skies
It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning and I’d like to thank your rector, Lisa, for inviting me to preach. I have heard many good things about St. John’s Church. I know that you honor the Gospel call to love and serve in Jesus’ name. I’ve heard about your annual “Mall for Humanity,” which generates funds for your outreach ministry. And I know that you support Connect Africa, an organization that helps children in Uganda, who have been orphaned by AIDS, to receive an education. So I know that the Spirit is alive and well in this congregation and that your hearts are open.
I’d like to preach about a subject that is very much on my heart these days, and I hope that you will give me a hearing, even though some people consider my topic controversial. As you know, I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to defend the integrity and sanctity of God’s Creation. I know that to some Christians, this ministry makes no sense. Many years ago I preached a sermon about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Some of you may remember what happened: on Good Friday, in 1989, a supertanker ran aground, dumped millions and millions of gallons of crude oil along a pristine coastline in Alaska and caused one of the most devastating environmental disasters in history. Into that long-ago sermon I poured all my anger and heartbreak about humanity’s troubled relationship with God’s Creation. After the service was over, a friendly but baffled parishioner approached me and said, “Thanks for your sermon, but I don’t get it. What does religion -- what does Jesus -- have to do with ecology?”
That’s a question that has pursued me ever since. What does religion have to do with ecology? Would Jesus care about this? After all, isn’t paying attention to the natural world a rather suspect practice for Christians? Aren’t Christians supposed to be focused on “otherworldly” things like heaven and the salvation of our individual human souls? Some people scoff at Christians who emphasize the value, even the sacredness, of the natural world, charging that this is just a foolish, New Age mistake. Christians who care about the Earth must be naïve and sentimental “tree-huggers,” or “pagans,” or “do-good liberals.”
Despite what some people say, in fact we Christians belong to a tradition that proclaims the basic goodness and value of the natural world. In the first chapter of Genesis, as the universe is created, we read that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). In the second chapter, we read that the very first task God gives to human beings is to tend and care for the Earth (Genesis 2:15). Several chapters later comes the story of Noah and the flood, which ends with God making an everlasting covenant, in the sign of a rainbow, and that covenant is not just with human beings, but also with every living creature and for all future generations (Genesis 9:12). It’s not just human beings that God cares about, but all beings, the whole creation!
It seems that Jesus lived in close relationship with the natural world. He spent a lot of time outdoors, walking from place to place. In the Bible we meet him on hillsides and mountaintops, beside lakes and in deserted places. He speaks of seeds and harvest, of fig trees, vines, and weeds, of clouds and storms, sheep and hens. He teaches about God in elemental, basic terms, using images of fire and wind, water and stones. Jesus knew that the birds of the air and the lilies of the field could teach us about our relationship with God (Matthew 6:25-33). And he gave us bread and wine as an ongoing sign of his living presence with us.
So: believing that the natural world is sacred is not some outlandish heresy or fantasy. It is basic to Christian faith. It’s not that Christians worship the Earth – we don’t. We worship God, and God alone. But we have reverence for the Earth, because, as we hear in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). The Earth and all its creatures ultimately belong to God – rivers, meadows, and trees, oceans and air, owls and otters, beetles and bumblebees. And all of it shines with God’s glory. Just listen to the first line of today’s psalm: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). What a blessing! We live in a sacred universe.
Thinking about that brought to mind the words of “America the Beautiful,” which is one of our country’s most popular patriotic songs and which you can find in our hymnal (#719):
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.
When we consider the natural magnificence of this country, we join eagerly in the refrain, “America! America! God shed his grace on thee…”
Because we know that God’s creation is sacred, it’s painful to see the natural world being degraded by human activity. When we see those “spacious skies” being polluted by greenhouse gases that pour into the atmosphere as coal, gas and oil are burned; when we see those “amber waves of grain” withering away in the face of massive droughts caused by a changing climate; when we see those “purple mountain majesties” blown apart and taken down to extract coal, and “the fruited plain” spoiled by yet another violent deluge caused by climate change – when we see these things we feel grief and anger and regret. Nature can recover from some wounds, but human activities are overwhelming nature’s capacity to heal itself, and this beautiful land of ours is being desecrated.
I know that some people are very concerned about climate change, and some people less so. As I see it, climate change is the great moral challenge of our time. 97% of climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that climate change is not a future threat. It is happening now, and for the most part is caused by us human beings. Burning fossil fuels is releasing gases into the atmosphere that make the world’s climate increasingly hot and unstable. Of course there has always been some natural variability in the planet’s average temperature, but ever since the Industrial Revolution we’ve been forcing the climate to change in a way that human beings have never experienced before.
But hey, we may be saying to ourselves, it’s been so cold this winter, and we’ve had so much snow! It turns out that massive snowstorms are linked to climate change, because warmer air holds more moisture. Some climate scientists are also studying the possibility that the rapidly warming Arctic is causing changes in the patterns of the jet stream, and making unusually cold air pour into some regions. As the world grows warmer we can expect more erratic and extreme fluctuations in local weather, and some places will sometimes become unexpectedly cold. Global warming does not necessarily result in warmer winters, but it does push the over-all direction of temperatures worldwide in only one direction: up. Yes, it was cold this winter here in New England, but other places were unusually warm, and on average the temperature of our planet worldwide is rising.
Because we love God, we feel a shock of penitence and remorse when we hear the commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:12), for we don’t want to contribute to the mass extinction of life that is now underway around the planet. Because we love God, we feel a shock of penitence and remorse when we hear the commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), for we don’t want to steal a livable world from our children and grandchildren. We want to be faithful stewards of the world that God entrusted to our care. We want to bear witness to the Lord of life, who rose from the dead and who proclaims that life, and not death, will have the last word.
What can you and I do? Well (thanks be to God!), there is a lot we can do. Individual actions add up: we can recycle more, drive less, be sparing in our use of water, and quit using bottled water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support local farms and land trusts. I hope you’ll form a “green team” in this parish, and name a Creation Care Minister. I hope you’ll sign up to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can. Here in Massachusetts we also have a strong and growing grassroots climate action group, 350Mass.org, and I hope you will sign up to receive weekly updates about their campaigns.
Together we can work for a swift transition from fossil fuels to energy that comes from wind and sun. I saw a wonderful bumper sticker this week. Beside a sketch of the sun were the words: One solution comes up every morning. Let’s use our imaginations here. What if everyone had solar panels on their roofs to generate their own electricity? What if these rooftop panels powered our homes and recharged the batteries of our cars? We would enjoy a level of personal energy independence that hasn’t been seen for generations! We wouldn’t be getting our energy from halfway around the world, but rather from a place as close as the roofs over our heads! And what if fields of wind turbines produced energy from wind? We’d be replacing dirty smokestacks and cleaning up the dirty air that kills 3 million people every year from illnesses related to outdoor air pollution. By making a swift transition from coal, gas, and oil to energy from wind and sun, we would become more energy independent, we would improve public health, and we would stabilize the climate. We’d be creating a lot more “green” jobs.1 And you and I would be praising God all the way. Let’s work together to make that happen.
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). With the blessing of God the Father, in the presence and power of the risen Christ, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, I pray that our churches will become centers of prayer and action for a greener and more just and stable world. I hope you’ll join me.
1. Thanks to Earth Policy Institute for supplying this vision and these arguments. For a fascinating account of the fast-changing politics of solar energy, read “Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar,” (Washington Post, 3/7/15) and “Solar energy’s new best friend is … the Christian Coalition” (Washington Post, 2/20/15).