Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25A), October 29, 2017 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, WA Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 Psalm 1 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Matthew 22:34-46

Rooted and rising: Spiritual resilience

What a blessing to be back at St. Mark’s Cathedral! Thank you, Steve, for inviting me to preach. I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ as Missioner for Creation Care. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is a joy to return to Seattle, where my father was born, and to see again your magnificent forests, lakes, seas, and mountains.

My husband Robert Jonas is with me, and we’ve spent the past week in the Pacific Northwest, speaking and leading retreats about spiritual resilience. I am drawn to the topic of spiritual resilience because it seems that most of us could use some resilience right about now. Many people tell me that they’re feeling bone tired. Partly it’s the demands of family life and work life, the hectic effort to keep so many balls in the air. And partly we’re tired because of the stress of knowing that as a nation we’re facing so many difficult issues all at the same time. Day by day, as we read the headlines or hear about the latest developments, many of us are gripped by outrage and alarm. We are living in turbulent times when upheaval seems to be the new normal and we brace ourselves for the next scary bit of bad news. As Missioner for Creation Care, what most concerns me is the fact that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – are rapidly disappearing from Earth. You may have noticed the report in Friday’s Seattle Times that Orcas may be extinct by the end of the century because of dwindling numbers of salmon, human pollutants, and underwater noise. Scientists tell us that a mass extinction event is now underway – what they’re calling a “biological annihilation.” In addition to species extinction, we also face a changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sea ice is melting. Land ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. The deep oceans are heating up and growing more acidic. Hurricanes – like those that ravaged Puerto Rico and the southeastern U.S. – are growing more intense. Soon after that succession of hurricanes, catastrophic wildfires began roaring up the California coast, accelerated by high winds, extreme heat, and bone-dry landscapes. Climate change didn’t cause these monster storms and fires, but it certainly made them worse. These so-called “natural” disasters are not entirely natural – they are driven by dirty energy like coal, gas, and oil, which dump carbon and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and disrupt the climate.
Orcas hunting in Salish Sea, an area between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, B.C. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
In a precarious time, when many of us, for good reason, are stressed or tired or scared, we need once again 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 give us strength for the journey ahead and will never let us go. So thank God for St. Mark’s Cathedral! Thank God for every congregation where people draw together to pray, to listen to the wisdom of Scripture, to draw close to Jesus, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Today’s readings give us a beautiful image for spiritual resilience. In Psalm 1 we read that those who trust in God are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). Imagine being such a tree! Your roots go deep into the love of God, which runs like a river beside you. No matter what is happening in the world around you, even if what’s going on feels dangerous or chaotic, even in times of storm or drought, your roots reach deep into the ground and you stand beside a divine river that is endlessly flowing. As another psalm puts it, “the river of God is full of water” (Psalm 65:9). Like trees planted beside a stream of living water (John 7:37-38), we are “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). We know that God is with us. We feel God’s power and we feel God’s strength. Drawing from those deep roots we rise up like trees, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. We drink deep of abundance, absorb it into every cell of our bodies, and then share that abundance with the world – freely, generously, without holding back, because there is plenty more where that came from! The same image of spiritual resilience and aliveness plays out in a passage from the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:7-8): Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Trees beside the water of Loon Lake, British Columbia
I find this image so compelling that when my husband and I traveled to Seattle to lead a series of events on spiritual resilience, we named the whole thing “Rooted and Rising.” I’m not a botanist, but I’m learning that trees are more intelligent than we thought. Books like The Hidden Life of Trees tell us that the root systems of trees and fungi communicate with each other, and that trees develop social networks and share resources. There is a whole lot of underground life going on beneath our feet! And so it is with us: when we sink our own roots deep into the love of God, we, too, discover that everyone and everything is connected. On the surface, we may see only our differences, what divides us from each other, but from below, on the level of roots, we discover what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community: here, where God’s love is always being poured into our hearts, we realize that everyone, and the whole Creation, is loved and that we belong together. Beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, we belong to one living, sacred whole. Every time we tap into the deep-down truth of our essential belovedness, we discover fresh energy for life. And so – up we rise, like a mighty tree, offering our gifts to each other and to the world: our fruits and leaves; our time, talent, and treasure; a kind word, a healing gesture. When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. 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 investments, we can divest from fossil fuels, and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest. Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we may have to confront the powers that be, especially in a time when multinational corporations and members of our own government seem intent on desecrating every last inch of God’s Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. I can’t help thinking of the African-American spiritual that became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, a protest song and a union song, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Even now, I can hear Pete Seeger singing, “We shall not, we shall not be moved; we shall not, we shall not be moved, just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” He goes on: “Young and old together, we shall not be moved… women and men together, we shall not be moved… city and country together, we shall not be moved… black and white together, we shall not be moved… just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” Rooted in love and rising up in action, Christians and other people of faith will not be moved. We intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are good stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all its communities. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong; some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a carbon tax; those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. There is so much that we can do – so many ways to bear fruit! On this day of stewardship ingathering I give thanks for the ways that this community continues to root itself in the love of God and neighbor and to offer its gifts to a hungry, thirsty world. You are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). I trust that everything you do in Jesus’ name will prosper.    

The Pope’s encyclical on the environment was officially released today, and I am relishing the response from both the secular and the religious climate movement. Surges of enthusiasm are rolling across the Internet like waves across the sea, and rivulets stream into my email inbox. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical was addressed not only to Roman Catholics, nor only to Christians, but also to “every person living on this planet.” And all sorts of groups far and near are responding with invitations to Stand With the Pope. Hands down, the best invitation was extended by Forecast the Facts: name your identity and take your stand beside the Pope on climate. I’m a Mormon and I stand with the Pope on climate! I’m Buddhist and I stand with the Pope on climate! I’m a Republican… a pagan… an atheist… a Sikh… a Jew… a non-church-going Catholic… a Humanist… a parent… an Earthling… and I stand with the Pope on climate!

I'm Episcopalian and I stand with the Pope on climate!Guess what? It turns out that preserving a habitable world, caring for the forgotten and the poor, and honoring the Earth and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human, are values that resonate deeply with the human spirit, whatever our faith tradition may be and despite the lies that are peddled to us daily by the fossil fuel industry and by an extractive, exploitative, and consumerist culture. Climate change presents humanity with a decisive spiritual and moral crisis, and the papal encyclical has added precious momentum to messages that cut through the fog of inertia, denial, and political impasse and rouse the human family to unite in tackling the crisis before it’s too late.

Rabbi Michael Lerner describes Pope Francis a “the first international spiritual progressive voice who can go beyond the ‘common sense’ of global capitalism and articulate a different worldview,” and he urges an interfaith effort to support the Pope’s direction. Rabbi Lawrence Troster calls the Pope “a spiritual guide for everyone – believer and non-believer alike – and… perhaps the only person in the world with the potential to unite humanity to save itself and our increasingly fragile planet.” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, expresses his deep appreciation for Pope Francis’ encyclical in a powerful essay in this week’s TIME magazine, noting that “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

It will take some time to absorb the comprehensive thinking that went into the encyclical, and I am grateful for the excellent analysis that some writers have already provided, such as James Martin, S.J.’s helpful essay on “Top Ten Takeaways from ‘Laudato Si.’”

Springfield Climate Justice Coalition meeting
Springfield Climate Justice Coalition meeting

Meanwhile the urgent work to build a sustainable, just and peaceful world goes on. Last night I sat with a group of Springfield, Mass. residents who are acutely aware of the health impacts of climate change on their struggling city, and the particular burden that is carried by the poor. Across boundaries of race, class, and religious and ethnic background, this growing band of men and women is organizing to resist environmental injustice and to promote sustainability, resiliency and equality for all Springfield residents. Last night none of us in the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition had read the Pope’s encyclical, but tonight we can all take heart from the Pope’s understanding of the “immense dignity of the poor” (158).

Capitol Building, Washington, DC
Capitol Building, Washington, DC

On Sunday I will travel to Washington, D.C., and will join about 900 other citizen volunteers – including a host of faith leaders – to lobby Congress for action on climate change. Our goal is to advance carbon fee and dividend as a solution acceptable to Democrats and Republicans alike.  The Citizens Climate Lobby has made 3200 assignments, which means that every member of the House and Senate should receive a visit. How will it go? I have no idea. I’ve been assigned to meet with Republican politicians from Florida, Texas, Kentucky, and Illinois. It’s no secret that many conservative Republicans are staunchly opposed to regulating carbon emissions, and some of them began objecting to the papal encyclical even before it was released (I am grateful for the strong witness of my bishop, Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass., who takes issue with their stance and speaks cogently about how Christians connect care for the Earth with care for the poor).

To prepare myself for lobbying on Capitol Hill, I inhale deeply, and breathe in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. I ground myself in the love of God. I am strengthened when I recall the Pope’s thoughtful critique of unfettered capitalism, especially when it harms the poor. “Profit,” says the Pope, “cannot be the sole criterion” of our decisions (187). Christianity has a long tradition of advocating for economic justice, and I intend to carry that message forward.

Today the Pope released a groundbreaking document that urges reverence for all Creation, and justice and mercy for all its residents. Tomorrow men and women around the world will get out of bed with a renewed commitment to fight the good fight – to divest from coal, gas, and oil, to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to build a society based on fairness and generosity, and to provide a habitable world for our children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn. I hope that one day we will look back and remember the Pope’s encyclical as the electrifying moment when humanity finally grasped that we have the power to bear witness to love, and the responsibility to protect the Earth upon which all life depends.

Today the three faith leaders who serve on the Board of Trustees of Better Future Project released this statement, “Choosing Between Two Floods: Responding to Pope Francis’ Encyclical”:

“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”  — Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

Pope Francis, Korea Haemi Castle (Commons.wikimedia.org)
Pope Francis, Korea Haemi Castle (Commons.wikimedia.org)

We welcome the strong prophetic witness on climate change offered this week by His Holiness Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si’.”

Pope Francis addresses this encyclical to people everywhere: “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet…. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” We hope that indeed people of all faiths will heed his words and take action.  As the Pope affirms, climate change is largely human-caused. In keeping with his commitment to the marginalized and vulnerable, Pope Francis emphasizes that climate change has especially devastating effects on the poor.  Addressing climate change is an essential aspect of ethics. As individuals we must reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels; as citizens, we must push for effective governmental and international action.

As ordained clergy and as members of the Better Future Project Board of Trustees, we applaud Pope Francis’ call to action. Since its founding in 2011, Better Future Project has been a leader in the climate action movement, empowering grassroots organizing through 350 Massachusetts and leading campaigns for divestment from fossil fuel companiescarbon pricing, and a shift to renewable energy in Massachusetts.

We believe that taking swift and responsible action to address climate change is an urgent moral imperative. Last September we walked with faith communities in the People’s Climate March, joining 400,000-plus people in the streets of New York. You might call it a kind of flood — not Noah’s flood, not the flood of a monsoon or hurricane, but a flood of loving determination, a flood of witness and hope for action on climate change. The climate movement is a flood of people calling for systemic change: for sharply reduced greenhouse gas emissions and for a swift transition to clean, safe renewable energy; for the protection of poor and vulnerable communities, for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and for a strong international climate agreement in 2015.

Today we must choose between two floods: the flood of rising seas, or the flood of hopeful and courageous change. As Professor Mercy Oduyoye, an African theologian, has said, unless we take care of each other, we will lose our humanity; unless we become earth-keepers, we will be homeless.

Ban-Ki Moon, the U.N. General Secretary, has asked people of faith to urge bold action on climate change and to “provoke, challenge and inspire political leaders.” We celebrate the release of the Pope’s encyclical, which has done just that.  We recommit ourselves to the struggle to provoke, challenge, and inspire political leaders and to mobilize a wave of religious activism to stabilize the climate, heal the Earth, and chart a course to a just and sustainable future.

The Rev. Dr. Robert K. Massie

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas

The Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash

 

How do we stay spiritually grounded in the midst of tackling very complex issues? That question came to mind as I sat with a row of panelists behind a table in the chapel of Amherst College, waiting for my turn to speak. The focus of the conference was on whether we can make a carbon fee and rebate work in Massachusetts. Every speaker emphasized that in order to solve the climate crisis we must put a price on carbon emissions and put the money that is raised back into people’s pockets. My role on the panel was to address the spiritual and ethical foundation for supporting a carbon fee and rebate.

Climate XChange, an organization of advocates and citizens working for a carbon fee and rebate in Massachusetts, had assembled some leading thinkers to address the issue’s complexities, including Professor James Boyce, who teaches economics at UMass/Amherst; State Rep. Tom Conroy (13th Middlesex), the author and co-sponsor of the 2013 Carbon Tax Bill; Dan Gatti, the Executive Director of Carbon XChange; and State Rep. Ellen Story (Third Hampshire District). The moderator was Professor Jan Dizard, who teaches sociology and environmental studies at Amherst College.

I was glad to be the last panelist to speak, for as I listened to my co-panelists, I could see how much time, patience, and effort it takes for economists and politicians to explain clearly – and for listeners to grasp – how the carbon rebate will work, how it will achieve emissions reductions, and how it will be set up so that lower income and disadvantaged residents are not harmed. (For a clear and pithy explanation of how a carbon fee and rebate works, view this 4-minute clip from the forum, in remarks by economist James Boyce.)

Enacting a carbon fee and rebate is one of the most promising tools we have for changing consumers’ behavior, reducing our use of dirty energy, developing clean, renewable energy, creating green jobs, and stabilizing the climate. (Another promising tool would be for our government to quit subsidizing fossil fuel companies, but that’s another story.) A carbon tax can also strengthen a region’s economy: British Columbia has had a carbon tax since 2008, and that province’s economy has become the fastest growing in Canada.

But from the discussion in Amherst that night, it was clear to me that understanding how a carbon tax works, and pushing for its passage, will take a good deal of effort, stamina, and skill. What will keep our personal and collective energy from flagging? From what source of spiritual and ethical wisdom will we draw as we struggle to build a better future?

The answer, it seems to me, is no further away than our body, where everything begins. We may come from different spiritual traditions, or from none, but we all have a body. Perhaps through our bodies we can tap into a spring of spiritual energy that will renew our hearts and give us strength and guidance for the struggles ahead. What follows is based on what I said to the audience in Amherst about the spiritual and ethical foundation of our efforts to secure a carbon tax and to stabilize the climate.

I invite you to take a moment to feel your feet on the ground. Beneath the floor is the earth. Let yourself feel the support of the good earth beneath your feet. Feel the sensations of your feet on the floor, and let the good earth hold you up. Feel how solid your body is, as solid as the earth… I invite you take a couple of good, deep breaths. As you take in the sweet air and then let it go, feel the air passing into and out of your lungs. Notice that you are exchanging the elements of life with plants and green-growing things… Take a moment to experience yourself as a living creature, connected to the earth and air and to all living beings.

As we sit here with our feet on the ground, breathing with awareness, we may notice that none of us owns our breath. Our breath does not belong to us. We can’t hold on to it or save it up for later. We simply receive it freely and then let it go. Moment by moment, each breath is given to us. Breath by breath, we receive the gift of life. All of it is gift – everything we see and hear and taste and touch. This is where amazement springs up, along with wonder, gratefulness and awe. Here we are! Breathing!

Gratitude is the wellspring of all spiritual traditions, and from gratitude flows the perception that everything is precious. Everything is sacred. We belong to a sacred Mystery that is much larger than we are. We are part of a much larger whole. In our stressed and busy lives it’s easy to forget that we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is why so many of us come home to ourselves when we spend time outdoors – when we climb a mountain and get the big view, or when we pause in the midst of a busy day to admire a bird or a tree.

When we are spiritually awake we feel our connection, our kinship, with other living beings, human and other than human. We recognize that we’re in this together, that all of us are part of one single, precious, and intricate web of life. Perceiving the world like this elicits a certain tenderness: we want to nurture and protect the mysterious gift of inhabiting a living planet. That’s the spiritual wisdom we can learn from being aware of our feet on the ground and our lungs filling and emptying with air.

But our bodies also teach us about the ethical dimension, the justice dimension of the world. The good earth beneath our feet is the same earth that fossil fuel companies are blowing apart by mountaintop removal in order to extract coal; the same earth that is being violently injected with tons of chemicals that crack apart shale, release natural gas and methane, and poison rivers and streams; the same earth that is flooding in some places, going dry in others, and manifesting unpredictable, violent extremes of weather because of the abrupt changes inflicted by global warming.

The life-giving air that fills our lungs is the same air into which fossil fuel companies are pouring greenhouse gases as if the atmosphere were an open sewer; the same air that contains more carbon dioxide than it has for millions of years; the same air whose delicate balance is being disrupted and destroyed.

Our own bodies connect us to the wounding of the world and to the cries of the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change, and who are already suffering from its effects, including extreme storms and rapidly rising seas, food and water shortages and infectious diseases.

That is the spiritual and ethical context in which I welcome a carbon tax and rebate. Putting a stable and meaningful price on carbon, and distributing the fee in a way that is fair and does not harm the poor, is an essential step in moving toward a fossil free economy and healing the devastation of climate change.

We need to protect the web of life, which is unraveling before our eyes. We need to move quickly to build a just and sustainable future for our children and our children’s children. We need to plant our feet firmly on this beautiful earth, to take a good deep breath of air, and to press together for a strong, fair, and equitable carbon fee and rebate plan. I hope that Massachusetts will lead the way.

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A YouTube video of part of the conference is here (MBJ’s remarks begin at 8’30”).

Bloomberg View has posted articles about why even people who doubt climate science should support a carbon tax; how a well-designed carbon tax can cut harmful emissions; how carbon taxes don’t kill jobs; and how carbon taxes can shrink government and help the poor.

Climate XChange is pushing for a carbon fee and rebate in Massachusetts.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) is supporting national carbon-pollution fee and dividend legislation. CCL is a non-partisan, international, volunteer organization whose mission is to create the political will for a stable climate and to empower individuals to have breakthroughs in exercising their personal and political power.