Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Haydenville Congregational Church, Haydenville, MA John 13:31-15

Love in a time of climate emergency

We have a wonderful text to reflect on this morning, a passage from the Gospel of John. The scene is the Last Supper, and Jesus is beginning to say goodbye. He knows that his life is about to be cut short and that the next day he will die. So Jesus gathers with his friends for a final meal, and in an act of humble service, he washes their feet. Then, as Judas steps out into the night to betray him, Jesus turns to the gathered circle and says those familiar words: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:13-35).

These are urgent and tender words, the words of someone facing death and eager to convey what really matters. “Little children, love one another.” I’m told that in John the Evangelist’s old age, that was the basic message he brought to one community of faith after another: “Little children, love one another.” After spending time with Jesus, and after years of meditating on Jesus’ life and teaching, on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the aging evangelist could find no more direct route into the heart of the Gospel than simply to say, “Little children, love one another.” This brings to mind a poem by Michael Leunig:1 There are only two feelings. Love and fear. There are only two languages. Love and fear. There are only two activities. Love and fear. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear. As followers of Jesus, we may be called to love, but I don’t for a moment believe that we’re not also well acquainted with fear. I remember my childhood fears, such as my fear of the monsters lurking under the bed, and how important it was not to let even one toe stick out beyond the edge of the mattress. I remember my fear that when my parents went out at night, they might not come back. I remember my fear of the swarm of bees that nested near the front door; my fear, during piano recitals, that I might forget which note came next; my fear that I might be chosen last for the softball team, or, what’s worse, that the ball might actually come hurtling in my direction and – dreadful thought – all my team-mates would count on me to catch it. The fears of a child gradually morph into the fears of an adult, and even though we grownups may go to a great deal of trouble not to appear anxious or afraid, most us face some kind of fear every day. Fears come in all shapes and sizes. What are you afraid of? Chances are excellent that several of us fear the same thing. And we know what that’s like: how, when frightened, we hold our breath, our bellies clench and our hearts race. There’s a lot of fear going around these days, and we have reason to worry. In addition to our personal fears, we feel a collective shudder about the state of the world, from the assault on women’s reproductive rights to the harsh treatment of immigrants. For me, it’s the ecological crisis that wakes me up at night, for scientists are reporting with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Just think of it: the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by the development of great swaths of land and the destruction of habitat. Human activity has wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. Alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation,” and 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.”  A few weeks ago, a sweeping new report from the U.N. spoke about the possible extinction of as many as one million plant and animal species in the near future. And then there’s the climate crisis. Burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires. The people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor, and unless we change course fast, we will not be able to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming worldwide.
Doug Renick, MBJ, Rev. Peter Ives preparing to lead the service
So are we afraid? You bet we’re afraid, and if we’re not, we ought to be. As David Wallace-Wells says in the opening sentence of his new book about climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”2 Fear is appropriate and real, and fear can propel us to take urgently needed and long-delayed action. But fear can also freeze us in our tracks, so that we get paralyzed and stuck in inertia, wondering if it’s worth doing anything at all: “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 close down, put up our blinkers, and carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. And fear can separate us from each other, so that we push each other aside and build walls to keep each other out and keep each other down. Fear can lead us to oppress and dominate each other, and it’s fear that drives the politics of “divide and rule.” That’s why I find Jesus’ words so powerful: they dispel fear. “Little children, love one another,” Jesus says to us. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Our fear may be strong, and the powers-that-be in this world may be doing all they can to stoke our fears of each other and to pull us apart, but Jesus’ words and presence convey bracing good news: we are infused and surrounded by a divine love that holds us together and will never let us go. God loves us, and all Creation, with a love that nothing can destroy. As we breathe that divine love in and as we share it with each other and the world around, our moral courage and strength are renewed. That is the 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. We don’t have to settle for a life that is undergirded and overshadowed by fear. As the Persian poet Hafiz once put it, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”3 When we move out of fear and into God’s love, we discover how precious we are, how precious our neighbors are, how precious this whole, beautiful planet is, and we rise up, filled with Spirit, as healers and justice-seekers, building community as we go. When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we 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, we can 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 make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we need to use our voices and our votes, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. So, we can join Climate Action Now, our strong, local, grassroots climate-action group right here in the Pioneer Valley that meets every month in Amherst or Northampton. We can support the Green New Deal, which is the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. (Incidentally, two interfaith groups, GreenFaith and Interfaith Power & Light have statements on their Websites that we can sign, to show that people of faith support the goals and values of the Green New Deal.) Those of us who are white and privileged can listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. 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. I will end with a story about love and fear.4 Back in 2001 I screwed up my courage and decided to carry out my first act of civil disobedience. That’s how I met your former pastor, Andrea Ayvazian: in Washington, DC, where she was helping to organize a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, that was planning to protest President Bush’s intention 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 wrote 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 behind the tension, behind 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. Love and fear. Love and fear. 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 inspired 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? Let’s take a moment in silence, and then I invite your response.   1. Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer (NY: HarperCollins, 1991). 2. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 2019). 3. Hafiz, quoted by Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2002), 83. 4. This story is adapted from part of my chapter, “When Heaven Happens,” in the anthology Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 78-81.

What is an emergency? Merriam-Webster defines emergency as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.” Does climate change count as an emergency? Not if an “emergency” is necessarily “unforeseen,” for when it comes to climate change, scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades, telling us that burning massive quantities of fossil fuels would lead to catastrophe. Of course, the fossil fuel industry (see #ExxonKnew) has spent millions of dollars trying to make the climate emergency as “unforeseen” as possible, for as long as possible, to as many people as possible. But the clock has run out. The time of reckoning is at hand. Foreseen or unforeseen, the climate crisis is upon us and it calls for immediate action.

MBJ with Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley and Rev. Dr. Jim Antal. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

In the same week that the U.K. became the first country to declare “an environment and climate emergency,” and in the same week that the Anglican Communion became, as far as I know, the first global religious body to recognize a climate emergency, National Religious Coalition for Creation gathered for its 20th annual prayer breakfast in Washington, DC. NRCCC is a group composed of members of major faith groups in America, including Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox Christians, and Jews. After opening prayers, a lively presentation by Chad Hanson (Director of the John Muir Project) on forest protection as an essential aspect of addressing climate change, and the bestowal of the 2019 Steward of God’s Creation award to two outstanding climate champions – the Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley and the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal – we moved outside to announce the release of Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Climate Emergency.

Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency clarifies two essential facts: humanity has an extremely short window of time in which to avert irreversible climate chaos, and religions around the world consider protecting God’s Creation a moral and spiritual imperative.

Perhaps it was fitting that the Religious Declaration was publicly announced in Pershing Park, a National World War I Memorial. Just as William James and Jimmy Carter spoke of “the moral equivalent of war,” so, too, are increasing numbers of citizens realizing that we need to address climate change with the same focus, fervor and self-sacrifice of a nation that is mobilized to fight a war.

The stakes are high. As stated in the opening lines of the Religious Declaration, climate change is unlike any other challenge that confronts humanity, “because it is largely irreversible ‘for 1,000 years after emissions stop’ with ‘profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies for the next ten millennia and beyond.’1 The shocking truth is that decisions we make now could, in the words of climate economist Ross Garnaut, ‘haunt humanity until the end of time.’2 Nuclear war, while also irreversible, is only a possibility. Human-induced climate change is underway now, and its impacts are greater and more extensive than scientific models predicted. We will significantly alter the future of civilization as we know it and may eventually cause its collapse if we continue down this path.”

Announcement of Religious Declaration: Anita (Ani) Fête Crews, Jim Davidson, Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, MBJ, David W. Carroll, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Michael Kelly, Rabbi Warren Stone, Richard Cizik. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

The Declaration calls for bold, concerted action: “Decades of delay on climate action have made small corrective measures and incremental approaches useless. Those who are invested in maintaining the status quo, or who put forth proposals that are clearly incompatible with what climate science demands, are condemning innocent young people – including their own children and generations to come – to a future of unimaginable suffering: the mass death of human populations and the extinction of species.”

The Declaration places the climate crisis within a moral context: “Further delay in addressing climate change is a radical evil that as people of faith we vigorously oppose.”

One of the principal writers of the document, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Professor of Philosophical Theology and Sustainability Studies, Creighton University, reflected later on this last point. He commented: “The manufacturing of doubt and the sowing of confusion about climate change by fossil-fuel-industry-funded think tanks, the deceptive climate-change reporting by ideologically-driven media outlets, the investing in fossil fuel infrastructure by banks and high-profile investors, the expansion of pipelines, oil, and gas wells are all radically evil actions that continue to this day.  The institutions that engage in these actions are enemies of humanity and the web of life.  We will oppose these institutions from our churches and synagogues, from our pulpits and lecterns, and from our social halls and gathering spaces.  We will fill the halls of power like the young people in the Sunrise Movement in their push for a Green New Deal; we will join school-aged children in the streets striking for climate action; and we will rebel with the young people in the Extinction Rebellion in the race to head off the destabilizing of the climate system within which civilization developed.”

I, too, was one of the principal authors of the Religious Declaration, and in our press release, I commented: “God sent us into the world to bless and heal, not to ravage and destroy. But as a species we are hurtling willy-nilly down a suicidal path that risks bringing down not only our own civilization but also the web of life as it has evolved for millennia. As people of faith, we stand with the Spirit of life, who calls us to build a more just society in which all people and all God’s creatures can thrive.”

The three principal authors of the Religious Declaration: MBJ, David W. Carroll, and Dr. Richard W. Miller. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

The third lead author of the Religious Declaration, inventor and tech business entrepreneur David W. Carroll, asserted: “There is no moment more critical for all-out personal and cooperative action. Today’s environmental emergency demands we implement solar and wind with power storage immediately. It is ready, and it provides unequalled economic value. Let us not fail in our duty to serve and protect Planet Earth.”

The Declaration amplifies statements that major denominations have already issued on climate change. Religious groups across the United States, including the National Council of Churches, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Central Conference of American Rabbis, National Association of Evangelicals, and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, have all called upon policymakers and elected officials to take strong action to address global climate change.

Are there risks in declaring climate change an “emergency”? I will name two. One risk is that the moment will be wasted – the proposed solutions will be weak and ineffective. A recent blog post from Council Action in the Climate Emergency (CACE) explains: “As climate emergency talking and thinking shifts further towards climate emergency action, it is imperative that ‘climate emergency’ is not co-opted to mean something ‘convenient’ or ‘pragmatic’ (i.e. weak goals and slow action). Climate emergency has to stand for safe climate principles for restoring a safe climate.” (The article, which is by Bryony Edwards, goes on to propose how to set targets for climate emergency emissions.)

A second risk in declaring a climate emergency is that political and corporate powers could thereby be given free rein to consolidate their advantages and shut out the people who suffer the most. Casey Williams, a writer in North Carolina, points out in an article for The Outline, “…Given that the American right seems to be quietly coming around to the reality of climate change (despite some high-profile acts of denial), ‘national emergency’ rhetoric and policy could easily become a conservative strategy for dealing with climate change by building ‘big, beautiful walls’ to exclude various Others from America’s relative stability. Meanwhile, the wealthy in the U.S. and around the globe will continue to erect seawalls around their coastal villas and hire private firefighters to protect their Malibu mansions. The real tragedy of treating climate change as an emergency, rather than an uneven distribution of physical and social harm, is that it would worsen the inequality that brought us to this point in the first place.”

In my view, the Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency successfully avoids both risks. It presents a menu of effective solutions. And it also lifts up the need to tackle both the ecological and the economic crises. As Pope Francis stated in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, we need to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor – neither one can be adequately addressed alone.

That is why Religious Declaration supports “the bold direction of the Green New Deal, or other similar science-based proposals, as an opportunity for this country to commit to stabilizing the climate while creating ‘unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.’ This specifically includes low-income communities, communities of color, and those that have historically been marginalized or underserved. The Green New Deal is the first resolution that addresses the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. Our nation mobilized every part of society during World War II and the Great Depression. Like the Greatest Generation, we must rise to the occasion and commit to doing what science says it takes to avoid irreversible catastrophic climate chaos and make a rapid and just transition to a clean energy economy.”

A group from NRCCC gathers before lobbying a staffer of U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican representing Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District: MBJ, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Michael Kelly, Richard Cizik, Fred Krueger (Executive Coordinator of NRCCC), David W. Carroll, and Dr. Robert A. Jonas.

  • Other interfaith groups also support the Green New Deal. GND is not a piece of legislation, but a statement of vision and values. To sign “Faith Principles for a Green New Deal” sponsored by Interfaith Power & Light, click here. To learn more about the Green New Deal and to sign a GreenFaith statement of support, click here.

The NRCCC’s Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency has been signed by religious leaders across the country, including heads of denominations, bishops, clergy, and leaders of interfaith environmental organizations. Here are some of the religious leaders who signed the Declaration: Rev. John Dorhauer (General Minister and President, United Church of Christ); Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California); Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts); Rt. Rev. Gregory H. Rickel (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, Seattle, WA); Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld (Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire); Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts); Rt. Rev. Roy F. (Bud) Cederholm Jr. (Retired Bishop Suffragan, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts); Rev. Fletcher Harper (Executive Director, GreenFaith); Phoebe Morad (Executive Director, Lutherans Restoring Creation); Rabbi Warren Stone (Central Conference of American Rabbis), Rabbi Benjamin Weiner (Jewish Community of Amherst, MA); Rabbi Alison Adler (Temple B’nai Abraham, Beverly, MA); Rabbi Moshe Givental (West Bloomfield, MI); Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (Jewish Climate Action Network, Wayland MA); Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President); Rev. Brooks Berndt, Ph.D. (Minister for Environmental Justice, United Church of Christ); Rev. Mariama White-Hammond (Pastor, New Roots AME Church, Boston); Rev. Fred Small (Minister for Climate Justice, Arlington Street Church, Unitarian Universalist, Boston).

I will give the last word to a rabbi and a pastor. Each of them was moved to write a short response to the Religious Declaration, praying that it would reach many minds and hearts.

Rabbi Warren Stone (Central Conference of American Rabbis and Co-chair of NRCCC) wrote: “We must act boldly and with vision to stem the tides of climate change’s devastating impact on humanity and all God’s creation. May we look back on our day and age and say that we saw what was happening to the climate and we acted with courage and prescience to do what was necessary to cut our CO2 emissions and dramatically reduce the threats of climate destruction for future generations.”

The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President) wrote: “Momentum is growing as congregations from every faith tradition are shifting their focus from personal salvation to collective salvation. Along with the outspoken voices of children and youth, people of faith are declaring that we are now in a time of reckoning. To continue ‘business as usual’ as the corporate powers insist is morally bankrupt. God is calling us to re-build our economy and center our lives on sustainable, earth-restoring values and practices.”

Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency is posted at the NRCCC Website and can be read and downloaded here.


1. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, Pierre Friedlingstein, (2009) Irreversible Climate Change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (6) 1704-1709, at 1704; DOI:10.1073/pnas.0812721106; and Peter U. Clark et al, (2016). Consequences of Twenty-First-Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.Nature Climate Change. 6.10.1038/nclimate2923.

2. http://www.garnautreview.org.au/pdf/Garnaut_Chapter24.pdf (last lines of the review)
https://cosmosmagazine.com/climate/ross-garnaut-s-bright-idea.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Lebanon, CT

“Lazarus, come out!” Christianity and the climate crisis

John 11:1-45

Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or sign that reveals Jesus as the giver of life, and that also precipitates his death. The raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court, which reaches the decision that Jesus is dangerous and must be killed. And so next week we come to Palm Sunday and begin the anguish and ultimately the joy of Holy Week.

Today’s story begins in a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has died; he has been dead for four days; and his sisters Mary and Martha are in distress, grieving with family and friends. The story begins right where we are: in a world that is full of death, full of grieving, full of loss. Mary and Martha know the wave of sorrow that can wash over us in the middle of the night. They know the anguish that can drain life of its zest and meaning.
King bird. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
This morning you and I may find our selves in the same place in which Mary and Martha begin this story, for there is plenty of death in the air these days. I’ll take just a moment to sketch what’s going on – and I’m sorry: it’s intense. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by the development of huge swaths of land and the destruction of habitat. Humans have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. We are on the brink or in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event and alarmed scientists are describing what they call 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.” And there’s more bad news: related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet is breaking records for heat, month after month. The New York Times reports that: “The five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.” The oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life and sea-level rise.  This week a report on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef shows that climate change is pushing coral ecosystems toward “ecological collapse.” Lead author Andrew Baird told the New York Times, “We never thought we’d see this happen…We thought the Barrier Reef was too big to fail, but it’s not.” Meanwhile, extreme storms are growing more severe. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding right now in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, after a devastating cyclone produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days.  In a perfect illustration of the fundamental injustice of climate change, which hurts poorest communities first and hardest, nearly 3 million people have been affected across this region of Africa, which is one of the poorest in the world.  The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming.
Rev. Dr. Will Sencabaugh (Pastor, First Congregational, Lebanon, CT) & Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes. When we hear bad news like this, it’s very easy to shut down. It is difficult to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. Most of us aren’t climate skeptics; most of us don’t deny outright the conclusions of science – but most of us do engage in a kind of everyday denial: climate change can make us feel anxious and helpless, so we change the subject and focus on more manageable things. When we feel powerless to imagine, much less create, a better future, we tend to carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. It’s as if we fall under a spell and make what former U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.” That’s where our gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Martha and Mary are bereft. And then – something changes. Jesus arrives. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, a few verses later we come to the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse that is often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He wept. Here is no distant God, no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God who meets us in our suffering, a God who shares in our pain. When we feel anguish, it’s easy to look for someone to blame, to conclude that God isn’t real, that God is punishing us, or that God has abandoned us. But gazing at Jesus in this story reveals something different: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too. It is a heart-opening, mind-opening revelation to discover that when we weep for the Earth, when we feel outrage and protest, God is grieving with us and through us. God is bearing what we cannot bear alone. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing, the first step in birthing new life, comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it, and when we do so in the presence of God. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. And when we grieve in God’s presence, we move out of numbness, out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine. So, as the wise Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy puts it, “Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a sign of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.”1 So I want to ask you: Where do you feel the pain of the earth and its creatures? Where do you hear the groaning of God’s creation? And I will add this, too: the unjust powers of this world don’t want us to grieve or protest. They don’t want us to feel outrage and sorrow when we face the deathly patterns that are part of this society: the racism and militarism, the abuse of the helpless, the poisoning of air and water, the relentless assault on the web of life. The powers-that-be would much prefer that we stay numb – zombies who are too busy or bored or distracted, too defended to feel the pain that allows something new to be imagined, something new to be born. “Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life. In the vulnerability of his open heart, Jesus opens to a power greater than himself. “Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the throng of people must be thinking just then? Probably something along the lines of, “Hey – is he nuts?” But reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope, some folks move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb. And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, there comes a voice. “Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.” It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses us by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I’ve heard it, too. Deep inside us is a presence, a voice, a Someone who calls us to quit hiding in a deathly place and to step out into fullness of life. We can go for a while, maybe a long while, not engaging with reality, not engaging with the climate crisis, and just laying low, hiding out, ducking from everything that seems too hard to face, too hard to bear. The powers-that-be want to keep it that way. They murmur, “That’s OK. Get comfy in that little tomb. Make peace with it. Decorate it. Stay small.”
Protest against Brayton Point coal-fired power plant in Somerset, MA, in 2013. The plant closed soon thereafter.
But then comes that insistent, disturbing voice, calling us by name. “Phil,” it says. “Come out. Carla, come out. Ted, come out. Wolfgang, come out. Will, come out. Margaret, come out.” “I love you,” God says to us. “I want you to be fully alive, not just partially alive, not just going through the motions. I want you to grow up into your full stature in Christ. I loved you into being, I sent you into the world to fall in love, and I call you now to serve love without holding back. So come out of your hiding place. Come out of your helplessness. Come out of your fearfulness, and join the struggle to save life on this sweet Earth. The resurrection life that I give you doesn’t start beyond the grave. It starts right now. I didn’t create you to live in a tomb.” When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption. But I also see person after person hearing – and answering – a deep call to step out and to engage in the struggle to protect life. On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, and if we can afford it, buy an electric car. Maybe we can buy “green” electricity that comes from sun and wind. We can put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang up our laundry on a clothesline, buy carbon offsets if we have to fly, eat less red meat or no meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on. But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are building among people of faith and good will who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration and human rights – for all these issues connect. Many people of faith are excited about the Green New Deal, which is the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. Both GreenFaith and Interfaith Power & Light have statements on their Websites that we can sign, to show that people of faith support the goals and values of the Green New Deal. 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.” The Church was made for a time like this. God is calling us out of the tomb of inertia and despair and into the whole-hearted, joyful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care. Jesus is calling: “Lazarus, come out!” What will you do as you answer that call?
  1. Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1991), 187.
 
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at West Parish Church (UCC), Andover, MA Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Prodigal Son and the Great Turning

Our text this morning, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, is from the Gospel of Luke. It’s one of the best-known and best-loved parables that Jesus ever told. People often call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but that title isn’t quite accurate, since the parable is really about two sons and their loving father. Still, it is the prodigal son, the younger one, that I’d like to focus on this morning, because as we think about our relationship with the natural world, both as individuals and collectively, as a species, it may be just the story that we need to hear.

The story begins: “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11). For reasons we don’t know, the younger son decides to go it alone. He’s outta there, itching to leave, ready to hit the road and do things his own way. He asks his father to give him his portion of his inheritance in advance – quite a presumptuous and irregular thing to do in that culture – and off he goes, money in hand, to what the story calls “a distant country” (Luke 15:13). There, he squanders it all in “dissolute living.” After spending every last dime, he is caught up in “a severe famine” that has spread across the country, and he begins “to be in need” (Luke 15:14). What can he do? He hires himself out in a job considered shameful in Jewish culture: he feeds pigs, which are unclean animals according to Jewish law. Humiliated and close to starving, he wishes desperately that he could eat the very pods or corncobs that the pigs eat. This part of the story ends with the awful words that ring like a death sentence: “No one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16).
Portion of painting by Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son.
Let’s push the pause button and stop for a moment. I can identify with this first part of the story and maybe you can, too. I know what it’s like – as maybe you do, too – to choose the go-it-alone path, the I-don’t-need-God path, the rebellious path that the Twelve-Step program calls “self-will run riot.” I’ve been there, done that, and maybe you have, too. When we choose that path, we leave our home in God – that place within ourselves where we feel seen and known and loved. Renouncing love, forsaking God and neighbor, we grab whatever we can for ourselves and we do whatever we darn well please – never mind the consequences to ourselves or anybody else. There are many ways we can wind up in a distant country far from home, knowing that we’ve betrayed our better selves. Somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn or made a terrible choice, and now here we are, as frightened as the prodigal son beside the pigs, feeling alone and helpless, full of self-reproach. Lent is a good season for reflecting on how as individuals each of us has abandoned or rejected the God of love and squandered our inheritance. As it says in a poignant prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer, we know what’s it’s like to “have wandered far in a land that is waste.”1 But it’s not only we as individuals who can wander far in a land that is waste – whole societies can do that, too. The path that most of humanity has traveled for the past two hundred years has brought us to a situation in which the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by developing huge swaths of land and destroying habitat. Human beings have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970.  We are on the brink or in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event and alarmed scientists are describing what they call 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.” And there’s more bad news: related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet is breaking records for heat, month after month. The New York Times reports that: “The five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…[that] 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.”  The oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise. Land ice is melting. Sea ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. Extreme storms are growing more intense – just think of the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, after a devastating cyclone produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days. In a perfect illustration of the fundamental injustice of climate change, which hurts poorest communities first and hardest, nearly 3 million people have been affected across this region of Africa, which is one of the poorest in the world. Closer to home, our hearts go out to the ranchers and farmers suffering under torrential rains and record flooding in Nevada and other parts of the American Midwest, with scientists predicting an “unprecedented” flood season in the weeks ahead. Day by day we hear new stories about the painful, even terrifying effects of a rapidly changing climate. And the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming. Like the prodigal son, have we wandered far in a land that is waste? You bet we have. So how sweet it is to reach the story’s next line, its turning point: “When he came to himself…” (Luke 15:17). The young man comes to himself, he turns, and he starts to travel home. That’s such a great line: “He came to himself.” It’s as if he woke up, he broke through the spell, he remembered who he was: created in love, created for love – love for himself and his neighbor, love for the natural world, and love for God. When we come to ourselves, when we are truly ourselves, we begin the journey home to God. Our basic nature, our truest nature, is found as we turn and head toward God, our divine Father and Mother, the lover of our souls and the source of all life. What would it look like if humanity “came to ourselves”? Maybe it would look something like this: one individual after another saying, “Hey, wait a second. We don’t have to live like this. We don’t have to settle for a death-dealing, materialistic society that willy-nilly gobbles up all the land and trees and creatures of this world, extracts and burns dirty fossil fuels, pours toxic pollutants into the water and air, and stuffs the landfill with plastics and waste. We don’t have to settle for a suicidal course that steals a habitable world from our children. Through the grace of God we can make changes in our own lives, so that we live more gently and lovingly on the Earth, and we can resist and protest the powers-that-be that are determined to make huge profits by treating people and planet alike as completely disposable, extracting every last drop of oil and gas and every last ounce of coal, and cutting down every last tree.” We can say to ourselves, “I’m going to turn my own life around and make the changes I can make, and I’m also going to stand with all the people of the world who want what I want – a society marked by generosity, not greed; by justice, not prejudice and inequity; by love, and not indifference and hate.” Like the prodigal son, we can say to ourselves “I will get up and go to my father” (Luke 15:18) and begin the journey home. If you’d like to discuss the specific things we can do as we make that journey, and talk about everything from electric cars to the Green New Deal, I hope you’ll meet with me after the service. You know, the journey we’re undertaking will not be an easy one, for the challenges ahead of us are great and the corporate and political powers arrayed against us are strong. The IPCCC tells us that in order to avert climate chaos and the possible collapse of civilization, humanity has to change course at a scale and speed that is unprecedented in human history. So, yeah, as we rise up to fight for a better world, sometimes we’ll find ourselves wrestling with feelings of helplessness, grief, and even despair. I’m so interested in what gives us strength and energy to keep going that I just finished co-editing a book of essays with my friend Leah Schade, which will be published this fall. It’s entitled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and it’s a collection of essays by 21 faith-based climate activists, reflecting on the spiritual practices that sustain us. I can think of no more beautiful way to spend ones life than to take part 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. It’s what philosopher Thomas Berry calls the “Great Work”: our wholehearted effort to create a more just and sustainable society. And it’s what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ, who longs to reconcile us to God and to each other and to the whole of God’s Creation.2 You know, God loves it when we come home. God gets happy when we who are lost are willing to be found. That’s what Jesus shows us in the next part of the parable: the father, who has evidently been waiting eagerly for his son’s return, catches sight of him while he is “still far off” and, “filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20), runs out to greet him and catches him up in his arms in an exuberant embrace. The story of the prodigal son is a grand story about reunion, about being lost and being found, about forgiveness and reconciliation. May it be our story, too, as we come home to ourselves and turn our lives toward loving God and all our neighbors, including our brother-sister beings and the Earth upon which all life depends.
1. The Book of Common Prayer (The Seabury Press, 1979), 450. 2. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Foreword, The Green Bible, New Revised Standard Version (New York: HarperOne, HarperCollins, 2008), I-14
 

By GRETA JOCHEM

NORTHAMPTON — The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas’ home office has a cross on the wall and titles such as “God’s Politics” and “The Water Will Come” — a book about sea level rise — lining her bookshelf.

Since 2014 she has been the missioner for creation care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, a job that sends her preaching about the environment and theology in western Massachusetts and around the state.

She’s led retreats and preached in Massachusetts and beyond in Vancouver, San Francisco and British Columbia, and has a history of environmental activism — like being arrested in front of the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. in 2001 when George W. Bush wanted to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee.

Underneath a small table in her office, she has a stash of magazines with environmental cover stories, such New York Magazine’s “The Doomed Earth,” and the New York Times’ “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.”

She stashes the overwhelming stuff here, she said.

Like those magazine headlines denote, climate change can be depressing. Bullitt-Jonas is interested in what gives people courage in the face of climate change. For the past few years she’s been co-editing a book “Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis,” due out in November from Rowman & Littlefield.

Edited with the Rev. Leah Schade, who works in Lexington, Kentucky, the book asked writers questions about how they find hope and courage in the face of climate change.

The Gazette talked to Bullitt-Jonas about her upcoming book and her experiences as an environmentally-focused priest.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Tell me about the book you’re co-editing.

We have 21 contributors from a wide range of social locations. They’re all people of faith, they all are committed to trying to build a more just and sustainable world and to address the climate crisis. And they have very different perspectives on it. We asked each of them to reflect on: What do you do with your despair? What do you do with your grief? What gives you hope? What gives you courage?

What did writers focus on?

One of the contributors is Reverend Lennox Yearwood, who is the head of the Hip Hop Caucus. The Hip Hop Caucus has inspired I don’t know whether it’s thousands or tens of thousands of young African-Americans to register to vote and get politically engaged.

Rev. Yearwood is eloquent about the climate crisis as being today’s civil rights issue, human rights issue. He spoke just so beautifully (saying) every activist needs to be anchored somewhere. If you are not anchored somewhere you’re going to get blown away because the forces against you are so big.

So find your anchor — whether it’s loving your children, or being committed to a better future or loving God, find your anchor.

What are some other topics people wrote about?

I talked in my own essay about being very interested in how do we keep our inner landscape vibrant and alive so that we don’t close down, go numb, space out?

One of the examples I gave is they’re building a co-housing community behind this house and co-housing is a wonderful concept and I know some really nice people who are going to be moving in there, but in order to build the co-housing, they had to take down a beautiful little stretch of woods. I grieved the trees.

I talk about going outside to sing to the trees, and sing out my sorrow and sing out my anger. I sing out my guilt because I’m complicit in a society that’s taking down life. But there was something about standing outside with my two feet planted on the ground, singing — making it up as I went along — to the trees that left me feeling more alive and more connected with the God of life. I’m very interested in what kind of prayer helps people stay alive.

I think many of us need rituals, we need collective practices, not just solitary practices but collective practices that help us move from despair to a sense of feeling empowered and strong.

Are there any pieces that made you change the way you think in some way?

There’s a powerful essay by a man named Tink Tinker, who is a Native American and writes very starkly about what it’s like to be part of a culture that was so torn apart by an incoming flood of white people. Having the voice of a Native American in the book is very powerful — realizing the land on which this house sits was originally Native American land.

There’s an essay by Tim DeChristopher who interrupted an auction of leasing rights of oil and gas in Utah. He bid as if it was a legitimate bid. And he won bids, and he was doing it to save the land from being drilled. He got arrested and spent two years in prison for what he did. He has a very strong essay about Easter Island and how that civilization collapsed and contrasting that with another civilization that did not collapse because the people were willing to bury their idols, their images of God.

They were willing to let go — metaphorically — of the things they were clinging to that no longer served life and then moved on and created a new civilization. It was a wonderful image inviting us to ponder what we need to let go: greed and treating our neighbor as less than.

How did you come to the intersection of climate and religion in your career and life?

It’s not what I would have expected. I had a food addiction for years as a young person. I got in recovery when I was 30 and with a lot of support made peace with my body and then I was so amazed by this God. I experienced that healing and that reconciliation of body, mind and spirit only through coming back to prayer. It was through the 12-step program, which is very much about turning your life over to a higher power, however you want to define higher power.

So, I finished up a Ph.D. in comparative literature and went straight to seminary, because I wanted to know: Who is this God that just saved my life?

I happened to be ordained in June of 1988, which was the month that James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, was testifying to the U.S. Senate on what he was calling the greenhouse effect. I took that to heart and the question that emerged pretty soon in my mind was if God can heal one addict like me and help me live in the right relationship to my own body, is it not possible that God can help humanity learn to live in the right relationship with the body of the earth?

How do we access a higher power, a deeper power, a greater power, something beyond our little, ambitious, greedy, worried egos? We need a power beyond ourselves. Clearly, on our own, we are not doing a good job at all. We are destroying life on earth.

What does it mean to be missioner for creation care?

The main things I do, one is I preach. I’m trying to help people understand that placing care for God’s creation needs to be at the center of our moral and spiritual concerns. If we consider ourselves Christian, we care about the fate of the planet.

I remember the first sermon I ever preached about the earth was in 1989. It was right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, all these millions of gallons of oil spilled onto the coast of Alaska. I was shocked. I preached the first sermon I had ever preached and the first sermon I had ever heard about why it’s a sin to destroy the earth and that God actually cares about the earth.

At the end of the sermon, a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you for preaching that but I really don’t understand. What does religion have to do with ecology? What does Christianity have to do with caring about the natural world?”

I realized we have a lot of educating to do. That’s been part of my work really since my ordination in 1988 is trying to help myself and help other people understand that caring for the earth is it’s not an extra — it’s not ancillary to being a Christian or a person of faith — it’s actually central.

There’s also an activist side, where I’m trying to mobilize action. I begin with Christians and then it enlarges to people of all faiths and people of no faiths but people of goodwill. I am trying to awaken a movement so that we can take concerted, effective action to address the crisis.

The IPCC, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we have just a very short window of time in which to take effective action. There’s so much that we have already lost and are losing, but there’s so much we can save if we take action now. Because the scope, the scale and the pace of the climate crisis is so vast, we also need systemic change. As I said in my sermon on Sunday, we need to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.

So what made you want to do a sermon about the environment in the first place if you hadn’t before?

The Exxon Valdez oil spill happened on Good Friday. It was on Good Friday. For a Christian, that is a powerful day, that’s a day when you’re looking at the suffering of God — the son of God is loving us so much he is willing to die showing us the nonviolence of God. I couldn’t help putting it together — we are looking at the crucifixion of the earth. The innocent earth is being crucified, and we’re doing it. So, I took it very personally as a spiritual meaning.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com

This article was published by Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA) on 3/12/2019 3:02:46 PM
A link to the article (which includes photos) is here.

Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 3, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst, MA Exodus 34:29-35 Psalm 99 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Luke 9:28-36

Transfiguration and a radiant Earth

We couldn’t ask for more powerful readings than the ones we were given for today, the last and climactic Sunday of the Epiphany season. Today we are summoned to the mountaintop to celebrate the transforming power of God. In our first reading, Moses is coming down from Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments that establish the covenant between God and God’s people. He has been praying on the mountain, listening to God with the love and attentiveness with which one listens to a friend (Ex. 33:11), and the skin of his face is shining (Ex. 34:29). He is radiant with God’s glory.

Today’s Gospel passage from Luke is also set on a mountain. Soon after Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and rise again, he takes with him Peter, John, and James and goes up on the mountain to pray. In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping vistas and its cold, clean air, Jesus’ prayer grows into an intense religious experience that recalls the experience of Moses. “While (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use the word “metamorphosis” (metemorphothe); Latin manuscripts use the word “transfiguration” (transfiguratus est). Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: at the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up by the love that sustains the universe. What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”1 so completely embraces Jesus that who he really is, who he has always been, is briefly revealed. A dazzling brightness emanates from his face, his body, even his clothes. The sacred radiance at the center of reality is shining through him, bursting through his seams, streaming from his pores, and even the three sleepy disciples can see it.
Mountains at sunset
What just happened? The holy presence that secretly abides within every person and every part of the created world has suddenly, briefly become visible to the human eye. The vivid image of Jesus lit up from within aligns with the experience of mystics from every religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t see it. In Asia, the cosmic life force is called chi in Chinese and prana in Sanskrit, and in many Eastern traditions, enlightenment is associated with a flow of energy throughout the body.2 Christian mystics speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body, and the body of Creation. For Christians, there is something deeply personal in this energy: it is the dynamic, creative Presence of the Holy Spirit. When we sense its presence in ourselves or in the outside world, God seems to light up the edges of things or to shine out from within them. We see the hidden depth behind the surface of ordinary reality. The eternal makes itself known to us, and we may experience it as light, although it is beyond the reach of ordinary sight. That’s where the language of paradox and poetry comes in, where mystics speak of a “dazzling darkness” or a “dark radiance,” just as in this passage Luke uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of both a dazzling light and an overshadowing cloud (Luke 9:29, 34). Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens our love. We may not consider ourselves mystics, but anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time looking into the eyes of a baby or studying the details of a leaf – anyone who has ever gazed for a while at a mountain range or watched the sparkling waters of a river as it rushes downstream knows what it’s like to see the hidden radiance of Christ, whose living presence fills the whole Creation. Whenever we look at the world – whenever we look at each other – with eyes of love, we see the hidden radiance, the light that is shining within each person and each thing, although they may know nothing about it. Seeing the world with eyes of love is to see the world shining – to see its suffering, yes; to see its brokenness and imperfection, yes; but also to see it as cherished by God, as precious in God’s sight, as shining with God’s light. To see the world with eyes of love is to see it with God’s eyes. So as we gaze at Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, shining with the radiance of God, we see what Moses saw, what Jesus saw, and what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Rev. Randy Wilburn (Intentional Interim Pastor, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst) and Rev. Margaret, after the service
I think this is one of the great gifts that people of faith can offer the world in this perilous time: the perception of Creation as a sacred, living whole, lit up with the glory of God. Let’s be clear: we were born into a society that does not see the Earth like that. Most of us were not taught to see the natural world as sacred and lit up with God’s glory. It’s as if a veil was placed over our minds, just as Moses placed a veil over his face (Ex. 34:33). When our minds are veiled, we no longer see God’s glory. We see the natural world as nothing more than the backdrop to what really matters: the human drama. Nature becomes something to be ignored, used up, exploited at will, dominated and assaulted without a second thought. We experience ourselves and other human beings as basically separate from the rest of Creation, entitled to do anything we want to it, with no regard for its integrity or value or needs or rights. By now we know where that perception of the world has taken us: scientists are reporting with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Gazing at Jesus shining on the mountain is like medicine for our troubled spirits. It removes the veil from our eyes and restores our inward sight. For we are gazing on the one who loved us into being, the one who tells us that life and not death will have the last word, the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17), the one whose presence fills (Eph. 4:10) the whole Creation. So when we see God’s Creation being desecrated and destroyed – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus that is shining on the mountain and shining in our hearts. We want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm. 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, we can 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.
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst, MA
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we need to use our voices and our votes, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. So some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan organization that is pushing for a price on carbon and supporting the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Some of us join Climate Action Now, our fine, local, grassroots, climate action group that meets every month in Amherst or Northampton. Many of us will be looking with great interest at what happens to the Green New Deal, which is the first big push in years to treat the climate crisis with anything like the seriousness that it deserves. 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 the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. Today we stand on the mountain, soaking up the light of Christ and letting ourselves be filled with his love. Even now, the glory that shone through Jesus Christ is shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love. On Wednesday we will follow him down the mountain and into the 40 days of Lent, that precious season that invites us to re-orient our lives to the love of God. Day by day we intend to watch for the light and listen to the love, until the day comes when we “see Jesus in every aspect of existence”3 and perceive at last that even the ashes of Lent – even the dust itself – is shining.   ————————————————————————————————————————————— 1. William Johnston, “Arise, My Love…”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, 115. 2. Johnston, “Arise,” 115. 3. “The paths we travel on our sacred journey will lead us to the awareness that the whole point of our lives is the healing of the heart’s eye through which we are able to see Jesus in every aspect of our existence.” (St. Augustine)  
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 17, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT Jeremiah 17:5-10 Psalm 1 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 Luke 6:17-26

Rooted and rising: We shall not be moved

What a blessing to be with you this morning! I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve as “Missioner for Creation Care” for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the United Church of Christ. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. Imagine my pleasure when several weeks ago I received an invitation from your rector to preach at St. James. He told me about the steps you’ve been taking to care for God’s Creation. I hear that you’re working to improve your building’s energy efficiency and moving toward installing solar panels; that you hosted a public forum on wind power; and that last month your Vestry decided – unanimously! – to divest from fossil fuels, making St. James the first congregation in this diocese to divest. I am deeply thankful that you are setting out on a path to live more lightly on the Earth and following Jesus on the Way of Love.

The choir rehearses in the chancel of St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT
Faith communities have a special role to play in healing what one of our Eucharistic prayers calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.” The world needs our witness more than ever. Scientists are telling us with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a major report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. According to this new study, the vast and growing consumption “of food and resources by the global [human] population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which … society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.” 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.” You’ve probably heard that we are in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event – “the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans.” Alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” Related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. The New York Times recently reported that “the five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…[that] 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.” New studies show that the oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise. Sea ice is melting. Land ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. Extreme storms are growing more intense. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming. I think it’s fair to say that in these precarious times, many of us, for good reason, may be feeling stressed-out, or numb, or, frankly, scared. This is a good time 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. So thank God for St. James! Thank God for every community, every congregation, every house of worship that draws people together to pray, to listen to the wisdom of Scripture, to draw close to Jesus, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit!
Oak tree
Today’s readings give us a beautiful image for spiritual resilience and leadership. 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 is 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. 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 vitality plays out in today’s reading 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. I find this tree imagery so compelling that it affected the title of a book I’m co-editing that will be published (by Rowman & Littlefield) this fall, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. The manuscript is due in 10 days – so, in more ways than one, the heat is on. With my co-editor, Leah Schade, we’ve put together a collection of essays by 21 climate activists from a range of faith traditions, asking each of them to write about what gives them the energy, motivation, and courage to keep pushing for a more just and healthy future, when the odds of success are so slim and the forces arrayed against us are so great. In one way or another, each of these dedicated activists has sunk their taproot into something enduring that grounds them, like trees extending their roots into deep soil. I’m not a biologist, 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 communicate with each other, and that trees develop social networks and share resources. A lot of underground life is going on beneath our feet! And that’s true for us, too: 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.
The Rev. Ranjit Koshy Mathews (Rector, St. James Episcopal Church), and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, after the morning services
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; a kind word, a healing gesture, our resolve to take part in the healing of the world. 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, we can buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can do what this church did – divest from fossil fuels – and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest, as well. I’m thrilled to hear that this congregation is invited to take part in a new initiative that The Episcopal Church is launching in Lent: Sustain Island Home. The Diocese of Western Massachusetts will also join Sustain Island Home this Lent. Sustain Island Home1 will help us learn how to reduce our carbon emissions, and it provides a “carbon tracker” that will mark our progress as we make better choices around energy. Learning how to live a carbon-neutral life – learning how to ditch fossil fuels and turn toward energy efficiency, energy conservation, and clean renewable energy – is one of the most powerful and prayerful ways we can align ourselves with the love of God and neighbor. Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. As the IPCC has made clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we need to use our voices and our votes, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. This will not be easy. We will have to root ourselves and plant ourselves in the love and justice of God.
A small sign near one of the church’s doors says it all: the building may be vast, grand, and historic, but the church is not a building. We are a movement, a people following Jesus on the Way of Love.
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 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 join Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan organization that pushes for a price on carbon; some of us join our local chapter of 350.org and become part of the global climate movement; 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 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! As we prepare to receive Communion together, to receive the body and blood of Christ and to take in His presence and strength, I invite you to ask yourself: How is God calling you to rise up and take part in the healing of the world?     _______________________________________________________________________________________________________
  1. SustainIslandHome.org was piloted by the Episcopal Diocese of California. It will be gradually unrolled in dioceses across The Episcopal Church starting in Lent, 2019, and will reach the whole Church by Earth Day. For more information about SustainIslandHome, visit the “Advocacy for Climate Solutions” page of the Diocese of California: diocal.org/climate.
 
Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 13, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Townsend Congregational Church, UCC, Townsend, MA

Baptism into the community of Creation

Isaiah 43:1-7 Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I can’t think of a better day than today to speak about our call and power as Christians to care for God’s Creation. Today, as we always do on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s one of the few events in Jesus’ life that is recorded in all four Gospels. All the stories have the same basic shape: Jesus is plunged by John the Baptist into the waters of the Jordan River. When Jesus emerges from its depths, the heavens are opened, the Spirit of God descends on him as gently as a dove, and a voice says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22).

We return to this story year after year because Jesus’s baptism is one of the basic stories that reveals who he is. It’s also the foundational story of our life in Christ. Most of us probably can’t remember our baptisms, and sometimes we forget how powerful our baptism was – and is. But tapping into the power of our baptism can give us the clarity and moral courage we need to live with integrity in these challenging times. I’ll say more about that, but first I want to say a few words about the ecological predicament in which we find ourselves.
Brevard Australian Zoo Animals, by Rusty Clark (creativecommons)
You probably remember that a couple of months ago, World Wildlife Fund released a major report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. According to this new study, “the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global [human] population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which … society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.”  An executive at World Wildlife Fund 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.” Maybe you read the recent article in the New York Times Magazine called “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” It turns out that massive populations of insects have quietly gone missing, a fact with vast implications for global food systems and eco-systems. We are, in short, in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event – “the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans.” As species vanish and animal populations diminish, alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” Meanwhile, climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is raising temperatures, making heat waves more intense, spreading disease, causing crop failures, and stoking extreme storms, droughts and floods. The World Bank concluded that 143 million people could soon be displaced because of climate change.  2018 is on course to be named one of the four hottest years in recorded history, the other three being 2015, 2016, and 2017. A front-page article in Friday’s New York Times reviews a new study that shows that the oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise. Yet although life on Earth is faltering and civilization could be at risk of collapse, the political and corporate powers-that-be relentlessly drive forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, pushing to expand pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. Here’s what I want to say to you this morning: it was for such a time as this that we were baptized. In a perilous time, we need to take hold of the riches of our baptism. As baptized people we have everything we need to rise to the occasion and to act with compassion, courage, and strength.
Townsend Congregational Church, UCC
What riches do we receive in baptism? Let me name three. First, baptism gives us the power to live in love, to be rooted in love, to belong to a love that will never let us go. When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized into the same compassion that led Jesus to step into the waters of the Jordan River and to be baptized by John. You know, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John the Baptist was preaching repentance from sin, but Jesus had no sin. He had nothing to repent, nothing to confess. He could have skipped the baptism and held himself apart from everyone else. He could have kept his distance and simply watched the masses of people crowding down to the river to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. And yet – he took the plunge. In an act of radical solidarity with all humankind, he stepped into the river and claimed the truth of interconnectedness. Jesus chose to identify with all human beings, to identify with you, to identify with me. And not just with human beings but with the whole of God’s Creation. As John the Baptist said, those who are baptized into Christ are baptized “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).  You know what? The fire of God’s love keeps burning away all the chaff in “an unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). Quickly or slowly it burns away everything in us that is not love, opening our eyes so that we come to see the world as God sees it: as precious, sacred, and filled with God’s presence. The divine love into which we were plunged in baptism extends not only to us, and not only to human beings, but also to every sparrow and whale, every earthworm and orca, every maple tree and mountain. So baptism into Christ isn’t about joining a club or belonging to a tribe. It isn’t about affiliating with people who look like us or think like us. Baptism into Christ is a radical act of humility and compassion that joins us to the One who identifies with every human being and with the whole community of Creation. It joins us to a love that will never let us go. Here’s a second gift of baptism: it puts our death behind us. In baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We have died in Christ; we have died with Christ. Our death has taken place. In a sense, it’s done. It’s over with. In baptism, we have died and been buried with Christ, and through the power of his resurrection, we are raised, here and now, to live with him. What this means is that we can acknowledge and face all this bad news without being overwhelmed by fear. The water that we splash on a child at the baptismal font may seem inconsequential, but it’s a sign that we have nothing to fear from the death of the body. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death.” 1 To whatever extent we understand that through baptism, our death is behind us, we are set free from anguish and anxiety. We are set free to love without grasping, without possessiveness, without holding back.
Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas with Rev. Mark C. Brockmeier, Pastor, Townsend Congregational Church, UCC
And here is gift number three: baptized into a love that extends through all Creation, a love that insists that life and not death will have the last word, we rise up as healers and justice-seekers, as prophets and activists, as people unafraid to confront the powers-that-be. That’s what the early Church was known for. Remember the complaints that were lodged against the first followers of Jesus? They were charged with “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). Sometimes we can spot Christians because they’re among the ones obeying a higher authority and refusing to settle for a killing status quo. And what better time than now to take hold of the prophetic power of our baptism, and to confront the forces that are unraveling life on Earth? I take heart from the 21 young people who, through a group called Our Children’s Trust, have taken the Federal government to court, arguing that U.S. government policies have fueled greenhouse gas emissions and have thereby “deprived a whole generation of American citizens of their constitutional rights to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life.’”  These young plaintiffs also allege that the federal government’s actions have violated the public trust, “since, they argue, the atmosphere must be considered a common resource to be protected for the well-being of all citizens.” That’s big-picture thinking and big-hearted commitment. You and I can follow suit and stand up for life in all kinds of ways. We can cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels and switch our households to clean sources of energy.  Maybe we can fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Shifting to a plant-based diet turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. Maybe we can volunteer or send money to a local land trust to help save forests and farmland. If we went to college, we can push our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. And we can also push for larger, systemic changes. Maybe we sign up with 350Mass. for a Better Future, the grassroots climate action group in Massachusetts, and lobby for policies that put a price on carbon and support renewable energy and “green” jobs. Fourteen new members of our state legislature have vowed to address climate change and transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2050. And bold legislators in Congress are proposing a Green New Deal that aims to tackle both economic inequality and climate change. If speaking inside the halls of power isn’t enough, then some of us will join the growing numbers of faith-filled people who bring our message to the streets, carry out peaceful civil disobedience, and put our bodies on the line. If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith and to the power of our baptism, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. We who have been baptized – how will we live out our baptism in the year ahead? How is God calling you to tap into the power that is yours in Christ? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________   1. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (first published in French as Sources, Paris: Editions Stock, 1982; first published in English, London: New City, 1993), p. 107.    
Sermon for All Saints Day, November 4, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sandwich, MA Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 Psalm 24 Revelation 21:1-6a John 11: 32-44

All Saints: On being good ancestors

Back in 1982, Alice Walker wrote a marvelous novel, The Color Purple. Maybe you remember it. It was greeted with critical acclaim, won a Pulitzer, and was eventually made into a movie. What interests me today is that soon after writing The Color Purple, Alice Walker began to dream about her ancestors. Some of these dream-visits were from people she had known before they died. Others were from people who had lived and died before she was born. People she knew nothing about began to visit her in her dreams. One night, she says, “a long line of ancestors… all apparently slaves, field workers, and domestics,” came to visit her, each one bringing some wisdom or words of support, or sometimes just a hug. When she woke up the next morning, Alice Walker could still feel the plump hand of one of these visitors, “a dark, heavy-set woman who worked in the fields,” gently but firmly holding her own. Alice Walker goes on to say, “I get to keep these dreams for what they mean to me, and I can tell you that I wake up smiling, or crying happily… It seems very simple: Because they know I love them and understand their language, the old ones speak to me… I feel that [this dream is] not so much my dream as ours [and in it I feel sustained forever]… Since this dream I have come to believe that only if I am banned from the presence of the ancestors will I know true grief.”1

The Rev. Tom Ferguson, Rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sandwich, MA
Why does this story come to mind? Because this morning we celebrate All Saints Day, one of the great festivals of the church year. Today we celebrate the presence of the ancestors. Today we’re invited into the same joy that Alice Walker felt when her ancestors came to visit, the joy that everyone feels when we see through the veil that separates this world from the next, and realize that those whom we love and see no longer are with us still. We are living in difficult times, and it’s good to bring our ancestors to mind and to draw strength from what the Bible calls the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that surrounds us. In fact, I’m going to invite us right now to grab hold of our ancestors’ hands, because we need to take a look at some hard truths about the health of our planet, Mother Earth. Scientists are telling us with increasing alarm that the web of life is breaking apart and that human civilization is at risk. I’ll say a quick word about two great challenges: vanishing wildlife and climate change. In a major report that was released this week, World Wildlife Fund concludes that humans have “wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilization.”  According to this new study, “the vast and growing” “consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.” An executive at World Wildlife Fund, Mike Barrett, is quoted as saying: “We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff…If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done… 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.” As for climate change, you’re probably aware that last month the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report about what it will take to keep the earth’s temperature below 1.5 degree Celsius of warming. That’s the level that countries around the world decided is a reasonably safe upper limit for maintaining life as we know it on this planet, though the IPCC warned that even 1.5 degrees of warming “is likely to be disastrous, with consequences that include… the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs, the displacement of millions of people by sea-level rise, and a decline in global crop yields.” Is it possible to hold global warming within that 1.5 degree Celsius rise? Maybe, but we will need to make an extraordinary collective effort worldwide. The only way to avoid hurtling past that threshold is to carry out a radical transformation of human civilization at a scale that has never happened before, and do this breathtakingly fast: the world has perhaps just ten or twelve years in which to prevent climate catastrophe.
              Autumn leaves on a pond. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
I know you didn’t come to church to hear this. News like this can send us reeling, and we may feel a wave of despair. It’s easy to feel helpless, hopeless, and overwhelmed, easy to conclude that our own small efforts to turn things around couldn’t possibly make a difference: maybe we should just call it quits, go out shopping, check the scores, or have a beer. But it is here at this decisive moment that faith communities have a vital role to play. As people of faith we dare to face this moment, to see it clearly, to ask for God’s help and guidance, and to rise up to take action. We are accountable to a God who calls us to be healers and justice-seekers, and we were born for a time like this. We were born for such a time because we put our faith and trust in a God who creates and loves every inch of creation, who calls it good (Genesis 1:1-31), and who entrusts it to our care (Genesis 2:15). As today’s Psalm puts it, “The earth is God’s” (Psalm 24:1). The Earth is not ours – it is God’s, and we have no right to destroy it. We were born for such a time because we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, who shares our pain, whose compassionate heart is “deeply moved” (John 11:33) by the death of Lazarus and the sorrow of all who mourn, and who weeps at his friend’s grave (John 11: 35). Don’t be ashamed if you find yourself weeping over the New England moose and maple trees that are dying because of climate change, or if you mourn the frogs and the fireflies, the orcas, lobsters, and loons, or that sweet little patch of woods that was just felled for another development. We don’t have to be afraid of feeling our grief at the immense losses that our beautiful world is enduring, for Jesus Christ feels and shares our grief. We were born for such a time because we put our faith in the same Jesus Christ who shows us the path of life, who urges us to repent and change course, who forgives our sins, and who insists that life and not death will have the last word. “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43) Jesus cries to the dead man, and out he comes from the tomb. We were born for such a time because we put our faith and trust in the Holy Spirit, who renews the face of the earth (Psalm 104:31).
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman exchange a kiss before being arrested in a pipeline protest in West Roxbury. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
And so we rise up with renewed determination to love God and our neighbor, come what may. Probably we start by making personal changes. Maybe we cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels and switch to clean sources of energy.  Maybe we fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Shifting to a plant-based diet turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do.  And we also push for larger, systemic changes. Maybe we volunteer or send money to a local land trust to help save forests and farmland. Maybe we lobby for policies that put a price on carbon and support renewable energy and “green” jobs. Maybe we sign up with 350Mass. for a Better Future, the grassroots climate action group in Massachusetts that is fighting for a rapid and just transition to 100% clean energy. 350Mass has a node right here on Cape Cod. What else can we do? We can vote for candidates with strong climate policies. Wherever we went to school, we can push our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. Some of us may be called to join the growing numbers of faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line. If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. I thank God for the ancestors who brought us this far. Like Alice Walker, who woke up feeling someone’s strong hand in hers, we open our hands to the saints who have gone before us, and take hold of their companionship and support. Strengthened by that bond of love that reaches into the past, we also reach out our hands to future generations and commit ourselves to being good ancestors to those who come after us – our children and our children’s children, and all those who will inherit the world that we pass on. We may not succeed, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, we hope, we dearly hope, to say to our descendants:2 I give you – polar bears. I give you – glaciers. I give you – coral reefs. I give you – ice shelves as big as a continent. I give you – moderate weather. I give you – a stable climate.     © Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
1. Alice Walker, “Coming in From the Cold,” Living By the Word (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1988), pp. 67-68. 2. Quoting Eban Goodstein, Director, Bard Center for Environmental Policy, speaking at UMass, Amherst in 2007.  

This essay is based on opening remarks by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at a Community Forum, “Tackling the climate crisis now,” held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sandwich, MA, on November 4, 2018. The other speakers were Dr. Philip B. Duffy (President and Executive Director, Woods Hole Research Center) and the Rev. Dr. Paul Minus (Co-Chair of the Cape & Island Faith Communities Environmental Network). The event was part of a new initiative in Massachusetts to bring together scientists and faith leaders in a shared effort to address the climate crisis.

I brought two props with me: a globe and an icon. The globe represents the world outside us: the precious living planet into which we were born, with its complex eco-systems, its lands and waters, its diverse multitude of creatures, and its delicate balance of gases that make up the global atmosphere. The globe represents the outer landscape – what science studies.

The icon represents the world we carry inside us: how we make meaning, what we value and consider important, what motivates us, what we feel, what we long for, how we choose to act. The icon represents the inner landscape – what religion explores.

Scientists have done their job – they’ve conducted research, carried out experiments – and now they are speaking with increasing alarm about threats to the web of life and to human civilization. In the last few weeks we’ve experienced a one-two punch. The World Wildlife Fund just reported that 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been wiped out since 1970. This massive annihilation of wildlife now threatens human civilization, which depends on a healthy natural world. And several weeks ago the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report that shows that planetary warming is well underway and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe: we have maybe ten or twelve years. To avoid runaway climate change will require a radical transformation of society from top to bottom at a scale and pace that are historically unprecedented: never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast.

The question is how we will respond. This is where communities of faith have a vital role to play. In order to mobilize an effective response to the climate crisis, we need hard science and we need deep faith; we need facts and we need a moral compass; we need clear heads and we need open hearts.

We need the wisdom of our whole selves, and we need the help and skills of every sector of society if we are going to preserve a habitable planet for our children’s children.

I’d like to name four of the many roles that faith communities can play:

1) Address helplessness
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed. It’s easy to shut down, throw up our hands and call it quits. “It’s too late,” we tell ourselves. “What difference can I make? It’s not my problem. Someone else will have to deal with it. Besides, the world is cooked. We’re done for. I might as well put my head down, go shopping, check the score, grab a beer.” It’s easy to collapse into fatalism or despair. Strictly speaking we may not be climate skeptics – we do respect climate science, we do understand that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the global climate and threatening the whole human enterprise – but most of us engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to think about it, we don’t know what to do about it, and we surely don’t want to feel the emotions that this crisis evokes.

Faith communities address helplessness in many ways. When we gather for meditation or worship, we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, and we can take hold of each other’s hands. We feel the power of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. And we place ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power (Great Spirit, God, Creator) in whose presence we are uplifted and to whom we are accountable.

2) Offer rituals and practices of prayer and meditation that transform minds and hearts and set us on a good path
Taking action is essential, but in order to discover what we are called to do – and to find the strength to do it – we need to open ourselves to a power and wisdom that is greater than our own. We need help. We need guidance.

In a time of climate crisis, we need rituals that address our fear of death and give us courage to trust in a life greater than death. We need rituals that ask us to name our guilt and regrets, that grant us forgiveness, and that give us strength to set a new course. We need rituals that remind us of our essential connection with each other, with the rest of the created world, and with the unseen Source of all that is. We need rituals that remind us of how loved we are, how precious the world is, and what a privilege it is to be born in a time when our choices and actions make such a difference.

We also need to meditate and pray, recognizing, in the words of Terry Tempest Williams, “that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves.” What we consider prayer can take many forms. In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How shall we pray with our immense anger and grief? How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth – and upon ourselves? The climate crisis can 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 constructive action to address the emergency.

                              Oak tree stump

So I’ll tell a story. Over the past month a company has been cutting down trees in the woods behind our house, clearing space for a new co-housing development. I’m all for co-housing, and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. So I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel my feet on the good earth, feel the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees. I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief about so much more: about what we have lost and are losing and are likely to lose, making up the words and the music as I go along. I sing my rage about these beautiful old trees going down and about the predicament we’re in as a species, my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, cutting down 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 the 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. I sing out my thanks, my praise for the beauty of trees and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the preciousness of the living world of which we are so blessedly a part.

Our prayer may be noisy and expressive, or it may be very quiet, the kind of prayer that depends on listening in stillness and silence with complete attention: listening to the crickets as they pulse at night, listening to the rain as it falls, listening to our breath as we breathe God in and breathe God out, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our heart.

Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death guides us to actions commensurate with the emergency we are in.

3) Provide moral leadership
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, an issue of justice. The poorest nations and the poorest citizens in each nation are those most vulnerable to climate change, because of flooding, food shortages, and the loss of clean water. The front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color.1 The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects, and the people least likely to have a say in how decisions get made. Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si, makes it crystal clear that healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? This weekend, Christians around the world are celebrating All Saints Day, and as I said in my sermon this morning, our task is to be a good ancestor.

The 3 speakers after the Forum: the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, the Rev. Dr. Paul Minus (Co-Chair of the Cape & Island Faith Communities Environmental Network) and Dr. Philip B. Duffy (President and Executive Director, Woods Hole Research Center)

4) Inspire bold action
Faith communities have a long history of leading movements for social and environmental justice, from child labor to women’s rights, peace, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Faith communities tap into our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that is greater than our personal comfort and self-interest. Faith in God (however we name that Higher Power) can inspire people to take bold actions that require courage, compassion, and creativity.

I’d like to mention one important new interfaith initiative: Living the Change. At LivingtheChange.net you can commit to making personal changes in the three key areas that most affect our personal carbon footprint: transportation, household energy use, and diet. (It turns out that eating less meat or no meat, and shifting to a plant-based diet, is one of the most climate-friendly things we can do.)

Faith communities can model best practices for “going green,” such as to get an energy audit, increase energy conservation and efficiency, look into installing solar panels, put in bike racks, replace lawns with community gardens, and so on. But taking care of our immediate buildings and community is just a start. An adequate response to the scope and speed of the climate crisis requires collective action and political engagement.

The climate emergency is propelling people of different faiths to lobby for strong legislative action, such as putting a fair and rising price on carbon, and to join the divestment movement. In the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., countless people of faith have been arrested in recent years in acts of non-violent resistance to fossil fuels. I have been arrested several times in interfaith protests against fossil fuels, and I consider those experiences some of the high points of my life. By engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.

I am thankful for people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; who reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope; and who step out to take action — even if success is not assured — bearing witness to the presence and power of a love that abides within and around us and that nothing can destroy.


 

1. See: Wen Stephenson, “The Grassroots Battle Against Big Oil,” The Nation, October 28, 2013.