The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal is retiring as President and Minister of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ. I will miss him! Here’s what I said at his retirement celebration in Worcester.
What a blessing to be here as we honor our friend Jim. I’ve been invited to speak about his leadership in protecting God’s Creation and taking action on climate change.
Not everyone who wanted to be here today was able to make it. Someone who dearly wanted to come sent a letter that he asked me to share, and I brought it with me. The missing person is Scott Pruitt.
Jim, you need to know that he wanted to have a few words with you and to share his feelings about your climate ministry. He delivered his letter in a 12-foot limousine that gets 5 miles per gallon. Here’s what he wrote.
Dear Reverend Dr. Antal,
You know how hard I’m working to dismantle every regulation that protects the integrity of our environment. You know how hard I’m trying to convince the American public that science doesn’t matter, climate change is nothing to worry about, and God put all that wonderful coal, gas, and oil in the ground so that we could dig it up and burn it, and, incidentally, so that some of us could get rich.
Reverend, I must tell you that you are a thorn in my side, a burr under my saddle, and a monkey on my back. If my work comes to nothing, it will be because you, and people like you, rose up to stop me. I fear your energy, your eloquence, your moral conviction, and your persistence. But there is one thing about you for which I am grateful: you make my speeches easy to write. I read what you say, and then I say the exact opposite.
Thanks for sharing, Scott.
Here’s what I want to say: eleven years ago, in 2007, I met Jim on a sidewalk somewhere between Newton and Cambridge, near the end of the Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue, a 9-day walk from Northampton to Boston that I helped organize to raise awareness about the climate crisis. The march ended with an interfaith service at Old South Church, and when the congregation stepped into Copley Square, we held what was until then the biggest climate rally in U.S. history.
I love it that Jim and I made friends on a climate walk. As we walked along together, we immediately launched into a spirited conversation about everything from the nature of hope to the moral call to care for the Earth. I wondered to myself: Who is this brilliant guy with the big-picture mind, the passionate dedication to solving the climate crisis, and such an extraordinary zest for life? His laugh could light up a room.
In the years since then, Jim has been an intrepid ally, friend, and visionary thinker in countless other climate actions. We dangled our legs over the side of a pipeline trench in West Roxbury as we prayed and sang before the police handcuffed us and took us away. On another occasion, Jim declared “A New Awakening,” and we co-led workshops on prophetic preaching about climate. We spoke on panels. We marched in D.C. We visited the State Department to weigh in on the upcoming climate talks at the U.N.
In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for President against Barack Obama, we joined Bill McKibben in delivering to Romney’s local headquarters more than 52,000 signatures on a climate letter. In 2013, we co-organized the Climate Revival in downtown Boston. In 2017, when Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, we co-wrote an ecumenical statement of Christian protest, “An Opportunity for Which the Church Was Born” – that title came from Jim.
This is only a glimpse of Jim’s leadership on climate. I should mention, by the way, that he was a key player in persuading the United Church of Christ to become the first denomination to move toward divestment from fossil fuels.
Jim, you are an incomparable friend and an incomparable leader on climate. Thank you for hearing the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor, and the cry of future generations. I couldn’t say it better than Bill McKibben, who wrote, in the foreword to your new book, Climate Church, Climate World: “…For as long as there has been a serious climate movement in the United States, Jim Antal has been at the forefront… He is on the short list of heroes who have given their all.”
Maybe one day Scott Pruitt will stop by your house in a Tesla – or on a bike! – shake your hand, and thank you for converting his heart. If he asks to plug his Tesla into your outlet, I know you will be generous and say yes. Until then, I’ll be with you in the struggle. Let’s keep walking.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Federated Church of Orleans, East Orleans, MA
Acts 3:12-191 John 3:17Luke 24:36b-48
“You are witnesses of these things”
Today we are deep into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, and I want to share a story told by an Episcopal bishop about leading worship one Easter morning. Bishop Mark Macdonald was preaching to a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation. When the time came to read the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, Bishop Macdonald stood up and began reading in Navajo: “It was early in the morning…” Almost before the words were out of his mouth, “the oldest person there, an elder who understood no English, said loudly (in Navajo), ‘Yes!’”
The bishop remarks that “it seemed a little early in the narrative for this much enthusiasm,” so he assumed he had made a mistake – maybe he had mispronounced the words in Navajo. So he tried again: “It was early in the morning…’” This time he heard an even louder and more enthusiastic Yes. After the service, the bishop went up to one of the lay leaders and asked if he had pronounced the words correctly. Oh, she said, looking surprised, of course. Well, asked the bishop, then why was the older woman so excited? Oh, he was told, “The early dawn is the most important part of the day to her. Father Sky and Mother Earth meet at that time and produce all that is necessary for life. It is the holiest time of the day. Jesus would pick that good time of day to be raised.”1
Bishop Macdonald realized that while the early dawn is certainly the best time for new life, he had never thought about the possibility that this “observation about the physical word could be theologically and spiritually revealing, that it suggested a communion between God, humanity, and creation that is fundamental to our… existence.” It took him a while to absorb this. He writes: “An elder with no formal schooling had repositioned the central narrative of my life firmly within the physical world and all its forces and interactions. It was,” he says, “an ecological reading of a story that, for me, had been trapped inside a flat virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.”
Today, on the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world. Like Bishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”2
I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of “spirituality” as completely ethereal. The God I grew up with had no body. Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body – both one’s own body and the “body” of the natural world. The natural world and its wild diversity of buzzing, blooming, finned, and feathered creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings. Since the time of the Reformation, Christianity – at least in the West – has had little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, is of any real interest to God.
So what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that has never been forgotten by the indigenous people of the land – to know that the Earth is holy. Its creatures are holy. The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God.
Our Gospel story this morning is full of meanings, but surely one of them is that the Risen Christ is alive in the body, in our bodies, in the body of the Earth. While the disciples were talking about how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36-37). But Jesus doesn’t come as a ghost. He doesn’t come as a memory, as an idea, or as something from “a flat, virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.” He comes as a living body, a body made of flesh and bone that can touch and be touched, a body that can feel hunger and thirst and that wants to know, “Hey, isn’t there anything to eat around here?” Scripture tells us that the Messiah is born, lives, suffers, dies, and rises as a body, and that says something about how much God cherishes the body and wants to meet us in and through the body – through our bodily senses of sight and sound, through taste and touch and smell, in this very breath. Scripture tells us that for forty days the disciples met the living Christ through his risen body. And then, when he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ body withdrew from the disciples’ sight, so that his living presence could fill all things and so that all of us can touch and see him, if our eyes are opened.
What this means is that when you and I go out into nature, when we let our minds grow quiet and we simply gaze at the white pine, the first blooms of forsythia, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything and not pushing anything away, we begin to perceive that a holy, living presence fills everything we see. Wherever we gaze, the Risen Christ is gazing back at us and his presence is flowing toward us. “Peace be with you,” he is saying to us through wind and tree, through cloud and stars. “Peace be with you. I am here in the needles of the pine tree beside you that flutter in the breeze, and in the bark overlaid with clumps of lichen, each one a tiny galaxy. I am here in the ocean waves that form and dissolve on the shore, in the sand under your bare feet, in the sea gull that is crying overhead. Peace be with you. I am here, and you are part of this with me, and you are witnesses of these things.”
This morning I brought with me an icon of the Risen Christ.3 The icon imagines Christ as a Native American figure whose body shines out from every habitat and every creature – from the sky above to the water below, from mountains, field and buffalo. The God who created all things also redeems all things and fills all things. Through the crucified and risen Christ, divine love has woven together the human and natural worlds into one inter-related whole.
When our inward sight is restored and our eyes are opened to behold Christ in all his redeeming work, the Earth comes alive and we perceive Christ in every sound we hear, in every handful of dirt that we hold and in every bird we see. We are witnesses of these things.
In our first reading this morning, Peter speaks about God’s power to heal and to bring forth new life, and he says, “To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15b). Our Gospel passage ends with the risen Christ speaking about God’s power to bring new life out of suffering and death, God’s power to reconcile and forgive and heal. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Today more than ever we need witnesses to the love and power of God and to the divine love that fills the whole Creation, for God’s Creation is in the process of being recklessly assaulted by an economic system that is based on limitless expansion and dependent on the relentless burning of fossil fuels. Countries around the world agreed in the Paris Climate Accord that we must limit the rise of the global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees. The national proposals of the Paris Accord help get us part of the way there, but only part of the way (3.3 C, or 6 F), so we must rein in dirty emissions even more boldly than that. If we stick to our present course and keep going with business as usual, global temperatures will skyrocket by the end of this century, raising temperatures an average of 4.2 degrees Celsius (or 7.6 Fahrenheit). Human beings simply can’t adapt to that level of heat. We would be living on a different planet.
Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat less meat, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. I was thrilled to see the solar array behind the church. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen solar panels behind a nice white picket fence!
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us push for policies that support the development of clean renewable energy, since that is where our future lies, if we’re going to have one. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and advocate for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.
Here on Cape Cod you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians may see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage.
What motivates us to join the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on this planet? As followers of Jesus, we take action not only out of fear, although we do fear for the future of our children and our children’s children if we leave them a scorched and barren world beset by climate disruption. We take action not only because we’re angry, although we are angry, and refuse to allow political and corporate powers to dismantle the web of life for the sake of their own short-term profit and greed. We take action not only out of sorrow, although we do grieve for all the species we have already lost and will lose, grieve for the dying coral and vanishing bumblebees, grieve for the climate refugees, the vulnerable poor, and all the innocents who are already suffering and whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed.
Fear, anger, and sorrow – all these feelings may galvanize us to act. But stirring beneath them all is love, love for each other, love for the Earth entrusted to our care, love for the God whose mercies cannot be numbered. We were made for communion with God and each other and God’s Creation, and we put our trust in the power of God to work through us to heal and reconcile and save. I don’t know if in the end we will be successful, but I do know this: we intend to be living witnesses to the power of a living God until the day we die.
1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, edited by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008, pp. 150-151. Macdonald is the former bishop of Alaska, and now serves as the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.
2. Ibid, p. 151.
3.“Mystic Christ,” by Fr. John Giuliani, Bridge Building Images, Inc.
Margaret contributed to a collection of essays, “The Episcopal Church — standing up to climate change denial?”, assembled by Margaret Daly Denton and published in SEARCH: A Church of Ireland Journal, Spring 2018. The other contributors are Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, the Rev. Fletcher Harper (GreenFaith), and Nathan Empsall (Yale Divinity School seminarian).
The Website for SEARCH: A Church of Ireland Journal is here.
On a bright, wind-swept day shortly before Easter and Passover, a crowd of faith leaders and members of faith communities gathered on the steps of the Massachusetts State House to call upon Governor Baker to take bold leadership in addressing climate disruption. Drawing from the ancient stories of Moses confronting Pharaoh and of Jesus confronting the imperial powers of Rome, “Exodus from Fossil Fuel” celebrated our shared determination, as people of diverse faiths, to set ourselves free from fossil fuels and to create a more just and sustainable society.
Hence, on March 26, Monday in Holy Week and a few days before Passover, we went ahead with our public protest and appeal. As I said in my remarks to the press, “We are holding this event during a time of year that is a holy season for multiple faith traditions, because protecting our climate and God’s creation is one of the most important ways to practice our faith in today’s world.”
The lively outdoor service included songs and prayers; a moving litany of “climate plagues” and public mourning led by two rabbis; and speakers representing front-line communities from all across the Commonwealth that are resisting new fracked gas pipelines with vigils, protests, and non-violent civil disobedience. After a closing blessing and song, we walked in procession to the State House, led by the drumbeats and chants of a small group of Buddhist monks. At the doorway to Governor Baker’s office, a few of us spoke with his staff members. Meanwhile the crowd filled the hallway, writing postcards to the Governor, holding palm branches aloft, and singing songs of hope. Then we scattered in every direction, heading to the offices of our state representatives and senators to advocate for the Senate’s clean energy omnibus bill (S. 2302) and the House’s environmental justice act (H. 2913).
The Berkshire Edge wrote a good short article about Exodus from Fossil Fuel that can be found here.
The entire worship service (except for improvised statements that have yet to be transcribed) can be found here. We hope you will use this document to stimulate your own thinking about how to create an interfaith worship service that lifts up the urgency of combating climate change. Please let us know what you come up with! We also hope that, in reviewing this service, you will be inspired by the range and depth of active resistance to fracked gas pipelines that is now being carried out across the Commonwealth.
Do you wish to express your own commitment? Clergy and religious leaders are invited to sign a statement calling for moral leadership for climate justice. The Clergy Climate Action statement includes a pledge to resist new fossil fuel development through nonviolent direct action. Congregants and community members can also add their support.
Below is the blessing that I delivered at the end of the service:
We’ve shared a lot of words, so, before we pray, I invite us to take a moment in silence to feel the good earth that supports our feet, which we bless with every step and which blesses us with every step… I invite us to take a good deep breath of air, giving thanks for the trees and green things, giving us oxygen…and to feel that warm sun with all its good energy, with which we can power so many things…
I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer as we turn to our Creator, the Higher Power, the holy Mystery, the Great Spirit whom we know by many names:
God of abundance, we stand before you with grateful hearts, thankful for the gift of life, thankful for this beautiful world that you entrusted to our care. Thank you for sending into our midst these warriors and prophets who are giving themselves to the struggle to preserve a habitable world! We ask you to bless them and protect them. Give them courage when they are afraid, strength when they falter, and comfort when they grieve. Sustain them with your bountiful Spirit and guide them on their sacred path.
We ask your blessing on every one of us here. Thank you for the love that drew us here today, for the love that wells up from the center of our being, abides in our midst, and reaches out in every direction, calling us to recognize each other and all other beings as kin. Help us to bear witness to that love in everything we say and do.
We ask you to bless our Governor, our legislators, our political leaders, and all in authority, to turn their hearts and to guide them to make wise decisions that serve the common good.
And we ask you to bless our efforts going forward. Make us bold and humble, fierce and tender in our search for justice, healing, and peace. Amen.
Photo: Faith leaders preparing to lead Exodus from Fossil Fuel in front of the State House
(l. to r.) Rev. Fred Small (Minister for Climate Justice, Arlington Street Church, Boston); Rev. Betsy Sowers (Minister for Earth Justice, Old Cambridge Baptist Church); Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Missioner for Creation Care, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ); Rev. Ian Mevorach (Spiritual Leader, Common Street Spiritual Center in Natick; Coordinator, American Baptist Churches Creation Justice Network); Rev. Dr. Lawrence Jay (Executive Director, Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center of the New England United Methodist Conference); Kristina Keefe-Perry (Coordinator, Creation Care Ministries, The American Baptist Churches of Mass.); Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (President, Jewish Climate Action Network)
I am blessed to be with you on this holy night as we immerse ourselves in the story of our salvation, the story of God’s love affair with the whole creation. In story after story, we have touched the great truth that we’ve been loved since the beginning of time, that God has led us safely through the Red Sea, guided us through the wilderness, walked with us into the darkness, shared our suffering and pain, and even now is shining a pure light within us and among us.
I need this story, this reality, more than ever. We live in a culture that worships violence and war, a culture in which political and economic forces are tearing us apart. We live in a culture in which the rich grow richer while the poor are swept aside, a culture that values wealth, privilege, and domination, and that treats Mother Earth with the same casual disregard with which it treats the vulnerable poor. Like some of you, I feel visceral anger and grief as I watch our government get to work desecrating every last inch of creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. This week I learned that climate denial is now the official policy of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Into this world of violence, deceit, upheaval and war walks a man of peace, a man so radiant with the all-embracing loving-kindness of God that to be in his presence is to be in the presence of God. He walks a path of non-violent love, teaching, healing, and blessing everyone he meets, challenging us to live out of our deepest identity and to understand that we, too, are children of God, born to express God’s love in everything we say and do, born to create communities of love in which no one is left out. When at last he confronts the imperial powers, he endures in his own body the brutalities of this world, conveying until his last breath a spirit of forgiveness and non-violence. And then, on Easter morning – ah! – something is unleashed into the world, an explosion of light, a release of energy. From out of the empty tomb, from out of our empty souls, the living Spirit of Christ springs forth, breaking open whatever is fearful, clenched, and small, unleashing a love that melts all barriers and encompasses all beings.
If Christ is alive, then we are embraced by a sacred power that can roll away stones, restore the dead to life, and offer meaning and hope in the very places where meaning has fled, and hope has died.
If Christ is alive, then into our world a power has been released that is stronger than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy.
If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering we can endure, no anguish we can bear, no loss or disappointment we can undergo that Christ himself does not suffer with us.
If Christ is alive, then each person is beloved and cherished by God, and we are drawn to create new forms of community that overturn the systems of rank, privilege, and domination that divide us from each other and that destroy God’s creation.
If Christ is alive, then we have no need to settle for a life that is overshadowed by the nagging fear of death, for eternal life does not begin after we die – it begins right here, in this very moment.
If Christ is alive, then we are free to be our largest, truest selves: a people free to be vulnerable, free to be generous, free to fall in love with life.
If Christ is alive, then there is nothing more real than love, nothing more true than love, nothing more enduring than love.
Through the power of resurrection, a great energy has been released into the world, and that power is already at work within us. It springs to new life when we gather to resist the forces of destruction, when we stand up for gun safety or engage in peaceful civil disobedience to stop new fracked gas pipelines. It springs to new life when we gather around the table to break bread in Jesus’ name. It springs to new life when we speak words that are truthful and kind, and when we treat ourselves and one another with compassion and respect. It springs to new life when we refuse to abandon and abuse Mother Earth and when we search for ways to re-weave the web of life.
It’s not enough just to gaze on Christ’s resurrection from afar. This is not only Jesus’ miracle – it is our miracle, too, a miracle that each of us is invited to experience more deeply every day of our lives.
Tonight, in silence, words, and song, in fear and wonder, we welcome into our lives and into our wounded and lovely world the Risen Christ and the power of resurrection.
Jesus Christ has risen to new life, and so have we.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed! Alleluia!
What a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Steve, for welcoming me back to this pulpit. I’m an Episcopal priest and long-time climate activist, and I have the world’s longest job title. I work as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. I am not a “missionary,” a word that’s often associated with trying to convert someone, but a “missioner,” which means someone who has been sent out on a mission, someone who has been sent out to serve God beyond the boundaries of a building. As Missioner for Creation Care, I travel in and beyond Massachusetts, preaching and speaking and leading retreats about the sacredness of God’s Creation and our call to become faithful stewards of God’s good Earth, particularly our call to address climate change. The God whom we meet so intimately in our depths is the same God who sends us out into the world to be healers and justice-seekers. My Website is RevivingCreation.org, where you can read articles and sign up for blog posts.
My sermon boils down to three words: Keep the faith. That’s the phrase I often find myself saying to friends as we prepare to go our separate ways: Keep the faith. Other people have other favorite go-to phrases when they say goodbye. I remember Walter Cronkite signing off at the end of every nightly newscast: “That’s the way it is.” Before him there was Edward R. Murrow, who ended his radio and TV broadcasts with the words, “Good night, and good luck.” And as long as we’re on the subject of television, let’s not forget Dr. Spock from Star Trek, with his farewell blessing, “Live long and prosper.”
I like all these expressions, but what I want to say, what I want to hear, is “Keep the faith.” We live in a precarious time, a time of turmoil when for all kinds of reasons many of us feel rattled and anxious, and brace ourselves for the next bit of bad news. So how glad I am that today, on the Second Sunday in Lent, we are invited to remember Abraham, our brother in the faith, our father in the faith, “the father of all of us,” as St. Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans (Romans 4:16). When the story begins, Abraham is the archetype of someone stuck in a hopeless place, a place without faith. He is ninety-nine years old, for heaven’s sake, his body “already as good as dead,” according to St. Paul (Romans 4:19). He has no children by his wife, Sarah, who is no spring chicken, either. The data would suggest that he has reached a dead end. This man who wished for progeny for so long is all washed up; he’s at the end of his rope; his future is barren; the door has closed.
But then he has an encounter with God that changes everything. We don’t hear the details of that encounter in today’s reading, though in another passage from Genesis it seems that Abraham’s experience took place at night, in the desert, under the stars (Genesis 15:5). Abraham encounters a God of life, a creative God with the power to make all things new, a God, says St. Paul, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).
This wild and life-giving God, a God of justice and mercy, makes a covenant with Abraham, an unshakable bond, and promises him offspring, and a good land, and a future. None of those promises are visible yet, none of them has yet come to be, but Abraham’s faith awakens. It comes alive: he puts his faith in God. He trusts in God’s presence; he trusts in God’s power. He casts his lot with a God of infinite love and creativity, a God who has the power to restore and make whole. And in response to God’s call, Abraham sets out in faith.
I want to emphasize that last point: he sets out. He walks. Today’s first reading makes it clear that faith is active, not passive: faith is practiced and made manifest in action. What does God say to Abraham? “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” Walk – don’t stand still, don’t get passive, don’t stay stuck and hopeless. Don’t wait for someone else to do something. Get going. Get moving. Take action.
And don’t walk alone. “Walk before me,” says Yahweh, “and be blameless.” It is if God were an unseen presence and power that is always behind us, as if our job were to clear the way for divine love to move through us, freely and fully, like a river that flows through us and out into the world, so that all people and all beings can be blessed and healed and reconciled. Our task in the course of a day is to stay in conscious contact with God, so that as far as possible we are walking before God, not walking alone, not being driven by our ego or by our anxiety. Activists usually depend on people power, but spiritual activists – people who walk in faith – depend on God-power. It is God who energizes and emboldens us, God who gives us power to do more than we can ask or imagine.
We live in a time that cries out for the imagination, determination, and heart of people of faith. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – are rapidly disappearing from Earth. Scientists tell us that a mass extinction event is now underway – what they’re calling a “biological annihilation.” In addition to species extinction, we also face a changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. As Bill McKibben wrote, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” 1 To cite just one example of how burning fossil fuels is affecting our planet: a recent study examined all the major research on oxygen loss in the ocean and concluded that over the past fifty years the amount of water in the open ocean that is without oxygen has more than quadrupled. As one headline puts it, the ocean is losing its breath. To put it another way, the ocean is suffocating. Lest we imagine that land creatures will not be affected, one scientist points out that about half of the oxygen on Earth comes from the ocean. A professor of marine science who reviewed the study commented that the need for action was best summarized by the motto of the American Lung Association: “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.” I suppose that’s one reason I’m a climate activist: I like to breathe.
Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about, but a cause that affects everything we cherish. If you care about the poor, you care about climate; if you care about immigration and refugees, you care about climate; if you care about public health, you care about climate; if you care about human rights, you care about climate; if you care about loving God and your neighbor, you care about climate. Climate justice is not an issue for a special interest group. If you like to breathe, if you like to eat, if you’d like to leave your children a world they can live in, you care about climate.
To heal God’s Creation, there is a great deal 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 land trusts and non-profits focused on conservation. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have investments, we can divest from fossil fuels, and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest.
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we will have to confront the powers that be, especially when multinational corporations and members of our own government seem intent on desecrating every last inch of God’s Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. Under the circumstances, I wonder at what point the practice of carrying out acts of civil disobedience will become as normative for faithful Christians as the practice of prayer.2
We will also have to confront versions of Christianity that contend that God has given us license to pillage and destroy the natural world, as if everything on God’s green Earth were placed here solely for the pleasure and benefit of a single species, Homo sapiens, or at least its privileged elite. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, revealed this week, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, that he believes that the Bible gives human beings the (quote-unquote) “responsibility” to “harvest” natural resources like coal and oil, although we know full well that burning these fuels is wrecking the planet entrusted to our care. As Mother Jones reports in its cover profile of Pruitt in its March/April issue, the EPA chief’s beliefs are rooted in a version of Christianity that is the “polar opposite from that of other religious leaders, including Pope Francis, who interpret stewardship as the responsibility humans have to protect God’s creation.”
When corporate and political powers set us on a path of disaster – when they remain hell-bent on locating, extracting, and burning as much coal, gas and oil as they possibly can, never mind the potentially catastrophic effects of what they’re doing – the time has come for us to unleash our faith, to make it visible and make it bold.
I give thanks for the story of God’s covenant with Abraham, our father in the faith. It reminds me that in perilous times, God calls forth a people who put their trust in a power greater than themselves; a people who start walking even if they have no map and must create the map as they go; a people with the God-given imagination to envision a future in which the land will prosper and our offspring will thrive; a people who trust in the creative, liberating power of the God who is within them and among them, beyond them and behind them, making a way where there is no way, giving life to the dead, and calling into existence the things that do not exist.
Thank you for whatever you are doing – or will do – to re-weave the web of life and to love God and all our neighbors, human and other-than-human. You know, we are all missioners for Creation care. Every who shares the faith of Abraham and Sarah, everyone who follows Jesus – every one of us here is a missioner for Creation care. Thank you for being on the journey with me.
Keep the faith.
1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket. Italics in original.
2. I credit the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal with issuing this challenge, which he explores in his new book, Climate Church, Climate World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
Every rally has its own energy, a particular mood or spirit that propels it along. That was the case in Northampton, Massachusetts, when over a thousand women, men and children took to the streets on January 20, the first anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. The Pioneer Valley Women’s March: Hear Our Voices, Hear Our Vote was a colorful and festive affair that gathered together, in one great flow of collective energy, a multitude of voices and concerns, among them women’s rights, gay and transgender rights, rights of immigrants and rights of the poor, climate justice, racial justice, and economic justice.
I am someone who loves words and who delights in other people’s creativity, so I did what I often do at rallies: I pulled a notebook out of my pocket and jotted down some of the signs that caught my eye. Some of them made me laugh. Perhaps they deserve to be set to music or read aloud like a poem.
Fact-checkers of the world unite I’m with her (beside a drawing of the Statue of Liberty) We (heart) democracy Black lives matter Enough is enough Time’s up
Kindness is cool (held aloft by a little girl in pink boots and mittens) I will not go quietly back to the 1950’s (carried by an older woman)
Our rights are not up for grabs Fake Pres., not fake press Science is not a liberal agenda Standing on the side of love Nature bats last The ocean is rising, and so are we There is no Planet B Grab ‘em by the patriarchy Protect our national parks Abnormalize Even Ikea has a better cabinet
(beside a drawing of an alien) Take me to see your lead– never mind So bad, even introverts are here
I smiled when I spotted a familiar feminist image: a clenched fist inside a woman’s symbol, and the words, Sisterhood is Powerful. Pinned to my coat was my antique Sisterhood is Powerful button, which I wore back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I smiled even more broadly when an updated message rose into view: If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s not feminism.
I savored the resilience expressed by one message (They tried to bury us… they didn’t know we were seeds) and the commitment to solidarity expressed by another (All of us or none of us).
One sign conveyed the impossibility of listing why a person might want to join the march: So many reasons.
Another sign – which made me laugh out loud – expressed dazed incredulity: Not usually a sign guy, but geez.
I guess you could say that is one reason I joined the march: I like to breathe. It is literally breathtaking to realize that, day by day, the ocean is losing oxygen. It is enraging, it is baffling when a government decides to open up additional areas of the ocean to drilling for oil and gas, when we know full well that burning oil and gas is starting to throttle the ocean and could eventually suffocate us land creatures, too. Hello? Does anyone see a disconnect here? So I marched, flag in hand, grateful for each breath and glad for a chance to help build momentum and political will for a better future.
For me, the most memorable incident of the day took place before the march began. Hundreds of us had converged at a local field and were beginning to line up in the street. We were trying out chants, greeting friends and strangers, admiring each other’s getup and signs, and feeling the excitement of anticipating a good long march to City Hall. Suddenly the young woman in front of me began to sag. She sank down slowly, like a leaf dropping gently to the forest floor. People cried out in surprise; hands reached out to cushion her fall; and in a moment she was splayed uncomfortably on the asphalt, unconscious, as we straightened her legs and looked around for help.
She quickly returned to consciousness, but she remained seated on the pavement, upset and confused. “I’m seventeen!” she cried. “I want my mother!” She began to sob uncontrollably. I was kneeling beside her with my arm around her shoulders, and I murmured in her ear: “You’re OK. My name is Margaret. What’s your name? You fainted – that’s what happened. We’ll get you some help. You’re OK.”
The girl kept sobbing, “I want my mother!” like a mantra, like a prayer, fumbling for her phone, dialing a number and never getting through, as her teenage girl friends stood close by, stricken and wide-eyed. At last her mother answered the phone, and the girl sobbed, “Mom, I lost consciousness! I’m frightened!” She listened for a while to her mother’s voice, and then, slightly calmer, she passed the phone over to me. Her daughter was excitable, her mother said, and easily overwhelmed; this was the first time she’d ever gone to a big event without her parents. Probably she needed simply to be comforted and calmed.
So I kept my arm around the girl’s shoulders, kept offering words of reassurance, and eventually she accepted a sip of water, and wiped her nose, and took an Oreo cookie from one of her friends. By now the crowds surrounding us were beginning to move, so when she was calm enough to stand, I walked her to the side of the street.
Someone had called for medical help. As we waited for the ambulance, I told the girl how brave she was to have come. “I’m so glad you were here,” I told her. “You will look back on today as a day when you were courageous and strong, a day when you stepped out to make a difference in the world, even though you were afraid. We need you in this movement. I hope you’ll come back when you’re 18, and 19, and 20.”
She smiled at me as the medic arrived. “Thank you,” she said.
“I’ll pray for you,” I told her, before I stepped back into the flow of the crowd.
I hope and trust that she will indeed come back, stronger than ever. I see myself in her. I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable and overwhelmed. I know how much it matters when someone – even if it’s only a stranger in a crowd – offers us help when we need it.
I expect that, when the time comes, she will offer her strength to the next person who needs it, for that is how community works: we share what we have and we lift each other up when someone falls. I suppose that’s the whole point of a Women’s March, and of every march that expresses commitment to mutual relationship and solidarity: we intend to show up for each other, to fight for each other, and to keep making the circle larger, until no one is left out.
I hope we’ll keep doing that – whether we’re young first-timers or old grandmas like me – for as long as we have breath. That’s the vision I see in that magnificent passage by the prophet Isaiah, who hears God calling for a world in which the oppressed are set free, the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, and we no longer turn our backs on our own kin (Isaiah 58). Women and men, black and white, land creatures and sea creatures, we are all in this together.
Like the sign says: it’s all of us or none of us.
Sermon for the First Sunday After the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA
Psalm 29Acts 19:1-7Mark 1:4-11
Baptism and the call to protect Earth
Our Gospel text this morning tells one of the foundational stories of Christian faith, the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan. Before I say one word more, I invite you to take your thumb and to trace the sign of the cross on your forehead. Are you with me? Let’s do it together, once or twice. Let’s make it a prayer, for with grateful hearts we recognize that this simple gesture recalls the fact that our forehead has been indelibly marked with the sign of the cross and that we were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether that once-in-a-lifetime event took place many years ago, before conscious memory, when we were babies, or whether it took place more recently, in a ceremony that we remember – through our baptism we have been drawn into the divine life of God and marked as Christ’s own forever.
It’s clear that Jesus’ baptism was a decisive experience, a pivotal event that launched him into his public ministry. The story is told in all four Gospels, and it’s the very first story about Jesus that we hear in the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. In his baptism, Jesus consciously received the identity that had been his since before the beginning of time: he was, and had always been, the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one could take that love away. That’s what happens in our baptism, too: like Jesus, we, too, are forever claimed as God’s own. From that moment and for the rest of our lives, we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable relationship of love. Do you ever wonder who you are, who you really are, deep down? Today’s Gospel story gives the answer. Without doing a thing to deserve it or to earn it, you are the son, you are the daughter, you are the beloved of God – you are the one with whom God is well pleased. Wherever you go, whatever you do, wherever the Spirit sends you, the divine life is flowing through you, as close as your breath, as close as your heartbeat. You and I belong to Christ forever, and we are loved to the core.
I don’t know about you, but I find this a deeply consoling truth to hold on to right now, when so many people feel stressed and scattered, anxious or depressed. We live in a turbulent time, and the world is rapidly changing. Sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, so it’s easy to feel unmoored, ungrounded, and afraid. What a perfect moment to remind ourselves of our baptism and to touch in again to the deep truth that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Roman 8:35-39)!
Here’s the thing: the love that embraced us in our baptism, the love that flows through us with our every breath – that love extends not only to individuals, not only to the baptized, and not only to human beings. The love of God embraces the whole Creation. Scripture tells us so (e.g. Gen. 1:31; Gen. 9:8-10, 15; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 24:1; John 3:16; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 1:10, Ephesians 4:9-10, Col. 1:19-20), and we glimpse this truth in our own experience. Anyone who has ever been amazed by the beauty of the world – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf, or gazing at a mountain, or looking at the stars on a frosty night knows what it’s like to feel a wave of wonder, humility, gratefulness and awe. The Creator of all-that-is is always disclosing God’s self to us in the natural world, always inviting us to slow down, look carefully, and greet our other-than-human kin.
That’s what Jesus did, I think: he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospels we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. Here he is in today’s story, plunging into a river! His parables and stories are rich with images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds and rocks. As I consider Jesus, it seems to me that he encountered every person and creature he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world because he saw with his sacred eyes. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God, because he himself was lit up with God. Jesus knew what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
So when we see that living world being desecrated – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we realize that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we understand 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 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; we want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.
I wish I could tell you, as some highly placed but misinformed politicians have recently claimed, that the bitter cold that has gripped North America and the hurricane-force winds that just blasted the East Coast are a sign that global warming is not real. In fact, researchers point out that climate change may well be related to these frigid temperatures: the Arctic is warming rapidly, and the jet stream that once functioned like a strong fence or lasso that held cold air firmly around the pole now seems to be giving way and growing weak. Some scientists compare it “to leaving a refrigerator door open, with cold air flooding the kitchen even as warm air enters the refrigerator.” In any case, except for Canada and the northern United States, just about every other part of the world is warmer than normal. Last year was the second hottest on record for our planet as a whole, just behind a sweltering 2016, which crushed the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years have all been in this century.
Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. You know the drill!
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.
Here in the Berkshires you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage.
We who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ 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 faithful stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all her communities. Jesus took risks to oppose the unjust authorities of his time, and we must do the same.
Here on the first Sunday of the Epiphany we have a chance to make a radical new start. We have a chance to reclaim a covenant more powerful than any stack of New Year’s Resolutions. This morning we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and we affirm the power of our own baptism in His name. We are loved beyond measure by a divine love that will never let us go. Day by day, as long as we live, we have countless opportunities to bear witness to that love. Who knows what compassion will rise up from our renewed commitment, what new cherishing of our selves and each other, what fresh energy for justice seeking and peacemaking in this precious world entrusted to our care?
NOTE: On January 12, 2018, ClimateNexus posted an updated analysis of the relationship between the cold snap and climate change that does not mention changes in the jet stream:
Strange Times for Chilly Temps: The type of extreme cold North Americans experienced in early January has become increasingly rare as the planet warms, a new analysis shows. An initial breakdown of January’s cold snap from World Weather Attribution finds such frosty temperatures are now 15 times rarer than they were a century ago, when cold waves were an average of 4 degrees F chillier. This winter’s extreme cold “wouldn’t have been that strange” 100 years ago, study co-author Gabriel Vecchi told the AP. “Things like this are becoming stranger.” (New York Times $, AP, Washington Post $, Earther, Mashable)
As summer drew to a close, the hearts of Americans were with the millions of people in Texas and Louisiana who were pummeled by Hurricane Harvey, an unprecedented deluge that in one part of Southeast Texas dropped more than 4 feet of water, setting a rainfall record for the continental U.S. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma was tearing through the Caribbean and up through Florida, displacing millions, causing billions of dollars in property damage, and marking the first time that two Category 4 Atlantic storms made U.S. landfall in the same year. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, torrential rains fell in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, as Southeast Asia endured a record-breaking monsoon season that caused over 1200 deaths. Then, following Hurricane Jose, along came the massive Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and created a humanitarian crisis. Today, wildfires are tearing through Northern California, accelerated by high winds, extreme heat, and bone-dry landscapes.
Climate change didn’t cause these monster storms and fires, but it certainly made them worse. These so-called “natural” disasters are not entirely natural – they are driven by carbon pollution. Dirty energy like coal, gas, and oil is dumping carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, destabilizing the climate and leading to extreme weather events.
As people of faith, we believe that the Earth and its web of life are precious in God’s sight (Genesis 1-2:3). Our Judeo-Christian heritage teaches that the Earth belongs not to us but to God (Psalm 24), and that we are entrusted with loving the Earth as God loves it (Genesis 2:15). The climate crisis presents people of faith and good will with a deeply moral question: Will we be faithful stewards of the world entrusted to our care, or will we stand idly by and watch as carbon pollution takes down cities, uproots millions of people, ravages the poor, and destroys life as it has evolved on this planet?
We are long past the stage of trying to fix climate change by swapping out a few lightbulbs. We need comprehensive legislation that puts a price on carbon and shifts the market away from dirty energy. We are thrilled that two carbon-pricing bills are being considered in the Massachusetts State House. Both bills put a fee on fossil fuels as they enter the state, and rebate some or all of the money to households and businesses. Senate Bill S.1821, introduced by Senator Michael Barrett, rebates 100% of the revenue. House Bill H.1726, from Representative Jen Benson, rebates 80% of the revenue and reinvests the remaining 20% into a Green Infrastructure Fund for clean energy, public transit, and climate adaptation projects.
Both these bills deserve strong support. For starters, they will reduce emissions of dirty greenhouse gases. Thanks to a higher price on carbon, households and business will turn to low and no-carbon options. What’s more, the two bills also protect the interests of low-income, moderate-income, and rural populations, who on average will receive more money from the rebate than they pay in higher fuel costs. Indeed, House Bill H. 1726 commits at least one-third of funding generated through Green Fund to low-income communities, and also sets aside funding for energy efficiency programs for people who rent.
Finally, these two bills will boost the economy and protect businesses, rebating money to businesses based on their number of employees. The Senate bill will create much-needed jobs in Massachusetts, especially in the transportation, resiliency, and clean energy sectors.
Our religious teachings affirm that our deepest responsibility as human beings is to love God and our neighbor. They also demand that we shoulder our human responsibility to care for planet Earth and to create a more just, peaceful, and life-sustaining society. Putting a price on carbon and supporting S. 1821 and H. 1726 is a powerful and faithful response to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
Under threatening skies, a group of men and women gathers in the basement of the Paulist Center, less than a block from the Boston State House. One by one we introduce ourselves and offer a one-word summary of how we feel as we prepare to risk arrest.
Everyone has been trained in non-violent civil disobedience. Everyone has taken the necessary practical steps, such as removing wedding bands and other jewelry, slipping a driver’s license or other identification into a pocket, and scribbling the phone number of the jail support person onto an inner arm. In a moment, everyone will select a buddy for the day, for it is good to stand with a friend when you are arrested, handcuffed, put in a police van, and locked in a holding cell.
Some of us have faced arrest before, others will risk arrest for the first time, but just now all of us are carrying out a ritual of personal preparation that has been passed down through generations. We are clear about our goals: to leave a just and habitable world to our children. We are clear about our methods: to be non-violent in action, speech, and spirit. We divest ourselves of everything unnecessary. We take with us only what is necessary: a few physical essentials and an open heart. We head out two by two.
That’s what Jesus did: he sent out his disciples two by two, ordering them to take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts (Mark 6:7-8). His first followers, the men and women of the Jesus Movement, repeatedly challenged unjust power and were accused of disturbing the peace and “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). These brave souls seemed to spend as much time in jail as they did walking free.
At the moment I don’t feel particularly inspired or brave, but that doesn’t matter: I feel called to be here, doing what needs to be done. All around the world, other people are with us in spirit as we gather strength in this Boston basement: they, too, are standing up for what is right, refusing to settle for a death-dealing status quo.
We have our own climate action to take here in Massachusetts. Mass Power Forward, a coalition of environmental, climate, community, and faith groups (including the Social Justice Commission of Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Environmental Ministries of United Church of Christ in Massachusetts) is running a campaign (#StandUpCharlie) to push Governor Charlie Baker to sign an executive order that directs all state agencies to do everything in their legal authority to stop new fossil fuel projects. We want him to speak out against the pipeline tax and make it clear to fossil fuel executives that the Commonwealth is not willing to pay billions of dollars to fund their pipeline projects. We want him to establish a policy of climate justice and to stand up for clean energy, not to perpetuate the lethal grip of fossil fuels.
What did Governor Charlie Baker say last week when six protesters resolutely sat down in his Statehouse office, refusing to leave until he stopped all new fossil fuel projects in Massachusetts? He said he didn’t want to “take options off the table.”
Keep more fracked gas on the table? That means taking climate stability off the table,1 taking moderate weather off the table, taking intact ice sheets off the table, taking your children’s future off the table, taking a habitable world off the table.
Keep all options on the table? No way. Not if you love your children; not if you love the beautiful blue-green planet into which you and I were born; not if you care about climate migrants and refugees; not if you’re concerned about resource wars over clean water and arable land; not if you want to preserve some remnant of the web of life that is fast unraveling before our eyes.
So it’s no wonder – when the twenty-six of us risking arrest have finished initial preparations and walked to the Boston State House, passed through security and assembled with hundreds of supporters in a large hall – that the crowd quickly takes up the chant: “No new pipelines, keep it off the table!” Our cries reverberate against the walls, filling the space.
Claire Miller (Toxics Action Center) and Craig Altemose (Better Future Project and 350 Mass for a Better Future) speak about the growing movement to stop new fossil fuel projects and to build a safer, healthier economy. The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, a national leader on climate, speaks with concise eloquence: “We are assembled here on the hinge of history. Time is short. We are here to give Governor Baker the opportunity to make the most important decision of his career.”
Then up the stairs we go, to the Governor’s Executive Office. State troopers stand guard at the doorway, preventing us from stepping inside, so the twenty-six of us sit down on the hallway’s marble floor. We intend to sit there until the Governor signs the executive order we seek or until we are forcibly removed.
At first the police hassle us. They point out that a visitor has arrived in a wheelchair. They argue that, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the hallway must be kept completely clear. The police tell us to move along. Our spokespeople counter: “Fine. We’d be glad to empty the hallway. Since only twenty-six people are refusing to leave, there is plenty of room for us to move into the Governor’s office and to carry out our sit-in there.”
The police back off. Protesters keep a pathway open for pedestrians and wheelchairs, and there in the hallway we stay. Hundreds of supporters, holding banners and signs, spread out nearby. Everyone settles in for a long afternoon.
We pass the hours by belting out every inspiring song we know, from “Singing for Our Lives” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” to songs with lyrics written especially for the occasion. We take turns standing up to explain what motivates our activism. A labor organizer speaks of his many years of learning when and how to negotiate. “Sometimes negotiation isn’t possible,” he tells us. “You can’t negotiate with climate change.” Activities that push the world to the brink of climate chaos will never be able to strike a deal with physics and chemistry.
A physician in a white lab coat stands up. “In medical school, we learn ‘First, do no harm.’” Policies that cater to fossil fuel companies are doing grave harm to our state, our country, and our planet.
A middle-aged woman stands up to speak about extreme weather events and rising seas. An elderly woman speaks about her love and concern for her grandchildren. A young man speaks about his Millennial friends who, anticipating terrible years ahead, are deciding not to bear children. Activist and independent journalist Wen Stephenson recites by heart a compelling passage from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” that concludes: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”
I speak about the love that propels me. Climate change is not only a scientific, economic, and political issue, but also one that is deeply spiritual. What do we love most? To what are we willing to commit our lives? What is the North Star that guides our decisions? When we know what we love most, we make energy choices that are wise. And, I might add, we push our elected officials to stop desecrating the Earth entrusted to our care and to move as swiftly as possible to a clean energy future in which all beings can thrive.
The hours pass. When a supporter needs to leave, he or she approaches the group that is sitting in the hallway and hands one of the protesters a small flower. I am touched by this gesture of support: “I may not be with you in person, but I am with you in spirit.”
Many people are with us in body or spirit. A hundred miles west, local activists led by Arise for Social Justice and Climate Action Now are carrying out a simultaneous #StandUpCharlie protest at Governor Baker’s Springfield office. They ask him to meet additional demands that affect climate justice in western Massachusetts: to prevent large-biomass burning, to expand our system of public transportation, and to implement East-West high-speed rail.
The hour is late. The building will close at 6:00 p.m. Additional police officers assemble nearby. After brief, intense discussions among ourselves, we decide that we are willing to face criminal charges and to be summoned to court without undergoing arrest – a decision that some of us regret (see Wen Stephenson’s subsequent article in The Nation). A police officer announces the charges – trespassing and unlawful assembly – and we hand over our driver’s licenses to be photocopied.
We head out into the night.
The #StandUpCharlie campaign plans a brief hiatus, to give the Governor some time over the holidays to consider his leadership on climate. In January, we intend to come back, and in greater numbers, until the Governor agrees to take a clear stand against more fracked gas projects in Massachusetts.
Preserving a habitable planet depends on local and regional action by every sector of society, especially when our national government seems determined to dig us ever deeper into the pit of relying on fossil fuels. Whatever form our actions take – whether or not they include arrest – we will need to be loving, bold, relentless, and strong.
And persistent. Jesus encourages persistence in prayer. He encourages his friends “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Then he tells a parable about a persistent widow who refuses to quit pestering a judge until he grants her justice (Luke 18:1-8). Fed up by her tenacity, the judge at last relents, saying, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).
That’s the kind of persistence we intend to maintain as we press Governor Baker to become a climate leader. We intend to be persistent in prayer and to pray persistently as we put our bodies on the line. We aim to tend our inner fires, to be steadfast in listening to the inner voice of love that gives us courage and strength. And when God calls us to take action, we hope, by God’s grace, to be able to answer: