For the interfaith climate movement in Massachusetts, this is a day for lament, gratitude, hope, and praise.
It’s official: Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action – MAICCA, for short – is suspending operations, at least for now. The news went public yesterday. After a nearly three-year run, our Leadership Team concluded, after careful reflection, conversation, and prayer, to suspend future activities of MAICCA for the time being.
As we explained in our announcement:
…(O)ur nation’s political and spiritual landscape changed profoundly in 2017. Navigating the storms has been a struggle, especially for immigrants, low-income communities, racial and gender minorities, the historically under-served, and those most vulnerable to environmental threats and climate change. To our dismay, we have watched the White House and Congress rapidly dismantling environmental protections and policies that safeguard clean air and water, public health, wilderness, and a habitable planet.
In this tumultuous time, Pope Francis’ call to hear the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” has grown ever more urgent, and MAICCA has wrestled with how best to respond. The members of our leadership team have sought to discern how each of us is called to engage in the work of climate justice in this unique and difficult period of history.
We still believe fervently that religious and spiritual communities and collective faithful action have a critical role to play in responding to the climate crisis and helping build a just and livable future for our planet and its inhabitants.
At the same time, our leadership team has concluded that we as individuals and as a community are in a different place than we were when we gave rise to MAICCA, and that for the time being, MAICCA may no longer be the best venue for our shared work. We have decided to suspend plans for future MAICCA campaigns and programs. For now, MAICCA is on hiatus. In acknowledging that this particular chapter of MAICCA’s existence has come to an end, we hope to open the way for new partnerships and coalitions to emerge.
Gratitude We look back with gratitude to the many people who joined our work. And what a variety of splendid events we created and took part in! As we wrote to our members and friends in the farewell letter:
You may have shared in spirited prayer and singing with nearly 600 people at “Answering the Call,” our launch event in Wellesley in October 2015. Less than a month later, you may have joined our Legislative Action Day, rallying on the Grand Staircase at the State House and meeting with your legislators to push for a clean and just energy future. Maybe you joined us in Boston for the “Jobs, Justice, and Climate” march and rally in December 2015, the biggest climate rally in the city’s history. Maybe you walked and prayed with us in West Roxbury in May 2016, when clergy and people of many faiths were arrested in acts of civil disobedience to protest construction of the fracked gas pipeline. Maybe you prayed with us at our interfaith gathering before the People’s Climate Movement March in Boston this past April, or participated in the Climate Justice Simulation in Jamaica Plain in May. Maybe you connected with MAICCA at one of our educational events, joined a delegation at one of MAICCA’s waves of meetings with local legislators, or read our newsletter.
However you engaged with MAICCA, thank you for adding your voice to the growing, multi-faith movement in Massachusetts to call for solutions to the climate crisis that are rooted in racial, social, and economic justice.
Among the many things we are thankful for is the clarity that emerged in the course of discussing our future. Four members of MAICCA’s Leadership Team – Amy Benjamin, Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, Lise Olney, and Evan Seitz – developed a beautiful vision of the purpose and value of interfaith climate action, which they laid out as follows:
We believe that interfaith climate action is unique and vital to this moment and to the environmental movement.
We believe that a faith-based climate organization needs to:
Contribute meaningfully to the goals of the climate movement,
Be sustainable and active over the long term, and
Engage in powerful faith-framed climate activism as a way of responding to the climate crisis and of transforming ourselves, our communities, and our world.
Our vision of Interfaith Climate Action has three critical components:
We partner with other organizations and grow a diverse base to build power and implement campaigns to work for legislative & infrastructure progress in Massachusetts.
We participate/lead marches and other public actions for climate justice, winnable or not. We bring prayer, art, song, silent witness, and bold direct action to these moments.
We use congregations as the nodes of organizing, looking for those inspired to act and be transformed by their activism. We trust that when small groups of people take principled action, others will be inspired to join.
Because faith calls and compels us to act, our actions are not dependent on success, but on doing the work.
We affirm the dignity of all human beings, and recognize the intersections between climate, the climate crises, and systems that uphold social, racial, and economic injustice.
We lift up a prophetic voice that puts forth a vision for climate justice beyond what is currently politically feasible.
We intentionally come to our activism as a mode of transforming ourselves as well as the world.
We lead from love, not fear or anger. We do not shy from holding the grief of confronting this moment.
We each go deep into our own individual religious/spiritual traditions, through ritual and study, in order to mine the wisdom, guidance, inspiration, resilience, and lessons that we need as activists.
We come together across religious/spiritual traditions and cultures to learn from each other and be strengthened and nourished by each other’s traditions.
We enliven our traditions and we transform our spiritual and/or religious lives by enacting our faith through our activism.
I hope that these three elements – actively contributing to the world’s justice, peace, and beauty; serving a sacred purpose; and drawing from the deep wisdom of our spiritual traditions – will inform and guide interfaith climate justice work in the years ahead.
I consider this vision of interfaith climate action – so charged with hope – to be a vision worthy of our trust. The vision is coming to us from the future: we can see it up ahead, we are aiming for it, and it draws us forward. In the end, MAICCA was not the vehicle to fully implement this vision, but we dare to believe that we played a part in creating the conditions that will eventually bring that vision into reality.
Our farewell letter ended on a note of praise to God:
We give thanks for the Spirit that led us to form MAICCA. We trust that the same Spirit is guiding us now as MAICCA’s present incarnation comes to an end. We look forward with joy to seeing how the Spirit will guide us in the years ahead.
In this precarious and turbulent time, how does MAICCA’s stepping back invite you to step forward? How is the Spirit speaking to you? We hope that you, our friends and allies, will amplify and build on the climate justice work already being carried out within your faith tradition and that you will bring your unique gifts and leadership potential to the climate movement.
We will be standing beside you!
A sampling of climate justice groups in Massachusetts:
Stories like these pull us into prayer – grief for those who perished, anguish for those in harm’s way, gratitude for the people saving everyone they can, and a rising tide of anger and resolve: we will not stand idly by as people drown and are dislocated in extreme storms like these.
Part of a faithful response is concrete and immediate: if we live nearby and have a boat or clothes to spare, we can offer what we have. Wherever we live, if we have money to spare, we can donate to a disaster relief organization, including faith-rooted groups such as Episcopal Relief and Development and Church World Service.
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University likewise confirmed the connections between climate change and Harvey’s destructive power. In his article entitled, “It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly,” Mann pointed out that, while climate change did not “cause” Harvey, “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”
This week, author and social activist Naomi Klein also pointed out that Harvey “didn’t come out the blue”: it was just the kind of extreme weather event that climate scientists have long been predicting. Surely now is the time, she argues, to have a serious policy debate in this country about the host of questions that Harvey raises: What kind of energy should we rely on (a question, she points out, “with jarring implications for the dominant industry in the region being hit hardest: oil and gas”)? What kind of safety net do we need to provide for the poor, the ill, and the elderly, given their vulnerability in times of disaster and given the certainty that storms like Harvey are only a harbinger of the climate-related storms that lie ahead?
Journalist Wen Stephenson is also attuned to the links between climate change and social justice. In an article with the bold headline, “Houston’s Human Catastrophe Started Long Before the Storm,” he writes: “Our unfolding climate catastrophe… is rooted in social and economic inequalities that render most vulnerable the most marginalized and powerless… Decades of neglect, inequality, and disenfranchisement – to say nothing of heedless development and a lack of flood planning tantamount to criminal negligence – mean that Houstonians of all backgrounds, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities, primarily communities of color, have been left utterly undefended.”
Climate change has never been only about polar bears. Stabilizing the climate is about social, racial, and economic justice, too – about treating Earth and each other with reverence and respect. How many more floods need to drown or displace our citizens and destroy our homes before we wake up to the climate crisis and take urgent steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground? How many more vulnerable communities are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and keep enriching fossil fuel industry billionaires?
Meanwhile, as Harvey brings devastation to our Gulf Coast, a record-breaking strong monsoon season in Southeast Asia has caused over 1200 deaths this summer. Thanks to Harvey, Americans are newly aware of the suffering caused by floods exacerbated by climate change. Perhaps now we can look with greater empathy at similar images coming from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh – images of other mothers wading through flooded areas, carrying their children in their arms; images of other homes destroyed and other communities cut off, with no food and clean water for days.
Perhaps now, after seeing what Harvey is doing to Houston, we can look ahead and grasp more clearly – more viscerally – what it means when scientists predict that sea level rise will flood hundreds of American cities in the near future. A new report published by The Union of Concerned Scientists shows that by the end of the century, chronic flooding – defined as flooding so unmanageable that it drives people to move away – “will be occurring from Maine to Texas and along parts of the West Coast. It will affect as many as 670 coastal communities, including Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida; and four of the five boroughs of New York City.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts? I was born and grew up there. By the end of the century? I do the arithmetic, figuring the ages of my children and grandchildren. I imagine the social chaos, the streams of refugees, the abandoned buildings.
Will we look back on Harvey (and Katrina and Sandy) as the first in a relentless wave of storms that eventually brought down many of America’s great cities? Or will we look back on Harvey as the storm that finally got the attention of the American public and showed us the urgent need to take action on climate?
Climate change is neither distant nor abstract. It is real, present, and personal. Our country’s President denies the existence and human causes of climate change, and his environmental policies surely make matters worse, but people of faith, and people of good will, refuse to abandon the Earth entrusted to our care.
Tomorrow, on September 1, Christians will mark a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Whatever your faith tradition, I invite you to join in this planet-wide pause to hold our troubled world in our hearts. I invite you to go outside and appreciate the living world around you – the trees, soil, water, birds, and clouds. I invite you to acknowledge your own grief, anger, and fear about the Earth’s unraveling web of life, and I invite you to seek the guidance, resolve, and courage that come from listening to our deepest inner wisdom, the place where Love dwells.
For millions of Christians worldwide, September 1 marks the first day of the Season of Creation, a season dedicated to lifting up the sacredness of the natural world. Creation Season generally ends on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the man often called the patron saint of ecology. (For resources to mark this day of prayer and the whole Creation Season, visit Creation Justice Ministries.)
Here in Massachusetts, Episcopal congregations will mark their own Season of Creation, from October 4 through the end of November. In the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, we have assembled a mass of resources to help individuals and communities of faith to mark Creation Season. I hope that you will take a look, and decide how you and your community of faith will act, advocate, learn, and pray on behalf of God’s good Earth. How will you celebrate Creation Season this year? Will you design an outdoor worship service at a place of environmental degradation? Offer prayers to bless solar panels? Preach about the climate crisis? Carry out non-violent civil disobedience to protest a new gas pipeline? Organize a study group?
How will the extraordinary suffering and tragedy of Harvey – much of it endured beyond the reach of TV cameras and crew – strengthen your intention to become an agent of healing and hope?
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
It is a joy to be with you again. I had the pleasure of serving as your Priest Associate for nine years, and it is wonderful to be back. Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to preach. I feel a bit like the apostles whom Jesus sent out to heal and preach and teach, and who returned to Jesus to report back on what they had learned and how things were going. I will spare you a long report on what I’ve been up to over the past three-and-a-half years as Missioner for Creation Care in this diocese and in the Mass. Conference of the United Church of Christ. My Website, RevivingCreation.org, will tell you anything you want to know. But I will say that this has been a lively and rewarding time of building up the God-centered, Spirit-led movement to protect the web of life and to create a more just and sustainable future. I’ve been traveling around, preaching, speaking and leading retreats, aiming to mobilize a wave of religious activism to find solutions to the climate crisis. It’s been heartening to catch glimpses of the many ways that members of this congregation share in this mission with me. Just two weeks ago I met up with four of you – along with more than 200,000 other dedicated souls – at the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., and many others of you took part in local events on the same day here in the Valley. Thank you for that witness.
Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – is drawn from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends, telling them that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. “[Jesus said,] ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).
I don’t know about you, but just now it is startling for me to hear “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” because naturally our hearts are troubled. On a personal level, all sorts of things may be troubling us: maybe financial worries, or a medical issue, or some conflict in an important relationship. Regarding politics, many of us are troubled by the extraordinary events now unfolding in our nation’s Capitol, from the firing of the Director of the FBI to growing concerns about Russian interference in the last election and possible collusion and cover-up by our nation’s top leaders: we may well be troubled by what looks like an assault on the institutions that maintain democracy.
And we have good reason to be deeply troubled by the ongoing and accelerating attack on God’s Creation, the Earth upon which all life depends. Our current leaders seem determined to develop more coal, gas, and oil, just when we urgently need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. They likewise seem determined to ignore climate science, to shut down climate Websites, to withdraw funding for climate research, and to abandon regulations that protect our health and environment, as if ignoring the climate crisis will make it go away. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is being affected and is in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing and releasing methane – a serious greenhouse gas. Storms are becoming more intense. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Scientists recently reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
For all of us who feel anxious and unsettled in this turbulent time, today’s Gospel passage brings words of reassurance and hope. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Here is the first great promise that Jesus makes to us this morning: our souls have a destination, a home in God. We may enter the fullness of that divine dwelling place only at the end of our lives, but anyone with sustained experience in prayer, especially contemplative prayer, knows that we’re also invited to enter that dwelling place now. God is found not just “somewhere out there,” in a distant place or time. God is found right here and now, in the intimate, unrepeatable present moment. Every ache in us, every bit of restlessness and striving, every desire that moves through us in the course of a day, is an echo of the soul’s deep hunger for communion with God. The longing for our sacred Home in God is at the root of all our other longings and desires.
But how do we find that Home in God? How do we get there? Even if, strictly speaking, there is nowhere to get to, even if in some sense God is already here, already alive in our depths and in our midst, how do we discover that truth for ourselves? What is the path? What is the way? That is the question that Thomas asks Jesus. You know how Jesus answers: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That is the second great promise that Jesus makes to us this morning: there is a way into the heart of God, and Christ is the path. Christ is the way.
I am ashamed to say that Christians have too often wielded this statement as a cudgel against people of other faiths, holding it aloft like a fist: follow Jesus or else. Christians have too often interpreted this statement as Jesus speaking from his ego to our ego, as if Jesus wants to bolster the part of our selves that likes to have power, to dominate and be in control. But when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus is not speaking from his ego to our ego. He is speaking from his soul to our soul. He is inviting us to trust him, to be devoted to him, to dedicate ourselves to following him so that we, too, are drawn, as he is drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed. Jesus is the gateway to the great way: to a universal love in which no one is left out.
So Jesus speaks to the soul and says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the indwelling presence of God, the creative Wisdom of God through whom all things were made, in whom everything is knit together, and toward whom all things in heaven and on earth converge. I make my home in you and in every person, whatever he or she happens to believe, and whether he or she is aware of it or not. You can ignore me, you can deny me, you can conceal me under all the worries and pleasures of your life, but if you open yourself to me in quiet prayer – if you listen attentively to my silent love – if you practice paying attention to my presence as you go through the day – if you lean on my love and trust in my power – what amazing things you and I will do together!” (c.f. Acts 17:6).
This is what distinguishes secular activists from activists who are led by faith: secular activists depend on people power, on their own power, on what human beings can accomplish by themselves. And this can be a lot! But Spirit-led activists depend on God’s power. They draw from a sacred power beyond themselves, from a source of love and strength far greater than anything they can ask for or imagine. In these troubled times, we need Spirit-led activists, people who take time to pray and to listen inwardly for the presence of the Spirit, people who resist the temptation to get so caught up in tracking the latest breaking news, the latest tweet, the latest post on social media, that we forget to tap into the wisdom that can only be found deep within, by patient listening in silence. In these troubled times, we need Spirit-led activists who step out to do what needs to be done, even if they have no assurance of success – activists who bear witness to the ongoing flow of love that God pours into our hearts through the power of the Spirit (Romans 5:5), even in a world often gripped by cruelty and fear.
Thanks be to God, people of all faiths are rising up the world over to proclaim the sacredness of God’s Creation and to express our refusal to stand idly by and let the web of life be destroyed. People of faith are lobbying, and advocating, and pressing our politicians to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. People of faith are blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines, pushing for a fair price on carbon, and working to build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health.
You never know where the Spirit will lead you. A UCC pastor and friend of mine, long-time activist Andrea Ayvazian, was recently praying as she rode a train to and from Texas, and the Spirit gave her a vision of a school that teaches people how to build the movement for eco-social justice. Thus was born the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership. Launched just this month, it offers free classes from Greenfield to Springfield on everything from how to write for social change, to how to run for office, how to prepare for non-violent civil disobedience, and how to maintain a peaceful heart. The Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership is already on its way to becoming a model for how to start similar schools in cities across the country. Check it out online or pick up one of the brochures I’ve left at the door to the church. I’ll be teaching a class on spiritual resilience in a couple of weeks.
I see the Spirit at work in the climate action network here in the Pioneer Valley, Climate Action Now, which is engaged in campaigns to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. The monthly meetings of Climate Action Now begin and end with silence, prayer, or singing, and if you sign up for their weekly newsletter, you’ll be joining a vibrant local effort.
The Spirit also inspired the formation of another group, the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together Christians, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, and people of all religious traditions to push for legislation in Massachusetts that supports climate justice.
Here’s my last invitation. I’d love to see you on Sunday afternoon, June 11, when we hold a festive, outdoor, interfaith service in Northampton called “Prayers for the Planet: Reverence and Resistance.” We’ll have two powerful guest speakers, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond and Jay O’Hara, along with Gospel music, singing, prayers, and leaders from a range of world religions, as we join together to refresh our spirits and renew our resolve. Thank you, Grace Church, for being a sponsor of this unusual event. I hope that many of you will come.
Yes, we live in troubled times, but the Jesus movement was made for times like these. If you knew that Jesus was with you, if you knew that he believes in you and in what you can accomplish, if you knew that his Spirit was guiding you, sustaining you, and giving you strength, what would you do next? What new step would you take? You may not know the answer right off the bat, but if you ask the Spirit to guide you, She will.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Suppose you deeply loved this planet and were also deeply concerned for its future. And suppose you wanted to hold an event to give voice to those feelings. What would you call it?
Let’s say it was a large, outdoor, interfaith festival of music and prayer to celebrate the Earth. Let’s say you had everything planned — a date: Sunday, June 11. A time: 2 p.m. A place: a big open tent behind Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton.
Let’s say you had a clear vision for the event: a family-friendly gathering for everyone who loves the Earth and wants to come together for one hour to pray and sing, to acknowledge our fears and concerns about the planet’s health — especially its climate — and to strengthen our spirits as we work for a more just and sustainable future.
Let’s say you had lined up two excellent guest speakers: the mighty Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, Associate Minister for Ecological Justice at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, and Jay O’Hara, the Quaker activist featured on Democracy Now!, who was arrested in 2013 when he used a lobster boat to prevent delivery of 40,000 tons of coal.
Let’s say you had attracted plenty of local talent to help lead the service: faith leaders from a variety of traditions and a diverse group of local musicians.
In fact, all of that was set up. Nearly everything was in place. Only one thing remained: deciding what to call the event. For a while, that riddle beset us, the event’s organizers. We chewed on possible names, trading ideas. Eventually, two words emerged: reverence and resistance.
Why reverence? Because we hope to cultivate in ourselves and in each other a deep respect for Earth and all its inhabitants, human and other-than-human. Because we want to remember that the land is holy, the water is holy, the air is holy and life itself is a precious gift. Because we recognize that society too often treats people (especially poor people and people of color) — and the whole natural world — as if they were objects to dominate and exploit, instead of beings with intrinsic dignity and worth. Because we live in a society that too often pretends that human beings are separate from the web of life, not accountable to any law higher than the supposed laws of economics, and without a purpose greater than grabbing for riches, status and power.
Reverence takes many forms. We are reverent when we walk the Earth mindfully, blessing it with every step. We are reverent when we pay attention to the beauty, mystery and suffering in the world around us. We are reverent when we reduce our carbon footprint, walk and bike more often, or ditch the dryer and hang our laundry on a line. We are reverent when we try to encounter each person, each creature, each moment, with sincere interest and an open heart. We are reverent when we refrain from speaking harshly or with contempt, for reverence teaches us compassion.
Reverence is a stance of the spirit and a conscious practice: We intend to honor each other and the Earth. We intend to treat each other and the world around us with kindness and respect.
Why resistance? Because people of faith have a long history of rising up against injustice and speaking out against policies and practices that oppress, abuse or cause harm. Because when we put our beliefs into action and stand in direct opposition to an unjust status quo, we follow in the footsteps of prophets and leaders of every spiritual tradition. Because we refuse to stand idly by while political powers ramp up their efforts to devastate the Earth. Because we live in a climate emergency: Unless we rapidly reduce consumption of fossil fuels and make a swift, bold transition to clean, renewable sources of energy like sun and wind, we will leave a ruined and possibly uninhabitable world to our children and their children.
Resistance takes many forms. We resist climate catastrophe when we risk arrest and take non-violent action to stop new pipelines; when we lobby for a fair and rising tax on carbon; when we urge colleges and other nonprofits to divest from fossil fuels. We resist climate catastrophe when we support our local land trusts and farms, plant trees and community gardens, and reuse, recycle, share what we have and buy less stuff. We resist climate catastrophe when we march and join rallies, engage in public fasts and prayer vigils, contact politicians, vote and even run for office ourselves — all for the sake of directing society away from the cliff of continuing business as usual and toward a more sustainable path.
Resistance is a stance of the spirit and a conscious practice: We intend to protect each other and the Earth. We intend to stand up for life over death, for love over hate.
Our planning group eventually came up with a name for the event. We’re calling it “Public Prayers for the Planet: Reverence and Resistance.” On June 11, we hope to strengthen the religious and spiritual movement to avert climate catastrophe and to protect the web of life. We hope you’ll join us.
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas of Northampton serves as Missioner for Creation Care in both the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and the Mass. Conference, United Church of Christ. Her website is RevivingCreation.org.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information go to www.hitchcockcenter.org, call 256-6006 or write to email@example.com.
This article, dated Friday, May 5, appeared in Daily Hampshire Gazette on Saturday, May 6, 2017, and may be viewed here.
“[Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” (John 20:27)
I feel a special kinship with this congregation, because you are pioneers in building ecumenical relations: you’ve gathered Lutheran and Episcopal communities into one shared community of worship. I can relate to that, for I serve two denominations in one job. As Missioner for Creation Care, I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. So let’s hear it for Christians coming together to praise the one God and to follow Jesus, wherever he leads!
Today is Earth Sunday, the day after Earth Day, the day when people across the country celebrate the blue-green planet that we call home. Today is also the Second Sunday of Easter, and, as we always do at this time of year, we hear a marvelous and mysterious story from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus shows himself to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day and then returns a week later to convince the disciple we call Doubting Thomas that yes, the Risen Christ is real.
“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas, showing him the wounds. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And then Thomas finds his faith, saying, “My Lord and my God.”
What happens when we consider Earth Day in the light of Easter? The first thing to say is that our Easter liturgies make it abundantly clear that Christ’s death and resurrection is good news not just to human beings but also to the whole of Creation – to rivers and mountains, forests and fields, whales and sparrows and sheep. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, we start by lighting a fire in the darkness and by listening to someone chant these ancient words:
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen!
Today’s Gospel story invites us to explore the good news of Christ’s resurrection by taking stock of our doubts. Doubting Thomas stands for all of us who wrestle with doubt – doubt about what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and doubt about the reality of the resurrection. Doubt is a perfect theme for Earth Day, too, for when it comes to climate change – the issue at the top of everybody’s list on Earth Day – we hear a lot about doubt. Is climate change real? Is it serious? Is human activity responsible for most of it? Some folks outright deny the reality of climate change; others are on the fence and don’t know what to believe, assuming that scientists have not reached a consensus on the reality and causes of global warming. Fossil fuel groups are working very hard and spending millions of dollars to keep the American public doubtful and confused. The same folks who once spread doubt about the risk of smoking tobacco are now throwing their weight behind efforts to mislead the public about the reality of climate change. Some groups are even trying to spread doubt about the validity of science itself, doubt about the value of scientific research and scientific fact. Next they will be questioning the validity of gravity! It’s no wonder that Marches for Science filled the streets on Earth Day yesterday in more than 600 cities on six continents!
Now, I don’t know you, but I’m going to assume that all of us here understand the value of science and the scientific process. I also assume that most of us are not climate skeptics; most of us do not deny outright the conclusions of science. But when it comes to climate change, most of us probably do engage in a kind of everyday doubt and denial. Thinking about climate change can make us feel anxious or overwhelmed, so it’s tempting to change the subject and focus on more manageable things.
It’s hard to face facts squarely. It’s hard to absorb the fact that the science is settled and that the debate about climate change is over. 97% of climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that climate change is already upon us. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than our species has ever experienced before. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is affected and in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing and releasing methane – a serious greenhouse gas. Storms are becoming more intense. Droughts are spreading in some areas, extensive floods in others. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Scientists recently reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
The climate emergency is not just a quote-unquote “environmental” problem. It’s not just about polar bears and coral. It’s about people in Southern Africa, where rains have failed, crops are withering, and starving families are “reduced to eating cactus and even rocks or ashes.” It’s about Pacific islanders whose homelands are already flooding from rising seas. It’s about impoverished people here and abroad who are hit first and hardest by a changing climate, who have the fewest resources to adapt to it, and who are the least responsible for causing it.
So when I hear Jesus say to Doubting Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” I hear Jesus inviting Thomas – and us – to face the truth of crucifixion. We might wish away the reality of the violence and the wounds. We might wish very ardently that none of this wounding of our dear planet were happening, that we weren’t seeing dying coral and melting icecaps, rising seas and increasing numbers of refugees. But it is happening, and just as on Good Friday the disciples couldn’t pretend that Christ’s wounds on the cross weren’t real, so we, too, can’t pretend that the wounds to God’s Creation aren’t real.
Yet because of Christ’s crucifixion, we know that God is with us in our suffering and in the planet’s suffering. And because of Christ’s resurrection, we also know that death does not have to be the end of the story.
“When it was evening of Easter day, the first day of the week,” Jesus comes and stands among his disciples and says, “‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19). Can you feel the impact of that moment? The Risen Christ comes to his guilty, worried, frightened friends and says “Peace be with you.” He gives them peace. Forgiveness. Acceptance. However much they’ve abandoned and denied him, he loves them and is with them still. In fact, in this one short passage Jesus says “Peace be with you” three times, as if the disciples need to hear that message again and again – partly in order to undo Peter’s three-fold denial, but also so that all of them – and all of us – will experience that forgiveness deep in our bones. Maybe that moment marks the beginning of our own resurrected life: the moment we hear and take in how much God loves us and how completely we are forgiven, no matter what we have done. Humans are dismantling the web of life that God gave us as a free gift to love and to steward – and yet, somehow, somehow, we are forgiven. From that place of being forgiven, we can change course and begin to live in a dramatically different way.
So it is not only peace that Jesus gives to his disciples. He also sends them on a mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he says, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. Jesus not only shares in our suffering, he not only loves and forgives us – he also sends us out to bear witness to the resurrection, to the wild, holy, and completely unexpected fact that through the grace and power of God, life – not death – will have the last word. Through the power of the Risen Christ, we are sent out to be healers of the Earth, sent out to take our place in the great work of healing the wounds of Creation, sent out to restore the web of life upon which we, and all creatures, depend.
What can we do? We can educate ourselves about the climate crisis. We can recycle more, drive less, and quit using bottled water. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation, turn down the heat, and turn out lights when we leave the room. I hope you’ll consider forming a Green Team or Creation Care Committee in this church, so that you can support each other in the urgent effort to live more lightly on God’s good Earth.
As individuals and congregations we can and should do everything we can, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with others and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Thanks be to God, people of all faiths are rising up the world over to proclaim the sacredness of God’s Creation and to express our refusal to stand idly by and let the web of life be destroyed! Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has groups (“nodes”) across the state. When you sign up for the weekly newsletter, you’ll be hooked into a vibrant local effort. I’m also part of a new group, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together Christians, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, and people of all religious traditions to push for legislation in Massachusetts that supports climate justice. Together we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to everyone, including low-income and marginalized communities. I’ve put sign-ups at the back of the church for 350Mass for a Better Future and for MAICCA.
Meanwhile a big climate march will be held next Saturday, April 29, in our nation’s capital. On the same day as this historic march in Washington, D.C., sister marches will spring up all over the country, including nearby cities like Springfield, Greenfield, and Boston. I hope you’ll grab a church banner and take your place in a local climate march, or that you will join me and other folks from the Diocese in heading down to Washington. If you go to PeoplesClimate.org, you can get all the details.
I give thanks that Christians of every denomination, and people of every faith tradition, are drawing together to proclaim with one voice that the Earth is sacred and that we intend to work together – boldly, lovingly, and without delay – to protect it from further harm. I am grateful for Doubting Thomas, for he gives voice to our doubt – doubt that we can prevent catastrophic climate change, doubt that we can make a difference, doubt that resurrection is even possible. But just as Jesus invited Thomas to move past his doubts, so, too, Jesus invites us to receive the power of his forgiveness and the gift of his energizing Spirit.
Today at the Eucharist we will stretch out our hands to receive the body and blood of Christ, just as Thomas stretched out his hands to touch Christ’s wounded hands and side. There is so much healing that we can do, so much power-to-reconcile that God has given to us, so much life that we can help to bring forth. “Reach out your hand,” I hear Jesus saying to us today. “Do not doubt but believe. Step through your doubt and receive the Holy Spirit who shows you the path of life and who gives you strength to heal our precious, ailing planet Earth.
1.Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; see also Ross Gelbspan, The Heat is On; and Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2007 report on ExxonMobil.
Faith and fear duke it out
I am not a brave person. In fact, I am quite familiar with anxiety. I know what it’s like to wake up wide-eyed in the middle of the night, imagining the future with dread. Deciding to go to Standing Rock was not easy.
I heard in late November that Chief Arvol Looking Horse was urging people of faith to travel to Oceti Sakowin Camp for a day of prayer on Sunday, December 4, 2016. I considered this a holy invitation. It spoke to my conviction that the Earth is sacred. It spoke to my desire that we learn to live in peace with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. It spoke to my longing to bear witness to our God-given hope that life and not death will have the last word.
I knew that the protest against the Dakota Access pipeline was historic. An extraordinary wave of solidarity was sweeping the world, as hundreds of once-estranged tribal nations and jurisdictions stood with the Standing Rock Sioux and proclaimed with one voice that water is sacred; water is life. Thousands of Native and non-Native people had already come to the camps near the Missouri River to resist construction of a pipeline that would endanger the river, Native lands, and the whole of Mother Earth.
What’s more, a showdown was now at hand. Energy companies had invested billions of dollars in the project; only one mile of pipeline remained to be built; the year-end deadline for completing the pipeline was just weeks away; and – though the announcement was amended almost as soon as it was issued – December 5 could be the day when the camp would be forcibly evacuated.
Strong emotions and commitments pulled me toward Standing Rock for the Interfaith Day of Prayer on December 4, but anxiety nudged me to say No. I talked it over with a friend – a religious leader and climate activist who had been arrested with me last May in a pipeline protest here in Massachusetts. We agreed that making a trip to Standing Rock was too risky. The brutal North Dakota winter was too cold. The night was too dark. The militarized police were too violent, armed with rubber bullets, guard dogs, pepper spray, and water hoses that the police willingly sprayed in frigid temperatures. Hundreds of unarmed “water protectors” had already been injured,
including one young woman so severely hurt that her arm might need to be amputated. In addition, thousands of veterans from across the country were also invited to show up that weekend. Although they pledged to carry no weapons and to serve as “human shields,” they were asked to bring body armor and gas masks. Military chaplains were likewise about to converge at Standing Rock to minister to the veterans. Everything was in place for the conflict to escalate. Would we be walking straight into a massacre? After talking with my friend on Sunday night, I hung up the phone, relieved that I was staying home.
The next morning I got a phone call from another friend, Unitarian Universalist minister and climate activist, Rev. Fred Small. He was going to Standing Rock that weekend. Would I join him?
I didn’t know whether to laugh or groan. Not you again, Fred. Fred is my burning bush. Like the burning bush that stopped Moses in his tracks, Fred has interrupted me several times over the years to invite me to do something righteous but scary. Oh no, not again. I told him I would pray about it.
But I was too anxious to pray. I asked my beloved husband if he would listen to me talk through the pro’s and con’s. In his attentive presence I enumerated the reasons to go, including my desire to bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and my desire to stand with non-violent, unarmed people at the place where the struggles for indigenous rights, human rights, economic justice, climate justice and care for the Earth intersect.
In the end, the allure was simple: I wanted to pray. I wanted to pray with Chief Looking Horse and the other Native elders. The call to pray was in my belly, like a fire.
“OK,” my husband said. “The pro’s are clear. How about the con’s?”
To my surprise, a long silence followed. I had nothing to say. The reasons not to go to Standing Rock boiled down to a single one: Fear. I looked Fear over, top to bottom. I was not impressed. Fear did not seem a reliable foundation upon which to base a decision. Besides, compared to the strong, embodied pull to go, the fear that begged me to stay was as flimsy as mist: I could blow it away with one Spirit-filled breath.
I arranged a plane reservation for Bismarck, joined a conference call (hosted by Unitarian Universalist ministers) for clergy going to Standing Rock, and assembled winter gear. I hoped to meet Fred Small on Sunday for the Interfaith Day of Prayer, but the rest of the trip I would make on my own, since my husband did not feel called to come.
I refused to let fear stop me, but fear was still prowling about. I couldn’t chase it away, so I decided to accept it. “Be not afraid” may be one of the great messages in the Bible, but a worried person who is trying to do something difficult may not find these words especially comforting. Fear can’t always be so quickly dismissed. I took greater solace in remembering that Jesus himself felt anguish before his crucifixion (Luke 22:44), yet did not flee. He managed to pray through the fear and to keep his heart steadfastly fixed on what he felt led to do. Audre Lorde got it right: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
At night I slept as best I could, in fits and starts. A few days before the trip, a man I did not know sent me an email: he’d been on the conference call and knew that I was going to Standing Rock; could we connect on the ground in North Dakota? Sure, I impulsively replied – let’s share the rental car and travel together.
That night I tossed and turned and finally sat bolt upright at 3 a.m. Have you lost your mind? You know nothing about this guy. For all you know, he’s a serial rapist or an ax murderer. I leaped out of bed, turned on the computer, and launched a Google search. Michael Arase-Barham turned out to be an Episcopal priest from California who had received a Doctorate of Ministry in the spirituality of pilgrimage. That seemed a good sign. Plus he had the friendly, bearded face of a Friar Tuck. OK, I would risk it. Jesus sent out his disciples two by two, and I needed an ally along the way.
I packed my bags. I flew to Bismarck.
Faith and doubt duke it out
Michael turned out to be a stellar fellow pilgrim. In the course of the journey, we exchanged supplies: he gave me toothpaste; I gave him hand warmers. He peered into his cellphone and did the navigating; I peered into the darkness and did the driving. At one point, when the car got stuck in snow on the side of the road, he got out and pushed us to safety. And he loved to pray. I have never met a person more devoted to the daily round of services provided by our Book of Common Prayer. As we drove from Bismarck to Fort Yates (population: 195), he led us in Evening Prayer and Compline. That night, along with other pilgrims from far-away places, we slept on the floor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Early the next morning, on Sunday, December 4, we made our pre-dawn drive to the camp. Michael led us in Morning Prayer.
On the way, I asked him to read the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). When a great battle lies ahead or is already underway, nothing is more beautiful to pray than Mary’s song of praise to the God of justice and mercy who scatters the proud in their conceit, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. Mary bursts into song because she is bearing the Christ-child, the one whose long-ago birth we celebrate at Christmas and who is born among us every time we allow divine love to fill us, guide us, and act through us, making all things new.
Michael and I drove toward Oceti Sakowin Camp in the company of a long stream of cars. Rounding a turn, we caught sight of the camp, up ahead: hundreds of tents, tepees, and yurts sprawled across a field of snow, with tall rows of flags lining the dirt road that cuts through the center of the campground. We found a place to park inside the camp, and headed toward the sacred fire.
I soon learned that nearly everything of importance at the camp takes place around the fire, which never goes out: storytelling, singing, dancing, drumming and praying. Daily activities are steeped in prayer, rooted in appeals to the Creator and to Mother Earth, the grandmother of everything. As we arrived, Native people were taking turns at the microphone near the fire, welcoming newcomers, offering coffee, and reviewing the painful history of indigenous peoples in this country: devastating wars, land grabs, broken treaties, shattered cultures, murders, betrayals. For these Native people, the weight of the past is palpable, sorrowful, dark, heavy, and immediate. Their current fight to protect sacred lands and water (“blue gold”) and to stop the pipeline (the dangerous “black snake” that legend foretold) is an extension of their long struggle against genocide.
On that Sunday morning the interfaith prayer service began at 10 a.m., attended by a large crowd that included clergy from more than thirty religious traditions. Speaker after speaker came forward to speak or sing or pray. Rev. Karen Van Fossan, a UUA minister in Bismarck, led us in singing a rousing version of “As I went down to the river to pray,” concluding with a prayer to “Give us the courage we need, and the hope that comes from courage, and the courage that comes from hope.”
Rev. Victor Kazanjian, Executive Director of United Religions Initiative, came “in a spirit of sorrow,” acknowledging religion’s “atrocities” to the Native peoples, seeking forgiveness, and bringing with him thousands of prayers for the Standing Rock Sioux from 56 countries around the world. He also brought water collected from 167 sacred water sources. He noted that these waters mingled together without separating into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’; in this, he said, they expressed “the beauty of all humanity.” Water is essential to life and to the human body. “The struggle for water,” he said, “is the struggle for the essence of our being.”
Dr. Cornel West spoke with passion about prayer as a form of reverence and a form of resistance. “I call it revolutionary love,” he proclaimed, adding: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” He pointed out that this was an historic moment. The Dakota Access pipeline is a continuation of the war against our indigenous Native brothers and sisters that began more than 520 years ago and that is still underway. He argued that we should never say that the harsh treatment of Black people was America’s Original Sin. “The enslavement of Black people was the second Original Sin.”
Muslims, rabbis, Buddhist and Hindu leaders spoke, as did Methodists, Roman Catholics, members of the Society of Friends, local Native leaders, and Native leaders from distant countries. Lewis Cardinal, Chair of the Indigenous People’s Task Force of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, spoke for us all when he said, “We stand here together on this day, at this time, brothers and sisters all, and with our Mother.”
The service went on for hours – urgent and prayerful, scented with wood smoke and sage – yet we could never forget that we were standing in something like a war zone. A helicopter and a small plane kept buzzing noisily overhead, a constant harassment. For now, we ignored these reminders of the police, the corporate powers, and the politicians bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry: we had our own healing work to do with each other. As one Native speaker put it, the Church had told his people that they were devil worshipers and that they would go to Hell. For now it was enough to absorb the miracle that people of every faith, including members and leaders of many Christian churches, were today standing as one with Native peoples, praying as one, cherishing the Earth as one, greeting each other as equals, as kin, and joining the shared struggle to protect our common home.
Another level of healing was going on, too: Native speakers were welcoming and thanking the thousands of U.S. veterans who had traveled to Standing Rock to stand with the Sioux. It astonished me to imagine the reconciliation of Native peoples with members of the U.S. military. I gasped when I heard a bugle play Reveille and other military calls, the sounds that had once preceded or accompanied attacks on Native communities. The former enemies of Native peoples were now inside the camp, seeking forgiveness, offering support, and no longer intending harm.
Near the end of the service, a Native speaker told the crowd that his grandfather had died in 1890 at Wounded Knee, the brutal massacre of Sioux warriors, women, and children by American soldiers on the Plains of South Dakota. The speaker added: “Crazy Horse said that the Sacred Hoop was broken at Wounded Knee.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped forward. It was time, he said, to mend the Sacred Hoop. The original plan for the afternoon had been for clergy to walk up to the police barricade, but now, he said, the plan had changed. Instead, everyone at the camp was going to move clockwise, on foot and on horseback, out to the far edges of the camp. There we would form a great circle, hold hands, and pray. People all over the world would be praying with us.
He pulled out an eagle bone whistle. “I will call the eagle to come.”
He blew the whistle. “We are one heart,” he said. “We are one mind. One prayer. One spirit.”
Half expecting an eagle to appear, I looked up. I wanted an eagle to come upon us like a vision, like a sign, but nothing happened. The sky was empty of life. Instead of hearing the whoosh of wings overhead, or the cry of a bird of prey, all I could hear was the chop of helicopter blades.
The crowd began to disband. Dispirited, I began walking with Michael toward what I took to be the nearest edge of the camp. I had no clear idea where we were going or what we would do when we got there. Why had the chief entrusted the crowd with this ceremony? And what sort of ceremony could it be? As an Episcopal priest, I was used to leading orderly services carried out indoors with clear lines of authority, assigned seating, and probably a service leaflet. Sounding more disgruntled than I intended, I only half-jokingly muttered to Michael that if this were an Episcopal liturgy, we would hold a rehearsal and figure out in advance where to stand, where to sit, and what to do. By contrast, this thing was completely chaotic. We ran into stragglers who hadn’t heard about the prayer circle. Would they join us? We saw people pausing to stand in line for the Port-a-Potty or to grab a bite to eat. Would they get distracted, forget about the ceremony, and move on to something else? Would enough people stay faithful to our prayerful task or would people simply drift away and let the effort peter out?
I confess it: my doubt sprang not only from discomfort with a spontaneous, disorderly ceremony that involved hundreds of people. It also sprang from not wanting to depend on other people to get the job done. I didn’t want to depend on their goodwill, their capacity to pay attention, or their ability to follow directions. I didn’t think we could complete the ritual. I didn’t think we could pull it off. I had no faith in my fellows. I was filled with doubt.
Doubt is a terrible thing. It undermines hope and resolve. But the only way to get mighty things done is to do them together, learning to trust each other and to suspend our doubts. Fortunately I was as stubborn as I was doubtful. If I didn’t carry out my own part of the mission, why should other people carry out theirs? And if we didn’t finish this task together and today, would it ever be accomplished? Despite my doubts I stubbornly kept on walking, kept on heading to the edge of camp, kept on reaching out for hands to clasp. I wanted this prayer-circle thing to work.
So, it turned out, did everybody else.
It took a number of adjustments. Should we stand close to the Cannonball River or should we stand further away? Were we the only string of people holding hands in this corner of the camp? If so, should we stand still and wait for other people to find us, or should we search for another string of people to meet up with and join?
Young Native Americans trotted by on foot, offering words of encouragement, as good at their job as any Verger in an Episcopal cathedral. Don’t let go! We’re almost there! Step this way! No, not that way – this way! To your left! To your left! Don’t let go your hands! We’ve almost got it!
Our line of people stumbled sideways, laughing. We took careful steps backward until our arms were fully outstretched and our hands firmly clasped. Excitement rose. As we waited for other parts of the circle to form, strangers introduced themselves to each other. Here on my right was Michael, and then two Quaker women from upstate New York, both of them long-time activists; here on my left was Allison, a young Native American from Minnesota who was visiting the camp for the third time.
Person by person the circle was woven, until at last we could look out and see a distant line of people holding hands in what seemed like the far-off other side of the world.
We’d done it! The circle was complete! The Sacred Hoop was mended!
But, as if that weren’t marvel enough, it was just then that a young Native messenger came bounding past. “Denied! Denied!” he yelled. “The pipeline permit has been denied!” He was breathless with joy.
What? We fell into startled silence, looking at each other. Doubt arose. I murmured to Michael, “I need some kind of confirmation before I’m going to believe that.”
Someone else appeared and repeated the good news. Was it possible? What did it mean? Did we dare to trust what we were hearing? We released hands and headed back to the sacred fire, our jubilation growing as we drew closer and heard the drumming and singing that had already begun. The good news was true: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had denied the final permit that allowed the Dakota Access pipeline to go under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe.
This is what elation sounds like: drumming, chanting, singing. This is what elation looks like: a crowd of people swaying and dancing, with individuals – even strangers – looking into each others’ eyes, wiping away tears, and exchanging an embrace. I joined in the two-step dance around the sacred fire. We danced just as every soul dances when forgiveness, justice, and mercy extend in every direction. We danced because sight had been restored to the blind and captives had been set free. We danced because the mighty had been cast down from their thrones, the lowly had been lifted up, and strangers had become friends.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the LORD,” sings Mary in the Magnificat. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…”
In between chants, drumming, and songs, Native speakers took turns at the microphone. Repeatedly they thanked the millions of people worldwide who had expressed support, the thousands who had visited the camps, the tens of thousands who had donated time and money to the struggle to stop the pipeline and protect the water.
Someone said, “Never before have we been at an intersection where everyone is here. It is a strange turn of history when the people taking care of us are the military of the U.S. government.”
Someone said, “We’ve come to this huge, giant ceremony being hosted by Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “I want to thank the person that loves spirituality. I want to thank the person that loves Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “We still have a lot of praying to do. We are not done yet. We are going to keep fighting. We will pray for the Governor” (and he named other individuals that want to build the pipeline). “They do not seek the Spirit in their hearts yet. We will pray for the ones who want to destroy.”
Someone said, “This is about more than a pipeline. This is the beginning of the world united.”
The celebration went on for hours. We knew that the battle was not over: the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline fully intends to complete the pipeline, and our President-elect seems hell-bent on extracting and burning every last ounce of fossil fuels. But for now it was enough – it was more than enough – to touch the deep truth that we belong to each other and to the Earth – to know in our bones that every person is sacred and every community is sacred, that the web of life is sacred, that the Earth is sacred.
It seems to me that we didn’t just mend the Sacred Hoop that day. We were becoming the Sacred Hoop that was no longer broken.
By the fire
On December 5, what I’d feared might happen – violence, forcible evacuation, even massacre – did not take place. Instead, a second ceremony of healing was carried out: the son of General Wesley Clark stood with the veterans and apologized for the centuries of genocide perpetrated by the U.S. military. Coming, he said, “as the conscience of a nation,” he knelt before Leonard Dog Crow, confessed the military’s sins, and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness was granted. (A brief video is here.) In these dark times, when fear and doubt threaten to tear so many communities apart, a light shines out from acts of reconciliation like these!
Michael and I returned to the camp that morning. After agreeing to meet again at the sacred fire, we went our separate ways and explored on our own. I wanted first to go up high. Picking my way through patches of ice, I climbed the small hill overlooking the camp and gazed into the distance, looking out over the helter-skelter assortment of teepees and yurts, vehicles and flags. Here we all were – a diverse company drawn together by a fierce and spirited longing for justice and healing.
Carrying this image with me, I made my way downhill and walked back to the fire. Small logs were aflame in the shallow, circular pit. A few people were sitting on benches, talking quietly or sitting alone in silent prayer. Bundles of lavender were placed around the rim of the circle, and at the circle’s entrance were bowls of tobacco and juniper sprigs, along with a turtle shell, small skulls, feathers, and sage.
I don’t know the religious traditions of the Lakota Sioux. I was touched that an outsider like me was welcome to participate in their ceremonies. I knelt to take a pinch of tobacco, a bit of juniper. As I cradled these offerings in my palm, a prayer of gratitude gradually collected within me. When the time was ripe, I cast what I was holding into the flames. Then I sat for a while and watched the fire. Gazing down, I could almost see the fire extending deep into the Earth. I could almost see the fire reaching down like roots in every direction and catching up everything it touched. The longer I gazed, the more it seemed as if that strong and living fire could ground our every step on Earth, could be inhaled with every breath of air, and could bring warmth to every human heart.
On our way home
The first flakes of snow were falling. By early afternoon, when Michael and I began our trek back to Bismarck, a ferocious blizzard was beginning to roll in from the Arctic. Eventually the winds would gust up to 50 mph, wind chills would drop to nearly 20 below zero, and the camp would be buried in snowdrifts up to 7 feet deep. For now I simply kept a gentle, wary foot on the accelerator and squinted into the white landscape of driving snow, trying to locate the next piece of highway. When I heard the tires hit one of the rumble strips on either side of the road, I’d hazard a guess: should I make the correction by steering left or right?
“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy,” I silently prayed, my fingers clutching the steering wheel. Which was worse – sliding into a ditch or into oncoming traffic? Sometimes it’s no small thing to keep to your chosen path.
Michael seemed unperturbed. “Shall I read Noon Day Prayer?” he asked, cheerfully, pulling out his prayer book.
“No, thanks,” I answered through clenched jaws. “You go ahead. I’ll just listen this time.”
Threading our way through love and fear, we prayed our way home.
Text of a keynote address for “An Interfaith Climate Justice Meeting” organized by Springfield Area Interfaith Climate Action Network (SAICAN), held at First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA, on October 30, 2016
Thank you for inviting me to speak. I am excited by what you’re up to as a coalition, and very interested to see what emerges from today’s meeting.
I have worked with some of you. Some of you I haven’t yet met. But I greet all of you as friends. I am an Episcopal priest and a long-time climate activist, and I now have the world’s longest job title. I work as “Missioner for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.”
I am not a “missionary,” a term that can evoke imperialist, colonial-era associations of forcibly converting someone to a religion, but rather a “missioner”: someone who is sent out on a mission, serving a purpose greater than herself, out of the box, outside the boundaries of a building. And I’m a missioner for “Creation care,” a term, it turns out, that some people confuse with “creationism,” the belief that the universe originated from acts of God that are literally described in the Bible. Being a missioner for “Creation care” (not creationism) means that I’m trying to protect the beautiful world that God created. My Website is RevivingCreation.org, where you can find blog posts, sermons, articles, and more – including an article on how to start a green team, and an article on the roles that communities of faith can play in a time of climate crisis.
My job is like a swinging door: on the one hand, I preach, speak and lead retreats for people of faith, saying that we need to place the climate crisis at the center of our moral and spiritual concern and we need to take action. Then I turn, and I speak to activists who may have no particular faith tradition. I thank them for engaging in the struggle to protect the web of life, which is such urgent and difficult work. I tell them that the only way to keep going, without burning out or going off the rails, is to draw from inner resources of spiritual wisdom, from spiritual practices, and ideally from the support of a spiritual community.
Today the swinging door is an open door: people of faith and climate justice activists are here together in one place! How sweet it is! I hope we can break down (or at least soften) the false split of people into two camps: “spiritual” people (people who pray, meditate, and take time to contemplate beauty of the world; people who give thanks and who attend to their inner lives) and “active” people (people on the front lines who are serving, helping, organizing, advocating). I hope we can keep working to heal that false split, because right now we need people who can do both: people who can tap into their deep inner wisdom and who can also step out to take bold, creative action on behalf of life on this planet.
Christians often say that we need to be good “stewards” of the planet. That’s true. But sometimes the word “steward” can sound rather wimpy, as if it’s enough for us to recycle a can once in a while, or to turn off a light. I think we need a term that is more robust, more full of juice. Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”
More than ever we need wise people, bold people, dedicated people, because we’re in the midst of an emergency. The house is on fire. Through burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil, in 200 years – just a blink in geologic time – we’ve pumped so much heat-trapping CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than they’ve been for millions of years. In a TED talk a few years ago, climate scientist James Hanson explained that the added energy (or heat) that we’re pouring into the atmosphere is equivalent “to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day.” Not surprisingly, this is having a profound effect on planet. In his book Eaarth, Bill McKibben writes: “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” Scientists tell us with increasing alarm that unless we change course fast, we’re on a fast track to catastrophic, runaway climate change that would render the world very difficult to inhabit, perhaps in the lifetime of our children.
I’ve been a climate activist for many years, but I have never felt the rising tide of commitment and momentum that I now feel. I’m deeply thankful for that, even as I am keenly aware that we have a long struggle ahead. Every religion has issued some kind of statement about the moral and spiritual urgency of addressing the climate crisis – here is just one collection, Faith-based Statements on Climate Change, collected by Citizens Climate Lobby volunteers.
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, a justice issue. 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. As we see in Flint, Michigan, and right here in Springfield, the front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color. The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, and the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects. As the Pope’s encyclical makes crystal clear, healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. We can see that very starkly in the struggle going on right now at Standing Rock in North Dakota, in the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children.
So climate change is a justice issue. And it’s a spiritual issue, too. I titled these remarks “Climate change: An emergency of the heart,” because in the face of the climate crisis, it’s so easy to get emotionally overwhelmed, to go into panic mode and be flooded by anxiety, or to shut down entirely, go numb and not feel a thing, because we don’t know what to do with our fear and anger and grief.
Each of you probably has your own favorite “go to” strategy for avoiding your feelings. Here are a few popular methods. Some of us get into our heads and give all our attention to mastering the facts – we intend to stay on top of every last fact about the rate of melting ice, every last bit of awful climate news, every single detail about the terms of a Senate bill. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for mastering essential facts and for educating ourselves and staying informed. But sometimes we can get so busy using our wonderful brains to analyze, memorize, conceptualize, and so on, that we lose touch with our inner landscape. Then we wonder why we’re so short-tempered or why we woke up with insomnia or why we got into a car accident. It’s only when we’re connected with our feelings that we have access to our emotional intelligence, to our intuition and moral imagination. When we get into our heads and lose contact with our greater intelligence, we forget who we are and we act, as Joanna Macy puts it, like “brains on a stick.”
Another strategy to avoid our feelings is to get really busy. If I stay super busy, if I have an endless list of things to do, if I try to cram in more tasks in a day than any human beings could possibly accomplish, then I won’t have to feel the clench in my belly or the ache in my heart.
Addictive behaviors are another “go-to” strategy. Don’t like what I’m feeling? Maybe it’s time to do some shopping, eat another cookie, have a smoke, have a drink – there are lots of ways to go numb and repress what’s going on inside.
Yes, we are in a climate emergency. We’re also in an emergency of the heart. We need to learn to be “first responders” to ourselves and to each other. We need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. We can’t think our way out of anxiety. So I will share three remedies, three spiritual practices for responding to the cry of the heart.
I invite us to pray. I invite us to explore practices that quiet our minds, bring us into the present moment, and help us listen to our deepest wisdom. This could include practices of mindfulness, practices of gratefulness, practices of meditation and contemplative prayer. Practices like these help us to open to the deep inner wisdom that is always speaking in our hearts. Practices of prayer and meditation help us to listen to the inner voice of love.
Here’s a quote from Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk and prolific writer who practiced contemplative prayer: “If we descend into the depth of our own spirit and arrive at our own center, we confront the inescapable fact that at the root of our existence we are in immediate and constant contact with God.”
That’s a very different image of God than the one we may be used to. God is not “out there,” far away in the heavens. God is “in here,” closer than our next breath.
I invite us to allow ourselves to grieve. We have lost so much, and there is more loss ahead. I invite us to let ourselves feel the pain so that we are able to move forward and to be fully alive. Until we allow ourselves to grieve, parts of ourselves will stay numb, even dead.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a climate summit in Washington, DC, and I happened to be seated beside the Executive Director of the US Climate Action Network. Our task at each table was to do a go-round and to name the top three things that need to be done in order to tackle climate change. The first suggestion from this activist was: Grieve.
Let me add that there are two ways to grieve: one is to grieve alone, in a state of despair – the kind of grief that does not bring healing. The other way to grieve is to grieve within the embrace of love. If we believe in God, we do this when we pray our grief: we grieve in the presence of a loving God who embraces and shares in everything we feel. But whatever our religious beliefs, we can grieve with each other and we can hold each other with love.
Finally, I invite us to discover who we really are. I brought in this icon of St. Francis, who is often called the patron saint of ecology. You can see that Francis didn’t think that that he was alone and that his identity stopped with his skin. He is interpenetrated by other creatures – by wolf, bird, turtle, and snake – and even by elements like wind and fire. He spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Francis’ daily prayer was “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Pray that prayer for a while and see what happens! Our identity does not stop with our skin!
When we experience ourselves like that, as interpenetrated with all of life, then we know that when we take action to save life on earth, we do so in the company of the trees, of the earth and sky. When we stand up for life – when we get arrested in a protest against fossil fuels, when we divest, when we take whatever actions we’re called to take – the trees are thanking us. The animals are thanking us. We are not alone. The whole creation is offering its support.
Thank you for the work you’re doing to re-weave the web of life. I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I only hold that title on your behalf. Each of you – everyone in this room, every single one of you – you too are missioners for Creation care.
“Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’” (1 Kings 21:3)
What a blessing to be with you today! Thank you, Eliot, for welcoming me as preacher and celebrant for this special service that brings together the congregations of St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Congregational Church. As some of you know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC. This is my first opportunity to speak to my Episcopal and my UCC brothers and sisters in Christ at the very same time. How cool is that?
It’s particularly meaningful that our two communities are united in worship this morning, because around the world people of many faiths are marking today, June 12, as a day to stand together and lift up the sacredness of the Earth, our common home. Prayers, blessings, songs, and sermons are being offered today from Alaska to Argentina, from New Jersey to New Zealand, as religious and spiritual groups far and wide mark a global day of prayer called Sacred Earth, Sacred Trust.
Today we celebrate the six-month anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement and the first anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical, Laudato Si. Today we join the chorus of voices announcing that the Earth is holy and that it deserves our protection and care.
Whenever you and I re-awaken to God’s presence in Ashfield’s hills and woods, in the grasses and dirt beneath our feet and in the stars overhead, we discover again that we are connected not only to other human beings but also to everything else. We are part of the web of life: connected by our breath, blood, flesh, and bone to the whole creation. As our Protestant forebear, Martin Luther, pointed out: “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” God’s love and presence are everywhere – not just in church, not just inside a sanctuary built by human hands, but also outside, in the sea and sky, in the humble tomato plant valiantly trying to grow in my shady garden. The crucified, risen and ascended Christ fills all things, sustains all things, and redeems all things.
Whenever you and I come to our senses and realize that God is giving God’s self to us in every part of creation – in this breeze and bird and leaf, in this breath, in this heartbeat – then reverence springs up in us, and a deep desire to give thanks. We realize again that the Earth is sacred, and in the strength of that heartfelt wisdom we can fight the great battle of our time, which is to protect the integrity of God’s creation, to preserve a habitable planet, and to build a more just and sustainable society.
A record 175 countries have already signed the Paris Climate Agreement, which is an historic first step toward limiting the ravages of climate change. But the Paris Agreement is only a start. It doesn’t go nearly far enough. Its provisions won’t cap the rise of the world’s average temperature at 1.5˚ Celsius above pre-Industrial times, which is the uppermost limit for ensuring a stable climate and livable planet. Unless we get to work in every community and every sector of society to reduce our carbon emissions, unless we push political and corporate powers to keep fossil fuels in the ground and make a swift transition to clean, renewable energy, then the average global temperature is going to shoot far past that critical threshold of 1.5˚ Celsius. Around the world, scientists and activists, vulnerable communities and communities of faith are fighting to avert runaway climate change. Their cry and our cry is “1.5 to stay alive.”
I usually take the Gospel as my sermon text, but this week I must turn to the Old Testament passage, that hair-raising story from First Kings about a powerless citizen being framed and murdered by an unjust king and queen so that they can seize his land. Naboth has a vineyard beside the royal palace. When King Ahab makes what sounds on the face of it like a reasonable offer to buy the vineyard, Naboth turns him down: “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3). Calling the land “my ancestral inheritance” suggests that the land has been in his family for a long time and also that he holds the land in trust. To Naboth the land is not just a commodity, not just real estate, not just a source of profit and gain: it is a gift from God; it is sacred; it is entrusted to his care.
King Ahab is frustrated. He goes home “resentful and sullen” (1 Kings 12:4), lies down on his bed like a pouting child, and refuses to eat. Enter, then, the strong negative character of the story, Queen Jezebel, who basically asks, “Hey, don’t you have power to do whatever you want?” She tells him to quit moping; she will take care of this. Using Ahab’s credentials, she arranges for “two scoundrels” (1 Kings 12:10) to make false charges against Naboth in front of the city council and to have him stoned him to death. And so the deed is done: through backroom dealings that include perjury, conspiracy, and theft, Naboth is framed and murdered, and the king claims the vineyard as his own.
This is an almost archetypal story about dirty politics, about violence and the misuse of power. It resonates down through the centuries and up to the present moment. A few days ago, when I was visiting Union Theological Seminary in New York City to speak to an ecumenical group of clergy who had gathered from all over the country for an intensive, week-long training on climate change, I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice.
The mindset that allows Ahab and Jezebel to kill Naboth so that they can grab his land is the same mindset that allows governments and businesses to push aside low-income people and indigenous peoples and people of color to exploit, pollute, and take possession of their land, the same mindset that allows a nation to go to war against another nation so that it can seize control of another country’s natural resources, the same mindset that allows the fossil fuel industry to keep expanding its search for more oil and gas, despite the enormous human cost – especially to the poor – of burning fossil fuels. Injustice against human beings is intimately linked to desecration of the Earth.
Because of that mindset, Naboth is killed, and for a while it seems that Ahab has triumphed. But then, the story tells us, God intervenes. In the prophet Elijah’s heart a holy resistance rises up. A sacred protest fills him, a Spirit-filled energy to stand up against unjust power, a compelling need to protect the rights of the poor and to defend the sacredness of the land. “The word of the LORD came to Elijah” (1 Kings 21:17), says the text. We don’t know how that word came to him, whether it came through a dream, a vision, or simply through the painful and gut-wrenching awareness that what Ahab had done was wrong. What we do know is that the word of God came to Elijah, and that he received courage to stand up to the king, to stop the injustice, and to change the course of history.
The same Holy Spirit that spoke through Elijah and through the life and words and deeds of Jesus Christ is speaking through countless people the world over today.
“1.5 to stay alive” – that is the cry of every God-inspired prophet who stands like Elijah beside the vulnerable Naboths of this world.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with the low-income community of Baltimore that is fighting for the right to clean air.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with Pacific Islanders forced to leave their homeland because rising waves are washing away their buildings and contaminating their water supply.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with indigenous peoples in the Arctic whose cultures are disintegrating as the ice melts.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with frightened pregnant women in the global South and the Southern U.S. who know that the Zika virus, which spreads in a warm, humid climate, could irreparably harm their unborn child.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with every person and every community that wants to live in a just and peaceful world with recognizable seasons and moderate, predictable rains, in a world with enough clean, fresh water for all and an ocean teeming with life.
And we say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand against the political and corporate powers that view the Earth as nothing more than a source of profit and who exploit the Earth and other people as if it’s every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.
Thanks to Bob Parati, we have a sign that proclaims, “1.5 to stay alive.” After the service, I invite anyone who wishes, to join me outside so that we can take a group photo.
I invite you to do some other things, too. If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to join Climate Action Now, our vibrant, local grassroots climate action network. I’ve put a sign-up sheet in the back, so you can receive Climate Action Now’s terrific weekly newsletter. I will also gladly share your name with a new interfaith climate group I’m helping to lead, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action.
Thanks to some of the people in this room, and to people like you, Kinder Morgan’s NED pipeline was stopped. Now the fight is on to stop another dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipeline, Spectra Energy’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline. Two weeks ago I was arrested in Boston along with fifteen other religious leaders after we sat down on the edge of the trench that runs down the middle of the street where the pipeline is being constructed. Sitting at the edge of that trench was like sitting at the edge of an open grave, proclaiming the power of love and life as our legs dangled in the pit. We clergy came from a variety of denominations and traditions – American Baptist, Buddhist, Episcopal, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist. We represented a range of religions, yet all of us were drawing from a holy power greater than our selves. All of us were rooted in a reality that transcends the unjust structures of this world. And all of us were fired by the vision of a better world, by faith in the human spirit, and by faith that God would guide us to courageous and visionary action. We prayed and preached and sang until the cops handcuffed us and took us away.
More resistance is ahead. I invite you to consider joining a group from western Massachusetts that will protest the West Roxbury pipeline on June 28, and I invite you to consider joining a march against new gas pipelines that Better Future Project will lead in mid-July. I’d be glad to speak with you about those events, after the service.
Near and far a wave of religious protest and activism is rising up around the world as we respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. The first followers of Jesus tapped into a source of love and power that gave them strength to challenge injustice. And we tap into that holy power, too. Here at this table, we followers of Jesus will share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, knowing that God will give us strength for the journey and will nourish our hungry souls. The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls all people to recognize that we form one human family and that the Earth is sacred and entrusted to our care. Just as Naboth said to Ahab, so we, too, say to the powers-that-be, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3). With the Spirit of Jesus to guide us, we head into the world to proclaim the good news of the reign of God.
I am blessed to worship with you this morning. Thank you, Cricket, for inviting me back to preach. The last time I was here, I served the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts as your Missioner for Creation Care, but since then my job has expanded: now I also serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. As far as I know, I’m the only person who holds the same job in both the Episcopal and UCC Churches. To me, this joint position, is an emblem of good things to come. As we awaken to the climate crisis, Christians of every denomination – in fact, people of every faith – have a precious opportunity – even in the midst of our wonderful and colorful diversity – to pull together and to speak with one voice about the urgent need to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
Today’s Gospel text gives us a way to reflect on our call to protect and heal “this fragile Earth, our island home.” In a story from the Gospel of John, Jesus heals a paralyzed man whom he finds lying beside a pool. It is a quick little story – no more than nine sentences – so let’s pause to visualize the scene. The pool, called Beth-zatha, is located near one of the gates into Jerusalem. Years ago archaeologists actually located and excavated the pool. Apparently it was quite large and had four sides. Stairways were built in the corners of the pool, so that people could descend into the water, which may have been fed by springs that welled up at intervals. The bubbling waters were thought to have healing powers, and sick people – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed – came to the pool, believing that whenever the waters were stirred up, the first person to enter the pool would be cured of whatever sickness he or she had.
That’s the scene. Here’s the story. A man who has been ill for thirty-eight years is lying near the pool on his mat. The story doesn’t say how long he has been waiting to get into the water, but it does say that he has been there “a long time” (John 5:6).
What do you imagine this man is going through, as he lies paralyzed for so long beside the pool? As I imagine it, he feels helpless. The waters that can heal him are close by, but out of reach. What can heal him is way over there, separated from him, at some distance away, and he can’t move toward it. He can’t reach it. He can’t get there. He is cut off from the source of healing, and he is utterly paralyzed. What’s more, he is cut off from the people around him, too, as he competes with the crowd to be the first to get into the pool when the waters bubble up. Who knows what he is feeling, but I would guess anxiety, frustration, desperation, even despair – all those painful, negative feelings that get stirred up when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and alone.
Now of course we can take the story literally, as a story about physical illness, but in John’s Gospel every story has an imaginative or symbolic dimension, too. When I imagine my way into this story and hear it in the context of climate change, all kinds of connections start playing in my mind. I start thinking about the ways the world’s web of life needs healing – about the alarming levels of carbon dioxide now pouring into the global atmosphere as coal, gas, and oil continue to be burned, about the oceans heating up and becoming more acidic, about the rising seas that could flood, disrupt, and even take down our country’s coastal cities within the lifetime of our children. I think about the new report saying that continued burning of fossil fuels could cause great swaths of the Pacific Ocean to suffocate from lack of oxygen in only 15 years. I think about the 93% of coral reefs that just bleached in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. March 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded, which crushed the record set in February, which crushed the record set in January, which crushed the record set in December. A recent article in the Washington Post bears the title, “Scientists Are Floored by What’s Happening in the Arctic Right Now.”
When we hear news like this about our ailing planet, it’s easy to stop listening. It’s too much to take in, so we shut down. We may feel paralyzed by anxiety or paralyzed by grief. Like that man beside the Beth-zatha pool, we may feel immobilized and overwhelmed. How can this dire news be true, and how can we possibly respond? Where can we turn for help and healing when our planet is on track to catapult into climate chaos caused by an ever-expanding economic system that runs on fossil fuels? People the world over can become so gripped by fear, anger, and despair that they feel unable to imagine, much less create, a better future, so they just carry on with business as usual. It’s as if we can fall under a spell and make what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
So please turn with me again to our Gospel story. Jesus comes upon this scene of the blind, lame, and paralyzed beside the pool, and, the story tells us, “When Jesus saw [the man] lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” (John 5:6). That single sentence says a lot. The first step in this miracle of healing is that Jesus saw the man and knew him. John’s Gospel underscores again and again that when Jesus sees us and knows us, he sees and knows us through and through, more widely and deeply than we know ourselves. He looks deeply into us with eyes of love, with eyes that see the whole truth of who we are, and that perceive everything in us, everything about us, with loving-kindness and compassion. When we open ourselves to Jesus or to our Creator God in prayer, we open ourselves to the One “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (Collect for Purity). In prayer, we turn toward the Holy Presence who searches for truth deep within and whose loving embrace encompasses everything we are, everything we feel.
That is the first step in today’s healing miracle: Jesus sees and knows. The second step in healing is his question, “Do you want to be made well?” That is a surprising question. We might have expected Jesus to take one look at the situation, pick up the man without a word, carry him straight to the pool of healing water, and slide him in. Why waste time? Why bother asking such an obvious question? When someone is hungry, you offer food to eat; when someone is thirty, you offer drink. Why mess around asking questions?
But Jesus’ question reveals something important. The God we meet in Jesus does not force or push, even when it comes to healing. The God we meet in Jesus is deeply respectful of our freedom and gives us space in which to choose. It seems that in order for real healing to take place and new life to spring forth, God’s desire to heal us must meet our own desire to be healed. Do you want to be made well? It is not just a rhetorical question with a pro forma answer. The question invites the man paralyzed beside the pool to explore his desires and to clarify what he truly wants.
Regarding the climate crisis, do I really want to be made well? Well, yes and no. Part of me prefers to stay blind, to close my eyes, duck my head, and turn my attention to more manageable things. Part of me prefers to come up with lame solutions: OK, I’ll change the light bulbs, but that’s it, I’ve done my part. Part of me feels paralyzed: I’m no expert; I’m too small to make a difference; surely someone else will take charge and figure this out.
How does the man by the pool reply to Jesus? “‘Sir,’ [the man says,] ‘I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me’” (John 5:7). Jesus’ response is powerful and short: “‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ And at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk” (John 5:8-9).
What just happened? How did the healing miracle take place? I can’t explain it. But as I imagine it, as Jesus gazed on the man with those piercing, loving eyes that saw and knew and loved him through and through, and when Jesus asked him the probing question, “Do you want to be made well?,” in a flash of insight the man could admit his own halfheartedness and mixed motives and the ways he’d been holding back. I imagine that he felt his deep-down desire to be whole and free, his longing to love and be loved, his longing to draw close to God and to serve God “with gladness and singleness of heart.”
So I imagine him claiming his deepest desire and turning to Jesus to say, “Yes, I want be fully alive. I want to fall in love with life, to give myself in love to each moment without holding anything back. I want God’s healing power to flow through me, so that I heal others and so that I, too, am healed.” The Gospel does not record that conversation, but I imagine it happening non-verbally by glance and gesture, as the sick man looked up at Jesus and said, without words, “Yes, I want to be made well.”
“Stand up,” Jesus said, “and walk.”
And he did.
And so can we.
Amazing things happen when we join our deep desire for healing with God’s deep desire to heal. When I look around, I see a planet in peril, but – thanks be to God! – I also see people shaking off their paralysis, reaching deep into their souls, and accessing their deep, God-given desire to love and serve life. I see people standing up to join the struggle to maintain a habitable planet and to create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, as people refuse to settle for a killing status quo and declare that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled boldly and without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a growing movement that is pushing for a new social order. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances being forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice.
Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has a node right here in the Berkshires. I’ve left a clipboard at the back of the church, and if you sign up for the weekly newsletter or attend a node meeting, you’ll connect with a vibrant local effort. I’m also part of a new group, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together people of different religious traditions to advocate on Beacon Hill for legislation that supports climate justice. I hope you’ll sign up for MAICCA’s newsletter, too, for we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to all communities, including those that are low-income or historically underserved. As climate activist Bill McKibben points out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care.
One last word about our Gospel story: notice that the man didn’t need to be immersed in the pool of Beth-zatha in order to be healed. In Jesus’ presence, the man discovered that the healing spring was not outside him – it was inside him, just as it is inside us. As Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4:1-26), Jesus gives us water that becomes in us a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Even in troubled and scary times, we have everything we need. The healing pool is within us; the spring of healing is already bubbling up; and Jesus will nourish us with his presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the strength of that bread and wine and through the power of the Spirit, we can be healed from paralysis and become healers and justice-makers in a world that is crying out for our care.
1. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (I-XII), introduction, translation, and notes by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966, pp. 206-207.