Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter May 10, 2020 Delivered (pre-recorded) by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for St. Anne’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, Lincoln, MA Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 Acts 7: 55-60 1 Peter 2:2-10 John 13:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled”: Searching for steadiness in a precarious time

Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – are from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.”  It is the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus is saying goodbye, telling his disciples 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 says to his friends: “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).

The passage goes on from there, but my attention was grabbed by the very first sentence. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  How do we make sense of those words – how do those words resonate within us – in a time of such enormous uncertainty, loss, and fear?  Here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic.  Our lives have suddenly turned upside down and we are acutely aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. People we know and love may be sick or may have died. Businesses have closed, the economy is teetering, and not far behind, coming on fast, we know that an even larger crisis is bearing down upon us, the climate and ecological crisis. Week by week the news from climate science seems to get more dire: this year is on track to be the warmest on record, and the risk of climate breakdown is much greater than we thought. This week, scientists reported that 50 years from now as many as one-third of the world’s people will be living in areas too hot to inhabit. I can only begin to imagine the poverty and famine and the numbers of desperate migrants on the move.  Meanwhile, another new study shows that unchecked climate change could collapse entire eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years. This precious blue-green planet is reeling – and we reel with it as we face the threat of social and ecological collapse. Yet Jesus tells us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  What can this mean when we live in such a troubling time?  Is he counseling avoidance and denial? Is he urging us to go numb – to repress and push away our anger, grief, and fear?  I can’t imagine that to be the case, for the Jesus I meet in the Gospels and in prayer – and who is with us right now – is a man of deep feelings, a man who was not afraid to enjoy a good laugh and relish a good party, a man who sometimes got angry, who wept when his friend Lazarus died and who wept over the city that would not listen to him.  The Jesus I love is a man who was open to the full range of human emotion and who experiences our sorrows and joys.
Ashfield, MA
Last week I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling as if I were covered by a great blanket of sadness, as if the sorrow of the whole world were weighing me down. Nearby the sorrow was fear: fear of death, fear that everything is unraveling, fear that life on Earth, including human society, is coming apart. So, what did I do?  I prayed.  I turned to Jesus and prayed for mercy, guidance and help. It wasn’t just my own sorrow and fear that I brought to him: I felt as if I were bringing with me all the world’s sorrow and fear and placing it in his loving arms: Here, Lord, over to you. Share it with me.  Help me bear what I cannot bear alone. As I lay there in the dark, praying the world’s anguish, sorrow, and fear, it seemed to me that I was not alone: I was praying with, and for, all my brother-sister beings – for the dying coral and the seas choked with plastic, for the forests going up in smoke and for the children who look to us with their innocent, wondering eyes, hoping against hope that good, and not ill, will be done to them.  And it seemed to me that Jesus was with me and with all of us, sharing our pain, and I felt as if I were touching into the peace that passes understanding and into the love that will never die. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When Jesus said this, he wasn’t denying the reality of suffering and death.  He wasn’t repressing his emotions or dodging painful facts: he knew full well that he was on the brink of being arrested, tortured, and killed. Yet he was able to say to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  How?  Because he was rooted in the love of God.  Because he knew that nothing could separate him – or us – from that love.  Because he knew that through the power of his Spirit, we would be drawn, as he was drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed. That is the great promise of today’s Gospel passage: at the deepest level of our being we belong to God; we abide in God and God abides in us. This precarious time of coronavirus and climate crisis is also a holy time: a time when all of us are invited to deepen our spiritual lives and to grow up to our full stature in Christ. So, I want to suggest three practices as we shelter in place, three practices that I hope will attune us to the presence and power of Jesus as we try to chart a path to a more just and sustainable future. First, I hope we will take regular time to pray in silence. Solitude and silence can create a wonderful context for prayer. As Meister Eckhart, the great mystic, once said, “There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence.” As we sit alone in silence, we listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, although we are usually too busy or too distracted to hear it.  We pay attention to our breathing, receiving each breath as the gift that it is, a gift from a loving God who breathes God’s Spirit into us and whose Spirit we offer back to God as we breathe out.  And if – in the quiet – strong feelings arise, we welcome them and let them move through us, whatever they are – sorrow, fear, anger or joy – knowing that in our vulnerability we find strength and that the God of love is always with us.  This kind of quiet, solitary prayer is where we can gradually develop a trusting and very personal relationship with Jesus, as we disclose what is on our hearts. Second, I hope we will take regular time to go outside and connect with the natural world.  The love of God extends not only to us, not only to human beings – it extends to the whole created world and to its weird and wild diversity of living creatures.  Our planet’s living systems are in peril, so it is good – actually, it is essential – to reclaim our God-given connection with the Earth, to move, as Thomas Berry would say, from a spirituality of alienation from Earth to a spirituality of intimacy.  So, go outside and encounter the God who shines out in the blooming magnolias and azaleas, in the breeze on our faces, in the cry of the blue jay, in the touch of bark or stone against our hand and in the sprouts coming up in our garden.  Whatever we’re worried about – be it climate change, coronavirus, or anything else – spending at least 20 minutes a day in a peaceful place can help restore our soul.
Azaleas in May
Third, I hope we will make time to educate ourselves about the climate crisis and to take every step we can toward effective climate action. When the pandemic has passed and the lockdown is over, we simply can’t go back to business as usual, for business as usual is killing the planet.  As a society we have to change course.  Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable.  Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable.  Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable.  We are living beyond our ecological means. The good news is that when it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change.  So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.  I hope that many of you will join 350Mass for a Better Future, our local grassroots climate action group, whose MetroWest node includes Lincoln. There are other groups that we can be grateful for, too, and find ways to support, such as Poor People’s Campaign, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Environmental Voter Project.  Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen. I pray that we followers of Jesus will take our place in that movement, maybe even be out in front sometimes, singing and praying, maybe risking arrest, as we give glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). In a time of pandemic and climate crisis, the risen Christ is among us and within us.  Do not let your hearts be troubled.      
Sermon for Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day, April 12, 2020 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (via online platform) for First Congregational Church, Williamstown, MA Matthew 28:1-10

Arise to new life: Easter for Earth and for all

What a blessing to be with you!  I’ve been looking forward to seeing your faces and joining in worship with you on this Easter morning.  I was invited to preach because I’m your conference’s Missioner for Creation Care. I know that many of you are deeply concerned about addressing climate change and protecting the web of life that God entrusted to our care.  As you know, we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and surely the pandemic we are now enduring has made it clear that we belong to one connected family on Earth. We share a single planet, drink from the same water, breathe the same air, and face the same dangers.

The coronavirus is communicating very swiftly and without words the same message that climate scientists have been trying urgently to convey for many years: science matters; how we treat the natural world affects our well-being; the sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place; and if we are sufficiently motivated, we have the capacity to make drastic changes very quickly and to suspend business as usual. That’s a good thing, because business as usual is wrecking the planet.  We simply can’t keep burning fossil fuels or keep destroying biodiversity and wild habitats and expect to survive. But what I want to speak about today is our inner lives. How is it with your soul?  How are you doing?  These weeks have been so hard, so full of uncertainty, loss, and fear. Our lives have been turned upside down, and as individuals and a global community, we are deeply aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. In the old days – that is, before the pandemic – we Christians could skip Holy Week and Good Friday, if we wanted to, and just show up at church on Easter morning. When we skip Holy Week and Good Friday, it’s easy to imagine that Easter is a stand-alone miracle, just a feel-good event that gives us a chance to dress up, get together with family and friends, maybe hold an Easter egg hunt and enjoy a nice meal. Well, I confess that right now that sounds pretty good. But here’s the thing: this year, maybe more than any other, we’re being asked to experience the full meaning and power of the Easter miracle.  Because this year we can’t skip Good Friday.  It’s not a choice this time: we are undergoing a collective trauma and we can’t pretend, even for a day, that suffering and death aren’t real. To have any meaning – much less the power to transform lives – the miracle of Easter must speak to our actual condition. Thanks be to God, Easter is not like the miracles we’re most familiar with, the kind that are nice and small and safe.  The “miracles” that our society generally accepts are the ones that make life pleasant and don’t give anyone any trouble.  We water our plants with Miracle-Gro.  We mix our tuna-fish with MiracleWhip.  We listen to ads that boast the latest “miracle” in computer software or laundry detergent or hair replacement. Society tells us that the only miracles that are real are the ones you buy in your local store. Miracles are trivial things, consumer items, commodities: buy one, buy several.  Stock your shelves.  Either miracles aren’t real, society tells us, or if they are real, they’re not very important and they don’t matter much. But this year, unlike other years, we’ve taken a deep dive into Good Friday and we know, perhaps more acutely than ever, that the first Easter did not arrive in soft pastel tones, shrink-wrapped in plastic. Jesus truly despaired and groaned and bled on the Cross.  His suffering was real; his death was real. Our faith has nothing to do with fantasy, with gazing fondly into space and ignoring the suffering or brutality of the world.  No, as Christians we look squarely into suffering and death, and we glimpse the Easter miracle when we discover that even here, right here in our grief, confusion, and fear, we are met by a divine love that weeps with us and grieves with us and embraces us and empowers us, a love that will never let us go, a love that will never die. The Gospel story of the first Easter gives us many images: a great earthquake – an angel, bright as lightning, who rolls back the stone and sits on it – an empty tomb – the discovery that Jesus is alive – and two women overcome with fear and great joy.  This is not a petty miracle, a trifling little story that makes you gape or shrug and then turn away.  This miracle is so potentially transformative that it scares the powers that be, and they try to deny it and suppress news of it. After Jesus is buried, a squad of Roman soldiers, following Pilate’s orders, seals up the tomb, and stands guard before it.  But human efforts to prevent the Resurrection are impossible. God’s life, God’s power burst forth. The guards, who are there to guarantee the finality of Christ’s death, become themselves, in Matthew’s ironic words, “like dead men” (Matthew 28:4), terrified of the new life bursting forth before their very eyes. The miracle has taken place.  Nothing can stop it.  The religious and civic authorities are shocked, and, as Matthew tells it, they rush to set up an elaborate scheme of lies to hide the news as best they can – for the Resurrection is a miracle that makes a difference.
New life
If Christ is alive, then there has been unleashed into our world a power that is greater than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy. If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering we can endure, no anguish we can bear, no loss or disappointment we can undergo that Christ himself does not suffer with us. If Christ is alive, then we are, every one of us, cherished by God, and drawn to create a new kind of society that welcome everyone and that dismantles the systems of unjust privilege and domination that have separated us from each other and from the Earth on which all life depends. If Christ is alive, then there is no need to settle for a life undergirded and overshadowed by the nagging fear of death, for whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. The first followers of Jesus were filled with a wave of Easter hope.  Nothing, not even death, could separate them from the love of God.  In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death.”1 Their prayer and witness got them into all kinds of trouble.  The early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).  Many of them apparently spent as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail.  Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society. That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and it will sustain us now.  Even now, as we walk together through the valley of the shadow of death, acknowledging our fears and grieving what – and whom – we’ve lost, we know that the Lord of life is with us.  The day will come, once this pandemic is behind us, when we can return very actively and publicly to building a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with the Earth. What would it look like if we emerged from this pandemic with a fierce new commitment to take care of each other and the whole of God’s Creation? My friends, even from inside our homes, we hear the sound that rings out as Easter dawns – not only here in Massachusetts, but across the United States and around the world. An Alleluia! is springing forth from the depths of the human spirit – in homes and hospitals, in villages and cities, in Mexico and Russia, in Germany and France, in Greece and Korea, Japan and Zimbawe. Alleluia!  Cristo ha resucitado!                                            (Spanish) Alleluia!  Xristos voskrese!  Vo istinu voskrese!                  (Russian) Alleluia!  Christ ist erstanden!                                             (German) Alleluia!  Christ est ressuscite!                                            (French) Alleluia!  Xristos aneste!  Aleethos aneste!                         (Greek) Alleluia!  Yesunimi puhall hahshatoda!                                (Korean) Alleluia!  Kristoa fkatzu seri!                                                (Japanese) Alleluia!  Kreestu amuka!  Xristu amuka zvechokwadi!       (Shona) On this holy morning we are united with God’s people everywhere – with those who are far off and those who are near, with those who live and those who have died, with our ancestors, with our descendants, and with the whole Creation. God’s love is forever. O Death, where is thy sting?  O Grave, where is thy victory? Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen, indeed!  Alleluia! ————————————————————————————————————————————– 1. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993; originally published in French as Sources, Paris: Editions Stock, 1982), p. 107.  

What are the connections between the novel coronavirus and the climate crisis?  Margaret is the first speaker on a panel sponsored by UCC Council for Climate Justice, convened on April 1, 2020, by the Rev. Brooks Berndt, PhD (Minister for Environmental Justice, UCC).  Other panelists include the Rev. Dr. Leah Schade (Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary), the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President), and Penny Hooper (Leadership Council Chair, North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light)

Earth Day 2020 comes at a tumultuous time. COVID-19 has upended our lives. The number of infections keeps soaring world-wide and entire countries are sheltering in place.

Out of caution, many are keeping physical distance from each other. But out of compassion, many are helping any way they can — staying connected by phone or internet with those who are lonely; sewing masks for desperate health care workers; making donations to groups that help migrants and the homeless; pushing for policies that protect the lowest-earning members of society.

If there was ever a time in which humanity should finally recognize that we belong to one connected family on Earth, this should be it. We share a single planet, drink from the same water and breathe the same air.

Monarch in Ginkgo tree, Ashfield, MA. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

So, whether hunkered down at home or hospital, or working on the front lines, we are all doing our part to face a common enemy together. When COVID-19 is finally behind us, instead of returning to normal life, we must hold on to these lessons in the fight against climate change.

Below are 6 lessons the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about our response to climate change.

  1. Science matters

We can save lives by funding, accessing and understanding the best science available. The science on climate change has been clear for decades, but we’ve failed in communicating the danger to the public, leading to slow action and widespread denial of the facts.

  1. How we treat the natural world affects our well-being.

The loss of habitat and biodiversity creates conditions for lethal new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 to spill into human communities. And if we continue to destroy our lands, we also deplete our resources and damage our agricultural systems.

  1. The sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place.

Quick and drastic action can flatten the curve for coronavirus and free up healthcare resources, lowering death rates. Similarly, drastic action on climate change could reduce food and water shortages, natural disasters and sea level rise, protecting countless individuals and communities.

  1. We have the ability to make drastic changes very quickly. 

When sufficiently motivated, we can suspend business as usual to help each other. All over the world, healthy people are changing their lifestyles to protect the more vulnerable people in their communities. Similar dedication for climate change could transform our energy consumption immediately. All of us can make a difference and play an important role in the solution.

  1. All of us are vulnerable to crisis, though unequally.

Fledgling robin. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

Those with underlying social, economic or physical vulnerabilities will suffer most. A society burdened with social and economic inequality is more likely to fall apart in a crisis. We must also recognize that industries and people who profit from an unjust status quo will try to interrupt the social transformation that a crisis requires.

  1. Holding on to a vision of a just, peaceful and sustainable Earth will give us strength for the future.

Earth Day 2020 will be remembered as a time when humanity was reeling from a pandemic. But we pray that this year will also be remembered as a time when we all were suddenly forced to stop what we were doing, pay attention to one another and take action.

Business as usual — digging up fossil fuels, cutting down forests and sacrificing the planet’s health for profit, convenience and consumption — is driving catastrophic climate change. It’s time to abandon this destructive system and find sustainable ways to inhabit our planet.

What would it look like if we emerged from this pandemic with a fierce new commitment to take care of each other? What would it look like to absorb the lessons of pandemic and to fight for a world in which everyone can thrive?

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, as fear and illness sweep the globe, we listen for voices that speak of wisdom, generosity, courage and hope. And as always, we find solace in the natural world. In the suddenly quiet streets and skies, we can hear birds sing.

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This essay was co-written by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Leah D. Schade, co-editors of the book Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), an anthology of essays from religious environmental activists on finding the spiritual wisdom for facing the difficult days ahead.  This essay was published by Earth Day Network on March 25, 2020.