Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 17, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT Jeremiah 17:5-10 Psalm 1 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 Luke 6:17-26

Rooted in love, rising in action

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

The choir rehearses in the chancel of St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT
Faith communities have a special role to play in healing what one of our Eucharistic prayers calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.” The world needs our witness more than ever. Scientists are telling us with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a major report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. According to this new study, the vast and growing consumption “of food and resources by the global [human] population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which … society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” You’ve probably heard that we are in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event – “the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans.” Alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” Related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. The New York Times recently reported that “the five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…[that] 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.” New studies show that the oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise. Sea ice is melting. Land ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. Extreme storms are growing more intense. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming. I think it’s fair to say that in these precarious times, many of us, for good reason, may be feeling stressed-out, or numb, or, frankly, scared. This is a good time to sink our roots deep into the love of God, to remember how loved we are, how cherished we are in God’s sight, how nourished we are by a love that will never let us go and that will give us strength for the journey ahead. So thank God for St. James! Thank God for every community, every congregation, every house of worship that draws people together to pray, to listen to the wisdom of Scripture, to draw close to Jesus, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit!
Oak tree
Today’s readings give us a beautiful image for spiritual resilience and leadership. In Psalm 1 we read that those who trust in God are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). Imagine being such a tree! Your roots go deep into the love of God, which runs like a river beside you. No matter what is happening in the world around you, even if what’s going on is dangerous or chaotic, even in times of storm or drought, your roots reach deep into the ground and you stand beside a divine river that is endlessly flowing. Like trees planted beside a stream of living water (John 7:37-38), we are “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). We know that God is with us. We feel God’s power and we feel God’s strength. Drawing from those deep roots we rise up like trees, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. We drink deep of abundance, absorb it into every cell of our bodies, and then share that abundance with the world – freely, generously, without holding back, because there is plenty more where that came from! The same image of spiritual resilience and vitality plays out in today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:7-8): Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. I find this tree imagery so compelling that it affected the title of a book I’m co-editing that will be published (by Rowman & Littlefield) this fall, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. The manuscript is due in 10 days – so, in more ways than one, the heat is on. With my co-editor, Leah Schade, we’ve put together a collection of essays by 21 climate activists from a range of faith traditions, asking each of them to write about what gives them the energy, motivation, and courage to keep pushing for a more just and healthy future, when the odds of success are so slim and the forces arrayed against us are so great. In one way or another, each of these dedicated activists has sunk their taproot into something enduring that grounds them, like trees extending their roots into deep soil. I’m not a biologist, but I’m learning that trees are more intelligent than we thought. Books like The Hidden Life of Trees tell us that the root systems of trees communicate with each other, and that trees develop social networks and share resources. A lot of underground life is going on beneath our feet! And that’s true for us, too: when we sink our own roots deep into the love of God, we, too, discover that everyone and everything is connected. On the surface, we may see only our differences, what divides us from each other, but from below, on the level of roots, we discover what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community: here, where God’s love is always being poured into our hearts, we realize that everyone, and the whole Creation, is loved and that we belong together. Beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, we belong to one living, sacred whole.
The Rev. Ranjit Koshy Mathews (Rector, St. James Episcopal Church), and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, after the morning services
Every time we tap into the deep-down truth of our essential belovedness, we discover fresh energy for life. And so – up we rise, like a mighty tree, offering our gifts to each other and to the world: our fruits and leaves; a kind word, a healing gesture, our resolve to take part in the healing of the world. When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, we can buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can do what this church did – divest from fossil fuels – and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest, as well. I’m thrilled to hear that this congregation is invited to take part in a new initiative that The Episcopal Church is launching on Ash Wednesday: Sustain Island Home. The Diocese of Western Massachusetts will also launch Sustain Island Home, starting in Lent. Sustain Island Home1 will help us learn how to reduce our carbon emissions, and it provides a “carbon tracker” that will mark our progress as we make better choices around energy. Learning how to live a carbon-neutral life – learning how to ditch fossil fuels and turn toward energy efficiency, energy conservation, and clean renewable energy – is one of the most powerful and prayerful ways we can align ourselves with the love of God and neighbor. Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. As the IPCC has made clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we need to use our voices and our votes, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. This will not be easy. We will have to root ourselves and plant ourselves in the love and justice of God.
A small sign near one of the church’s doors says it all: the building may be vast, grand, and historic, but the church is not a building. We are a movement, a people following Jesus on the Way of Love.
I can’t help thinking of the African-American spiritual that became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, a protest song and a union song, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Even now, I hear Pete Seeger singing, “We shall not, we shall not be moved; we shall not, we shall not be moved, just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” He goes on: “Young and old together, we shall not be moved… women and men together, we shall not be moved… city and country together, we shall not be moved… black and white together, we shall not be moved… just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” Rooted in love and rising up in action, Christians and other people of faith will not be moved. We intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are good stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all its communities. So some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan organization that pushes for a price on carbon; some of us join our local chapter of 350.org and become part of the global climate movement; those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. There is so much that we can do – so many ways to bear fruit! As we prepare to receive Communion together, to receive the body and blood of Christ and to take in His presence and strength, I invite you to ask yourself: How is God calling you to rise up and take part in the healing of the world?     _______________________________________________________________________________________________________
  1. SustainIslandHome.org was piloted by the Episcopal Diocese of California. It will be available to the entire Episcopal Church, starting on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019. For more information about SustainIslandHome, visit the “Advocacy for Climate Solutions” page of the Diocese of California: diocal.org/climate.
 

What God has made is fearful, wondrous and still beyond our comprehension. Despite the advances of science and technology that shape our world today, we do not even know within an order of magnitude how many species there are on our planet. God’s mysterious wisdom continues to delight and enlighten us as it unfolds over time and space.
The oceans are one of the most mysterious realms of life on earth, with a greater percentage of known life and a greater percentage of unknown species left to discover. We humans benefit enormously from the richness of our oceans. Indeed, oceans are the lifeblood of God’s creation. Life on land depends on healthy seas. Billions of people worldwide depend on oceans for food, livelihoods, medical breakthroughs, weather regulation and absorption of some of the excess carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.

Wind turbines stand at an offshore wind farm in Britain. Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

Here in western Massachusetts, where we live a hundred miles from the seashore, we may dismiss the ocean’s health as of no particular concern to us. But of course a healthy ocean matters: Oceans supply more than half the oxygen that we and other land animals breathe. Everyone who breathes should care about oceans.

Water is central to the practices of many religions. Hinduism, for instance, cherishes sacred rivers, such as the Ganges; Buddhists use water in their funeral ceremonies; Muslims use water to cleanse and purify the body before prayer. The Bible itself extols the life-giving power of water, marking from the very beginning God’s gift of both firmament and seas and depicting water as God’s greatest instrument for shaping the earth — even erasing it when God so chooses. God parts the waters of the Red Sea, and Moses and the Israelites escape their pursuers; water baptizes Christians in the Holy Spirit. Water has always reminded us of God’s power to bring forth new life. The water protectors at Standing Rock made it crystal clear: Mni Wiconi, Water is Life.

Like many Christians, I feel called to participate in God’s work by safeguarding and stewarding the earth that God entrusted to our care. In fact, the very first task that God gave human beings was to exercise a loving “dominion” of Earth: to love it as God loves it. This mission has never been more urgent than it is today, for we live in a time of unprecedented assault on the natural world. Species are vanishing before our eyes; pollution and toxic waste burden land, water and air alike; and human civilization may be at risk of collapse because of the climate crisis. We are desecrating God’s creation.

Strong and sensible laws exist to protect our natural resources, and they receive support from Christians and non-Christians alike. Maintaining the vitality of our oceans is a commonsense and commonly shared goal that benefits all of society.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) has served the United States for over 40 years as a pillar of support for our ocean ecosystems. The act has rebuilt dozens of fish stocks; fishermen have benefited from more substantial and reliable catches; residents have enjoyed cleaner water and air; and Americans appreciate knowing that we are protecting the ocean for future generations.

Republicans and Democrats alike have supported the Magnuson-Stevens Act, given its win-win outcomes for conservation, industry and science. Such common ground is rare in today’s political landscape, and the act’s bipartisan backing indicates its irrefutable value.

However, over the past two years the Trump administration has rolled back environmental protections on land, sea, and air. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, along with the Antiquities Act, could well be in the crosshairs of forces that care very little about the flourishing of marine life. As a new Congress takes up its responsibilities, I urge people of faith and good will to keep a close eye on proposals to amend those two Acts. Some proposals may indeed make sense, but given the multiple pressures on ocean life, from warming and acidifying seas to the risk of over-harvesting, we want to be sure that the best scientific knowledge and the wisest moral insight guide decisions about managing our fisheries and stewarding the ocean entrusted to our care.

(An opinion piece with this title, by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, published by Daily Hampshire Gazette on Jan. 15, 2019, contained some factual errors. This blog post, updated on January 30, corrects those errors.)

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 13, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Townsend Congregational Church, UCC, Townsend, MA

Baptism into the community of Creation

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

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

We return to this story year after year because Jesus’s baptism is one of the basic stories that reveals who he is. It’s also the foundational story of our life in Christ. Most of us probably can’t remember our baptisms, and sometimes we forget how powerful our baptism was – and is. But tapping into the power of our baptism can give us the clarity and moral courage we need to live with integrity in these challenging times. I’ll say more about that, but first I want to say a few words about the ecological predicament in which we find ourselves.
Brevard Australian Zoo Animals, by Rusty Clark (creativecommons)
You probably remember that a couple of months ago, World Wildlife Fund released a major report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. According to this new study, “the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global [human] population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which … society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.”  An executive at World Wildlife Fund commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” Maybe you read the recent article in the New York Times Magazine called “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” It turns out that massive populations of insects have quietly gone missing, a fact with vast implications for global food systems and eco-systems. We are, in short, in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event – “the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans.” As species vanish and animal populations diminish, alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” Meanwhile, climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is raising temperatures, making heat waves more intense, spreading disease, causing crop failures, and stoking extreme storms, droughts and floods. The World Bank concluded that 143 million people could soon be displaced because of climate change.  2018 is on course to be named one of the four hottest years in recorded history, the other three being 2015, 2016, and 2017. A front-page article in Friday’s New York Times reviews a new study that shows that the oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise. Yet although life on Earth is faltering and civilization could be at risk of collapse, the political and corporate powers-that-be relentlessly drive forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, pushing to expand pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. Here’s what I want to say to you this morning: it was for such a time as this that we were baptized. In a perilous time, we need to take hold of the riches of our baptism. As baptized people we have everything we need to rise to the occasion and to act with compassion, courage, and strength.
Townsend Congregational Church, UCC
What riches do we receive in baptism? Let me name three. First, baptism gives us the power to live in love, to be rooted in love, to belong to a love that will never let us go. When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized into the same compassion that led Jesus to step into the waters of the Jordan River and to be baptized by John. You know, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John the Baptist was preaching repentance from sin, but Jesus had no sin. He had nothing to repent, nothing to confess. He could have skipped the baptism and held himself apart from everyone else. He could have kept his distance and simply watched the masses of people crowding down to the river to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. And yet – he took the plunge. In an act of radical solidarity with all humankind, he stepped into the river and claimed the truth of interconnectedness. Jesus chose to identify with all human beings, to identify with you, to identify with me. And not just with human beings but with the whole of God’s Creation. As John the Baptist said, those who are baptized into Christ are baptized “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).  You know what? The fire of God’s love keeps burning away all the chaff in “an unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). Quickly or slowly it burns away everything in us that is not love, opening our eyes so that we come to see the world as God sees it: as precious, sacred, and filled with God’s presence. The divine love into which we were plunged in baptism extends not only to us, and not only to human beings, but also to every sparrow and whale, every earthworm and orca, every maple tree and mountain. So baptism into Christ isn’t about joining a club or belonging to a tribe. It isn’t about affiliating with people who look like us or think like us. Baptism into Christ is a radical act of humility and compassion that joins us to the One who identifies with every human being and with the whole community of Creation. It joins us to a love that will never let us go. Here’s a second gift of baptism: it puts our death behind us. In baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We have died in Christ; we have died with Christ. Our death has taken place. In a sense, it’s done. It’s over with. In baptism, we have died and been buried with Christ, and through the power of his resurrection, we are raised, here and now, to live with him. What this means is that we can acknowledge and face all this bad news without being overwhelmed by fear. The water that we splash on a child at the baptismal font may seem inconsequential, but it’s a sign that we have nothing to fear from the death of the body. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death.” 1 To whatever extent we understand that through baptism, our death is behind us, we are set free from anguish and anxiety. We are set free to love without grasping, without possessiveness, without holding back.
Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas with Rev. Mark C. Brockmeier, Pastor, Townsend Congregational Church, UCC
And here is gift number three: baptized into a love that extends through all Creation, a love that insists that life and not death will have the last word, we rise up as healers and justice-seekers, as prophets and activists, as people unafraid to confront the powers-that-be. That’s what the early Church was known for. Remember the complaints that were lodged against the first followers of Jesus? They were charged with “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). Sometimes we can spot Christians because they’re among the ones obeying a higher authority and refusing to settle for a killing status quo. And what better time than now to take hold of the prophetic power of our baptism, and to confront the forces that are unraveling life on Earth? I take heart from the 21 young people who, through a group called Our Children’s Trust, have taken the Federal government to court, arguing that U.S. government policies have fueled greenhouse gas emissions and have thereby “deprived a whole generation of American citizens of their constitutional rights to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life.’”  These young plaintiffs also allege that the federal government’s actions have violated the public trust, “since, they argue, the atmosphere must be considered a common resource to be protected for the well-being of all citizens.” That’s big-picture thinking and big-hearted commitment. You and I can follow suit and stand up for life in all kinds of ways. We can cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels and switch our households to clean sources of energy.  Maybe we can fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Shifting to a plant-based diet turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. Maybe we can volunteer or send money to a local land trust to help save forests and farmland. If we went to college, we can push our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. And we can also push for larger, systemic changes. Maybe we sign up with 350Mass. for a Better Future, the grassroots climate action group in Massachusetts, and lobby for policies that put a price on carbon and support renewable energy and “green” jobs. Fourteen new members of our state legislature have vowed to address climate change and transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2050. And bold legislators in Congress are proposing a Green New Deal that aims to tackle both economic inequality and climate change. If speaking inside the halls of power isn’t enough, then some of us will join the growing numbers of faith-filled people who bring our message to the streets, carry out peaceful civil disobedience, and put our bodies on the line. If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith and to the power of our baptism, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. We who have been baptized – how will we live out our baptism in the year ahead? How is God calling you to tap into the power that is yours in Christ? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________   1. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (first published in French as Sources, Paris: Editions Stock, 1982; first published in English, London: New City, 1993), p. 107.    
Sermon for All Saints Day, November 4, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sandwich, MA Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 Psalm 24 Revelation 21:1-6a John 11: 32-44

All Saints: On being good ancestors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We also need to meditate and pray, recognizing, in the words of Terry Tempest Williams, “that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves.” What we consider prayer can take many forms. In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How shall we pray with our immense anger and grief? How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth – and upon ourselves? The climate crisis can make us go numb. But it is important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. What’s more, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.

                              Oak tree stump

So I’ll tell a story. Over the past month a company has been cutting down trees in the woods behind our house, clearing space for a new co-housing development. I’m all for co-housing, and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. So I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel my feet on the good earth, feel the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees. I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief about so much more: about what we have lost and are losing and are likely to lose, making up the words and the music as I go along. I sing my rage about these beautiful old trees going down and about the predicament we’re in as a species, my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, cutting down forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if the Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction. I sing out my thanks, my praise for the beauty of trees and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the preciousness of the living world of which we are so blessedly a part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

This piece is based on remarks I made to the 117th Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, asking delegates to pass a resolution entitled “Creation Care in Our Congregations: Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth.” The resolution was created in response to the 79th General Convention, which affirmed the Episcopal Church’s intention, “in the spirit of the Paris Climate Accord,” to make “intentional decisions about living lightly and gently on God’s good earth.” Among other things, the resolution calls on all parishes in the diocese to create a Green Team and to undertake an energy audit. To download the resolution, click here.

Glimpse of the Creation Care table at our Diocesan Convention

I am grateful that the Episcopal Church has named Creation Care as one of the three centerpieces of its attention for the next several years.

You are probably aware of the report issued a few weeks ago by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The IPCC report made it clear that planetary warming is well underway, that it is taking place more rapidly and with more extreme effects than scientific models predicted, and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe.

To stabilize climate change at a 1.5 degree Celsius rise above average global temperatures in pre-industrial times, society worldwide will have to undergo a radical transformation. The IPCC notes that the scale of change that is required to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees is historically unprecedented: never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast.

What I want to say is that this is the moment for which the Church was born. We were made for this challenge.

Why?

• Because we put our faith and trust in a God who creates and loves every inch of creation (Genesis 1:1-31);

• Because we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, who shares the pain and promise of the human predicament, shows us the path of life, and insists that life and not death will have the last word (John 10:10);

• Because we put our faith and trust in the Holy Spirit, who renews the face of the earth (Psalm 104:31).

I was touched by Bishop Doug Fisher’s convention address, especially his reflection on the power of turning from an old way of living to something new. He mentioned that St. Paul uses the phrase “but now” twenty-seven times in his Letters, as in: “For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Ephesians 5:8). Once you were in darkness, but now you are light. Once you were dead, but now you are alive. Once you were far from God, but now you are near.

I started playing with that image of turning, and maybe we’re ready to say something like this:

“Once I took nature for granted as something to ignore or exploit, BUT NOW I understand that I must live more gently and mindfully on the earth.”

“Once I thought that climate change was someone else’s problem, BUT NOW I see that everyone must get involved.”

“Once I thought that I could keep going with business as usual and live my life as I please, BUT NOW I understand that business as usual is wrecking the planet and that we must change course fast.”

“Once I depended on fossil fuels, BUT NOW I’ll move as fast as I can to a low-carbon life and do everything in my power to help society make that turn with me.”

The IPCC report tells us that as a global community, we have only 10 or 12 years in which to make that turn. We want to give our children and our children’s children a habitable world. So let’s make a start. I move that we pass this resolution.

I am glad and grateful that our diocesan convention voted to pass the resolution. I look forward to seeing how we will move ahead quickly in the months ahead to honor the God who is making all things new (Revelation 21:5).

Today’s blog post, which is  also on the Bishop’s Blog of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, is co-written by The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Bishop Doug Fisher. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is coming to the Diocese of Western Massachusetts on Sunday, October 21, to celebrate an Episcopal revival, with events at 1:00 p.m. in Pittsfield and at 5:00 p.m. in Worcester. Everyone is invited!  For more information, visit here. Both revival events will be livestreamed by The Episcopal Church. You can watch the Pittsfield revival livestream here.  You can watch the Worcester revival livestream here.

Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Everyone (and we mean everyone) knows our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as “the Royal Wedding Preacher.” He certainly touched souls around the world in his inspired message of the transforming power of love. But did you know that five days later he participated in a Vigil at the White House?

The Vigil was a witness that both rejected President Trump’s “America First” policies and urged bringing people of all political parties together for the sake of the common good. The Vigil was a follow-up on a declaration Michael wrote with other faith leaders several months before called “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.”

That document includes the powerful statement: “We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources.”

Bishop Michael Curry waits to speak during a vigil outside the White House May 24, 2018 in Washington, DC, in response to what organizers say is “the moral and political crises at the highest levels of political leadership that are putting both the soul of the nation and the integrity of Christian faith at stake.” (Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

As we gather together this Sunday in Pittsfield and Worcester for an Episcopal revival led by the “oh so much more than a wedding preacher” Michael Curry, let’s look at why this is a time of crisis for God’s creation.

The Earth is reeling under many pressures, from an explosive growth in human population and consumption to species extinction, habitat loss, and resource depletion. But our most urgent concern is how human activity is changing the climate. Our fears were confirmed last week when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international group that assesses climate change, released a major report. The IPCC report was stark: humanity is on the brink of catastrophe. The only way to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degree Celsius – the level that countries around the world have agreed is a safe upper limit for maintaining life as we know it on this planet – is for nations to cut their carbon emissions drastically and rapidly. In just over ten years – by 2030 – the world will need to have cut global emissions in half (45 percent below 2010 levels). To hold global temperatures to 1.5 degree Celsius will require rapid and massive transformation of every level of society. For example, the report calls for a total or near-total phase-out of the burning of coal by 2050.

Source: IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5˚C

The task ahead of us is daunting. The world has already warmed 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times, and without a massive global effort, the world will warm by 1.5 degrees in as little as 12 years. If we allow global warming to rise by 2 degrees Celsius – to say nothing of allowing business as usual to continue on its present track, which would raise global temperatures by 3.4 degrees by the end of this century – we will live on a planet that is extremely difficult not only to govern, but even to inhabit. The IPCC report warns that there is “no documented historical precedent” for making the sweeping changes in society that would be required in order to hold global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. Yet if we want to prevent massive crop failures and droughts, extreme storms and sea-level rise, and the migration of millions of refugees, and if we want to pass along a habitable world to our children and our children’s children, we need to tackle climate change.

The day of reckoning has come. As St. Paul exhorts, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Today is a good day to put climate denial behind us. Today is a good day to reject the climate denial expressed in White House policies that promote fossil fuels and ignore, downplay, or even accelerate the climate crisis. Today is also a good day to admit our own everyday version of climate denial and to step up our personal efforts to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

What next steps can you take? For starters, does your congregation have a “green team” or “Creation care committee”? Whatever you call it, a team of parishioners concerned about climate change can take the lead in educating and organizing its community. You can download an article about how to start a “green team” here. At diocesan convention, delegates will vote on a resolution that asks every congregation to create a green team or liaison.

Here’s another idea: how about eating less (or no) meat? A new report confirms that shifting to a plant-based diet is one of the most effective actions we can take to reduce our carbon footprint, limit climate change, and allow the Earth to keep feeding the global population.

Michael Curry has made Creation Care one of his three priorities. (Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism are the others.) We have said many times that this Sunday is so much more than great speeches by Michael. It is an opportunity to commit to a revival of our souls, our church, our communities and our world. In a time of crisis, may we passionately recommit to fighting climate change and caring for God’s creation.

+Doug and Margaret+


Margaret’s sermon (October 14, 2018) about the IPCC report, “Ten years to avoid climate catastrophe?  What do we do now?” is here.


 

Sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas First Parish in Lincoln, Massachusetts October 14, 2018

Ten years to avert climate catastrophe? What do we do now?

“Spiritual beliefs are not something alien from Earth, but rise out of its very soil. Perhaps our first gestures of humility and gratitude were extended to Earth through prayer, the recognition that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves. Call it God. Call it Wind. Call it a thousand different names. Corn pollen sprinkled over the nose of a deer. Incense sprinkled from swaying balls held by a priest. Arms folded, head bowed. The fullness we feel after prayer is the acknowledgment that we are not alone in our struggles and sufferings. We can engage in dialogue with the Sacred, with God and each other. A suffering that cannot be shared is a suffering that cannot be endured.” –Terry Tempest Williams, Leap 29 After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, 31 so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. — Gospel of Matthew 15:29-31

Today is a good day – a very good day – to be praying and speaking about the natural world. This week the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report about what it will take to keep the earth’s temperature below 1.5 degree Celsius of warming. That’s the level that countries around the world have agreed is a reasonably safe upper limit for maintaining life as we know it on this planet. As one reporter puts it, holding warming to that level would most likely avert “catastrophic climate change like the collapse of rain forests and coral reefs, rapid melting of the ice sheets that would swamp coastal cities around the world and heat extremes that could lead to millions of climate refugees.” The U.N. report makes it clear that to stay within that 1.5 degree boundary of safety, or even within 2 degrees of warming, will require an extraordinary collective effort by human beings worldwide. The only way to avoid hurtling past that threshold is to carry out a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before. Such a radical transformation of society has what the report calls “no documented historic precedent,” yet it must be carried out breathtakingly fast: the world has perhaps just over ten years in which to prevent climate catastrophe.

Wouldn’t you know – at the same time that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its report, a monster storm was forming off the Gulf Coast. It quickly grew to a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, careened into the Florida Panhandle and then roared across the Carolinas, leaving devastation in its wake. Our hearts go out to the people who lost their lives, homes, and livelihoods to Hurricane Michael, which was supercharged by warming seas, exactly the kind of extreme weather event that is linked to climate change.
First Parish in Lincoln, MA
I know we have a lot on our mind these days. In these turbulent times, many concerns are pressing for our attention. But tackling climate change must be front and center if we are going to leave our children and grandchildren a habitable world. Can we do it? Just as important: will we do it? Given the enormity of the task, I know it’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed, easy to shut down, throw up our hands and call it quits. “It’s too late,” we tell ourselves. “What difference can I make? It’s not my problem. Someone else will have to deal with it. Besides, the world is cooked. We’re done for. I might as well put my head down, go shopping, grab a beer.” It’s easy to collapse into fatalism or despair. I assume that strictly speaking all of us in this room are not climate skeptics – we do respect climate science, we do understand that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the global climate and threatening the whole human enterprise – but most of us engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to think about it, we don’t know what to do about it, and we surely don’t want to feel the emotions that this crisis evokes. That is why I give thanks that I’m here with you this morning. When we face the stark reality of climate change and grasp that we have perhaps ten years in which to avoid irreversibly dismantling the life systems of the planet, we need to find each other – we need to gather with other people of faith and good will, to see each other’s faces, look into each other’s eyes, and feel each other’s hands in ours. And we need to pray. Taking action is essential, but in order to discover what we are called to do – and to find the strength to do it – we need to pray, to open ourselves to a power and wisdom that is greater than our own. My friends, we need help. We need guidance. We need the love and power of God. And so we pray, recognizing, as Terry Tempest Williams says in our first reading, “that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves.” Our prayer can take many forms, as Terry also acknowledges. In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How shall we pray with our immense anger and grief? How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth – and upon ourselves?
Trees felled for new development
Over the past few weeks a company has been cutting down trees in the woods behind our house, clearing space for a new co-housing development. I’m all for co-housing, and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. So I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel my feet on the good earth, feel the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees. I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief about so much more: about what we have lost and are losing and are likely to lose, making up the words and the music as I go along. I sing my rage about these beautiful old trees going down and about the predicament we’re in as a species, my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, cutting down forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if the Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction. I sing out my thanks, my praise for the beauty of trees and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the preciousness of the living world of which we are so blessedly a part. Our prayer may be noisy and expressive, or it may be very quiet, the kind of prayer that depends on listening in stillness and silence with complete attention: listening to the crickets as they pulse at night, listening to the rain as it falls, listening to our breath as we breathe God in and breathe God out, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our heart. I imagine that Jesus prayed like that, both expressively and in silence, and more often than not outdoors. That’s where we usually find him in the Gospel stories – outdoors in the wilderness, on a mountain, beside the sea, or walking mile upon mile down dusty roads. Jesus was immersed in the natural world and he used images of nature in his parables and teachings: weeds and wheat; seeds and rocks; lilies, sheep, and sparrows. No doubt he knew from his prayer, as we know from ours, that when we pray in the company of the living world, when we pray “with the Sacred, with God and each other,” we receive strength from beyond ourselves. That’s why I chose the second reading: as Matthew’s Gospel tells it, Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee and then goes up the mountain. I wonder if his being with the sea and with the mountain, and his prayerful walking in fresh air, were part of his communion with the divine. For it is from out of his immersion in the natural world that Jesus begins to carry out actions that bring healing and wholeness. His prayer is transformed into action; his secret communion with the God of love spills over into acts of love, and through his presence, words, and touch, great crowds of people are healed. Does something like that happen when we, too, pray with and for the natural world? Despite its wounds, the living world still conveys the mystery of the living God. Like Jesus, when we experience the divine presence, we receive fresh energy to renew the face of the Earth, to become healers and justice-seekers. We cast our lot with people of faith and spirit who have been awakened – as we have been awakened – by a fierce longing to join the dance of life. We rise up from prayer to act, and we pray as we act.
Tim Aarset (deacon), Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Larry Buell (chair, Outreach/Social Action Committee)
What does it look like when we join God’s dance of life? We start by making personal changes. Maybe we cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels and switch to clean sources of energy. (After today’s service, you have an opportunity to switch to wind power as the source of your home’s electricity.) Maybe we fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Shifting to a plant-based diet turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. And we also push for the larger, systemic changes that must be carried out by businesses, politicians and non-profits. Maybe we lobby for policies that support renewable energy, carbon pricing, and clean green jobs. Maybe we sign up with 350Mass. for a Better Future, the grassroots climate action group in Massachusetts that is fighting for a rapid and just transition to 100% renewable energy. 350Mass has a local node that includes people right here in the town of Lincoln. What else can we do? We can vote for candidates with strong climate policies, and maybe send some money to climate champions running for office in other states. If we went to college, we can push our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. Some of us may feel called to join the growing numbers of faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line. In whatever ways we step out to heal God’s creation and to join the dance of life, we will take risks we never imagined we would take. We will connect with people we never imagined we would meet. And we will make more of a difference than we will ever know. Will we succeed in creating a more just and gentle relationship between humanity and the rest of Creation? Will we succeed in averting climate disaster? I don’t know. But I do know this: I intend to bear witness to the power of a living God until the day I die, and I know that you do, too. Thank you for your courage and your faithfulness. I look forward to hearing what next steps this community will take.  
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B), September 9, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas Trinity Parish, Seattle, WA

Healing Earth: When the eyes of the blind are opened

Isaiah 35:4-7a Psalm 146 James 2:1-10, 14-17 Mark 7:24-37

What a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Jeff for welcoming my husband, Robert Jonas, and me. I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and in the United Church of Christ across Massachusetts. I travel from place to place, speaking about our call as followers of Jesus to protect God’s Creation and to re-weave the web of life. (If you want to know more about what I’m up to, you can visit my Website, RevivingCreation.org.) I know that here at Trinity Parish, you have a history of working to protect the living world that God entrusted to our care, and I am deeply thankful for that.

With the Rev Jeffrey Gill (Rector, Trinity Parish Episcopal Church, Seattle)
Let’s start with a story. Jonas and I have an old farmhouse in the hills of western Massachusetts. We like to hike in the woods and walk beside the ponds as we soak up the sights and sounds of the natural world. One summer day, as I was eating lunch on the porch, a sparrow landed on a railing nearby. I held my spoon in mid-air and didn’t move a muscle. Sparrow and I looked each other over, taking each other in. I tried to imagine what it was like to be a sparrow. I could see how sensitive the sparrow was – how she noticed the moth zigzagging past, the gust of wind, the shadow of a passing cloud. Everything around the sparrow was alive and in motion. The small creature was alert, tuning herself to every shift, cocking her head, picking up the tiniest scent, sound, and movement, and making almost perceptible decisions in response. Should she eat the moth? Duck from danger? Linger a while longer? When Sparrow saw that I wasn’t moving and evidently posed no threat, she relaxed on the railing. She puffed her feathers and turned her head away to preen, as if to say, “I know you are there but right now I feel safe.” It was a kind of subtle, non-verbal and mutual communication. My presence was affecting Bird and Bird’s presence was affecting me. The only way I could perceive the sparrow’s sensitivity was to become more sensitive myself, to pay closer attention. I wasn’t staring at the bird in some kind of fixed and rigid way. Instead I simply kept my gaze soft and receptive, and opened my senses to perceive everything I could. The simple act of gazing with interest and empathy filled me with wonder and a quiet joy, for it seemed that I was briefly connecting with a tiny creature whose consciousness was almost entirely foreign to mine, almost completely unknown. In those precious moments we were in relationship. Our worlds overlapped. I think of that encounter when I come to today’s readings and hear Isaiah’s exuberant poem about the transforming power of God: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” In the fullness of time, God will heal our eyes and ears and hearts, will make the lame “leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:4-7a). The psalm picks up the theme of healing and liberation – “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind” (Psalm 146:7) – and then we get to the story in Mark’s Gospel about Jesus healing the deaf mute. It is a very physical healing, isn’t it? Unlike most of the other healing stories, in this one Jesus doesn’t heal so much through the power of speech as through the power of touch. The story gives every detail. Jesus doesn’t just “lay his hands on” the man in some kind of vague, generic way. He actually puts his fingers in the man’s ears; he spits and then touches the man’s tongue. We can imagine the care with which he makes direct, even intimate contact with the man who has appealed to him for healing. We can imagine the tenderness in Jesus’ eyes, the clarity of his intention to set this person free. And then Jesus looks up to heaven – seeking and gathering in the power of God – and he sighs, as if releasing that power, breathing out the ruach, the Spirit, the breath of God. As he breathes out that power he says a single word, which the text gives in its original Aramaic, “Ephphatha” – that is, “Be opened” – and at once the man’s ears are opened, his tongue is released, and he speaks plainly. Of course we can take this story literally and make it relevant only to people with limited sight and hearing, but on a deeper level don’t we all need to have our senses healed? Especially when it comes to humans finding our rightful place in the natural world, isn’t it time for the eyes of the blind to be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped?
The glory of trees
For we have been blind to so much! I know that I sure have. Growing up, I thought that homo sapiens was the only species that God cared about and that Jesus was interested only in people. Not incidentally, I also thought that humans were the only species that was smart. How wrong I was! It turns out that our fellow beings are more intelligent than I ever suspected, from chimpanzees to dogs, elephants, and birds, from dolphins and whales to even the lowly octopus. According to a book called The Soul of an Octopus, octopus display a range of personalities, solve problems, play jokes, and share affection with marine scientists by holding “hands” with them. And it’s not just our finned, feathered, four-legged and, yes, eight-legged fellow beings that are more intelligent than we knew – so, too, are plants. Books like The Hidden Life of Trees argue that trees are social beings that can count, learn, remember, and warn each other of impending danger.  I just finished a wonderful new novel by Richard Powers, The Overstory, which explores the intelligence of trees. The author explains in an interview that generally we don’t pay much attention to trees and that most of us can’t tell one tree from another, because the human brain evolved, he says, “to be blind to things that don’t look like us.” But, he says, through “the miracle of awareness” we begin to see much more. When our eyes are opened and our ears unstopped, we begin to see what scientists are showing us, what mystics the world over have long proclaimed, and what indigenous peoples have never forgotten: we inhabit a world full of mystery and intelligence, a sacred, living world full of marvel and intricacy in which everything is connected. As the Good Book says, when God contemplates the world God made, God finds it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Today’s theologians are reminding us that God loves the whole creation, not just us, and that Jesus came to redeem and reconcile all beings, not just human beings (Ephesians 4:9-10; Colossians 1:17, 19-20). When our senses are healed, we relate in new ways to our non-human kin. As we look more closely at the world around us, as we listen more patiently and pay more attention, we discover that we are created for relationship not only with our fellow human beings, but also with everything else – with sparrow and fir tree, with ground hog and sea gull, with cloud and wind, water and stone. It seems that we become fully human only in relationship to what is greater than ourselves, what is other than ourselves. When God opens our eyes and ears, we perceive not only the beauty and the preciousness of creation – we also perceive the perilous state of our wounded planet. We hear the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor and the unseen. We look around and see mounting evidence that burning fossils fuels is scorching the Earth and disrupting the global climate. My heart goes out to all of you here in Seattle who have been choking on smoke from wildfires that apparently is equivalent to breathing about seven cigarettes a day. I hear that this is the third summer in a row in which this city has been blanketed with air pollution from massive wildfires, and that this is the worst summer yet. As you know, some of the smoke is drifting up from California, which is undergoing a record-breaking season of wildfires. Climate change is raising temperatures, which makes heat waves more intense and more frequent, dries out trees and soil, and makes wildfires spread. As Jonas and I left New England, smoke from the fires raging in the Pacific Northwest was causing a visible haze across the sky. What we’re experiencing here in Seattle connects with what’s happening all over the world. This summer, record-breaking temperatures gripped the globe from Japan to Algeria, from Canada to Greece. The global heat wave even set the Arctic Circle on fire. This year is on pace to be among the four hottest years on record. The other three were 2015, 2016, and 2017. Even though I brace myself against the latest headlines, I am still shaken as climate news comes in: the ancient cedar trees of Lebanon are going down, ancient baobab trees are collapsing, and whole forests of trees in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana have died. Coral reefs are bleaching and dying, and just about everything on Earth that is frozen – glaciers, the polar ice caps – is melting. Yet despite these signs of accelerating distress, and with more scorching heat to come if we don’t change course fast, the powers-that-be relentlessly push forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, expanding pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. When God opens our blind eyes and unstops our deaf ears, we see and hear the world’s beauty.  We see and feel its searing pain, and the injustice of the harm. Now comes the next miracle of healing: God opens the mouths of the mute and “the tongue of the speechless” (Isaiah 35:6). Jesus not only “makes the deaf to hear” – he also makes “the mute to speak” (Mark 7:37). And we are speaking – with our bodies and our words, with our voices and our votes, speaking up for clean air and clear water, speaking up for endangered orca and salmon, speaking up for the ancient forests and glaciers, speaking up for low-income and minority communities that have no voice at the table where decisions are made. Yesterday people across the country and around the world, including Seattle, held rallies and marches for a global day of action called “Rise for Climate.” People of faith and spirit are rising up to confront the powers-that-be and to awaken corporate and elected leaders from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. Some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined acts of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. Some of us lobby for policies that support clean renewable energy. Some of us push for carbon pricing. Those of us who went to college urge our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. Those of us with means cut back sharply on our use of fossil fuels – maybe we fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of people of color, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. Tomorrow I head to San Francisco, where leaders from around the world and all sectors of society will gather for a Global Climate Action Summit to launch new commitments to realize the historic Paris Agreement. Hundreds of affiliated events will be held in the Bay area, including a host of faith-based events. At Grace Cathedral I’ll be speaking on a panel about why religion matters to the movement for climate justice. Why does religion matter? Why do faith communities matter? Why do you and I matter? Because we serve the Lord of life! Because this very day, Jesus is carrying out miracles of healing, opening our eyes and ears and releasing our tongues, so that in our lips and in our lives we make it abundantly clear that life and not death will have the last word. What new steps to protect God’s Creation do you feel led to take as individuals and as a community? Thank you for keeping the faith.
Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17B), September 2, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, British Columbia Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Saving Planet Earth: “Arise, my love, my fair one”

Friends, I feel blessed to be back in Vancouver, to see the mountains again and to ride a bike with my husband around Stanley Park. On our first day we took a boat trip out into the ocean, where we sighted humpback whales the size of a bus, lingering on the surface of the water, rolling, splashing and breaching in the waves. We also encountered a pod of transient orcas, which, as you know, are endangered. One of the orcas rose up out of the water to take a look at our boat, and, to our amazement, it and a second orca swam toward us very slowly and deliberately, right up to the side of the vessel. At the last moment they dove underneath, emerging a little distance behind us. It felt like a greeting, like a blessing, and some of us gasped with astonishment, some of us cheered and some of us were moved to tears. So before I do anything else I want to pass it on to you, that greeting and blessing from our orca kin, as we gather this morning to praise God.

Orca “spy-hopping” — rising up to take a look around. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
The voice of God is speaking in our midst and in our depths, and it sings out clearly in our first reading, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10). I need to hear that voice. I need to dwell in its presence, for honestly, I came to this city with a heavy heart. Back in the United States, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the United Church of Christ across the state. In this ecumenical role, I travel from place to place, preaching, speaking and leading retreats about the sacredness of God’s Creation and our call to protect the web of life entrusted to our care – especially the urgency of addressing climate change. (If you want to see what I’m up to, please visit my Website, RevivingCreation.org, for articles and blog posts.) I love my job, but it’s tough these days to pay attention to what’s happening to Mother Earth and our fellow creatures, to our oceans, forests, and waterways, to the very air we breathe. My heart goes out to all of you who, a week or two ago, were choking on smoke from nearly 600 forest fires on the west coast, and facing an air quality advisory across most of the province that warned you not to breathe in the fine particulates. As I left Massachusetts, smoke from the fires raging here in the Pacific Northwest was causing a visible haze over New England. What’s happening in Vancouver connects with what’s happening all over the world. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is raising temperatures, making heat waves more intense and more frequent, drying out soil and trees, and making wildfires spread. This summer, record-breaking temperatures gripped the globe from Japan to Algeria, from Canada to Greece. The global heat wave even set the Arctic Circle on fire. This year is on pace to be among the four hottest years on record, the other three being 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Orca swimming toward our boat. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
Despite these accelerating signs of distress, and with more scorching heat to come if we don’t change course fast, the powers-that-be relentlessly drive forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, pushing to expand pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I don’t know about you, but I know what it’s like to feel alarm, anger, sorrow, and even despair. As a species we are hurtling willy-nilly down a suicidal path that risks bringing down not only our own civilization but also the web of life as it has evolved for millennia. That is why I am moved to hear those words from the Song of Solomon (also known as the “Song of Songs”), moved to hear God say to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” You probably recognize this passage as one that’s often read at weddings. The Song of Songs is a collection of sensual poems between two lovers who delight in each other and who long to consummate their desire, and it turns out that Christian mystics wrote about the Song of Songs more extensively than they did about any other book in the Bible, interpreting these poems as a passionate conversation between God and the soul. In a precarious time – when many of us feel unsettled about the present and worried about the future, when many of us may feel anxious and alone, overwhelmed by challenges in our personal lives and doubtful that we can make a difference in the world around us – it is powerful to remember that God is a lover who is always reaching out to us, always speaking in our depths, always luring us to stay in relationship with each other and with God. For here is God, reaching out a hand to pull us into the dance of life. That’s one way of understanding the Holy Trinity: as a dance of love between the lover, the beloved, and the love that flows between (Augustine). “Come on in,” says God, “and join the dance!” “Arise, my love,” God says to our soul. “Arise, my fair one, and come away.” The inner voice of love is quiet. We can hardly hear it amidst the roar and bustle of the world. We can hardly sense it when we’re gripped by depression, anxiety, or alarm. That’s why many of us reclaim a practice of prayer: we know we will hear the inner voice of love only if we practice stillness, only if we set aside some time in solitude each day to steady our minds and to listen in silence for the love that God is always pouring into our hearts (Romans 5:5).
Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver
As our minds grow quiet and as our stillness grows, a holy Someone – capital S – beckons to us in the silence: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” It’s the voice of Jesus, the voice of Spirit, the voice of God. “Arise, my love.” From what do you need to arise? Maybe the Spirit is saying: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from the agitation that holds you in its grip. Arise from hopelessness, for I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness, for I am with you, and I love you. You are my love, says the Spirit. You are my fair one. I see your beauty and you are precious in my sight. Arise and come away – away from the cult of death, away from the path of destruction, away from the lie that your efforts to protect life are useless. Come with me and join in the dance of life. I will help you find your place in the great struggle to protect life and to build a more just society. “But,” we may protest, feeling helpless before the horrors of the world, helpless before its injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power. I am so very small.” Arise. “What can I do? What can anyone do? It is too late to make a difference!” Arise. “I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to do.” Arise. The voice of love is like that, right? It may be gentle, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it will never die. The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that is being poured into our hearts – that holy love will never let us go, and it sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, and warriors for truth, and protectors of life. I may have a thousand and one reasons to dodge love’s call, but then it comes again, that voice: Arise. I love you. I need you. I am calling from the trees, from the wind, from the very stones beneath your feet. I am calling from the orcas and the salmon, from the black bear and the mountains, from the fig trees and the vines. I am calling from the strangers who are not really strangers, but brothers and sisters you don’t yet recognize, those who are suffering right now from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from the men, women and children who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
A cathedral in nature: Horseshoe Bay, north of Vancouver. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
When we stand in the holy presence of God we find fresh strength to renew the face of the Earth. And we arise, joining with indigenous leaders to protect the water and the land, joining with activists to stop new pipelines, joining with young and old to plant new forests. We cast our lot with people of faith and spirit who have been awakened – as we have been awakened – by a fierce longing to join the dance of life. What does it look like when we join God’s dance of life? Maybe we cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels. Maybe we fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Maybe we lobby for policies that support renewable energy and clean green jobs. Maybe we join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line. This Saturday, September 8, rallies and marches will be held worldwide in a global day of action called “Rise for Climate.” Several “Rise for Climate” events will be held right here in Vancouver, and I hope you will join one. In whatever ways we step out to heal God’s creation and to join the dance of life, we will take risks we never imagined we would take. We will connect with people we never imagined we would meet. And we will make more of a difference than we will ever know. I give thanks for the ways that the Spirit is speaking in our hearts, and for the ways that you are already responding to its call: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”