As summer drew to a close, the hearts of Americans were with the millions of people in Texas and Louisiana who were pummeled by Hurricane Harvey, an unprecedented deluge that in one part of Southeast Texas dropped more than 4 feet of water, setting a rainfall record for the continental U.S. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma was tearing through the Caribbean and up through Florida, displacing millions, causing billions of dollars in property damage, and marking the first time that two Category 4 Atlantic storms made U.S. landfall in the same year. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, torrential rains fell in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, as Southeast Asia endured a record-breaking monsoon season that caused over 1200 deaths. Then, following Hurricane Jose, along came the massive Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and created a humanitarian crisis. Today, wildfires are tearing through Northern California, accelerated by high winds, extreme heat, and bone-dry landscapes.
Climate change didn’t cause these monster storms and fires, but it certainly made them worse. These so-called “natural” disasters are not entirely natural – they are driven by carbon pollution. Dirty energy like coal, gas, and oil is dumping carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, destabilizing the climate and leading to extreme weather events.
As people of faith, we believe that the Earth and its web of life are precious in God’s sight (Genesis 1-2:3). Our Judeo-Christian heritage teaches that the Earth belongs not to us but to God (Psalm 24), and that we are entrusted with loving the Earth as God loves it (Genesis 2:15). The climate crisis presents people of faith and good will with a deeply moral question: Will we be faithful stewards of the world entrusted to our care, or will we stand idly by and watch as carbon pollution takes down cities, uproots millions of people, ravages the poor, and destroys life as it has evolved on this planet?
We are long past the stage of trying to fix climate change by swapping out a few lightbulbs. We need comprehensive legislation that puts a price on carbon and shifts the market away from dirty energy. We are thrilled that two carbon-pricing bills are being considered in the Massachusetts State House. Both bills put a fee on fossil fuels as they enter the state, and rebate some or all of the money to households and businesses. Senate Bill S.1821, introduced by Senator Michael Barrett, rebates 100% of the revenue. House Bill H.1726, from Representative Jen Benson, rebates 80% of the revenue and reinvests the remaining 20% into a Green Infrastructure Fund for clean energy, public transit, and climate adaptation projects.
Both these bills deserve strong support. For starters, they will reduce emissions of dirty greenhouse gases. Thanks to a higher price on carbon, households and business will turn to low and no-carbon options. What’s more, the two bills also protect the interests of low-income, moderate-income, and rural populations, who on average will receive more money from the rebate than they pay in higher fuel costs. Indeed, House Bill H. 1726 commits at least one-third of funding generated through Green Fund to low-income communities, and also sets aside funding for energy efficiency programs for people who rent.
Finally, these two bills will boost the economy and protect businesses, rebating money to businesses based on their number of employees. The Senate bill will create much-needed jobs in Massachusetts, especially in the transportation, resiliency, and clean energy sectors.
Our religious teachings affirm that our deepest responsibility as human beings is to love God and our neighbor. They also demand that we shoulder our human responsibility to care for planet Earth and to create a more just, peaceful, and life-sustaining society. Putting a price on carbon and supporting S. 1821 and H. 1726 is a powerful and faithful response to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
Under threatening skies, a group of men and women gathers in the basement of the Paulist Center, less than a block from the Boston State House. One by one we introduce ourselves and offer a one-word summary of how we feel as we prepare to risk arrest.
Everyone has been trained in non-violent civil disobedience. Everyone has taken the necessary practical steps, such as removing wedding bands and other jewelry, slipping a driver’s license or other identification into a pocket, and scribbling the phone number of the jail support person onto an inner arm. In a moment, everyone will select a buddy for the day, for it is good to stand with a friend when you are arrested, handcuffed, put in a police van, and locked in a holding cell.
Some of us have faced arrest before, others will risk arrest for the first time, but just now all of us are carrying out a ritual of personal preparation that has been passed down through generations. We are clear about our goals: to leave a just and habitable world to our children. We are clear about our methods: to be non-violent in action, speech, and spirit. We divest ourselves of everything unnecessary. We take with us only what is necessary: a few physical essentials and an open heart. We head out two by two.
That’s what Jesus did: he sent out his disciples two by two, ordering them to take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts (Mark 6:7-8). His first followers, the men and women of the Jesus Movement, repeatedly challenged unjust power and were accused of disturbing the peace and “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). These brave souls seemed to spend as much time in jail as they did walking free.
At the moment I don’t feel particularly inspired or brave, but that doesn’t matter: I feel called to be here, doing what needs to be done. All around the world, other people are with us in spirit as we gather strength in this Boston basement: they, too, are standing up for what is right, refusing to settle for a death-dealing status quo.
We have our own climate action to take here in Massachusetts. Mass Power Forward, a coalition of environmental, climate, community, and faith groups (including the Social Justice Commission of Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Environmental Ministries of United Church of Christ in Massachusetts) is running a campaign (#StandUpCharlie) to push Governor Charlie Baker to sign an executive order that directs all state agencies to do everything in their legal authority to stop new fossil fuel projects. We want him to speak out against the pipeline tax and make it clear to fossil fuel executives that the Commonwealth is not willing to pay billions of dollars to fund their pipeline projects. We want him to establish a policy of climate justice and to stand up for clean energy, not to perpetuate the lethal grip of fossil fuels.
What did Governor Charlie Baker say last week when six protesters resolutely sat down in his Statehouse office, refusing to leave until he stopped all new fossil fuel projects in Massachusetts? He said he didn’t want to “take options off the table.”
Keep more fracked gas on the table? That means taking climate stability off the table,1 taking moderate weather off the table, taking intact ice sheets off the table, taking your children’s future off the table, taking a habitable world off the table.
Keep all options on the table? No way. Not if you love your children; not if you love the beautiful blue-green planet into which you and I were born; not if you care about climate migrants and refugees; not if you’re concerned about resource wars over clean water and arable land; not if you want to preserve some remnant of the web of life that is fast unraveling before our eyes.
So it’s no wonder – when the twenty-six of us risking arrest have finished initial preparations and walked to the Boston State House, passed through security and assembled with hundreds of supporters in a large hall – that the crowd quickly takes up the chant: “No new pipelines, keep it off the table!” Our cries reverberate against the walls, filling the space.
Claire Miller (Toxics Action Center) and Craig Altemose (Better Future Project and 350 Mass for a Better Future) speak about the growing movement to stop new fossil fuel projects and to build a safer, healthier economy. The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, a national leader on climate, speaks with concise eloquence: “We are assembled here on the hinge of history. Time is short. We are here to give Governor Baker the opportunity to make the most important decision of his career.”
Then up the stairs we go, to the Governor’s Executive Office. State troopers stand guard at the doorway, preventing us from stepping inside, so the twenty-six of us sit down on the hallway’s marble floor. We intend to sit there until the Governor signs the executive order we seek or until we are forcibly removed.
At first the police hassle us. They point out that a visitor has arrived in a wheelchair. They argue that, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the hallway must be kept completely clear. The police tell us to move along. Our spokespeople counter: “Fine. We’d be glad to empty the hallway. Since only twenty-six people are refusing to leave, there is plenty of room for us to move into the Governor’s office and to carry out our sit-in there.”
The police back off. Protesters keep a pathway open for pedestrians and wheelchairs, and there in the hallway we stay. Hundreds of supporters, holding banners and signs, spread out nearby. Everyone settles in for a long afternoon.
We pass the hours by belting out every inspiring song we know, from “Singing for Our Lives” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” to songs with lyrics written especially for the occasion. We take turns standing up to explain what motivates our activism. A labor organizer speaks of his many years of learning when and how to negotiate. “Sometimes negotiation isn’t possible,” he tells us. “You can’t negotiate with climate change.” Activities that push the world to the brink of climate chaos will never be able to strike a deal with physics and chemistry.
A physician in a white lab coat stands up. “In medical school, we learn ‘First, do no harm.’” Policies that cater to fossil fuel companies are doing grave harm to our state, our country, and our planet.
A middle-aged woman stands up to speak about extreme weather events and rising seas. An elderly woman speaks about her love and concern for her grandchildren. A young man speaks about his Millennial friends who, anticipating terrible years ahead, are deciding not to bear children. Activist and independent journalist Wen Stephenson recites by heart a compelling passage from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” that concludes: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”
I speak about the love that propels me. Climate change is not only a scientific, economic, and political issue, but also one that is deeply spiritual. What do we love most? To what are we willing to commit our lives? What is the North Star that guides our decisions? When we know what we love most, we make energy choices that are wise. And, I might add, we push our elected officials to stop desecrating the Earth entrusted to our care and to move as swiftly as possible to a clean energy future in which all beings can thrive.
The hours pass. When a supporter needs to leave, he or she approaches the group that is sitting in the hallway and hands one of the protesters a small flower. I am touched by this gesture of support: “I may not be with you in person, but I am with you in spirit.”
Many people are with us in body or spirit. A hundred miles west, local activists led by Arise for Social Justice and Climate Action Now are carrying out a simultaneous #StandUpCharlie protest at Governor Baker’s Springfield office. They ask him to meet additional demands that affect climate justice in western Massachusetts: to prevent large-biomass burning, to expand our system of public transportation, and to implement East-West high-speed rail.
The hour is late. The building will close at 6:00 p.m. Additional police officers assemble nearby. After brief, intense discussions among ourselves, we decide that we are willing to face criminal charges and to be summoned to court without undergoing arrest – a decision that some of us regret (see Wen Stephenson’s subsequent article in The Nation). A police officer announces the charges – trespassing and unlawful assembly – and we hand over our driver’s licenses to be photocopied.
We head out into the night.
The #StandUpCharlie campaign plans a brief hiatus, to give the Governor some time over the holidays to consider his leadership on climate. In January, we intend to come back, and in greater numbers, until the Governor agrees to take a clear stand against more fracked gas projects in Massachusetts.
Preserving a habitable planet depends on local and regional action by every sector of society, especially when our national government seems determined to dig us ever deeper into the pit of relying on fossil fuels. Whatever form our actions take – whether or not they include arrest – we will need to be loving, bold, relentless, and strong.
And persistent. Jesus encourages persistence in prayer. He encourages his friends “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Then he tells a parable about a persistent widow who refuses to quit pestering a judge until he grants her justice (Luke 18:1-8). Fed up by her tenacity, the judge at last relents, saying, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).
That’s the kind of persistence we intend to maintain as we press Governor Baker to become a climate leader. We intend to be persistent in prayer and to pray persistently as we put our bodies on the line. We aim to tend our inner fires, to be steadfast in listening to the inner voice of love that gives us courage and strength. And when God calls us to take action, we hope, by God’s grace, to be able to answer:
A point made by climate activists Kathleen Wolf and Craig Altemose.
Homily for Richard Purdy Wilbur’s Memorial Service, November 13, 2017
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Village Congregational Church, Cummington, MA
Isaiah 61:1-3Psalm 23John 14:1-6
(March 1, 1921 – October 14, 2017)
There is a custom in Episcopal churches, and maybe in congregations of every denomination, to maintain a register that keeps track of funerals. Usually we record the specific illness that led to death, but when someone very old passes away, we often write, very simply: “full of years.” I like that gentle phrase: “full of years.” I give thanks that Richard died peacefully at the age of 96, full of years.
We knew Richard in many different ways, and each of you brings your own memories. He was your beloved father, grandfather, or great-grandfather. He was your father-in-law, your editor, teacher, mentor, or colleague, your neighbor, your friend. Of course Richard also had a public identity as an acclaimed writer whose brilliant poems and translations, children’s books and critical essays on poetry dazzled his readers. So all sorts of memories fill this room, along with deep affection, for what people treasured in Richard was not that he lived to a ripe old age, but that he lived with such creative verve, with such openhearted generosity and vitality. Richard was not just full of years – he was full of life, full of spirit.
“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” – the title of that poem says it all. Richard was a deeply religious, deeply spiritual man, a lifelong Christian who was drawn to God and whose spirit yearned for what was holy, clean, and pure. He could write of the soul’s desire to see “the morning air…all awash with angels… rising together in calm swells/Of halcyon feeling.” He understood the soul’s yearning for perfection and fullness, our longing for an infinite love that nothing on earth can satisfy. Yet he also knew that the God he loved did not float above the material world. Richard never settled for a bodiless spirituality, for that distorted brand of Christianity that disdains our actual existence and imagines that the divine is only up and away, far off somewhere in a distant heaven.
No – it seems to me that in his poems and in his life, what interested Richard was exploring what Christians call the Incarnation: the invitation to experience our embodied selves as the meeting place of heaven and earth, the very place where God chooses to dwell. Richard was interested in loving the actual world, not our fantasies about the world, not our ideas about the world, not our judgments and opinions of the world, but the actual world. He was intent on finding, naming, and sharing love right here – here in life’s messiness and pain, here in the beauty of the passing moment, here among the very particular people and plants and things that grace our time on earth. I treasure Richard’s poems for calling us back from what he called “pure mirage” to the sacred glories of our everyday lives, for urging us to notice the radiance of starlight over the barn, to value “Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right/Oasis, light incarnate” (“A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness”).
Richard and his beloved Charlotte lived here in this village for a full forty years; for another ten years, he lived here on his own. Immersion in his Cummington home filled Richard’s poems with sugar maple and beech, with fern-beds and blackberries. He loved to stand on the deck, gazing up at the night sky or out into the distance, savoring the splendid view. He loved to wander the acres of woods and fields, noticing with the delight of a naturalist every detail of bird and bush, and sharing his contagious excitement with anyone nearby. Chris describes his father as someone who “took delight in the adventures-of-learning that one can have in the country.” Richard cherished learning from the long-time residents of Cummington, from you who know so intimately the rhythms and patterns of the natural world. He delighted in your knowledge and in your friendship.
And he was an avid gardener who pored over seed catalogues in the winter and spent the growing season with his hands in the dirt, raising corn and tomatoes, lettuces and herbs, and plying his family with vegetables and with sorrel soup. I’ve heard that a Native American tribe urges living so that a piece of earth mourns you when you die, and if ever there were a piece of earth that was loved and blessed by human beings and that might mourn them when they die, surely it would be that patch of earth in Cummington where Richard and Charlotte spent so many happy years.
Of course I never Richard, much less talked to him about his faith, but his stance toward life reminds me of the way that Jesus lived: close to the Earth. In the Gospels we often find Jesus outdoors, praying in the desert, walking by a seashore, climbing a mountain. His parables and stories are rich in images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds, vines, and rocks. It seems that every creature Jesus saw, every person he encountered, he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God’s glory.
I see that stance in Richard’s life, too. He didn’t care about social differences; he was genuinely interested in everybody and he was resolutely himself, the same person with everyone he met: confident, courtly, kind, playful with words, generous with his attention and time. I’m told that if a kid contacted him because of a homework assignment, he was perfectly likely to write back a handwritten response.
Richard’s enduring love of the world and its precious web of life is perhaps nowhere more passionately expressed than in his poem, “Advice to a Prophet.” I cherish that poem, given my work as Missioner for Creation Care and my ardent effort to re-awaken our awareness of the sacredness of the natural world and the need to protect that world from further harm. “Advice to a Prophet” is shot through with a felt sense of the radical interdependence of human beings with the rest of God’s Creation, and it invites us to grieve the imagined loss of “The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return” – a loss that has become all too real in the years since that poem was written. In the face of species extinction and climate change, Richard’s poem gives us words that can help us clarify our feelings, help us see more clearly, and help us, perhaps, to find the moral courage to protect and heal the world that we so love and need, and that God entrusted to our care.
Love calls us to the things of this world, and at the end of our lives, the same Love calls us home. So it was for Richard, who – “full of years” – passed at last into the arms of the Creator who loved him into being, sustained him his whole life through, and welcomed him home at his journey’s end. We hear about that homecoming in today’s Gospel reading, when Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:1-3). Jesus prepared a place for Richard and for all of us in the heart of God, a place in that spacious home of many mansions where we will find rest, and where the love that we have known in part in this life will be fully known at last.
Richard loved the things of this world. He loved God. He loved you. And now, like the starling in one of his poems (The Writer) that was trapped for a time inside a room, he has found the open window. He has “[cleared] the sill of the world.” He has found his way home.
Let us pray.
“O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.”
Richard, your work is done. You have found your safe lodging, your home in God’s heart. You have received a holy rest, and peace at last. Rest in God’s heart, Richard, and pray for us as we pray for you.
The Book of Common Prayer, “In the Evening,” p. 833.
What a blessing to be back at St. Mark’s Cathedral! Thank you, Steve, for inviting me to preach. I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ as Missioner for Creation Care. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is a joy to return to Seattle, where my father was born, and to see again your magnificent forests, lakes, seas, and mountains.
My husband Robert Jonas is with me, and we’ve spent the past week in the Pacific Northwest, speaking and leading retreats about spiritual resilience. I am drawn to the topic of spiritual resilience because it seems that most of us could use some resilience right about now. Many people tell me that they’re feeling bone tired. Partly it’s the demands of family life and work life, the hectic effort to keep so many balls in the air. And partly we’re tired because of the stress of knowing that as a nation we’re facing so many difficult issues all at the same time. Day by day, as we read the headlines or hear about the latest developments, many of us are gripped by outrage and alarm. We are living in turbulent times when upheaval seems to be the new normal and we brace ourselves for the next scary bit of bad news.
As Missioner for Creation Care, what most concerns me is the fact that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – are rapidly disappearing from Earth. You may have noticed the report in Friday’s Seattle Times that Orcas may be extinct by the end of the century because of dwindling numbers of salmon, human pollutants, and underwater noise. Scientists tell us that a mass extinction event is now underway – what they’re calling a “biological annihilation.” In addition to species extinction, we also face a changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sea ice is melting. Land ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. The deep oceans are heating up and growing more acidic. Hurricanes – like those that ravaged Puerto Rico and the southeastern U.S. – are growing more intense. Soon after that succession of hurricanes, catastrophic wildfires began roaring up the California coast, accelerated by high winds, extreme heat, and bone-dry landscapes. Climate change didn’t cause these monster storms and fires, but it certainly made them worse. These so-called “natural” disasters are not entirely natural – they are driven by dirty energy like coal, gas, and oil, which dump carbon and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and disrupt the climate.
In a precarious time, when many of us, for good reason, are stressed or tired or scared, we need once again 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 give us strength for the journey ahead and will never let us go. So thank God for St. Mark’s Cathedral! Thank God for every congregation where people draw together to pray, to listen to the wisdom of Scripture, to draw close to Jesus, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
Today’s readings give us a beautiful image for spiritual resilience. 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 feels 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. As another psalm puts it, “the river of God is full of water” (Psalm 65:9). 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 aliveness plays out in a passage from the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:7-8):
7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8 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 image so compelling that when my husband and I traveled to Seattle to lead a series of events on spiritual resilience, we named the whole thing “Rooted and Rising.” I’m not a botanist, 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 and fungi communicate with each other, and that trees develop social networks and share resources. There is a whole lot of underground life going on beneath our feet! And so it is with us: 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.
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; our time, talent, and treasure; a kind word, a healing gesture.
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, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have investments, we can divest from fossil fuels, and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest.
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we may have to confront the powers that be, especially in a time when multinational corporations and members of our own government seem intent on desecrating every last inch of God’s Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate.
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 can 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 carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong; some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a carbon tax; those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. There is so much that we can do – so many ways to bear fruit!
On this day of stewardship ingathering I give thanks for the ways that this community continues to root itself in the love of God and neighbor and to offer its gifts to a hungry, thirsty world. You are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). I trust that everything you do in Jesus’ name will prosper.
Homily delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas during The Bishop’s Annual Clergy Retreat for the Diocese of New Westminster, “Contemplative Ecology: Landscapes of the Soul,” held at Loon Lake Lodge, Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada, on October 25, 2017
Romans 6:12-18Psalm 124Luke 12:39-48
Now is the unexpected hour
The Gospel reading assigned for today is a classic text for reflecting on stewardship: the parable of the faithful and unfaithful slave, of the wise and unwise steward.
Let’s says the master leaves his house in the care of a “faithful and prudent” manager who works hard and takes good care of the estate – when that happens, says Jesus, “blessed is that slave who his master will find at work when he arrives.”
But let’s say the master leaves his house in the care of an unfaithful steward, someone who says to himself: “My master is delayed in coming. I can do whatever I please; I can beat the other slaves; I can eat, drink, get drunk.” Jesus warns that in such a case, the consequences will be terrible: The master will come on a day when [the steward] does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces.” The steward who knew what his master wanted, but did not do it, will receive a severe beating; the steward who did wrong but did not know what his master wanted will also receive a beating, though only a light one.
The point, it seems, is that there comes a time of reckoning. As the stewards of God’s Creation, we may revel for a while in an initial sense of freedom and entitlement. Hey, we may say to ourselves, the master is delayed; we can get away with doing whatever we want! We can mistreat each other and mistreat the Earth entrusted to our care. We don’t belong to each other. We don’t need to take care of each other. We have no obligation to anyone but ourselves, as individuals and as a species. If it maximizes my short-term profit, that’s all I need to know: it’s good. If it makes my life and my family’s life more comfortable, that’s all I need to know: it’s good. If it benefits my company’s shareholders, that’s all I need to know: it’s good. So go ahead – let’s pillage and plunder all we like, and pour dirty greenhouse gases into the sky as if it were an open sewer. Let’s drill, mine, extract, consume, and discard to our heart’s content – this is who we are, this is what we do. And how what we’re doing affects other beings – such as our non-human kin, and the poor, and indigenous people, and future generations – is not our concern.
Well, says Jesus, there does come a time of reckoning. The master comes home at an unexpected hour and finds that his estate – its peoples, its creatures, and its shining web of life – has been trashed. What does he do? He cuts the unfaithful steward in pieces and gives him a beating – an especially severe beating if the steward knew that what he was doing was wrong, but went ahead and did it anyway.
I interpret that harsh sentence as an expression of the master’s anger and grief: how much the master loved that piece of land and all that lived on it! How much he hoped that the people to whom he entrusted his estate would live gently and justly together, so that everyone and everything could thrive! Yet the unfaithful and unwise stewards made a mess of things. The moment of reckoning is terrible, for if it’s wrong to wreck the world, it’s especially wrong to wreck the world when you know what you’re doing and you keep doing it, anyway.
I hear a poignant echo of this parable in a book by Kathleen Dean Moore called Great Tide Rising, which is subtitled: “Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change.”Great Tide Rising considers the perilous situation in which we find ourselves because of “our dead-end culture”1 – the rising seas and extreme storms of a changing climate, the cascade of extinctions, the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor. We are wrecking the world, she says, “maybe not intentionally, but knowingly.” And then she imagines the moment of reckoning:
“What will I say when my granddaughter comes to me with her own baby in her arms and real pain in her voice and asks me, ‘What did you do to protect the Earth from this devastation?’ I cringe when I imagine what she might say:
Don’t tell me you didn’t know. You knew.
Don’t tell me you thought there was enough time. You know there wasn’t.
Don’t tell me you didn’t know what to do. Anything would have been better than nothing.
Don’t tell me the forces against you were too great! Nothing is greater than the forces against us now. And now, what would you have me do?”2
Because we are Christians we dare to face hard truths. The hard truth is that as a society we are putting the planet’s living systems in peril, and the time of reckoning is now. Now is the time to reclaim our God-given connection with the earth and our responsibility to the living, sacred web of life. Now is the time to renew our union with God and all God’s creation – which includes not just our human fellows but also all living creatures and the larger eco-systems on which all of life depend. Now is the time to change course as a society, because our present way of life is unsustainable.
Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable. Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable. Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable. We are living beyond our ecological means.
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 our fellow creatures, now would be the time.
There is a lot that we can do as individuals. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, and move to a plant-based diet. I invite you to think of one way you can listen more deeply to the land. If we have money to invest, we can invest in socially responsible funds or in local, green businesses, and divest from fossil fuels. We can support our local land trust and protect the wild areas and local farms we still have. We can do simple things like invite the neighbor we’ve never met to come over for a cup of tea, for we need to build up local communities and live in ways that are closer to the earth, more about sharing than about consuming, more about self-restraint than about self-aggrandizement, more about generosity than about self-centered and fearful survivalism, so that we can take care of each other when the hard times come. There is joy in living like this – a joy that springs simply from being true to the basic goodness that God has planted in us.
But because individual actions are necessary but not sufficient to the challenge that confronts us, together we need to create the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen. I know that Christians have traditionally called ourselves “stewards” of God’s Creation, but given the situation in which the world now finds itself, I think we need a more robust term, something like “sacred warriors” or “eco-warriors.” The word “steward” can sound too polite and passive, when in fact what we need are bold witnesses to the risen Christ and to the sacredness of the Earth entrusted by God to our care.
In a few moments we will share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost. We will gather at that holy table, as we always do, so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed – not only the bread and the wine, but also we ourselves, and the whole of creation, every leaf and every speck of sand. Sharing the Eucharist helps us to perceive not only our own belovedness, our own blessedness in God, but also the fact that everyone is beloved, all beings are blessed. Everyone and everything is part of a sacred whole, and all living things are kin. In the strength of the blessed and broken bread, and of the blessed and poured-out wine, we dare to hope that human beings will respond with grateful hearts and come to treat the world not as an object to exploit, but as a gift to receive, something perishable and precious. We dare to hope that we will become at last who we were made to be, a blessing on the earth.
1. Kathleen Dean Moore, Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change(Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2016), p. 42.
It is a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Peter, for inviting me to preach. I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ as Missioner for Creation Care. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is a joy to return to the Pacific Northwest and to see again the magnificent skies and sea and mountains of Vancouver and the glory that God reveals in this particular corner of God’s Creation – even if does seem to rain a lot!
Glory is our theme this morning – the glory of God, the glory of God’s Creation. In the passage from Exodus that we just heard, Moses engages in a long conversation with God. Eventually Moses asks, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
Before we go any further, allow me to suggest that when we think about Moses, we probably think first about what he did in public. Who is Moses? He is the leader of the Hebrew people. He is the prophet who confronted the Pharaoh, the liberator who set his people free and led them out of bondage in Egypt, the lawgiver who formed Israel as a nation. Moses is a public leader – yes – but in today’s reading we see a much more intimate side of Moses – we see his inner life. We listen in on his intimate conversation with the God who dwells within him, just as God dwells within each one of us while also being distinct from us, infinitely beyond us.
“Show me your glory,” Moses prays – a plea that we might render as: “God, show me your beauty, your goodness, your truth. Show me your ways. Show me your face.” It’s an ardent prayer, the prayer of a lover to his beloved or of one close friend to another (Exodus 33:11), the prayer of someone who has wrestled with and argued with and trusted in and cast his lot with a divine Presence who will never let him go. It is the prayer of someone who wants to draw close to love and to the Source of love. “Show me your glory.”
And God responds, yes, I will show you my glory, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33:19), but “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). And so God shelters Moses in a cleft of the rock, God tenderly cups a hand over him until God has passed by, and then God removes the hand, so that Moses can see God’s “back” (Exodus 33:23).
Anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf or gazing at an ancient forest or watching waves dancing on the shore knows what it’s like to see God’s “back.” Like Moses, we cannot see the glory of God directly, in all fullness, for that radiance would be too much for mortal eyes to bear, but by the grace of God we sometimes see God’s “back” – we catch glimpses of God’s glory, we see traces, as when Moses saw the burning bush that was on fire and yet was not consumed. It may have been just an ordinary bush, but at that moment Moses could see that even this lowly bush was on fire with the love and glory of God. He took off his shoes, for he knew that he was standing on holy ground.
Sometimes we are surprised by such moments of awakening to glory: maybe we are startled by the cry of wild geese flying overhead or by the sight of an Orca rising and falling in the ocean; we are seized with wonder and our restless worries fall away. Sometimes we prepare for these moments of awakening: maybe we have a particular sacred place in nature that we return to again and again, knowing that if we stop and gaze and wait and pray, we are likely to sense that God is present, God is passing by. The Creator of all that is is always disclosing God’s self to us in the natural world, always inviting us to slow down, look carefully, be curious, and greet our other-than-human kin.
I think that that’s what Jesus did: he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospels we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. His parables and stories are rich in images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds and rocks. As I meet Jesus in Scripture and in prayer, it seems to me that every creature he saw, every person he encountered he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world because he saw with his sacred eyes. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God’s glory, because he himself was lit up from the inside with God’s love. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins echoes what Moses saw and what Jesus saw when he writes: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
I wonder what it would be like if Christians around the world recovered a felt sense of the glory of God in Creation. What would happen to us, how would we change, what power would we receive, if we immersed ourselves more often in prayer outdoors in God’s Creation, and if, when indoors, we never forgot our connection with the living world outside? However alienated we may feel from nature, however enmeshed and trapped we may get in virtual reality and the hectic world of screens, emails, and tweets, however isolated we may feel as we hurtle down highways in our cars, the truth is that we live in a sacramental universe – a living, vibrant world that discloses and conveys the presence of God as surely as do the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
So when we see that living world being desecrated – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we realize that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus; we want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.
As individuals, there is a lot we can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, and move to a plant-based diet. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. You know the drill!
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we may have to confront the powers that be. That’s what Moses discovered after he saw God’s glory: after he saw the burning bush and the living radiance of God’s Creation, from within the burning bush he heard God call him to do a brave thing: to step out into the public realm to confront the Pharaoh and to set his people free.
I hear the same call in Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). That enigmatic line has been interpreted in all kinds of ways, but here is how I hear it today: when we’re faithful to God, we give to the emperor – or, we might say, to the state – the things that are the state’s; we respect the legitimate and limited functions of the state. But when the state puts itself in place of God – when it violates the vision and values that are basic to Christian faith – when it abandons the Earth entrusted to our care and rides roughshod over the needs of the poor – then as Christians we are called to protest, to resist the state, and to change our ways of doing business, because our ultimate commitment is to God.
Back where I come from, in the United States, that’s where many Christians now find ourselves: appalled by the actions of a government and of multinational corporations that seem intent on desecrating every last inch of Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. Impelled by our faith in the living God, the risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit, we are praying and protesting, resisting and organizing.
I can’t speak to the struggles that you face here in Canada, but I can say this: whatever obstacles you and I face as we try in the name of God to build a more just and sustainable future, however daunted we may feel, however challenging the battles that lie ahead of us, we trust that the glory of God is with us. In this Eucharist, as in every Eucharist, we will soon turn to God and say, “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” We will pray as Jesus taught us, “Our Father in heaven… the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours.” And we will stretch out our hands – as if to say, like Moses, “Show me your glory” – and we will be given the consecrated bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus, these simple elements of nature, filled with glory, giving us strength for the days ahead.
Hundreds of people – including leaders and elders of Native American tribes from across the U.S. – assembled yesterday under a large tent at Agape, a Christian community in the woods of central Massachusetts that is dedicated to social justice, non-violence, and sustainable living. We were there to mark the 35th annual celebration of St. Francis Day at Agape, and it was a thrilling, even transformative day, a day of listening, drumming, and sacred ceremony, a day of mourning and celebration.
The keynote speaker was Chief Arvol Looking Horse, whom I had last seen in December, when I accepted the invitation that he extended to religious people across the country to come to Standing Rock for an interfaith day of prayer. A descendant of Sitting Bull, Chief Arvol Looking Horse was chosen at the age of 12 to become the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe. Now in his 60’s, Chief Arvol carries his long, lanky frame with the sorrow and dignity of a person who has looked deeply into suffering and who finds hope in the wellspring of sacred ceremony and practice.
I was honored to join two other Christians representing the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care in giving the Chief an award. Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and my husband Robert Jonas, founder of the Christian-Buddhist prayer sanctuary, The Empty Bell, joined me in making brief remarks. We noted that members of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC) come from the Abrahamic faiths, including Jews, Muslims, and Christians from various traditions – Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox. Every year, the NRCCC bestows The Steward of God’s Creation Award on an individual who exhibits “courage and commitment in the caring and keeping of the earth in a heroic, distinguished and effective manner.”
The crowd erupted in applause when my husband announced, “This year, for the first time, NRCCC wishes to give its award not to a single person but to an entire people. In recognition of the spiritual and moral leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations, the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care would like to present its 2017 Steward of God’s Creation award to the Sioux Nation.”
Bishop Fisher and I exchanged a glance. The mood was joyful. Should we change the mood and press on with our planned remarks? We made the decision swiftly and without a word: Yes, we would keep going and say the hard stuff.
Bishop Fisher delivered his remarks with clarity and conviction: “We are painfully aware of the history of Christian participation in the oppression, marginalization, and murder of First Nations peoples. We recognize the tragic consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave the Church’s blessing when colonialists claimed the lands of indigenous peoples as their own. The Episcopal Church has formally repudiated and renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, as have several other Christian groups. Like Pope Francis, we grieve the ‘grave sins’ and ‘crimes’ of colonialism that were ‘committed against the Native people of America in the name of God.’
He went on to say, “Today the members of NRCCC come to you in humility, wanting you to know that we see your steadfast courage and that we cherish your spiritual vision of an earth-centered, earth-honoring life. Yours is a vision that we want to lift up across this country and around the world. It is an honor to give you this award.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped to the stage and accepted on behalf of the Sioux Nation the 2017 Steward of God’s Creation Award, which reads: “Presented in acknowledgment of your inspired courage, leadership and non-violence in protecting God’s sacred land and water.”
Later that day, Christians had another opportunity to express our deep respect for indigenous peoples and our deep repentance for the ways that Christianity has been used to commit and condone genocide. Racism has been justly called “America’s original sin,” and it began with the decimation of our land’s Native peoples. As Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in Why We Can’t Wait (1963),
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race… From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.”
Well, today was the day we would permit ourselves “to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode,” an “episode” of racist domination that continues into the present, though more covertly.
After participating in a sacred water ceremony led by Beatrice Menase Kwe Jackson, the crowd gathered around the sacred fire and listened to a Mohawk explain the ceremony of the Great Tree of Peace. According to Iroquois tradition, the cycle of conflict between separate Nations was broken when a Peacemaker – whose actual name is sometimes considered too sacred to utter – persuaded the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas to unite as the Five Nations Confederacy. As a pledge of their intention to live in peace, the Nations buried their weapons under a tall pine tree.
We intended to carry out a similar ceremony of confession and reconciliation that very afternoon, this time between Christians and First Nation peoples. Facing the crowd, I stood on the edge of the small amphitheater, with six Christians of various denominations standing beside me. Behind us was a deep pit in the ground and a young white pine tree, its roots wrapped in burlap, which was ready to be planted.
Since there was no microphone, I called out loudly:
This small circle of Christians has gathered to pray for peace. We are painfully aware of the ways that Christianity has been used over the centuries as a weapon to justify violence against indigenous peoples and violence against Mother Earth.
We are here to express our remorse and regret for this painful history.
We are here to dedicate ourselves to a renewed quest for peace with Earth, peace with our neighbors, and peace above all with our First Nations brothers and sisters.
We are here to lay our weapons down.
Today we intend to burn the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of law developed in the 15th and 16th centuries by Popes and European Kings, and eventually applied by our own Supreme Court. The doctrine held that Christian sovereigns and their representative explorers could take possession of lands that were held by non-Christians, and could do so with the full blessing and sanction of the Church. Much of the ongoing injustice and colonization suffered by Native Americans in this country over the past 500 years can be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery.
The time has come for all Christians and all people of faith and good will to renounce this doctrine and its violation of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.
Today we will deliver a copy of the document to the sacred fire and place its ashes at the base of our peace tree as a symbol of our intention to lay our weapons down.
Before we do, I invite everyone here, especially those who are Christian, to take a few moments to examine our own hearts, for it is in our hearts that we carry the seeds of violence that lead to injustices like the Doctrine of Discovery. It is in our hearts that we also carry the seeds of peace. So let us look well to our hearts, and open them to the Holy Spirit who searches for truth deep within us.
I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer.
One by one, each Christian speaker offered a prayer, and the crowd responded by chanting, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
Gracious God, we have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness, pride, and hypocrisy. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our self-indulgent appetites, our greed, the idol we make of our wealth, and our economic exploitation of other people. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, especially the oppression and genocide of Native peoples. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our waste and pollution of your creation and our addiction to fossil fuel that disrupts our climate and threatens our very life on earth. We confess our lack of concern for those who come after us. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
Accept our repentance, Lord, and give us grace to amend our lives, that we may do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
After praying Amen, I said, “Now with sacred fire we will burn the Doctrine of Discovery. As we watch and listen to the burning, we ask God to burn away everything in our hearts that is not love.”
The Rev. Nathan Beale unfurled and lifted up the Doctrine of Discovery, which was printed in Spanish on yellow parchment-like paper. Brayton Shanley, one of the founders of Agape, walked down the hill to the sacred fire, lit a torch, and walked back up. The three of us bent over the pit. A violin played. I watched as the fire bit into the paper, dissolving and destroying it before our eyes. It melted away into ash, and out of the corner of my eye I saw my fellow Episcopal priest, Nathan Beale, make the sign of the cross. I wished I’d thought to make that prayerful gesture, but it was too late: I’d already pumped my two fists in the air as a gesture of triumph: the sacred fire had consumed the Doctrine of Discovery.
I trust that both gestures are a faithful response whenever we lay our weapons down.
“Plant the tree!” Brayton cried, and at once several men set themselves to hoisting the pine tree and maneuvering its root ball into the pit. Down into the ground it went, to be fed from below by the ashes of a doctrine that was wielded as a weapon. May all our renounced and buried weapons turn into good compost, so that many trees of life can spring up and bear fruit!
After the peace tree was planted, hundreds of people streamed up the hill. One by one they knelt down to place a bit of sacred tobacco at the base of the tree, praying to release trauma and receive healing. Whatever race they belonged to, whatever language they spoke, whatever religion they held dear, I trusted that we shared a common intention: to become peacemakers and to head together toward healing and fullness of life.
VIDEOS of the day
Robert A. Jonas filmed the Christian ceremony of repenting the Doctrine of Discovery, setting it on fire, and burying its ashes under a pine tree. The 12-minute video is here.
David Legg created a photographic record of the day’s events, featuring flute music by his Native American friend, Standing Bear, and singing by Elisabeth von Trapp. The 11-minute video is here.
Stories like these pull us into prayer – grief for those who perished, anguish for those in harm’s way, gratitude for the people saving everyone they can, and a rising tide of anger and resolve: we will not stand idly by as people drown and are dislocated in extreme storms like these.
Part of a faithful response is concrete and immediate: if we live nearby and have a boat or clothes to spare, we can offer what we have. Wherever we live, if we have money to spare, we can donate to a disaster relief organization, including faith-rooted groups such as Episcopal Relief and Development and Church World Service.
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University likewise confirmed the connections between climate change and Harvey’s destructive power. In his article entitled, “It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly,” Mann pointed out that, while climate change did not “cause” Harvey, “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”
This week, author and social activist Naomi Klein also pointed out that Harvey “didn’t come out the blue”: it was just the kind of extreme weather event that climate scientists have long been predicting. Surely now is the time, she argues, to have a serious policy debate in this country about the host of questions that Harvey raises: What kind of energy should we rely on (a question, she points out, “with jarring implications for the dominant industry in the region being hit hardest: oil and gas”)? What kind of safety net do we need to provide for the poor, the ill, and the elderly, given their vulnerability in times of disaster and given the certainty that storms like Harvey are only a harbinger of the climate-related storms that lie ahead?
Journalist Wen Stephenson is also attuned to the links between climate change and social justice. In an article with the bold headline, “Houston’s Human Catastrophe Started Long Before the Storm,” he writes: “Our unfolding climate catastrophe… is rooted in social and economic inequalities that render most vulnerable the most marginalized and powerless… Decades of neglect, inequality, and disenfranchisement – to say nothing of heedless development and a lack of flood planning tantamount to criminal negligence – mean that Houstonians of all backgrounds, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities, primarily communities of color, have been left utterly undefended.”
Climate change has never been only about polar bears. Stabilizing the climate is about social, racial, and economic justice, too – about treating Earth and each other with reverence and respect. How many more floods need to drown or displace our citizens and destroy our homes before we wake up to the climate crisis and take urgent steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground? How many more vulnerable communities are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and keep enriching fossil fuel industry billionaires?
Meanwhile, as Harvey brings devastation to our Gulf Coast, a record-breaking strong monsoon season in Southeast Asia has caused over 1200 deaths this summer. Thanks to Harvey, Americans are newly aware of the suffering caused by floods exacerbated by climate change. Perhaps now we can look with greater empathy at similar images coming from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh – images of other mothers wading through flooded areas, carrying their children in their arms; images of other homes destroyed and other communities cut off, with no food and clean water for days.
Perhaps now, after seeing what Harvey is doing to Houston, we can look ahead and grasp more clearly – more viscerally – what it means when scientists predict that sea level rise will flood hundreds of American cities in the near future. A new report published by The Union of Concerned Scientists shows that by the end of the century, chronic flooding – defined as flooding so unmanageable that it drives people to move away – “will be occurring from Maine to Texas and along parts of the West Coast. It will affect as many as 670 coastal communities, including Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida; and four of the five boroughs of New York City.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts? I was born and grew up there. By the end of the century? I do the arithmetic, figuring the ages of my children and grandchildren. I imagine the social chaos, the streams of refugees, the abandoned buildings.
Will we look back on Harvey (and Katrina and Sandy) as the first in a relentless wave of storms that eventually brought down many of America’s great cities? Or will we look back on Harvey as the storm that finally got the attention of the American public and showed us the urgent need to take action on climate?
Climate change is neither distant nor abstract. It is real, present, and personal. Our country’s President denies the existence and human causes of climate change, and his environmental policies surely make matters worse, but people of faith, and people of good will, refuse to abandon the Earth entrusted to our care.
Tomorrow, on September 1, Christians will mark a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Whatever your faith tradition, I invite you to join in this planet-wide pause to hold our troubled world in our hearts. I invite you to go outside and appreciate the living world around you – the trees, soil, water, birds, and clouds. I invite you to acknowledge your own grief, anger, and fear about the Earth’s unraveling web of life, and I invite you to seek the guidance, resolve, and courage that come from listening to our deepest inner wisdom, the place where Love dwells.
For millions of Christians worldwide, September 1 marks the first day of the Season of Creation, a season dedicated to lifting up the sacredness of the natural world. Creation Season generally ends on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the man often called the patron saint of ecology. (For resources to mark this day of prayer and the whole Creation Season, visit Creation Justice Ministries.)
Here in Massachusetts, Episcopal congregations will mark their own Season of Creation, from October 4 through the end of November. In the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, we have assembled a mass of resources to help individuals and communities of faith to mark Creation Season. I hope that you will take a look, and decide how you and your community of faith will act, advocate, learn, and pray on behalf of God’s good Earth. How will you celebrate Creation Season this year? Will you design an outdoor worship service at a place of environmental degradation? Offer prayers to bless solar panels? Preach about the climate crisis? Carry out non-violent civil disobedience to protest a new gas pipeline? Organize a study group?
How will the extraordinary suffering and tragedy of Harvey – much of it endured beyond the reach of TV cameras and crew – strengthen your intention to become an agent of healing and hope?
An ecumenical statement from Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, responding to the President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.
President Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Climate Accord violates the values and vision that are basic to Christian faith. Our Judaeo-Christian heritage teaches that the Earth and its web of life are precious in God’s sight (Genesis 1-2:3), that the Earth belongs not to us but to God (Psalm 24), and that we are entrusted with loving the Earth as God loves it (Genesis 2:15). As followers of Jesus, we are committed to God’s mission of reconciling people with each other and with the whole of creation.
Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord is a tragic mistake, and we applaud the Parliament of the World’s Religions strong condemnation of the President’s decision. We concur that this decision is scientifically, economically, medically, politically and morally wrong. With heartache we recognize the devastating toll of suffering that will be exacted by this Administration’s refusal to address the climate crisis. We are appalled by the Administration’s unwillingness to join with other nations in protecting and stabilizing the atmosphere upon which our species – and so many other forms of life – depend.
This historic moment provides Christian communities with a powerful opportunity to bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and the urgent call to preserve it. This is our chance to be the church. Episcopalians and other members of the Anglican Communion recognize Five Marks of Mission. The Fifth Mark is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” The United Church of Christ affirms this vocation in its new mission initiative known as the three great loves, one of which is love of creation. If we listen carefully, the voice of our still-speaking God resounds above the jeers and cheers in response to Trump’s decision. God is calling our congregations and clergy to rise to the occasion and to become bold witnesses to the creative power of God.
Now is the time to bear witness to the Christ who rises from the tomb and who proclaims that life and not death will have the last word.
We call upon our congregations and clergy to embrace this moment of opportunity in three ways:
Accept the mantle of moral leadership
Now is the time for clergy to speak from their pulpits about the moral obligation of our
generation to protect God’s creation. Let the world know that whatever the current American administration may say or do, the Jesus movement will not back away from God’s call to protect our common home.
Now is the time for congregations and for every person of faith to set a moral example through our own words and actions. As individuals and as communities, we can commit to making decisions of integrity in our energy choices, and to holding our leaders accountable to do the same.
Proclaim truth in the public square
Now is the time for communities of faith to be bold and courageous in proclaiming truth in the public square. It is now abundantly clear that the Federal Government will not address the greatest moral challenge that the world has ever faced. It is up to us.
Let us commit to resist all expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and demand new sources of renewable energy that are accessible to all communities. As people of faith, we can and we must change America’s understanding of the story that our generation is writing. We must begin a new story – a story that is not dependent on fossil fuel or on wealth for the few and misery for the many.
In the streets, at the State House, with our phones and emails, by committing our time, financial resources and prayers – it is up to us – we the people – to bend the moral arc of justice. And we will.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal
Conference Minister and President
Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher
Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
Missioner for Creation Care
Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
This statement sprang from a discussion among The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ), The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts), and The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Missioner for Creation Care, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ). We are glad to make it available to the wider Church.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
It is a joy to be with you again. I had the pleasure of serving as your Priest Associate for nine years, and it is wonderful to be back. Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to preach. I feel a bit like the apostles whom Jesus sent out to heal and preach and teach, and who returned to Jesus to report back on what they had learned and how things were going. I will spare you a long report on what I’ve been up to over the past three-and-a-half years as Missioner for Creation Care in this diocese and in the Mass. Conference of the United Church of Christ. My Website, RevivingCreation.org, will tell you anything you want to know. But I will say that this has been a lively and rewarding time of building up the God-centered, Spirit-led movement to protect the web of life and to create a more just and sustainable future. I’ve been traveling around, preaching, speaking and leading retreats, aiming to mobilize a wave of religious activism to find solutions to the climate crisis. It’s been heartening to catch glimpses of the many ways that members of this congregation share in this mission with me. Just two weeks ago I met up with four of you – along with more than 200,000 other dedicated souls – at the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., and many others of you took part in local events on the same day here in the Valley. Thank you for that witness.
Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – is drawn from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends, telling them that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. “[Jesus said,] ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).
I don’t know about you, but just now it is startling for me to hear “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” because naturally our hearts are troubled. On a personal level, all sorts of things may be troubling us: maybe financial worries, or a medical issue, or some conflict in an important relationship. Regarding politics, many of us are troubled by the extraordinary events now unfolding in our nation’s Capitol, from the firing of the Director of the FBI to growing concerns about Russian interference in the last election and possible collusion and cover-up by our nation’s top leaders: we may well be troubled by what looks like an assault on the institutions that maintain democracy.
And we have good reason to be deeply troubled by the ongoing and accelerating attack on God’s Creation, the Earth upon which all life depends. Our current leaders seem determined to develop more coal, gas, and oil, just when we urgently need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. They likewise seem determined to ignore climate science, to shut down climate Websites, to withdraw funding for climate research, and to abandon regulations that protect our health and environment, as if ignoring the climate crisis will make it go away. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is being affected and is in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing and releasing methane – a serious greenhouse gas. Storms are becoming more intense. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Scientists recently reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
For all of us who feel anxious and unsettled in this turbulent time, today’s Gospel passage brings words of reassurance and hope. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Here is the first great promise that Jesus makes to us this morning: our souls have a destination, a home in God. We may enter the fullness of that divine dwelling place only at the end of our lives, but anyone with sustained experience in prayer, especially contemplative prayer, knows that we’re also invited to enter that dwelling place now. God is found not just “somewhere out there,” in a distant place or time. God is found right here and now, in the intimate, unrepeatable present moment. Every ache in us, every bit of restlessness and striving, every desire that moves through us in the course of a day, is an echo of the soul’s deep hunger for communion with God. The longing for our sacred Home in God is at the root of all our other longings and desires.
But how do we find that Home in God? How do we get there? Even if, strictly speaking, there is nowhere to get to, even if in some sense God is already here, already alive in our depths and in our midst, how do we discover that truth for ourselves? What is the path? What is the way? That is the question that Thomas asks Jesus. You know how Jesus answers: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That is the second great promise that Jesus makes to us this morning: there is a way into the heart of God, and Christ is the path. Christ is the way.
I am ashamed to say that Christians have too often wielded this statement as a cudgel against people of other faiths, holding it aloft like a fist: follow Jesus or else. Christians have too often interpreted this statement as Jesus speaking from his ego to our ego, as if Jesus wants to bolster the part of our selves that likes to have power, to dominate and be in control. But when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus is not speaking from his ego to our ego. He is speaking from his soul to our soul. He is inviting us to trust him, to be devoted to him, to dedicate ourselves to following him so that we, too, are drawn, as he is drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed. Jesus is the gateway to the great way: to a universal love in which no one is left out.
So Jesus speaks to the soul and says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the indwelling presence of God, the creative Wisdom of God through whom all things were made, in whom everything is knit together, and toward whom all things in heaven and on earth converge. I make my home in you and in every person, whatever he or she happens to believe, and whether he or she is aware of it or not. You can ignore me, you can deny me, you can conceal me under all the worries and pleasures of your life, but if you open yourself to me in quiet prayer – if you listen attentively to my silent love – if you practice paying attention to my presence as you go through the day – if you lean on my love and trust in my power – what amazing things you and I will do together!” (c.f. Acts 17:6).
This is what distinguishes secular activists from activists who are led by faith: secular activists depend on people power, on their own power, on what human beings can accomplish by themselves. And this can be a lot! But Spirit-led activists depend on God’s power. They draw from a sacred power beyond themselves, from a source of love and strength far greater than anything they can ask for or imagine. In these troubled times, we need Spirit-led activists, people who take time to pray and to listen inwardly for the presence of the Spirit, people who resist the temptation to get so caught up in tracking the latest breaking news, the latest tweet, the latest post on social media, that we forget to tap into the wisdom that can only be found deep within, by patient listening in silence. In these troubled times, we need Spirit-led activists who step out to do what needs to be done, even if they have no assurance of success – activists who bear witness to the ongoing flow of love that God pours into our hearts through the power of the Spirit (Romans 5:5), even in a world often gripped by cruelty and fear.
Thanks be to God, people of all faiths are rising up the world over to proclaim the sacredness of God’s Creation and to express our refusal to stand idly by and let the web of life be destroyed. People of faith are lobbying, and advocating, and pressing our politicians to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. People of faith are blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines, pushing for a fair price on carbon, and working to build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health.
You never know where the Spirit will lead you. A UCC pastor and friend of mine, long-time activist Andrea Ayvazian, was recently praying as she rode a train to and from Texas, and the Spirit gave her a vision of a school that teaches people how to build the movement for eco-social justice. Thus was born the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership. Launched just this month, it offers free classes from Greenfield to Springfield on everything from how to write for social change, to how to run for office, how to prepare for non-violent civil disobedience, and how to maintain a peaceful heart. The Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership is already on its way to becoming a model for how to start similar schools in cities across the country. Check it out online or pick up one of the brochures I’ve left at the door to the church. I’ll be teaching a class on spiritual resilience in a couple of weeks.
I see the Spirit at work in the climate action network here in the Pioneer Valley, Climate Action Now, which is engaged in campaigns to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. The monthly meetings of Climate Action Now begin and end with silence, prayer, or singing, and if you sign up for their weekly newsletter, you’ll be joining a vibrant local effort.
The Spirit also inspired the formation of another group, the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together Christians, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, and people of all religious traditions to push for legislation in Massachusetts that supports climate justice.
Here’s my last invitation. I’d love to see you on Sunday afternoon, June 11, when we hold a festive, outdoor, interfaith service in Northampton called “Prayers for the Planet: Reverence and Resistance.” We’ll have two powerful guest speakers, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond and Jay O’Hara, along with Gospel music, singing, prayers, and leaders from a range of world religions, as we join together to refresh our spirits and renew our resolve. Thank you, Grace Church, for being a sponsor of this unusual event. I hope that many of you will come.
Yes, we live in troubled times, but the Jesus movement was made for times like these. If you knew that Jesus was with you, if you knew that he believes in you and in what you can accomplish, if you knew that his Spirit was guiding you, sustaining you, and giving you strength, what would you do next? What new step would you take? You may not know the answer right off the bat, but if you ask the Spirit to guide you, She will.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”