Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Haydenville Congregational Church, Haydenville, MA John 13:31-15

Love in a time of climate emergency

We have a wonderful text to reflect on this morning, a passage from the Gospel of John. The scene is the Last Supper, and Jesus is beginning to say goodbye. He knows that his life is about to be cut short and that the next day he will die. So Jesus gathers with his friends for a final meal, and in an act of humble service, he washes their feet. Then, as Judas steps out into the night to betray him, Jesus turns to the gathered circle and says those familiar words: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:13-35).

These are urgent and tender words, the words of someone facing death and eager to convey what really matters. “Little children, love one another.” I’m told that in John the Evangelist’s old age, that was the basic message he brought to one community of faith after another: “Little children, love one another.” After spending time with Jesus, and after years of meditating on Jesus’ life and teaching, on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the aging evangelist could find no more direct route into the heart of the Gospel than simply to say, “Little children, love one another.” This brings to mind a poem by Michael Leunig:1 There are only two feelings. Love and fear. There are only two languages. Love and fear. There are only two activities. Love and fear. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear. As followers of Jesus, we may be called to love, but I don’t for a moment believe that we’re not also well acquainted with fear. I remember my childhood fears, such as my fear of the monsters lurking under the bed, and how important it was not to let even one toe stick out beyond the edge of the mattress. I remember my fear that when my parents went out at night, they might not come back. I remember my fear of the swarm of bees that nested near the front door; my fear, during piano recitals, that I might forget which note came next; my fear that I might be chosen last for the softball team, or, what’s worse, that the ball might actually come hurtling in my direction and – dreadful thought – all my team-mates would count on me to catch it. The fears of a child gradually morph into the fears of an adult, and even though we grownups may go to a great deal of trouble not to appear anxious or afraid, most us face some kind of fear every day. Fears come in all shapes and sizes. What are you afraid of? Chances are excellent that several of us fear the same thing. And we know what that’s like: how, when frightened, we hold our breath, our bellies clench and our hearts race. There’s a lot of fear going around these days, and we have reason to worry. In addition to our personal fears, we feel a collective shudder about the state of the world, from the assault on women’s reproductive rights to the harsh treatment of immigrants. For me, it’s the ecological crisis that wakes me up at night, for scientists are reporting with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Just think of it: the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by the development of great swaths of land and the destruction of habitat. Human activity has wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. Alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation,” and 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.”  A few weeks ago, a sweeping new report from the U.N. spoke about the possible extinction of as many as one million plant and animal species in the near future. And then there’s the climate crisis. Burning fossil fuels like 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. The people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor, and unless we change course fast, we will not be able to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming worldwide.
Doug Renick, MBJ, Rev. Peter Ives preparing to lead the service
So are we afraid? You bet we’re afraid, and if we’re not, we ought to be. As David Wallace-Wells says in the opening sentence of his new book about climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”2 Fear is appropriate and real, and fear can propel us to take urgently needed and long-delayed action. But fear can also freeze us in our tracks, so that we get paralyzed and stuck in inertia, wondering if it’s worth doing anything at all: “Maybe it’s too late to change course and maybe we’re too far gone. Besides, what difference can one person make?” Paralyzed by fear, we can close down, put up our blinkers, and carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. And fear can separate us from each other, so that we push each other aside and build walls to keep each other out and keep each other down. Fear can lead us to oppress and dominate each other, and it’s fear that drives the politics of “divide and rule.” That’s why I find Jesus’ words so powerful: they dispel fear. “Little children, love one another,” Jesus says to us. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Our fear may be strong, and the powers-that-be in this world may be doing all they can to stoke our fears of each other and to pull us apart, but Jesus’ words and presence convey bracing good news: we are infused and surrounded by a divine love that holds us together and will never let us go. God loves us, and all Creation, with a love that nothing can destroy. As we breathe that divine love in and as we share it with each other and the world around, our moral courage and strength are renewed. That is the great gift that communities of faith can give the world in such a frightening time: practices of prayer and community, practices of meditation and story-telling, practices of singing and ceremony, that connect us with a sacred, loving Power beyond ourselves. We don’t have to settle for a life that is undergirded and overshadowed by fear. As the Persian poet Hafiz once put it, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”3 When we move out of fear and into God’s love, we discover how precious we are, how precious our neighbors are, how precious this whole, beautiful planet is, and we rise up, filled with Spirit, as healers and justice-seekers, building community as we go. When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we 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 divest from fossil fuels; if we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well. 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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 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. So, we can join Climate Action Now, our strong, local, grassroots climate-action group right here in the Pioneer Valley that meets every month in Amherst or Northampton. We can support the Green New Deal, which is the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. (Incidentally, two interfaith groups, GreenFaith and Interfaith Power & Light have statements on their Websites that we can sign, to show that people of faith support the goals and values of the Green New Deal.) Those of us who are white and privileged can 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. Will our efforts be successful? Will we avert runaway climate change? I don’t know. But I do know that every choice matters. Every degree of temperature-rise matters. “Even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.” And love matters. Love matters most of all. I will end with a story about love and fear.4 Back in 2001 I screwed up my courage and decided to carry out my first act of civil disobedience. That’s how I met your former pastor, Andrea Ayvazian: in Washington, DC, where she was helping to organize a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, that was planning to protest President Bush’s intention to drill for more oil in the Arctic. Here’s what happened: On the first day we learned about oil drilling and the Arctic, about climate change and fossil fuels. On the second we lobbied our members of Congress and studied the disciplines of non-violent civil disobedience. On the third, about a hundred of us marched down Independence Avenue in religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, an enormous stone structure surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. So far, everything was legal. Then came the part that wasn’t. I’ll read from an essay I wrote about what that was like. The worship service was coming to an end. We sang “Amazing Grace,” and then the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy. I felt us cross an invisible boundary. With the others, I stepped over a threshold I could not see. I walked out of my ordinary life. I am neither a law-breaker nor a thrill-seeker. More often than not, I follow the rules – even enforce them. I fasten my seat belt, don’t cheat on taxes, write thank you notes, and stand up when the band plays our national anthem. But here I was, intentionally and publicly breaking the law. As if some inner revolution had quietly taken place, the old “me” was no longer in charge. Whatever security I’d felt in operating within the rules was gone. That’s partly why I felt so frightened as I left the safety of the circle and moved toward the door: I hardly recognized myself. I hardly knew who I was. §§ We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard. At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray. Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone. I lift up my hands. I’m dressed for Holy Communion. I might as well hold out my arms as I do at Communion. Instead of pews filled with parishioners, I see ranks of police and a cluster of supporters. I am afraid. I’ve never been arrested before. Years ago, as a VISTA volunteer in Mayor Rizzo’s Philadelphia I heard countless stories of police brutality. It’s not that I really expect the same thing to happen to me – the punch in the gut, the assault behind closed doors. Still, my body tenses as I place myself against the cops, the Feds, the law. I close my eyes. One by one we pray aloud, words thrown into space, words hurled against stone. Is this whole thing ridiculous? I briefly open my eyes and notice a well-dressed man watching us. He strokes his tie, leans over and says something to a fellow nearby. The two of them chuckle. I have no idea what they’re talking about but I wonder if they think we look absurd. I suppose we do. Here we are with our jerry-rigged signs, our predictably earnest songs and prayers of protest, a foolhardy band straight out of the ‘60’s. Defensively, I imagine confronting that mocking man with the arsenal of our credentials. “We’re no rag-tag bunch,” I want to tell him. “We’re people with doctorates and master’s degrees – nurses and ministers, writers and accountants. Thoughtful people, educated people, professionals.” I am distracted from prayer by this indignant outburst. “Let it go,” wisdom tells me. “None of that matters — your degrees, your skills, your status in the world. The privileges of race and class mean nothing now. You’re a woman on your knees, that’s who you are — one human being pleading with God.” I turn my attention back to prayer and continue to stretch out my arms. Suddenly I realize that behind the tension, behind the fear and self-consciousness, something else is welling up. I am jubilant. “Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at Communion. “We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response. How did I miss it? After years of going to church, after years of celebrating Communion, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance. That worship is an act of human liberation. The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released? I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt. It is God I love, and God’s green earth. I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great. So what if our numbers are small? So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power? I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering. We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand. This is what I love. Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.” I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy. That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy. Love and fear. Love and fear. I invite you to take a moment to remember a time when you took a brave step toward fullness of life, a time when you made a decision to do the right thing, even though you knew it would be difficult or costly. Who inspired you to be bolder than you thought? With whom do you hold hands, literally or figuratively, when you step out to make a difference in the world? And if you knew you could not fail – if you were set free from fear – what would you do for the healing of our world? Let’s take a moment in silence, and then I invite your response.   1. Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer (NY: HarperCollins, 1991). 2. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 2019). 3. Hafiz, quoted by Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2002), 83. 4. This story is adapted from part of my chapter, “When Heaven Happens,” in the anthology Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 78-81.

What is an emergency? Merriam-Webster defines emergency as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.” Does climate change count as an emergency? Not if an “emergency” is necessarily “unforeseen,” for when it comes to climate change, scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades, telling us that burning massive quantities of fossil fuels would lead to catastrophe. Of course, the fossil fuel industry (see #ExxonKnew) has spent millions of dollars trying to make the climate emergency as “unforeseen” as possible, for as long as possible, to as many people as possible. But the clock has run out. The time of reckoning is at hand. Foreseen or unforeseen, the climate crisis is upon us and it calls for immediate action.

MBJ with Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley and Rev. Dr. Jim Antal. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

In the same week that the U.K. became the first country to declare “an environment and climate emergency,” and in the same week that the Anglican Communion became, as far as I know, the first global religious body to recognize a climate emergency, National Religious Coalition for Creation gathered for its 20th annual prayer breakfast in Washington, DC. NRCCC is a group composed of members of major faith groups in America, including Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox Christians, and Jews. After opening prayers, a lively presentation by Chad Hanson (Director of the John Muir Project) on forest protection as an essential aspect of addressing climate change, and the bestowal of the 2019 Steward of God’s Creation award to two outstanding climate champions – the Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley and the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal – we moved outside to announce the release of Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Climate Emergency.

Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency clarifies two essential facts: humanity has an extremely short window of time in which to avert irreversible climate chaos, and religions around the world consider protecting God’s Creation a moral and spiritual imperative.

Perhaps it was fitting that the Religious Declaration was publicly announced in Pershing Park, a National World War I Memorial. Just as William James and Jimmy Carter spoke of “the moral equivalent of war,” so, too, are increasing numbers of citizens realizing that we need to address climate change with the same focus, fervor and self-sacrifice of a nation that is mobilized to fight a war.

The stakes are high. As stated in the opening lines of the Religious Declaration, climate change is unlike any other challenge that confronts humanity, “because it is largely irreversible ‘for 1,000 years after emissions stop’ with ‘profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies for the next ten millennia and beyond.’1 The shocking truth is that decisions we make now could, in the words of climate economist Ross Garnaut, ‘haunt humanity until the end of time.’2 Nuclear war, while also irreversible, is only a possibility. Human-induced climate change is underway now, and its impacts are greater and more extensive than scientific models predicted. We will significantly alter the future of civilization as we know it and may eventually cause its collapse if we continue down this path.”

Announcement of Religious Declaration: Anita (Ani) Fête Crews, Jim Davidson, Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, MBJ, David W. Carroll, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Michael Kelly, Rabbi Warren Stone, Richard Cizik. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

The Declaration calls for bold, concerted action: “Decades of delay on climate action have made small corrective measures and incremental approaches useless. Those who are invested in maintaining the status quo, or who put forth proposals that are clearly incompatible with what climate science demands, are condemning innocent young people – including their own children and generations to come – to a future of unimaginable suffering: the mass death of human populations and the extinction of species.”

The Declaration places the climate crisis within a moral context: “Further delay in addressing climate change is a radical evil that as people of faith we vigorously oppose.”

One of the principal writers of the document, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Professor of Philosophical Theology and Sustainability Studies, Creighton University, reflected later on this last point. He commented: “The manufacturing of doubt and the sowing of confusion about climate change by fossil-fuel-industry-funded think tanks, the deceptive climate-change reporting by ideologically-driven media outlets, the investing in fossil fuel infrastructure by banks and high-profile investors, the expansion of pipelines, oil, and gas wells are all radically evil actions that continue to this day.  The institutions that engage in these actions are enemies of humanity and the web of life.  We will oppose these institutions from our churches and synagogues, from our pulpits and lecterns, and from our social halls and gathering spaces.  We will fill the halls of power like the young people in the Sunrise Movement in their push for a Green New Deal; we will join school-aged children in the streets striking for climate action; and we will rebel with the young people in the Extinction Rebellion in the race to head off the destabilizing of the climate system within which civilization developed.”

I, too, was one of the principal authors of the Religious Declaration, and in our press release, I commented: “God sent us into the world to bless and heal, not to ravage and destroy. But 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. As people of faith, we stand with the Spirit of life, who calls us to build a more just society in which all people and all God’s creatures can thrive.”

The three principal authors of the Religious Declaration: MBJ, David W. Carroll, and Dr. Richard W. Miller. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

The third lead author of the Religious Declaration, inventor and tech business entrepreneur David W. Carroll, asserted: “There is no moment more critical for all-out personal and cooperative action. Today’s environmental emergency demands we implement solar and wind with power storage immediately. It is ready, and it provides unequalled economic value. Let us not fail in our duty to serve and protect Planet Earth.”

The Declaration amplifies statements that major denominations have already issued on climate change. Religious groups across the United States, including the National Council of Churches, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Central Conference of American Rabbis, National Association of Evangelicals, and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, have all called upon policymakers and elected officials to take strong action to address global climate change.

Are there risks in declaring climate change an “emergency”? I will name two. One risk is that the moment will be wasted – the proposed solutions will be weak and ineffective. A recent blog post from Council Action in the Climate Emergency (CACE) explains: “As climate emergency talking and thinking shifts further towards climate emergency action, it is imperative that ‘climate emergency’ is not co-opted to mean something ‘convenient’ or ‘pragmatic’ (i.e. weak goals and slow action). Climate emergency has to stand for safe climate principles for restoring a safe climate.” (The article, which is by Bryony Edwards, goes on to propose how to set targets for climate emergency emissions.)

A second risk in declaring a climate emergency is that political and corporate powers could thereby be given free rein to consolidate their advantages and shut out the people who suffer the most. Casey Williams, a writer in North Carolina, points out in an article for The Outline, “…Given that the American right seems to be quietly coming around to the reality of climate change (despite some high-profile acts of denial), ‘national emergency’ rhetoric and policy could easily become a conservative strategy for dealing with climate change by building ‘big, beautiful walls’ to exclude various Others from America’s relative stability. Meanwhile, the wealthy in the U.S. and around the globe will continue to erect seawalls around their coastal villas and hire private firefighters to protect their Malibu mansions. The real tragedy of treating climate change as an emergency, rather than an uneven distribution of physical and social harm, is that it would worsen the inequality that brought us to this point in the first place.”

In my view, the Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency successfully avoids both risks. It presents a menu of effective solutions. And it also lifts up the need to tackle both the ecological and the economic crises. As Pope Francis stated in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, we need to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor – neither one can be adequately addressed alone.

That is why Religious Declaration supports “the bold direction of the Green New Deal, or other similar science-based proposals, as an opportunity for this country to commit to stabilizing the climate while creating ‘unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.’ This specifically includes low-income communities, communities of color, and those that have historically been marginalized or underserved. The Green New Deal is the first resolution that addresses the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. Our nation mobilized every part of society during World War II and the Great Depression. Like the Greatest Generation, we must rise to the occasion and commit to doing what science says it takes to avoid irreversible catastrophic climate chaos and make a rapid and just transition to a clean energy economy.”

A group from NRCCC gathers before lobbying a staffer of U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican representing Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District: MBJ, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Michael Kelly, Richard Cizik, Fred Krueger (Executive Coordinator of NRCCC), David W. Carroll, and Dr. Robert A. Jonas.

  • Other interfaith groups also support the Green New Deal. GND is not a piece of legislation, but a statement of vision and values. To sign “Faith Principles for a Green New Deal” sponsored by Interfaith Power & Light, click here. To learn more about the Green New Deal and to sign a GreenFaith statement of support, click here.

The NRCCC’s Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency has been signed by religious leaders across the country, including heads of denominations, bishops, clergy, and leaders of interfaith environmental organizations. Here are some of the religious leaders who signed the Declaration: Rev. John Dorhauer (General Minister and President, United Church of Christ); Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California); Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts); Rt. Rev. Gregory H. Rickel (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, Seattle, WA); Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld (Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire); Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts); Rt. Rev. Roy F. (Bud) Cederholm Jr. (Retired Bishop Suffragan, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts); Rev. Fletcher Harper (Executive Director, GreenFaith); Phoebe Morad (Executive Director, Lutherans Restoring Creation); Rabbi Warren Stone (Central Conference of American Rabbis), Rabbi Benjamin Weiner (Jewish Community of Amherst, MA); Rabbi Alison Adler (Temple B’nai Abraham, Beverly, MA); Rabbi Moshe Givental (West Bloomfield, MI); Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (Jewish Climate Action Network, Wayland MA); Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President); Rev. Brooks Berndt, Ph.D. (Minister for Environmental Justice, United Church of Christ); Rev. Mariama White-Hammond (Pastor, New Roots AME Church, Boston); Rev. Fred Small (Minister for Climate Justice, Arlington Street Church, Unitarian Universalist, Boston).

I will give the last word to a rabbi and a pastor. Each of them was moved to write a short response to the Religious Declaration, praying that it would reach many minds and hearts.

Rabbi Warren Stone (Central Conference of American Rabbis and Co-chair of NRCCC) wrote: “We must act boldly and with vision to stem the tides of climate change’s devastating impact on humanity and all God’s creation. May we look back on our day and age and say that we saw what was happening to the climate and we acted with courage and prescience to do what was necessary to cut our CO2 emissions and dramatically reduce the threats of climate destruction for future generations.”

The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President) wrote: “Momentum is growing as congregations from every faith tradition are shifting their focus from personal salvation to collective salvation. Along with the outspoken voices of children and youth, people of faith are declaring that we are now in a time of reckoning. To continue ‘business as usual’ as the corporate powers insist is morally bankrupt. God is calling us to re-build our economy and center our lives on sustainable, earth-restoring values and practices.”

Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency is posted at the NRCCC Website and can be read and downloaded here.


1. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, Pierre Friedlingstein, (2009) Irreversible Climate Change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (6) 1704-1709, at 1704; DOI:10.1073/pnas.0812721106; and Peter U. Clark et al, (2016). Consequences of Twenty-First-Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.Nature Climate Change. 6.10.1038/nclimate2923.

2. http://www.garnautreview.org.au/pdf/Garnaut_Chapter24.pdf (last lines of the review)
https://cosmosmagazine.com/climate/ross-garnaut-s-bright-idea.

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.