July 1, 2020 This is the fourth in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. Matthew 3:13-17

Faith for the Earth: Who do we think we are?

In a time that is so precarious and uncertain, I think it’s worthwhile to go back to basics and to claim the deep wisdom of our different faith traditions. Who do we think we are?  That’s the question I’d like to reflect on this morning.  Every religious tradition has its own ways of answering that question, its own ceremonies and celebrations to help its members remember what it means to be a human being.  For Christians, the ceremony of baptism has a crucial role to play in revealing our human identity and vocation.

The passage we just heard is one of the essential, not-to-be-missed stories of Christian faith, a story that is told or referred to in all four Gospels, and it’s the very first story about Jesus in the very earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan was clearly a decisive experience, a pivotal event that revealed who he was and launched his public ministry. When Jesus was baptized, he accepted the identity that had been his since before time began: He was, and had always been, the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one could take that love away. Following Jesus, Christians of every denomination consider baptism a basic practice of our tradition, although not all of us take a plunge into a river or another body of water – many of us get only a small splash at a font inside a church. Still, however the ceremony is carried out, we believe that what happened to Jesus in his baptism can happen to us in ours, if we desire to be awakened to the divine within.  From that moment and for the rest of our lives, we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable, unshakable relationship of love. Do you ever wonder who you are, who you really are, deep down?  Today’s Gospel story gives the answer. Without doing a thing to earn it or deserve it, you are the son, you are the daughter, you are the beloved of God – you are the one with whom God is well pleased.  Of course, every day we can have doubts about ourselves and wonder whether we’re good enough, smart enough – beautiful, handsome, or successful enough.  But we have a deeper identity that we can claim.  Those who follow the Abrahamic traditions believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, which means that deep within our everyday self, we have an eternal Self that is always embraced by our loving God.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, wherever the Spirit sends you, the divine life is flowing through you, as close as your breath, as close as your heartbeat.  You and I belong to the eternal Divine forever, and love is our essential nature. I don’t know about you, but I find it deeply consoling to hold on to this truth right now, when so many of us feel stressed, scattered, anxious or depressed. We live in a turbulent time, and the world is rapidly changing.  Sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, and it’s easy to feel unmoored, ungrounded, and afraid. What a perfect moment to remind ourselves of our eternal Self (capital S) and to touch in again to the deep truth that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, and that at this very moment nothing can separate us from the love of God (Roman 8:35-39). Here’s the thing: the love that is awakened within us through baptism or other rituals, the love that flows through us with our every breath – that love extends not only to us or to people like us, but also to the whole human family – in fact, it extends to the whole Creation.  Scripture tells us so – we see this message and promise in Genesis and the psalms, in the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul.1 God’s love is boundless and sustains all things. We don’t have to be mystics to “get” this, for we glimpse that truth in our own experience.  Anyone who has ever been amazed by the beauty of the world – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf, or gazing at a mountain, or looking at the stars at night knows what it’s like to feel a wave of wonder, humility, gratefulness and awe. We meet God when we open our eyes and hearts to the natural world.  When we spend time outside, God invites us to slow down, look carefully, and greet our other-than-human kin.  We belong to each other; we were created by the same divine Source of love. I think that Jesus knew this, for he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospel stories we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain.  In today’s story, he’s immersed in a river!  Jesus’ parables and stories are full of nature, full of seeds and sheep, lilies and sparrows, vines and rocks, storms and sunsets.  It seems to me that Jesus recognized 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.  Jesus knew what the psalms proclaim – the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it (Psalm 24).  He knew what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
“St. Francis, The Canticle of Creation,” by Nancy Earle, smic (https://www.windseeds.com/ )
We’ve been keeping company this week with an image of St. Francis of Assisi that was painted by artist Nancy Earle. St. Francis is often called the patron saint of ecology, and I’m told that his go-to prayer was to sit in silence, exploring the question, “Who are you, God, and who am I?”  Pray that prayer for a while and see what happens!  Maybe we’ll discover that our identity doesn’t stop with our skin!  It turns out that our boundaries are porous and permeable and include much more than our individual selves. In this image, Francis is so aware of the give-and-take between himself and other creatures, so aware of his inter-relationship with everything else, so aware of what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” that his very body includes moon and wind, water and fire, wolf and turtle and whale.  Francis experienced all of God’s Creation as kin – hence he could say Brother Sun and Sister Moon. It is easy to romanticize or sentimentalize St. Francis, but in an increasingly degraded natural world, what would it mean to take our place as humans who experience this kind of intimate connection with wolf and wind and whale?  Christians plunged (or dipped) in the waters of baptism learn that we are part of a living, sacred whole. Other faith traditions, especially indigenous religions, have their own ways to remind humans beings that we belong to land and sea and sky, to other animals, and to the Spirit that created us all.  What would it feel like to inhabit the world in this way?  To quote Douglas E. Christie, what would it feel like “to relinquish the habitual tendency to stand against the world, to see the world as somehow existing outside of or beyond oneself, and instead allow oneself to become immersed in the world, suffused with its life and spirit?”2 Would we live more gently? Would we treat each other more kindly – not because we want to be “nice people” but because we know in our bones that those other people – whatever their race or religion or political affiliation or class – are truly our siblings and part of our family?  Would we think twice before cutting down a tree? And, because we have fallen in love with life and with the God who loved this world into being, would we be appalled by governments and 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 protect clean air and water and the stability of our global climate?  Impelled by our faith in the living God and by our loving solidarity with all of life, would we pray and protest, resist and organize? Who do we think we are?  As I see it, we humans are on a long journey back to understanding that we are more than isolated individuals, more than consumers or dog-eat-dog competitors: we are intimately and deep-down connected with God, with each other, and with Earth.  In a time when Earth’s life-systems are failing, our task is to find our way back to union with God and God’s Creation; to reclaim the ancient Judeo-Christian understanding that the natural world is sacred, that it “belongs to” God and is filled with God; and to renew our partnership with our human kin and the other beings with whom we are blessed to share this planet. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. See, for instance, Gen. 1:31; Gen. 9:8-10, 15; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 24:1; John 3:16; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 1:10, 4:9-10; Col. 1:19-20. 2. Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 232.  
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter May 10, 2020 Delivered (pre-recorded) by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for St. Anne’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, Lincoln, MA Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 Acts 7: 55-60 1 Peter 2:2-10 John 13:1-14

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

Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – are from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.”  It is the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus is saying goodbye, telling his disciples that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. Jesus says to his friends: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).

The passage goes on from there, but my attention was grabbed by the very first sentence. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  How do we make sense of those words – how do those words resonate within us – in a time of such enormous uncertainty, loss, and fear?  Here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic.  Our lives have suddenly turned upside down and we are acutely aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. People we know and love may be sick or may have died. Businesses have closed, the economy is teetering, and not far behind, coming on fast, we know that an even larger crisis is bearing down upon us, the climate and ecological crisis. Week by week the news from climate science seems to get more dire: this year is on track to be the warmest on record, and the risk of climate breakdown is much greater than we thought. This week, scientists reported that 50 years from now as many as one-third of the world’s people will be living in areas too hot to inhabit. I can only begin to imagine the poverty and famine and the numbers of desperate migrants on the move.  Meanwhile, another new study shows that unchecked climate change could collapse entire eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years. This precious blue-green planet is reeling – and we reel with it as we face the threat of social and ecological collapse. Yet Jesus tells us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  What can this mean when we live in such a troubling time?  Is he counseling avoidance and denial? Is he urging us to go numb – to repress and push away our anger, grief, and fear?  I can’t imagine that to be the case, for the Jesus I meet in the Gospels and in prayer – and who is with us right now – is a man of deep feelings, a man who was not afraid to enjoy a good laugh and relish a good party, a man who sometimes got angry, who wept when his friend Lazarus died and who wept over the city that would not listen to him.  The Jesus I love is a man who was open to the full range of human emotion and who experiences our sorrows and joys.
Ashfield, MA
Last week I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling as if I were covered by a great blanket of sadness, as if the sorrow of the whole world were weighing me down. Nearby the sorrow was fear: fear of death, fear that everything is unraveling, fear that life on Earth, including human society, is coming apart. So, what did I do?  I prayed.  I turned to Jesus and prayed for mercy, guidance and help. It wasn’t just my own sorrow and fear that I brought to him: I felt as if I were bringing with me all the world’s sorrow and fear and placing it in his loving arms: Here, Lord, over to you. Share it with me.  Help me bear what I cannot bear alone. As I lay there in the dark, praying the world’s anguish, sorrow, and fear, it seemed to me that I was not alone: I was praying with, and for, all my brother-sister beings – for the dying coral and the seas choked with plastic, for the forests going up in smoke and for the children who look to us with their innocent, wondering eyes, hoping against hope that good, and not ill, will be done to them.  And it seemed to me that Jesus was with me and with all of us, sharing our pain, and I felt as if I were touching into the peace that passes understanding and into the love that will never die. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When Jesus said this, he wasn’t denying the reality of suffering and death.  He wasn’t repressing his emotions or dodging painful facts: he knew full well that he was on the brink of being arrested, tortured, and killed. Yet he was able to say to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  How?  Because he was rooted in the love of God.  Because he knew that nothing could separate him – or us – from that love.  Because he knew that through the power of his Spirit, we would be drawn, as he was drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed. That is the great promise of today’s Gospel passage: at the deepest level of our being we belong to God; we abide in God and God abides in us. This precarious time of coronavirus and climate crisis is also a holy time: a time when all of us are invited to deepen our spiritual lives and to grow up to our full stature in Christ. So, I want to suggest three practices as we shelter in place, three practices that I hope will attune us to the presence and power of Jesus as we try to chart a path to a more just and sustainable future. First, I hope we will take regular time to pray in silence. Solitude and silence can create a wonderful context for prayer. As Meister Eckhart, the great mystic, once said, “There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence.” As we sit alone in silence, we listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, although we are usually too busy or too distracted to hear it.  We pay attention to our breathing, receiving each breath as the gift that it is, a gift from a loving God who breathes God’s Spirit into us and whose Spirit we offer back to God as we breathe out.  And if – in the quiet – strong feelings arise, we welcome them and let them move through us, whatever they are – sorrow, fear, anger or joy – knowing that in our vulnerability we find strength and that the God of love is always with us.  This kind of quiet, solitary prayer is where we can gradually develop a trusting and very personal relationship with Jesus, as we disclose what is on our hearts. Second, I hope we will take regular time to go outside and connect with the natural world.  The love of God extends not only to us, not only to human beings – it extends to the whole created world and to its weird and wild diversity of living creatures.  Our planet’s living systems are in peril, so it is good – actually, it is essential – to reclaim our God-given connection with the Earth, to move, as Thomas Berry would say, from a spirituality of alienation from Earth to a spirituality of intimacy.  So, go outside and encounter the God who shines out in the blooming magnolias and azaleas, in the breeze on our faces, in the cry of the blue jay, in the touch of bark or stone against our hand and in the sprouts coming up in our garden.  Whatever we’re worried about – be it climate change, coronavirus, or anything else – spending at least 20 minutes a day in a peaceful place can help restore our soul.
Azaleas in May
Third, I hope we will make time to educate ourselves about the climate crisis and to take every step we can toward effective climate action. When the pandemic has passed and the lockdown is over, we simply can’t go back to business as usual, for business as usual is killing the planet.  As a society we have to change course.  Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable.  Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable.  Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable.  We are living beyond our ecological means. The good news is that when it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change.  So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.  I hope that many of you will join 350Mass for a Better Future, our local grassroots climate action group, whose MetroWest node includes Lincoln. There are other groups that we can be grateful for, too, and find ways to support, such as Poor People’s Campaign, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Environmental Voter Project.  Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen. I pray that we followers of Jesus will take our place in that movement, maybe even be out in front sometimes, singing and praying, maybe risking arrest, as we give glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). In a time of pandemic and climate crisis, the risen Christ is among us and within us.  Do not let your hearts be troubled.      
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter April 19, 2020 Delivered (pre-recorded) by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Washington National Cathedral, DC, for the live-streamed Earth Day Holy Eucharist Acts 2:14a-22-32 Psalm 16 1 Peter 1:3-9 John 20:19-31

“Do not doubt but believe”: The promise of eco-resurrection

I am speaking to you from western Massachusetts. It is good to be with you.  I hope that wherever you are sheltering in place in this difficult time, you have access to a corner of God’s Creation, whether it be a garden or a stretch of woods, a tree on a city sidewalk or a patch of blue sky outside your window. In times of anxiety and stress, many of us instinctively want to head outside to make contact with the natural world, for it is here that God so often brings us comfort and solace, here where we renew our relationship with the web of life that God entrusted to our care.

Our Easter readings, prayers, and hymns suggest that Christ’s death and resurrection are good news not only for human beings but also for the whole Creation – for river and mountain, whale and sparrow, forest and field. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, one of the first things we do is listen to an ancient chant: Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.   
“St. Francis, The Canticle of Creation,” by Nancy Earle, smic (https://www.windseeds.com/ )
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth!  Christ is risen! Easter is good news for all the round earth. This week people the world over will be marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Some of you may remember how, back on April 22, 1970, fully 10% of the American people – Republicans and Democrats alike, rich and poor, city-dwellers and rural folks, young students and old people like me – took to the streets, and to parks and auditoriums coast to coast, pushing for strong action to protect the health and integrity of the natural world. By the end of that year, we could celebrate the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air Act.  The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were passed just two and three years later. When Americans come together to do what needs to be done, we can do great things. Fifty years on, during an excruciating time of global pandemic, human beings around the world are freshly aware of the truth conveyed in that first Earth Day and in every Earth Day since: truly, we belong to one connected family. We share a single planet. We drink from the same water.  We breathe the same air.  We face the same dangers. All of us depend for our lives and livelihood on what our prayer book calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.” Today, on this Second Sunday of Easter, we hear a familiar story from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. Three days after the crucifixion, on the evening of the first Easter, the risen Jesus enters the locked room, appears to the disciples, and says “Peace be with you.” The disciple named Thomas isn’t there, and he’s unwilling to believe that Jesus is alive unless he sees and touches Jesus for himself. When Jesus appears to the disciples a week later, Thomas is with them this time. Again, Jesus says: “Peace be with you,” and then he turns to Thomas, and, without another word, as if Jesus knows that Thomas will only understand through direct experience, he invites Thomas to touch his wounded hands and side. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side,” he tells Thomas. “Do not doubt but believe.”  That’s when Thomas finds his faith and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Do not doubt but believe.  Those are powerful words to hear just now. In a time of social distancing, we can’t reach out our hands to touch someone else’s wounds, but we do know in a visceral, direct, and – yes – hands-on way many things we didn’t know just a month or two ago. Two months ago, who would have believed that a disturbed relationship with the natural world, including the loss of habitat and biodiversity, could create conditions for lethal new viruses and diseases like Covid-19 to spill over into human communities? Who would have believed that how we treat the natural world could so radically affect our wellbeing?  Who would have believed that business as usual could so suddenly be disrupted?  Who would have believed that, if we were sufficiently motivated, we could change our everyday behaviors so rapidly and completely? Do not doubt but believe.  Of course, some people did know these things before the coronavirus hit, but now all of us know them together.  Now we know for sure how much science matters, how much we need access to the best science available – public health depends on it. And it’s the same with climate science: some of us have doubted that climate change is real, and urgent, and largely caused by human activity.  And that’s not surprising, because some special interest groups have worked very hard and spent millions of dollars in a deliberate campaign of disinformation to keep the American public confused. The same folks who once spread doubt about the risk of smoking tobacco are throwing their weight behind some of the current efforts to make us doubt the reality of climate change.1 Some groups are even trying to spread doubt about the validity of science itself, doubt about the value of scientific research and scientific fact.
Freesia. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
But the truth is that the scientific controversy is over. The science is settled.  People sick with Covid-19 have a fever and the whole planet is running a fever, too. Climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that we have a very short window of time in which to address global warming adequately.  Just last week a new study showed that unchecked climate change could collapse whole eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten yearsThe natural world is at far greater risk from climate breakdown than was previously thought.Two months ago we might have shrugged off that report, telling ourselves: “Well, that can’t be true; things never change that fast; everything is bound to stay the same for the foreseeable future.” Now we know better. So when I hear Jesus say to Doubting Thomas, “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” I hear Jesus inviting Thomas – and inviting us – to face the truth of crucifixion. We might wish away the reality of the violence and the wounds. We might wish very ardently that none of this wounding of our dear planet was happening, that we weren’t seeing dying coral and melting icecaps, rising seas and growing numbers of refugees.  Yet it is happening, and just as on Good Friday the disciples couldn’t pretend that Christ’s wounds on the cross weren’t real, so we, too, can’t pretend that the wounds to God’s Creation aren’t real. But that’s not all.  When Jesus says to Doubting Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” he is also saying: Face the truth of resurrection. Christ is risen. And if Christ is alive, then there has been unleashed into our world a power that is greater than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy.
Bluebirds & finch. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering, no anguish we can endure that Christ himself does not suffer with us. If Christ is alive, then we are, every one of us, cherished to the core, and we can create a new kind of society that welcomes everyone and that dismantles the systems of unjust privilege and domination that have separated us from each other and from the Earth. This, my friends, is the source of our spiritual and moral power.  For the good news of Jesus Christ is that even in a time of coronavirus and climate crisis, right here in our grief and fear, we are met by a divine love that weeps with us and grieves with us and embraces us and empowers us, a love that will never let us go, a love that will never die. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says to his disciples, and then he breathes the Holy Spirit into them – the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. He is sending them out to bear witness to the resurrection, to the wild, holy, and completely unexpected fact that through the grace and power of God, life – and not death – will have the last word. Through the power of the Risen Christ, we, too, are sent out to be healers of the Earth, sent out to take our place in the great work of healing the wounds of Creation, sent out to restore the web of life upon which we, and all creatures, depend. For as long as we have breath, Christ will be breathing his Spirit into us. We can be more than chaplains at the deathbed of a dying order; we can be midwives to the new and beautiful world that is longing to be born. Let’s pause for a moment and take a good, deep breath; let’s take in the Holy Spirit that Jesus is breathing into us. There is so much healing we can do, so much power to reconcile that God has given us, so much life that we can help to bring forth as we join God’s sacred mission to renew the Earth. Do not doubt but believe. _________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; see also Ross Gelbspan, The Heat is On; and Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2007 report on ExxonMobil. NOTE: A video of the whole Earth Day Eucharist service at Washington National Cathedral may be viewed here.  The sermon begins at 39:55. The sermon alone may be viewed here.
Sermon for Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day, April 12, 2020 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (via online platform) for First Congregational Church, Williamstown, MA Matthew 28:1-10

Arise to new life: Easter for Earth and for all

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

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

The following sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day is adapted from a sermon I delivered in 2011. It is posted at SustainablePreaching.org (January 5, 2020).

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84: 1-8 
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19
Matthew 2: 1-12

                                                Journeying with the wise men

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. – Psalm 84:4

When I think of the three kings, what leaps first to mind are the crèches I unpack every year a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the piano in the living room I put the tall, earthenware figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby, of the shepherds and sheep, and — yes — of the three kings and their camels. On the mantelpiece goes a miniature nativity set in which each teeny-tiny figure is made of clay, delicately painted, and no more than one inch high. On the coffee table I put the plastic figures and the cheap wooden stable that children can play with to their heart’s content without making their grandmother worry that something will break. No crèche is complete without its three kings, and when the Twelve Days of Christmas are over, back go the kings and camels into their boxes, where they spend the rest of the year stored in the basement.

Reflecting on today’s Gospel, I got to thinking: what would happen if the wise men walked out of those crèches and into our lives? What would happen if these figures — so easy to trivialize as nothing more than decorative props for a mid-winter festival that we pack away when the festival is done — what if the wise men actually came to life for us? What if their journey informed and deepened our own spiritual search, and propelled it forward? So I began to read the story for its spiritual significance, wondering if it might be read as a sacred, archetypal story about how we grow in intimacy with God.

Four parts of the story stand out to me.

First, of course, is the star, that mysterious, shining presence that startles the wise men and launches their search. Ancient tradition held that an unusual star could appear in the skies to mark the birth of someone special, such as a king. That is how the wise men interpret what they see: something out of the ordinary is taking place, something truly significant is afoot, and out the door they go, leaving their ordinary lives behind as they follow the light wherever it leads.

Let’s pause to note that even though every painting, movie, and Christmas card that depicts the journey of the wise men shows a dazzling star above their heads, we don’t actually know from the biblical story whether anyone but the wise men can see that star. King Herod, the chief priests and scribes don’t seem to know anything about the star until the wise men arrive in Jerusalem and tell them about its rising. So the star may be visible to the eye or it may be perceptible only to one’s inward sight; it may be seen or it may be unseen. Either way, it signals the birth of something new in the world. It heralds a presence and power just now being born. The wise men are wise because they spot the star and set everything aside to follow where it leads.

Maybe every spiritual journey begins with a star. At some point we get a sense — perhaps a very vague one — that there is something more to life than the ordinary round of tasks and responsibilities, something above, beyond, or maybe within material reality that can give a larger meaning and purpose to our days, something that is beautiful and shining and that lights up the world. So we set out on a quest to follow that star and to see where it leads. We may name the quest in different ways — maybe we call it a search for meaning or wholeness, a search for happiness or peace. Maybe we seek to know that we are loved, or to draw closer to the divine Source of love. Maybe, as some Greeks say to Philip in the Gospel of John, we express our desire in a simple, straightforward way: “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). However we name that desire, deep down we want to know God. And so, like the wise men, we set out, and what beckons us forward is a star, a subtle, shining presence that keeps company with us, and that we follow as best we can.

For most of us, most of the time, following the leadings of God is not like having a GPS in the car, delivering clear-cut instructions: “Turn left in .2 miles; take the freeway; turn right in 4.3 miles.” Like it or not, the star of Bethlehem is more elusive than that, so we have to develop a stance of careful listening and open inquiry, and a practice of prayer that makes us more sensitive to the glimmers of the holy. It takes practice to stay attentive to the star, for, as Boris Pasternak once wrote, “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.”

The star is the first thing that catches my attention in this story.  The second is Jerusalem. Where does the star lead the wise men? Straight to Jerusalem, straight into the center of political and economic power, where King Herod the Great, a client king appointed by Rome, rules with the same ferocity that Stalin wielded over his own country in the 1930’s. We might wish that following a spiritual path were only an individual and interior enterprise — that following the star meant nothing more than developing a personal practice of prayer or going away on periodic retreats. There are plenty of contemporary books and speakers out there that define spirituality in a very individualistic way as being mindful of your own mind and cultivating your own soul — and of course that is definitely part of the journey. But right from the beginning, from the very moment that Christ is born, it’s clear that following his star also means coming to grips with the social and political realities of one’s time. Being “spiritual,” for Christians, is not just an interior, individual project of “saving your soul” — it also has a civic dimension, a political dimension, and as the wise men faithfully follow the star, they are drawn straight into the darkness and turmoil of the world, where systemic power can be used to dominate and terrify. Without intending it or knowing it, the wise men even contribute to Herod’s program of terror, for Herod takes the information that they give him and uses it to order the slaughter of all the children under the age of two who live in Bethlehem.

Following the star evidently means being willing to become conscious of the darkness of the world, and even to perceive how we ourselves are implicated in that darkness. The taxes I pay help subsidize fossil fuels; the clothes I wear and the electronic devices I use may have a vast but hidden social and environmental cost.  If I drive a gas-powered car, with every turn of the ignition key, I add to global warming. Until I recognize how I am caught up in and contribute to the contradictions and injustices of our political and economic system, I am not following the star and accompanying the wise men into Jerusalem.

And let’s notice, too, that King Herod trembles at news of the star — in fact, its rising frightens him. The powers that be are terrified when God in Christ draws near, for God’s love is always a threat to those powers; it opposes everything in us and around us that is selfish, greedy, and motivated by the wish to dominate, control, and possess. As I read it, the wise men needed to get to know those powers, both within themselves and in the world around them, if they were going to find and follow Christ.

So they entered Jerusalem and faced the darkness. Then, keeping their eyes on the star, they kept going, “until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9b-10).

This is the third part of the story: the encounter with Christ. What a beautiful line that is — “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” The long, long journey with all its uncertainties and privations, its cold nights and its restless, ardent searching, has reached its fulfillment. The star has stopped, and the wise men can be at peace at last, they have arrived at last, they have found what they were looking for, at last! They enter the house, they see Mary and the child, and they fall to their knees in a gesture of deep reverence and humility.

Do we know what that’s like? Of course we do. We glimpse such moments whenever time seems to stop, when, for instance, our minds grow very quiet in prayer, we surrender our thoughts, and we seem to be filling with light. Or maybe it happens when we gaze at something that captures our complete attention — maybe a stretch of mountains or the sea, or when we take a long, loving look into a child’s sleeping face, or when we are completely absorbed in a piece of music. In moments like these, it can feel as if we are gazing through the object on which we gaze, and seeing into the heart of life itself. Love is pouring through us and into us, and all we can do is throw up our hands, fall inwardly to our knees, and offer as a gift everything that is in us, just as the wise men open their treasure chests and offer everything that is in them. Worship is what happens when we come into the presence of what is really real. When we come to the altar rail at the Eucharist, whether we choose to stand or whether we kneel as the wise men did, like them we stretch out our hands to offer everything that is in us, and like them we receive — we take in — the living presence of Christ.

Finally, the fourth part of the story is its closing line: “… having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). In other words, the wise men refused to cooperate with Herod. They deceived him. They resisted him. The wise men have been called the first conscientious objectors in the name of Christ. They are the first in a long line of witnesses to Christ who from generation to generation have carried out acts of non-violent civil disobedience in Jesus’ name. The journey of the wise men is our journey, too, for, as Gregory the Great reportedly remarked in a homily back in the 7th century: “Having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

So, as we set out together into a new year, I hope that you will join me in keeping the wise men at our side, rather than packing them away somewhere in a box.

Like them, we can attune ourselves to the guiding of the star and renew our commitment to prayer and inward listening.

Like them, we can enter Jerusalem and all the dark places of our world and soul, following where God leads, and trusting that God’s light will shine in the darkness.

Like them, we can make our way to Christ, and kneel in gratitude.

And like them, we, too, can rise to our feet with a new-fired passion to be agents of justice and healing, and a renewed desire to give ourselves to God, for “happy are the people whose strength is in [God, and] whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.”

 

Sermon for the Convention Eucharist, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, held at Tower Square Hotel, Springfield, MA                                                                                                                              November 9, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” — Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1981), 281 John 10:10b-15

   A sacramental life: Rising up to take climate action

Friends, it is a blessing to be with you. Before I say another word I want to thank the many people who helped turn this windowless hotel room into a sacred space. Because of their creativity and generosity, we have four stunning new banners that represent elements of the natural world – banners that we hope you will borrow to use in your own church1 – and we have a baptismal font adorned with nature’s beauty. Thank you – and thanks to everyone who had a hand in creating this service. I especially want to thank Geoffrey Hudson, composer of “A Passion for the Planet” and the musicians and members of Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble who are here to bring this music to life.

I am particularly moved to see the image of Earth placed on our altar. As you may remember, this photograph was taken in December 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the moon. It’s called the “Blue Marble” because when the crew looked out the window, around 18,000 miles from the surface of the planet, the Earth was about the size of a marble. You could cover it with your thumb. Everything we know and love, every part of human history and experience is on that precious marble whirling in the darkness of space. That photo gave us our first glimpse of Earth as a whole, allowing us to see for the first time its unity, its fragility and vulnerability, and its preciousness. This flag has traveled with me to countless climate marches and rallies, and it touches me to bring it home to this altar, to lay it on this table where in every Eucharist we remember “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) that God loved into being, redeems in Jesus Christ, and sustains by the power of the Holy Spirit! This is a good time to uphold the Earth in prayer, for we know that the living world is in a precarious state. Last year the World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that globally the number of animals has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Humans have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. We are in the midst of what alarmed scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.” 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.” Then came a major report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which showed that planetary warming is well underway and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe. Because of the burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet keeps breaking records for heat. Of course it is the poor and racial minorities and the historically marginalized that suffer first and hardest from the shocks and disruptions of climate change, although in the end, all of us will be affected. Earlier this week more than 11,000 scientists from around the world issued a report that warns of “untold suffering” if we don’t change course fast. Scientists are generally a cool-headed, understated lot, right? So it’s worth noticing when for the first time a large group of scientists calls climate change an emergency. Last year’s IPCC report told us that in order to avoid runaway climate change we must carry out a radical transformation of society, from top to bottom, at a scale and pace that is historically unprecedented: today we have maybe eleven years in which to set a new course and to cut our emissions in half from their levels in 2010. Never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast. So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes and only a short time in which to heal our ecosystems and create a more just and sustainable way of life. Well, when you hear stark news like that, it’s easy to shut down. It’s hard to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. When we feel powerless to imagine, much less to create, a better future, we tend to put our heads down and carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. I’m very interested in how we move out of fear, inertia, and despair and into the movement to tackle climate change and social inequality – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisishas just been published. So I ask you: Where do you find courage to take action, even when the forces against us are great? What are your sources of strength and resilience in a perilous time? As for me, I draw strength from the living presence of Jesus Christ within us and among us. “I came that they may have life,” Jesus says to us today, “and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That’s a mission statement: he came then and he comes now to bring life – and not any old life, but a life that is lit up with meaning and purpose, a life that is animated by a fierce love that seeks to create a beloved community in which people live in harmony with God, with each other, and with the whole of God’s Creation. Jesus, the Good Shepherd of our souls, lived close to the earth. He walked in the desert and along the shores of a lake. He felt the wind on his face and he watched the night stars. He climbed mountains to pray, and in his teaching and parables he used earthy images of vines and bread and seeds, of lilies and sheep. Jesus was steeped in the rhythms of the natural world, and maybe it’s no accident that when Mary caught her first glimpse of the Risen Christ, she mistook him for the gardener. In a time of climate crisis, we are blessed to meet the Good Shepherd in every celebration of the Eucharist. This is where we find strength for the journey and where our moral courage is renewed. Maybe we should think of Holy Communion as our superpower. God has so much to give us and to show us in this sacrament! For starters, Communion is good practice for living well on the Earth.2 As we heard in the reading from Wendell Berry, everyone lives by eating. The question is whether or not we ruthlessly grab and grasp, turning into greedy “consumers” who must constantly replenish ourselves with material things in order to reassure ourselves that we’re powerful, that we matter, and that we exist. Holy Communion is a radically counter-cultural practice that can heal unholy consumerism. We savor a morsel of bread, take a small sip of wine, and in our attentive reverence to Christ’s presence, we are filled. We share one loaf and one cup, and there is enough for everyone. In every Eucharist we discover to our amazement that in taking only what we need and in sharing what we have, our hearts our satisfied. What’s more – every Communion also reminds us how much God loves the whole Creation, not just human beings – as if we happen to be the only species that God cares about. When the celebrant lifts up the bread and wine during Holy Communion, all of Creation is lifted up. When the celebrant blesses the bread and wine, all of Creation is blessed. The consecrated bread that is placed in our hands is made of wheat, earth and sunlight, of rainwater and clouds, of farmers’ hands and human labor. When we stretch out our hands to receive the bread, we take in what is natural and we take in Christ. The bishops of New England described it like this in a Pastoral Letter3 a while back: when “we nourish ourselves at the Eucharistic table… Christ gives himself to us in the natural elements of bread and wine, and restores our connections not only with God and one another, but also with the whole web of creation.” We are making that crystal clear in our prayers today, so you will notice that in the prayer after Communion, we have added five words. We will pray, as we usually do: God of abundance, you have fed us with the bread of life and cup of salvation; you have united us with Christ and one another; and you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth, and then come five new words: “and with your whole Creation.” Why is this important? Because we come to this table so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed, so that everything in us and around us can be caught up in the redeeming love of God – not only we ourselves, and not only the bread and the wine, but also the whole of God’s Creation, every leaf of it and every speck of sand. In every Eucharist we bring the Earth to the altar. We offer the world to God. And when we leave this table, we’ve been filled with the divine love that reconciles all things on heaven and Earth and that strengthens us to join God in healing and protecting our precious, wounded world. When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, there are many actions that we can take as individuals and as communities of faith! I’m not going to list them here, because we’ve distributed a handout of suggestions and because the resolution we’ll discuss this afternoon is also full of suggestions. But I will say this: Now is the time to preach boldly about the climate crisis. Now is the time to take clear and courageous action to safeguard the web of life that God entrusted to our care. Now is the time to join the climate justice movement and to bear witness to the Christ who bursts from the tomb and who proclaims that life and not death will have the last word. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Will we 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. I’m told that “even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.” I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I hold that title on your behalf. Each of you – everyone in this room, every single one of you – you too are missioners for Creation care, because you, too, are fed at this table where we meet the life-giving and liberating and reconciling presence of Jesus Christ. I’d like to end with a story about risking arrest for the first time and what it taught me about the Eucharist. Back in 2001 I was desperate to find a way to address the climate crisis, and I decided to join a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, which was gathering in Washington, D.C., to protest the Administration’s energy policy and its plan 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 wrote4 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 beneath the tension, beneath 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. 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 inspires 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? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. If your church in the Diocese of Western Mass. would like to borrow the banners, please contact the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very. Rev. Tom Callard (413/736-2742, ext. 1; email: tcallard (at) cccspfld.org). 2.This and the following three paragraphs are adapted from “Second Friday of Advent,” Joy of Heaven, To Earth Come Down: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), 35-36. 3.To Serve Christ in All Creation: A Pastoral Letter from the Episcopal Bishops of New England,” issued February 2003. 4. Adapted from “When Heaven Happens” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (NY: Seabury Books, 2007), 74-85.    
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 8, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Trinity Episcopal Church, Santa Barbara, CA Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Psalm 1 Philemon 1-21 Luke 14:25-33

Choose life for you and your children!

What a joy to be with you! I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, sometimes (as you can see) far beyond Massachusetts, speaking about the Gospel call to protect God’s Creation. If you’d like to hear what I’m up to, please take a look at my Website, RevivingCreation.org. I know you’re already taking steps as individuals and as a congregation to safeguard what our Prayer Book calls “this fragile Earth, our island home,” so even though we’ve never met, I feel as if I’m among friends.

We have a fine text to reflect on this morning, the passage in Deuteronomy where Moses speaks to his community and gives them a choice. “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of God, by loving God and walking in God’s ways, then you shall live and God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”1
Before the service: Rev. Elizabeth Molitors (Rector), Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, and Rev. Sarah Thomas (Curate)
This is one of those familiar passages that most of us have probably heard many times and considered mildly interesting in an abstract sort of way. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:20). Today, however, that summons could not be more apt or timely or clear. We live at a pivotal moment in human history. Humanity stands at a crossroads where the choices we make going forward will make all the difference to the well-being of our children and our children’s children, and to the life (or death) of billions of people and non-human species around the world. What will we choose? Will it be life or death, blessing or curse? By now we’ve all heard about the drastic effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels, such as monster hurricanes like Dorian, which has decimated the Bahamas and also marks the first time in history that a Category 5 hurricane has hit the Atlantic four years in a row. Here in California, on the other side of the country, I know you’ve had your own encounters with a changing climate. I recently finished Bill McKibben’s new book about the climate crisis, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? He quotes from an article by my friend Nora Gallagher2– a member of this parish – which describes what it was like last year to endure record heat and dryness and blazing wildfires, followed by heavy rains and massive mudslides and debris flows. My heart goes out to all of you. And our hearts go out to all the people and creatures around the world where fires are ablaze right now – in the Arctic; in central Africa; in Indonesia; and in the Amazon basin, where the rainforest that’s often called “the lungs of the planet” is on fire and close to crossing a tipping point into which it begins to self-destruct, die back, and release vast quantities of greenhouse gases. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. “There are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970,”3 a fact that scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.”  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.” So, my friends, 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.”Fear is appropriate and fear can be worthwhile, propelling 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. We say to ourselves, “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.”
Trinity Episcopal Church, Santa Barbara, CA
I’m very interested in what helps us to move beyond fear, inertia, and despair and to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the movement to address climate change – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays will be published this fall and it’s called Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. What gives you courage to take action, even when the forces against us are great? What are your sources of strength and resilience in a perilous time? As for me, I draw strength from the living presence of Jesus Christ who is with us as we listen to Scripture, who comes to us as we sing and pray, whose love is poured into hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit, and who feeds and strengthens us when we stretch out our hands to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Our fears can be strong, and the powers-that-be in this world are surely doing everything 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 that will never let us go. God loves us, and loves all Creation, with a love that nothing can destroy. As we breathe in that divine love and breathe it out in acts of healing and justice and compassion, our 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.”5 When we move out of fear and into God’s love, we know in our bones how precious we are, how precious our neighbors are, how precious this whole, beautiful planet is, and we rise up to say that we will not settle for a death-dealing way of life – we will not settle for wrecking the planet. We hear God’s summons and we intend to be a blessing on the Earth, not a curse. We intend to choose life. When it comes to climate change, there is so much that we can do! Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Drive electric. 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 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 are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. As the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a scale that is historically unprecedented, and do so in a very short span of time. So we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Here are three ideas. One: We can support the Green New Deal, the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. The Websites for GreenFaith and for Interfaith Power & Light offer statements for us to sign, to show that people of faith support the values and goals of the Green New Deal. Two: We can support non-profit groups like Corporate Accountability that are working to push the fossil fuel industry out of international climate talks and to hold it accountable for its decades of deception about the causes of the climate crisis.
Greta Thunberg at a climate strike event in March 2019. Photo credit: Klimastreik_19-03-01_0177″ by campact, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
And three: we can support the weeklong Global Climate Strike, which begins on September 20. I see that here in Santa Barbara, a climate strike will be held on September 27 at 12 Noon on the plaza in front of City Hall. Put it in your calendars. Make a plan to take part. Last year a teenaged girl walked out of school, sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament with a handmade sign, and demanded climate action. Back then Greta Thunberg, according to one reporter, was “a painfully introverted, slightly built nobody.” Greta similarly describes herself as “always [being] that girl in the back who doesn’t say anything. I thought I couldn’t make a difference because I was too small.’” Well, today, one year later, Greta Thunberg’s quiet, relentless, and disarming protest Friday after Friday, week after week, has drawn the world’s attention and sparked a vast and growing movement of student strikes around the world. Starting on September 20, people everywhere – all kinds and ages of people, not just students – will engage in a Global Climate Strike as we use our collective power to stop “business as usual” in the face of the climate emergency. This could be the biggest climate action the world has ever seen, and countless people of faith will take part – including Episcopal bishops at the House of Bishops meeting in downtown Minneapolis, led by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. As Greta Thunberg said several months ago in a speech at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum: “Our house is on fire… We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. Either we do that or we don’t… Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t… Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t… We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.” Hear again with me the words of Moses: “Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” What will you choose? If you chose life, what would you do now? What would you do next? May God give us the strength and courage we need to rise up and choose life!
1. Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:15-20. 2. Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019), 32-33. 3. McKibben, 12. 4. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 2019), 3. 5. Hafiz, quoted by Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2002), 83.
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.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Lebanon, CT

“Lazarus, come out!” Christianity and the climate crisis

John 11:1-45

Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or sign that reveals Jesus as the giver of life, and that also precipitates his death. The raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court, which reaches the decision that Jesus is dangerous and must be killed. And so next week we come to Palm Sunday and begin the anguish and ultimately the joy of Holy Week.

Today’s story begins in a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has died; he has been dead for four days; and his sisters Mary and Martha are in distress, grieving with family and friends. The story begins right where we are: in a world that is full of death, full of grieving, full of loss. Mary and Martha know the wave of sorrow that can wash over us in the middle of the night. They know the anguish that can drain life of its zest and meaning.
King bird. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
This morning you and I may find our selves in the same place in which Mary and Martha begin this story, for there is plenty of death in the air these days. I’ll take just a moment to sketch what’s going on – and I’m sorry: it’s intense. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by the development of huge swaths of land and the destruction of habitat. Humans have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. We are on the brink or in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event and alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” 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.” And there’s more bad news: related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet is breaking records for heat, month after month. The New York Times reports that: “The five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.” The oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life and sea-level rise.  This week a report on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef shows that climate change is pushing coral ecosystems toward “ecological collapse.” Lead author Andrew Baird told the New York Times, “We never thought we’d see this happen…We thought the Barrier Reef was too big to fail, but it’s not.” Meanwhile, extreme storms are growing more severe. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding right now in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, after a devastating cyclone produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days.  In a perfect illustration of the fundamental injustice of climate change, which hurts poorest communities first and hardest, nearly 3 million people have been affected across this region of Africa, which is one of the poorest in the 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.
Rev. Dr. Will Sencabaugh (Pastor, First Congregational, Lebanon, CT) & Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes. When we hear bad news like this, it’s very easy to shut down. It is difficult to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. Most of us aren’t climate skeptics; most of us don’t deny outright the conclusions of science – but most of us do engage in a kind of everyday denial: climate change can make us feel anxious and helpless, so we change the subject and focus on more manageable things. When we feel powerless to imagine, much less create, a better future, we tend to carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. It’s as if we fall under a spell and make what former U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.” That’s where our gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Martha and Mary are bereft. And then – something changes. Jesus arrives. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, a few verses later we come to the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse that is often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He wept. Here is no distant God, no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God who meets us in our suffering, a God who shares in our pain. When we feel anguish, it’s easy to look for someone to blame, to conclude that God isn’t real, that God is punishing us, or that God has abandoned us. But gazing at Jesus in this story reveals something different: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too. It is a heart-opening, mind-opening revelation to discover that when we weep for the Earth, when we feel outrage and protest, God is grieving with us and through us. God is bearing what we cannot bear alone. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing, the first step in birthing new life, comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it, and when we do so in the presence of God. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. And when we grieve in God’s presence, we move out of numbness, out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine. So, as the wise Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy puts it, “Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a sign of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.”1 So I want to ask you: Where do you feel the pain of the earth and its creatures? Where do you hear the groaning of God’s creation? And I will add this, too: the unjust powers of this world don’t want us to grieve or protest. They don’t want us to feel outrage and sorrow when we face the deathly patterns that are part of this society: the racism and militarism, the abuse of the helpless, the poisoning of air and water, the relentless assault on the web of life. The powers-that-be would much prefer that we stay numb – zombies who are too busy or bored or distracted, too defended to feel the pain that allows something new to be imagined, something new to be born. “Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life. In the vulnerability of his open heart, Jesus opens to a power greater than himself. “Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the throng of people must be thinking just then? Probably something along the lines of, “Hey – is he nuts?” But reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope, some folks move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb. And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, there comes a voice. “Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.” It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses us by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I’ve heard it, too. Deep inside us is a presence, a voice, a Someone who calls us to quit hiding in a deathly place and to step out into fullness of life. We can go for a while, maybe a long while, not engaging with reality, not engaging with the climate crisis, and just laying low, hiding out, ducking from everything that seems too hard to face, too hard to bear. The powers-that-be want to keep it that way. They murmur, “That’s OK. Get comfy in that little tomb. Make peace with it. Decorate it. Stay small.”
Protest against Brayton Point coal-fired power plant in Somerset, MA, in 2013. The plant closed soon thereafter.
But then comes that insistent, disturbing voice, calling us by name. “Phil,” it says. “Come out. Carla, come out. Ted, come out. Wolfgang, come out. Will, come out. Margaret, come out.” “I love you,” God says to us. “I want you to be fully alive, not just partially alive, not just going through the motions. I want you to grow up into your full stature in Christ. I loved you into being, I sent you into the world to fall in love, and I call you now to serve love without holding back. So come out of your hiding place. Come out of your helplessness. Come out of your fearfulness, and join the struggle to save life on this sweet Earth. The resurrection life that I give you doesn’t start beyond the grave. It starts right now. I didn’t create you to live in a tomb.” When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption. But I also see person after person hearing – and answering – a deep call to step out and to engage in the struggle to protect life. On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, and if we can afford it, buy an electric car. Maybe we can buy “green” electricity that comes from sun and wind. We can put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang up our laundry on a clothesline, buy carbon offsets if we have to fly, eat less red meat or no meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on. But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are building among people of faith and good will who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration and human rights – for all these issues connect. Many people of faith are excited about the Green New Deal, which is the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. Both 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. Will we 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. I’m told that: “Even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.” The Church was made for a time like this. God is calling us out of the tomb of inertia and despair and into the whole-hearted, joyful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care. Jesus is calling: “Lazarus, come out!” What will you do as you answer that call?
  1. Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1991), 187.
 
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at West Parish Church (UCC), Andover, MA Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Prodigal Son and the Great Turning

Our text this morning, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, is from the Gospel of Luke. It’s one of the best-known and best-loved parables that Jesus ever told. People often call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but that title isn’t quite accurate, since the parable is really about two sons and their loving father. Still, it is the prodigal son, the younger one, that I’d like to focus on this morning, because as we think about our relationship with the natural world, both as individuals and collectively, as a species, it may be just the story that we need to hear.

The story begins: “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11). For reasons we don’t know, the younger son decides to go it alone. He’s outta there, itching to leave, ready to hit the road and do things his own way. He asks his father to give him his portion of his inheritance in advance – quite a presumptuous and irregular thing to do in that culture – and off he goes, money in hand, to what the story calls “a distant country” (Luke 15:13). There, he squanders it all in “dissolute living.” After spending every last dime, he is caught up in “a severe famine” that has spread across the country, and he begins “to be in need” (Luke 15:14). What can he do? He hires himself out in a job considered shameful in Jewish culture: he feeds pigs, which are unclean animals according to Jewish law. Humiliated and close to starving, he wishes desperately that he could eat the very pods or corncobs that the pigs eat. This part of the story ends with the awful words that ring like a death sentence: “No one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16).
Portion of painting by Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son.
Let’s push the pause button and stop for a moment. I can identify with this first part of the story and maybe you can, too. I know what it’s like – as maybe you do, too – to choose the go-it-alone path, the I-don’t-need-God path, the rebellious path that the Twelve-Step program calls “self-will run riot.” I’ve been there, done that, and maybe you have, too. When we choose that path, we leave our home in God – that place within ourselves where we feel seen and known and loved. Renouncing love, forsaking God and neighbor, we grab whatever we can for ourselves and we do whatever we darn well please – never mind the consequences to ourselves or anybody else. There are many ways we can wind up in a distant country far from home, knowing that we’ve betrayed our better selves. Somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn or made a terrible choice, and now here we are, as frightened as the prodigal son beside the pigs, feeling alone and helpless, full of self-reproach. Lent is a good season for reflecting on how as individuals each of us has abandoned or rejected the God of love and squandered our inheritance. As it says in a poignant prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer, we know what’s it’s like to “have wandered far in a land that is waste.”1 But it’s not only we as individuals who can wander far in a land that is waste – whole societies can do that, too. The path that most of humanity has traveled for the past two hundred years has brought us to a situation in which the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by developing huge swaths of land and destroying habitat. Human beings have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970.  We are on the brink or in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event and alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” 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.” And there’s more bad news: related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet is breaking records for heat, month after month. The New York Times reports that: “The five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…[that] 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.”  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. Land ice is melting. Sea ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. Extreme storms are growing more intense – just think of the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, after a devastating cyclone produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days. In a perfect illustration of the fundamental injustice of climate change, which hurts poorest communities first and hardest, nearly 3 million people have been affected across this region of Africa, which is one of the poorest in the world. Closer to home, our hearts go out to the ranchers and farmers suffering under torrential rains and record flooding in Nevada and other parts of the American Midwest, with scientists predicting an “unprecedented” flood season in the weeks ahead. Day by day we hear new stories about the painful, even terrifying effects of a rapidly changing climate. And 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. Like the prodigal son, have we wandered far in a land that is waste? You bet we have. So how sweet it is to reach the story’s next line, its turning point: “When he came to himself…” (Luke 15:17). The young man comes to himself, he turns, and he starts to travel home. That’s such a great line: “He came to himself.” It’s as if he woke up, he broke through the spell, he remembered who he was: created in love, created for love – love for himself and his neighbor, love for the natural world, and love for God. When we come to ourselves, when we are truly ourselves, we begin the journey home to God. Our basic nature, our truest nature, is found as we turn and head toward God, our divine Father and Mother, the lover of our souls and the source of all life. What would it look like if humanity “came to ourselves”? Maybe it would look something like this: one individual after another saying, “Hey, wait a second. We don’t have to live like this. We don’t have to settle for a death-dealing, materialistic society that willy-nilly gobbles up all the land and trees and creatures of this world, extracts and burns dirty fossil fuels, pours toxic pollutants into the water and air, and stuffs the landfill with plastics and waste. We don’t have to settle for a suicidal course that steals a habitable world from our children. Through the grace of God we can make changes in our own lives, so that we live more gently and lovingly on the Earth, and we can resist and protest the powers-that-be that are determined to make huge profits by treating people and planet alike as completely disposable, extracting every last drop of oil and gas and every last ounce of coal, and cutting down every last tree.” We can say to ourselves, “I’m going to turn my own life around and make the changes I can make, and I’m also going to stand with all the people of the world who want what I want – a society marked by generosity, not greed; by justice, not prejudice and inequity; by love, and not indifference and hate.” Like the prodigal son, we can say to ourselves “I will get up and go to my father” (Luke 15:18) and begin the journey home. If you’d like to discuss the specific things we can do as we make that journey, and talk about everything from electric cars to the Green New Deal, I hope you’ll meet with me after the service. You know, the journey we’re undertaking will not be an easy one, for the challenges ahead of us are great and the corporate and political powers arrayed against us are strong. The IPCCC tells us that in order to avert climate chaos and the possible collapse of civilization, humanity has to change course at a scale and speed that is unprecedented in human history. So, yeah, as we rise up to fight for a better world, sometimes we’ll find ourselves wrestling with feelings of helplessness, grief, and even despair. I’m so interested in what gives us strength and energy to keep going that I just finished co-editing a book of essays with my friend Leah Schade, which will be published this fall. It’s entitled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and it’s a collection of essays by 21 faith-based climate activists, reflecting on the spiritual practices that sustain us. I can think of no more beautiful way to spend ones life than to take part in what leaders like Joanna Macy and David C. Korten call the Great Turning, the epic transition from a deathly society to one that fosters life. It’s what philosopher Thomas Berry calls the “Great Work”: our wholehearted effort to create a more just and sustainable society. And it’s what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ, who longs to reconcile us to God and to each other and to the whole of God’s Creation.2 You know, God loves it when we come home. God gets happy when we who are lost are willing to be found. That’s what Jesus shows us in the next part of the parable: the father, who has evidently been waiting eagerly for his son’s return, catches sight of him while he is “still far off” and, “filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20), runs out to greet him and catches him up in his arms in an exuberant embrace. The story of the prodigal son is a grand story about reunion, about being lost and being found, about forgiveness and reconciliation. May it be our story, too, as we come home to ourselves and turn our lives toward loving God and all our neighbors, including our brother-sister beings and the Earth upon which all life depends.
1. The Book of Common Prayer (The Seabury Press, 1979), 450. 2. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Foreword, The Green Bible, New Revised Standard Version (New York: HarperOne, HarperCollins, 2008), I-14