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
 
Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 3, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst, MA Exodus 34:29-35 Psalm 99 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Luke 9:28-36

Transfiguration and a radiant Earth

We couldn’t ask for more powerful readings than the ones we were given for today, the last and climactic Sunday of the Epiphany season. Today we are summoned to the mountaintop to celebrate the transforming power of God. In our first reading, Moses is coming down from Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments that establish the covenant between God and God’s people. He has been praying on the mountain, listening to God with the love and attentiveness with which one listens to a friend (Ex. 33:11), and the skin of his face is shining (Ex. 34:29). He is radiant with God’s glory.

Today’s Gospel passage from Luke is also set on a mountain. Soon after Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and rise again, he takes with him Peter, John, and James and goes up on the mountain to pray. In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping vistas and its cold, clean air, Jesus’ prayer grows into an intense religious experience that recalls the experience of Moses. “While (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use the word “metamorphosis” (metemorphothe); Latin manuscripts use the word “transfiguration” (transfiguratus est). Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: at the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up by the love that sustains the universe. What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”1 so completely embraces Jesus that who he really is, who he has always been, is briefly revealed. A dazzling brightness emanates from his face, his body, even his clothes. The sacred radiance at the center of reality is shining through him, bursting through his seams, streaming from his pores, and even the three sleepy disciples can see it.
Mountains at sunset
What just happened? The holy presence that secretly abides within every person and every part of the created world has suddenly, briefly become visible to the human eye. The vivid image of Jesus lit up from within aligns with the experience of mystics from every religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t see it. In Asia, the cosmic life force is called chi in Chinese and prana in Sanskrit, and in many Eastern traditions, enlightenment is associated with a flow of energy throughout the body.2 Christian mystics speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body, and the body of Creation. For Christians, there is something deeply personal in this energy: it is the dynamic, creative Presence of the Holy Spirit. When we sense its presence in ourselves or in the outside world, God seems to light up the edges of things or to shine out from within them. We see the hidden depth behind the surface of ordinary reality. The eternal makes itself known to us, and we may experience it as light, although it is beyond the reach of ordinary sight. That’s where the language of paradox and poetry comes in, where mystics speak of a “dazzling darkness” or a “dark radiance,” just as in this passage Luke uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of both a dazzling light and an overshadowing cloud (Luke 9:29, 34). Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens our love. We may not consider ourselves mystics, but anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time looking into the eyes of a baby or studying the details of a leaf – anyone who has ever gazed for a while at a mountain range or watched the sparkling waters of a river as it rushes downstream knows what it’s like to see the hidden radiance of Christ, whose living presence fills the whole Creation. Whenever we look at the world – whenever we look at each other – with eyes of love, we see the hidden radiance, the light that is shining within each person and each thing, although they may know nothing about it. Seeing the world with eyes of love is to see the world shining – to see its suffering, yes; to see its brokenness and imperfection, yes; but also to see it as cherished by God, as precious in God’s sight, as shining with God’s light. To see the world with eyes of love is to see it with God’s eyes. So as we gaze at Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, shining with the radiance of God, we see what Moses saw, what Jesus saw, and what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Rev. Randy Wilburn (Intentional Interim Pastor, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst) and Rev. Margaret, after the service
I think this is one of the great gifts that people of faith can offer the world in this perilous time: the perception of Creation as a sacred, living whole, lit up with the glory of God. Let’s be clear: we were born into a society that does not see the Earth like that. Most of us were not taught to see the natural world as sacred and lit up with God’s glory. It’s as if a veil was placed over our minds, just as Moses placed a veil over his face (Ex. 34:33). When our minds are veiled, we no longer see God’s glory. We see the natural world as nothing more than the backdrop to what really matters: the human drama. Nature becomes something to be ignored, used up, exploited at will, dominated and assaulted without a second thought. We experience ourselves and other human beings as basically separate from the rest of Creation, entitled to do anything we want to it, with no regard for its integrity or value or needs or rights. By now we know where that perception of the world has taken us: 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. Gazing at Jesus shining on the mountain is like medicine for our troubled spirits. It removes the veil from our eyes and restores our inward sight. For we are gazing on the one who loved us into being, the one who tells us that life and not death will have the last word, the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17), the one whose presence fills (Eph. 4:10) the whole Creation. So when we see God’s Creation being desecrated and destroyed – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus that is shining on the mountain and shining in our hearts. We want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm. When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, we can buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels; if we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well.
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst, MA
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 some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan organization that is pushing for a price on carbon and supporting the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Some of us join Climate Action Now, our fine, local, grassroots, climate action group that meets every month in Amherst or Northampton. Many of us will be looking with great interest at what happens to the Green New Deal, which is the first big push in years to treat the climate crisis with anything like the seriousness that it deserves. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. Today we stand on the mountain, soaking up the light of Christ and letting ourselves be filled with his love. Even now, the glory that shone through Jesus Christ is shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love. On Wednesday we will follow him down the mountain and into the 40 days of Lent, that precious season that invites us to re-orient our lives to the love of God. Day by day we intend to watch for the light and listen to the love, until the day comes when we “see Jesus in every aspect of existence”3 and perceive at last that even the ashes of Lent – even the dust itself – is shining.   ————————————————————————————————————————————— 1. William Johnston, “Arise, My Love…”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, 115. 2. Johnston, “Arise,” 115. 3. “The paths we travel on our sacred journey will lead us to the awareness that the whole point of our lives is the healing of the heart’s eye through which we are able to see Jesus in every aspect of our existence.” (St. Augustine)  
Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 13, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Townsend Congregational Church, UCC, Townsend, MA

Baptism into the community of Creation

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

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

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

All Saints: On being good ancestors

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

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

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

Glimpse of the Creation Care table at our Diocesan Convention

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing Earth: When the eyes of the blind are opened

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

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

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