Sermon for the First Sunday After the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA
Psalm 29Acts 19:1-7Mark 1:4-11
Baptism and the call to protect Earth
Our Gospel text this morning tells one of the foundational stories of Christian faith, the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan. Before I say one word more, I invite you to take your thumb and to trace the sign of the cross on your forehead. Are you with me? Let’s do it together, once or twice. Let’s make it a prayer, for with grateful hearts we recognize that this simple gesture recalls the fact that our forehead has been indelibly marked with the sign of the cross and that we were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether that once-in-a-lifetime event took place many years ago, before conscious memory, when we were babies, or whether it took place more recently, in a ceremony that we remember – through our baptism we have been drawn into the divine life of God and marked as Christ’s own forever.
It’s clear that Jesus’ baptism was a decisive experience, a pivotal event that launched him into his public ministry. The story is told in all four Gospels, and it’s the very first story about Jesus that we hear in the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. In his baptism, Jesus consciously received the identity that had been his since before the beginning of time: he was, and had always been, the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one could take that love away. That’s what happens in our baptism, too: like Jesus, we, too, are forever claimed as God’s own. From that moment and for the rest of our lives, we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable relationship of love. Do you ever wonder who you are, who you really are, deep down? Today’s Gospel story gives the answer. Without doing a thing to deserve it or to earn it, you are the son, you are the daughter, you are the beloved of God – you are the one with whom God is well pleased. Wherever you go, whatever you do, wherever the Spirit sends you, the divine life is flowing through you, as close as your breath, as close as your heartbeat. You and I belong to Christ forever, and we are loved to the core.
I don’t know about you, but I find this a deeply consoling truth to hold on to right now, when so many people feel stressed and scattered, anxious or depressed. We live in a turbulent time, and the world is rapidly changing. Sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, so it’s easy to feel unmoored, ungrounded, and afraid. What a perfect moment to remind ourselves of our baptism and to touch in again to the deep truth that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Roman 8:35-39)!
Here’s the thing: the love that embraced us in our baptism, the love that flows through us with our every breath – that love extends not only to individuals, not only to the baptized, and not only to human beings. The love of God embraces the whole Creation. Scripture tells us so (e.g. Gen. 1:31; Gen. 9:8-10, 15; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 24:1; John 3:16; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 1:10, Ephesians 4:9-10, Col. 1:19-20), and we glimpse this truth in our own experience. Anyone who has ever been amazed by the beauty of the world – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf, or gazing at a mountain, or looking at the stars on a frosty night knows what it’s like to feel a wave of wonder, humility, gratefulness and awe. The Creator of all-that-is is always disclosing God’s self to us in the natural world, always inviting us to slow down, look carefully, and greet our other-than-human kin.
That’s what Jesus did, I think: he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospels we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. Here he is in today’s story, plunging into a river! His parables and stories are rich with images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds and rocks. As I consider Jesus, it seems to me that he encountered every person and creature he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world because he saw with his sacred eyes. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God, because he himself was lit up with God. Jesus knew what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
So when we see that living world being desecrated – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we realize that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we understand 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 realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus; we want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.
I wish I could tell you, as some highly placed but misinformed politicians have recently claimed, that the bitter cold that has gripped North America and the hurricane-force winds that just blasted the East Coast are a sign that global warming is not real. In fact, researchers point out that climate change may well be related to these frigid temperatures: the Arctic is warming rapidly, and the jet stream that once functioned like a strong fence or lasso that held cold air firmly around the pole now seems to be giving way and growing weak. Some scientists compare it “to leaving a refrigerator door open, with cold air flooding the kitchen even as warm air enters the refrigerator.” In any case, except for Canada and the northern United States, just about every other part of the world is warmer than normal. Last year was the second hottest on record for our planet as a whole, just behind a sweltering 2016, which crushed the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years have all been in this century.
Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. You know the drill!
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.
Here in the Berkshires you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage.
We who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are faithful stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all her communities. Jesus took risks to oppose the unjust authorities of his time, and we must do the same.
Here on the first Sunday of the Epiphany we have a chance to make a radical new start. We have a chance to reclaim a covenant more powerful than any stack of New Year’s Resolutions. This morning we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and we affirm the power of our own baptism in His name. We are loved beyond measure by a divine love that will never let us go. Day by day, as long as we live, we have countless opportunities to bear witness to that love. Who knows what compassion will rise up from our renewed commitment, what new cherishing of our selves and each other, what fresh energy for justice seeking and peacemaking in this precious world entrusted to our care?
NOTE: On January 12, 2018, ClimateNexus posted an updated analysis of the relationship between the cold snap and climate change that does not mention changes in the jet stream:
Strange Times for Chilly Temps: The type of extreme cold North Americans experienced in early January has become increasingly rare as the planet warms, a new analysis shows. An initial breakdown of January’s cold snap from World Weather Attribution finds such frosty temperatures are now 15 times rarer than they were a century ago, when cold waves were an average of 4 degrees F chillier. This winter’s extreme cold “wouldn’t have been that strange” 100 years ago, study co-author Gabriel Vecchi told the AP. “Things like this are becoming stranger.” (New York Times $, AP, Washington Post $, Earther, Mashable)
Under threatening skies, a group of men and women gathers in the basement of the Paulist Center, less than a block from the Boston State House. One by one we introduce ourselves and offer a one-word summary of how we feel as we prepare to risk arrest.
Everyone has been trained in non-violent civil disobedience. Everyone has taken the necessary practical steps, such as removing wedding bands and other jewelry, slipping a driver’s license or other identification into a pocket, and scribbling the phone number of the jail support person onto an inner arm. In a moment, everyone will select a buddy for the day, for it is good to stand with a friend when you are arrested, handcuffed, put in a police van, and locked in a holding cell.
Some of us have faced arrest before, others will risk arrest for the first time, but just now all of us are carrying out a ritual of personal preparation that has been passed down through generations. We are clear about our goals: to leave a just and habitable world to our children. We are clear about our methods: to be non-violent in action, speech, and spirit. We divest ourselves of everything unnecessary. We take with us only what is necessary: a few physical essentials and an open heart. We head out two by two.
That’s what Jesus did: he sent out his disciples two by two, ordering them to take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts (Mark 6:7-8). His first followers, the men and women of the Jesus Movement, repeatedly challenged unjust power and were accused of disturbing the peace and “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). These brave souls seemed to spend as much time in jail as they did walking free.
At the moment I don’t feel particularly inspired or brave, but that doesn’t matter: I feel called to be here, doing what needs to be done. All around the world, other people are with us in spirit as we gather strength in this Boston basement: they, too, are standing up for what is right, refusing to settle for a death-dealing status quo.
We have our own climate action to take here in Massachusetts. Mass Power Forward, a coalition of environmental, climate, community, and faith groups (including the Social Justice Commission of Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Environmental Ministries of United Church of Christ in Massachusetts) is running a campaign (#StandUpCharlie) to push Governor Charlie Baker to sign an executive order that directs all state agencies to do everything in their legal authority to stop new fossil fuel projects. We want him to speak out against the pipeline tax and make it clear to fossil fuel executives that the Commonwealth is not willing to pay billions of dollars to fund their pipeline projects. We want him to establish a policy of climate justice and to stand up for clean energy, not to perpetuate the lethal grip of fossil fuels.
What did Governor Charlie Baker say last week when six protesters resolutely sat down in his Statehouse office, refusing to leave until he stopped all new fossil fuel projects in Massachusetts? He said he didn’t want to “take options off the table.”
Keep more fracked gas on the table? That means taking climate stability off the table,1 taking moderate weather off the table, taking intact ice sheets off the table, taking your children’s future off the table, taking a habitable world off the table.
Keep all options on the table? No way. Not if you love your children; not if you love the beautiful blue-green planet into which you and I were born; not if you care about climate migrants and refugees; not if you’re concerned about resource wars over clean water and arable land; not if you want to preserve some remnant of the web of life that is fast unraveling before our eyes.
So it’s no wonder – when the twenty-six of us risking arrest have finished initial preparations and walked to the Boston State House, passed through security and assembled with hundreds of supporters in a large hall – that the crowd quickly takes up the chant: “No new pipelines, keep it off the table!” Our cries reverberate against the walls, filling the space.
Claire Miller (Toxics Action Center) and Craig Altemose (Better Future Project and 350 Mass for a Better Future) speak about the growing movement to stop new fossil fuel projects and to build a safer, healthier economy. The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, a national leader on climate, speaks with concise eloquence: “We are assembled here on the hinge of history. Time is short. We are here to give Governor Baker the opportunity to make the most important decision of his career.”
Then up the stairs we go, to the Governor’s Executive Office. State troopers stand guard at the doorway, preventing us from stepping inside, so the twenty-six of us sit down on the hallway’s marble floor. We intend to sit there until the Governor signs the executive order we seek or until we are forcibly removed.
At first the police hassle us. They point out that a visitor has arrived in a wheelchair. They argue that, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the hallway must be kept completely clear. The police tell us to move along. Our spokespeople counter: “Fine. We’d be glad to empty the hallway. Since only twenty-six people are refusing to leave, there is plenty of room for us to move into the Governor’s office and to carry out our sit-in there.”
The police back off. Protesters keep a pathway open for pedestrians and wheelchairs, and there in the hallway we stay. Hundreds of supporters, holding banners and signs, spread out nearby. Everyone settles in for a long afternoon.
We pass the hours by belting out every inspiring song we know, from “Singing for Our Lives” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” to songs with lyrics written especially for the occasion. We take turns standing up to explain what motivates our activism. A labor organizer speaks of his many years of learning when and how to negotiate. “Sometimes negotiation isn’t possible,” he tells us. “You can’t negotiate with climate change.” Activities that push the world to the brink of climate chaos will never be able to strike a deal with physics and chemistry.
A physician in a white lab coat stands up. “In medical school, we learn ‘First, do no harm.’” Policies that cater to fossil fuel companies are doing grave harm to our state, our country, and our planet.
A middle-aged woman stands up to speak about extreme weather events and rising seas. An elderly woman speaks about her love and concern for her grandchildren. A young man speaks about his Millennial friends who, anticipating terrible years ahead, are deciding not to bear children. Activist and independent journalist Wen Stephenson recites by heart a compelling passage from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” that concludes: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”
I speak about the love that propels me. Climate change is not only a scientific, economic, and political issue, but also one that is deeply spiritual. What do we love most? To what are we willing to commit our lives? What is the North Star that guides our decisions? When we know what we love most, we make energy choices that are wise. And, I might add, we push our elected officials to stop desecrating the Earth entrusted to our care and to move as swiftly as possible to a clean energy future in which all beings can thrive.
The hours pass. When a supporter needs to leave, he or she approaches the group that is sitting in the hallway and hands one of the protesters a small flower. I am touched by this gesture of support: “I may not be with you in person, but I am with you in spirit.”
Many people are with us in body or spirit. A hundred miles west, local activists led by Arise for Social Justice and Climate Action Now are carrying out a simultaneous #StandUpCharlie protest at Governor Baker’s Springfield office. They ask him to meet additional demands that affect climate justice in western Massachusetts: to prevent large-biomass burning, to expand our system of public transportation, and to implement East-West high-speed rail.
The hour is late. The building will close at 6:00 p.m. Additional police officers assemble nearby. After brief, intense discussions among ourselves, we decide that we are willing to face criminal charges and to be summoned to court without undergoing arrest – a decision that some of us regret (see Wen Stephenson’s subsequent article in The Nation). A police officer announces the charges – trespassing and unlawful assembly – and we hand over our driver’s licenses to be photocopied.
We head out into the night.
The #StandUpCharlie campaign plans a brief hiatus, to give the Governor some time over the holidays to consider his leadership on climate. In January, we intend to come back, and in greater numbers, until the Governor agrees to take a clear stand against more fracked gas projects in Massachusetts.
Preserving a habitable planet depends on local and regional action by every sector of society, especially when our national government seems determined to dig us ever deeper into the pit of relying on fossil fuels. Whatever form our actions take – whether or not they include arrest – we will need to be loving, bold, relentless, and strong.
And persistent. Jesus encourages persistence in prayer. He encourages his friends “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Then he tells a parable about a persistent widow who refuses to quit pestering a judge until he grants her justice (Luke 18:1-8). Fed up by her tenacity, the judge at last relents, saying, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).
That’s the kind of persistence we intend to maintain as we press Governor Baker to become a climate leader. We intend to be persistent in prayer and to pray persistently as we put our bodies on the line. We aim to tend our inner fires, to be steadfast in listening to the inner voice of love that gives us courage and strength. And when God calls us to take action, we hope, by God’s grace, to be able to answer:
A point made by climate activists Kathleen Wolf and Craig Altemose.
Homily delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas during The Bishop’s Annual Clergy Retreat for the Diocese of New Westminster, “Contemplative Ecology: Landscapes of the Soul,” held at Loon Lake Lodge, Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada, on October 25, 2017
Romans 6:12-18Psalm 124Luke 12:39-48
Now is the unexpected hour
The Gospel reading assigned for today is a classic text for reflecting on stewardship: the parable of the faithful and unfaithful slave, of the wise and unwise steward.
Let’s says the master leaves his house in the care of a “faithful and prudent” manager who works hard and takes good care of the estate – when that happens, says Jesus, “blessed is that slave who his master will find at work when he arrives.”
But let’s say the master leaves his house in the care of an unfaithful steward, someone who says to himself: “My master is delayed in coming. I can do whatever I please; I can beat the other slaves; I can eat, drink, get drunk.” Jesus warns that in such a case, the consequences will be terrible: The master will come on a day when [the steward] does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces.” The steward who knew what his master wanted, but did not do it, will receive a severe beating; the steward who did wrong but did not know what his master wanted will also receive a beating, though only a light one.
The point, it seems, is that there comes a time of reckoning. As the stewards of God’s Creation, we may revel for a while in an initial sense of freedom and entitlement. Hey, we may say to ourselves, the master is delayed; we can get away with doing whatever we want! We can mistreat each other and mistreat the Earth entrusted to our care. We don’t belong to each other. We don’t need to take care of each other. We have no obligation to anyone but ourselves, as individuals and as a species. If it maximizes my short-term profit, that’s all I need to know: it’s good. If it makes my life and my family’s life more comfortable, that’s all I need to know: it’s good. If it benefits my company’s shareholders, that’s all I need to know: it’s good. So go ahead – let’s pillage and plunder all we like, and pour dirty greenhouse gases into the sky as if it were an open sewer. Let’s drill, mine, extract, consume, and discard to our heart’s content – this is who we are, this is what we do. And how what we’re doing affects other beings – such as our non-human kin, and the poor, and indigenous people, and future generations – is not our concern.
Well, says Jesus, there does come a time of reckoning. The master comes home at an unexpected hour and finds that his estate – its peoples, its creatures, and its shining web of life – has been trashed. What does he do? He cuts the unfaithful steward in pieces and gives him a beating – an especially severe beating if the steward knew that what he was doing was wrong, but went ahead and did it anyway.
I interpret that harsh sentence as an expression of the master’s anger and grief: how much the master loved that piece of land and all that lived on it! How much he hoped that the people to whom he entrusted his estate would live gently and justly together, so that everyone and everything could thrive! Yet the unfaithful and unwise stewards made a mess of things. The moment of reckoning is terrible, for if it’s wrong to wreck the world, it’s especially wrong to wreck the world when you know what you’re doing and you keep doing it, anyway.
I hear a poignant echo of this parable in a book by Kathleen Dean Moore called Great Tide Rising, which is subtitled: “Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change.”Great Tide Rising considers the perilous situation in which we find ourselves because of “our dead-end culture”1 – the rising seas and extreme storms of a changing climate, the cascade of extinctions, the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor. We are wrecking the world, she says, “maybe not intentionally, but knowingly.” And then she imagines the moment of reckoning:
“What will I say when my granddaughter comes to me with her own baby in her arms and real pain in her voice and asks me, ‘What did you do to protect the Earth from this devastation?’ I cringe when I imagine what she might say:
Don’t tell me you didn’t know. You knew.
Don’t tell me you thought there was enough time. You know there wasn’t.
Don’t tell me you didn’t know what to do. Anything would have been better than nothing.
Don’t tell me the forces against you were too great! Nothing is greater than the forces against us now. And now, what would you have me do?”2
Because we are Christians we dare to face hard truths. The hard truth is that as a society we are putting the planet’s living systems in peril, and the time of reckoning is now. Now is the time to reclaim our God-given connection with the earth and our responsibility to the living, sacred web of life. Now is the time to renew our union with God and all God’s creation – which includes not just our human fellows but also all living creatures and the larger eco-systems on which all of life depend. Now is the time to change course as a society, because our present way of life is unsustainable.
Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable. Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable. Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable. We are living beyond our ecological means.
If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with our fellow creatures, now would be the time.
There is a lot that we can do as individuals. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, and move to a plant-based diet. I invite you to think of one way you can listen more deeply to the land. If we have money to invest, we can invest in socially responsible funds or in local, green businesses, and divest from fossil fuels. We can support our local land trust and protect the wild areas and local farms we still have. We can do simple things like invite the neighbor we’ve never met to come over for a cup of tea, for we need to build up local communities and live in ways that are closer to the earth, more about sharing than about consuming, more about self-restraint than about self-aggrandizement, more about generosity than about self-centered and fearful survivalism, so that we can take care of each other when the hard times come. There is joy in living like this – a joy that springs simply from being true to the basic goodness that God has planted in us.
But because individual actions are necessary but not sufficient to the challenge that confronts us, together we need to create the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen. I know that Christians have traditionally called ourselves “stewards” of God’s Creation, but given the situation in which the world now finds itself, I think we need a more robust term, something like “sacred warriors” or “eco-warriors.” The word “steward” can sound too polite and passive, when in fact what we need are bold witnesses to the risen Christ and to the sacredness of the Earth entrusted by God to our care.
In a few moments we will share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost. We will gather at that holy table, as we always do, so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed – not only the bread and the wine, but also we ourselves, and the whole of creation, every leaf and every speck of sand. Sharing the Eucharist helps us to perceive not only our own belovedness, our own blessedness in God, but also the fact that everyone is beloved, all beings are blessed. Everyone and everything is part of a sacred whole, and all living things are kin. In the strength of the blessed and broken bread, and of the blessed and poured-out wine, we dare to hope that human beings will respond with grateful hearts and come to treat the world not as an object to exploit, but as a gift to receive, something perishable and precious. We dare to hope that we will become at last who we were made to be, a blessing on the earth.
1. Kathleen Dean Moore, Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change(Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2016), p. 42.
It is a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Peter, for inviting me to preach. I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ as Missioner for Creation Care. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is a joy to return to the Pacific Northwest and to see again the magnificent skies and sea and mountains of Vancouver and the glory that God reveals in this particular corner of God’s Creation – even if does seem to rain a lot!
Glory is our theme this morning – the glory of God, the glory of God’s Creation. In the passage from Exodus that we just heard, Moses engages in a long conversation with God. Eventually Moses asks, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
Before we go any further, allow me to suggest that when we think about Moses, we probably think first about what he did in public. Who is Moses? He is the leader of the Hebrew people. He is the prophet who confronted the Pharaoh, the liberator who set his people free and led them out of bondage in Egypt, the lawgiver who formed Israel as a nation. Moses is a public leader – yes – but in today’s reading we see a much more intimate side of Moses – we see his inner life. We listen in on his intimate conversation with the God who dwells within him, just as God dwells within each one of us while also being distinct from us, infinitely beyond us.
“Show me your glory,” Moses prays – a plea that we might render as: “God, show me your beauty, your goodness, your truth. Show me your ways. Show me your face.” It’s an ardent prayer, the prayer of a lover to his beloved or of one close friend to another (Exodus 33:11), the prayer of someone who has wrestled with and argued with and trusted in and cast his lot with a divine Presence who will never let him go. It is the prayer of someone who wants to draw close to love and to the Source of love. “Show me your glory.”
And God responds, yes, I will show you my glory, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33:19), but “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). And so God shelters Moses in a cleft of the rock, God tenderly cups a hand over him until God has passed by, and then God removes the hand, so that Moses can see God’s “back” (Exodus 33:23).
Anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf or gazing at an ancient forest or watching waves dancing on the shore knows what it’s like to see God’s “back.” Like Moses, we cannot see the glory of God directly, in all fullness, for that radiance would be too much for mortal eyes to bear, but by the grace of God we sometimes see God’s “back” – we catch glimpses of God’s glory, we see traces, as when Moses saw the burning bush that was on fire and yet was not consumed. It may have been just an ordinary bush, but at that moment Moses could see that even this lowly bush was on fire with the love and glory of God. He took off his shoes, for he knew that he was standing on holy ground.
Sometimes we are surprised by such moments of awakening to glory: maybe we are startled by the cry of wild geese flying overhead or by the sight of an Orca rising and falling in the ocean; we are seized with wonder and our restless worries fall away. Sometimes we prepare for these moments of awakening: maybe we have a particular sacred place in nature that we return to again and again, knowing that if we stop and gaze and wait and pray, we are likely to sense that God is present, God is passing by. The Creator of all that is is always disclosing God’s self to us in the natural world, always inviting us to slow down, look carefully, be curious, and greet our other-than-human kin.
I think that that’s what Jesus did: he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospels we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. His parables and stories are rich in images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds and rocks. As I meet Jesus in Scripture and in prayer, it seems to me that every creature he saw, every person he encountered he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world because he saw with his sacred eyes. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God’s glory, because he himself was lit up from the inside with God’s love. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins echoes what Moses saw and what Jesus saw when he writes: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
I wonder what it would be like if Christians around the world recovered a felt sense of the glory of God in Creation. What would happen to us, how would we change, what power would we receive, if we immersed ourselves more often in prayer outdoors in God’s Creation, and if, when indoors, we never forgot our connection with the living world outside? However alienated we may feel from nature, however enmeshed and trapped we may get in virtual reality and the hectic world of screens, emails, and tweets, however isolated we may feel as we hurtle down highways in our cars, the truth is that we live in a sacramental universe – a living, vibrant world that discloses and conveys the presence of God as surely as do the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
So when we see that living world being desecrated – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we realize that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus; we want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.
As individuals, there is a lot we can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, and move to a plant-based diet. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. You know the drill!
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we may have to confront the powers that be. That’s what Moses discovered after he saw God’s glory: after he saw the burning bush and the living radiance of God’s Creation, from within the burning bush he heard God call him to do a brave thing: to step out into the public realm to confront the Pharaoh and to set his people free.
I hear the same call in Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). That enigmatic line has been interpreted in all kinds of ways, but here is how I hear it today: when we’re faithful to God, we give to the emperor – or, we might say, to the state – the things that are the state’s; we respect the legitimate and limited functions of the state. But when the state puts itself in place of God – when it violates the vision and values that are basic to Christian faith – when it abandons the Earth entrusted to our care and rides roughshod over the needs of the poor – then as Christians we are called to protest, to resist the state, and to change our ways of doing business, because our ultimate commitment is to God.
Back where I come from, in the United States, that’s where many Christians now find ourselves: appalled by the actions of a government and of multinational corporations that seem intent on desecrating every last inch of Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. Impelled by our faith in the living God, the risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit, we are praying and protesting, resisting and organizing.
I can’t speak to the struggles that you face here in Canada, but I can say this: whatever obstacles you and I face as we try in the name of God to build a more just and sustainable future, however daunted we may feel, however challenging the battles that lie ahead of us, we trust that the glory of God is with us. In this Eucharist, as in every Eucharist, we will soon turn to God and say, “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” We will pray as Jesus taught us, “Our Father in heaven… the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours.” And we will stretch out our hands – as if to say, like Moses, “Show me your glory” – and we will be given the consecrated bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus, these simple elements of nature, filled with glory, giving us strength for the days ahead.
An ecumenical statement from Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, responding to the President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.
President Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Climate Accord violates the values and vision that are basic to Christian faith. Our Judaeo-Christian heritage teaches that the Earth and its web of life are precious in God’s sight (Genesis 1-2:3), that the Earth belongs not to us but to God (Psalm 24), and that we are entrusted with loving the Earth as God loves it (Genesis 2:15). As followers of Jesus, we are committed to God’s mission of reconciling people with each other and with the whole of creation.
Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord is a tragic mistake, and we applaud the Parliament of the World’s Religions strong condemnation of the President’s decision. We concur that this decision is scientifically, economically, medically, politically and morally wrong. With heartache we recognize the devastating toll of suffering that will be exacted by this Administration’s refusal to address the climate crisis. We are appalled by the Administration’s unwillingness to join with other nations in protecting and stabilizing the atmosphere upon which our species – and so many other forms of life – depend.
This historic moment provides Christian communities with a powerful opportunity to bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and the urgent call to preserve it. This is our chance to be the church. Episcopalians and other members of the Anglican Communion recognize Five Marks of Mission. The Fifth Mark is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” The United Church of Christ affirms this vocation in its new mission initiative known as the three great loves, one of which is love of creation. If we listen carefully, the voice of our still-speaking God resounds above the jeers and cheers in response to Trump’s decision. God is calling our congregations and clergy to rise to the occasion and to become bold witnesses to the creative power of God.
Now is the time to bear witness to the Christ who rises from the tomb and who proclaims that life and not death will have the last word.
We call upon our congregations and clergy to embrace this moment of opportunity in three ways:
Accept the mantle of moral leadership
Now is the time for clergy to speak from their pulpits about the moral obligation of our
generation to protect God’s creation. Let the world know that whatever the current American administration may say or do, the Jesus movement will not back away from God’s call to protect our common home.
Now is the time for congregations and for every person of faith to set a moral example through our own words and actions. As individuals and as communities, we can commit to making decisions of integrity in our energy choices, and to holding our leaders accountable to do the same.
Proclaim truth in the public square
Now is the time for communities of faith to be bold and courageous in proclaiming truth in the public square. It is now abundantly clear that the Federal Government will not address the greatest moral challenge that the world has ever faced. It is up to us.
Let us commit to resist all expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and demand new sources of renewable energy that are accessible to all communities. As people of faith, we can and we must change America’s understanding of the story that our generation is writing. We must begin a new story – a story that is not dependent on fossil fuel or on wealth for the few and misery for the many.
In the streets, at the State House, with our phones and emails, by committing our time, financial resources and prayers – it is up to us – we the people – to bend the moral arc of justice. And we will.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal
Conference Minister and President
Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher
Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
Missioner for Creation Care
Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
This statement sprang from a discussion among The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ), The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts), and The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Missioner for Creation Care, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ). We are glad to make it available to the wider Church.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
It is a joy to be with you again. I had the pleasure of serving as your Priest Associate for nine years, and it is wonderful to be back. Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to preach. I feel a bit like the apostles whom Jesus sent out to heal and preach and teach, and who returned to Jesus to report back on what they had learned and how things were going. I will spare you a long report on what I’ve been up to over the past three-and-a-half years as Missioner for Creation Care in this diocese and in the Mass. Conference of the United Church of Christ. My Website, RevivingCreation.org, will tell you anything you want to know. But I will say that this has been a lively and rewarding time of building up the God-centered, Spirit-led movement to protect the web of life and to create a more just and sustainable future. I’ve been traveling around, preaching, speaking and leading retreats, aiming to mobilize a wave of religious activism to find solutions to the climate crisis. It’s been heartening to catch glimpses of the many ways that members of this congregation share in this mission with me. Just two weeks ago I met up with four of you – along with more than 200,000 other dedicated souls – at the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., and many others of you took part in local events on the same day here in the Valley. Thank you for that witness.
Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – is drawn from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends, telling them that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. “[Jesus said,] ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).
I don’t know about you, but just now it is startling for me to hear “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” because naturally our hearts are troubled. On a personal level, all sorts of things may be troubling us: maybe financial worries, or a medical issue, or some conflict in an important relationship. Regarding politics, many of us are troubled by the extraordinary events now unfolding in our nation’s Capitol, from the firing of the Director of the FBI to growing concerns about Russian interference in the last election and possible collusion and cover-up by our nation’s top leaders: we may well be troubled by what looks like an assault on the institutions that maintain democracy.
And we have good reason to be deeply troubled by the ongoing and accelerating attack on God’s Creation, the Earth upon which all life depends. Our current leaders seem determined to develop more coal, gas, and oil, just when we urgently need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. They likewise seem determined to ignore climate science, to shut down climate Websites, to withdraw funding for climate research, and to abandon regulations that protect our health and environment, as if ignoring the climate crisis will make it go away. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is being affected and is in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing and releasing methane – a serious greenhouse gas. Storms are becoming more intense. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Scientists recently reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
For all of us who feel anxious and unsettled in this turbulent time, today’s Gospel passage brings words of reassurance and hope. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Here is the first great promise that Jesus makes to us this morning: our souls have a destination, a home in God. We may enter the fullness of that divine dwelling place only at the end of our lives, but anyone with sustained experience in prayer, especially contemplative prayer, knows that we’re also invited to enter that dwelling place now. God is found not just “somewhere out there,” in a distant place or time. God is found right here and now, in the intimate, unrepeatable present moment. Every ache in us, every bit of restlessness and striving, every desire that moves through us in the course of a day, is an echo of the soul’s deep hunger for communion with God. The longing for our sacred Home in God is at the root of all our other longings and desires.
But how do we find that Home in God? How do we get there? Even if, strictly speaking, there is nowhere to get to, even if in some sense God is already here, already alive in our depths and in our midst, how do we discover that truth for ourselves? What is the path? What is the way? That is the question that Thomas asks Jesus. You know how Jesus answers: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That is the second great promise that Jesus makes to us this morning: there is a way into the heart of God, and Christ is the path. Christ is the way.
I am ashamed to say that Christians have too often wielded this statement as a cudgel against people of other faiths, holding it aloft like a fist: follow Jesus or else. Christians have too often interpreted this statement as Jesus speaking from his ego to our ego, as if Jesus wants to bolster the part of our selves that likes to have power, to dominate and be in control. But when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus is not speaking from his ego to our ego. He is speaking from his soul to our soul. He is inviting us to trust him, to be devoted to him, to dedicate ourselves to following him so that we, too, are drawn, as he is drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed. Jesus is the gateway to the great way: to a universal love in which no one is left out.
So Jesus speaks to the soul and says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the indwelling presence of God, the creative Wisdom of God through whom all things were made, in whom everything is knit together, and toward whom all things in heaven and on earth converge. I make my home in you and in every person, whatever he or she happens to believe, and whether he or she is aware of it or not. You can ignore me, you can deny me, you can conceal me under all the worries and pleasures of your life, but if you open yourself to me in quiet prayer – if you listen attentively to my silent love – if you practice paying attention to my presence as you go through the day – if you lean on my love and trust in my power – what amazing things you and I will do together!” (c.f. Acts 17:6).
This is what distinguishes secular activists from activists who are led by faith: secular activists depend on people power, on their own power, on what human beings can accomplish by themselves. And this can be a lot! But Spirit-led activists depend on God’s power. They draw from a sacred power beyond themselves, from a source of love and strength far greater than anything they can ask for or imagine. In these troubled times, we need Spirit-led activists, people who take time to pray and to listen inwardly for the presence of the Spirit, people who resist the temptation to get so caught up in tracking the latest breaking news, the latest tweet, the latest post on social media, that we forget to tap into the wisdom that can only be found deep within, by patient listening in silence. In these troubled times, we need Spirit-led activists who step out to do what needs to be done, even if they have no assurance of success – activists who bear witness to the ongoing flow of love that God pours into our hearts through the power of the Spirit (Romans 5:5), even in a world often gripped by cruelty and fear.
Thanks be to God, people of all faiths are rising up the world over to proclaim the sacredness of God’s Creation and to express our refusal to stand idly by and let the web of life be destroyed. People of faith are lobbying, and advocating, and pressing our politicians to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. People of faith are blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines, pushing for a fair price on carbon, and working to build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health.
You never know where the Spirit will lead you. A UCC pastor and friend of mine, long-time activist Andrea Ayvazian, was recently praying as she rode a train to and from Texas, and the Spirit gave her a vision of a school that teaches people how to build the movement for eco-social justice. Thus was born the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership. Launched just this month, it offers free classes from Greenfield to Springfield on everything from how to write for social change, to how to run for office, how to prepare for non-violent civil disobedience, and how to maintain a peaceful heart. The Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership is already on its way to becoming a model for how to start similar schools in cities across the country. Check it out online or pick up one of the brochures I’ve left at the door to the church. I’ll be teaching a class on spiritual resilience in a couple of weeks.
I see the Spirit at work in the climate action network here in the Pioneer Valley, Climate Action Now, which is engaged in campaigns to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. The monthly meetings of Climate Action Now begin and end with silence, prayer, or singing, and if you sign up for their weekly newsletter, you’ll be joining a vibrant local effort.
The Spirit also inspired the formation of another group, the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together Christians, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, and people of all religious traditions to push for legislation in Massachusetts that supports climate justice.
Here’s my last invitation. I’d love to see you on Sunday afternoon, June 11, when we hold a festive, outdoor, interfaith service in Northampton called “Prayers for the Planet: Reverence and Resistance.” We’ll have two powerful guest speakers, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond and Jay O’Hara, along with Gospel music, singing, prayers, and leaders from a range of world religions, as we join together to refresh our spirits and renew our resolve. Thank you, Grace Church, for being a sponsor of this unusual event. I hope that many of you will come.
Yes, we live in troubled times, but the Jesus movement was made for times like these. If you knew that Jesus was with you, if you knew that he believes in you and in what you can accomplish, if you knew that his Spirit was guiding you, sustaining you, and giving you strength, what would you do next? What new step would you take? You may not know the answer right off the bat, but if you ask the Spirit to guide you, She will.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
March for jobs, justice, and climate: Were not our hearts burning within us?
They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
I bring you greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and in the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. I took a train to get to Washington, D.C., this weekend, but I feel as if I sailed here on the living waters of the Holy Spirit. I was carried here, called here, moved to come here by a power greater than myself. Like John Wesley, my heart felt “strangely warmed” and called by the Spirit to be here at this critical time in world history.
Yesterday’s historic “March for Jobs, Justice and Climate” drew me, and many of you, and something like 200,000 other people to converge on our nation’s capital to express our shared love of life and our fierce intention to fight for a habitable planet, a just society, and a healthy future for our kids. We were like a mighty river, pouring through the streets in all our variety and diversity, a wave of people standing up for life, including people who had never done anything like this before, people who had never protested in the streets, had never taken part in public witness, yet who now felt moved to connect with others and to say that now is the time for our country to change course. Now is the time for fossil fuels to stay in the ground.
Where does such a beautiful wave of faith, hope, and love come from? Where does it begin? A mighty river has to begin somewhere, and if we hike upstream and follow a river back to its headwaters, we probably discover that even a great river starts as something very small – maybe nothing more than a trickle, a bit of moisture on the ground, a trace of dampness in the soil. Yet eventually that rivulet of water becomes a power to be reckoned with.
A great wave of Easter hope poured like a river through the first followers of Jesus – a mighty surge of confidence that the crucified Jesus had risen from the dead, that he was alive through the power of the Spirit, and that life, and not death, would have the last word. But that great wave of hope likewise began in a very small and humble way. We learn this, for instance, in today’s Gospel story. Two dejected followers of Jesus are walking to Emmaus. This is not a big march, but a mournful amble by two people who feel lost. Cleopas and his unnamed companion – who might be his wife, but who might also represent you or me – the two of them are walking together, talking about their confusion and sorrow. The person they had loved and followed, and who had ignited their hopes, has been executed. Jesus has been handed over, condemned to death, and crucified. The powers that be have triumphed. Injustice has won the day.
I wonder how deep their despair went. Along with the grief that someone they loved had been tortured and murdered, did they also wonder if they had been fools to follow him in the first place? Did his message of God’s mercy, justice, and love now seem absurd? The movement that had formed around the power of Jesus’ love, teachings, and presence seemed to have been defeated forever. The government, like unjust governments everywhere, had tried to destroy the Jesus movement by arresting and killing its leader, figuring that without its leader, the movement would lose heart and dissipate like water into sand.
So here they were, on the road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus feeling shocked, helpless, stuck, and sad. Sure, some women of their group had told them an astounding tale that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that they “had… seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive” (Luke 24:23) – but what did that mean, and how was that possible?
I want to pause here, because it’s important that we find ourselves right here in this story, without jumping ahead. I don’t know about you, but for me, the climate crisis can evoke similar feelings of grief, helplessness and fear, for we are witnessing (and complicit in) a crucifixion of another kind, the crucifixion of Earth. 97% of climate scientists worldwide are reporting with increasing alarm that climate change is upon us. Unless we take action fast, we will leave our children a world that none of us would recognize, a world very difficult to inhabit. In a mere 200 years – just a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of CO2 are higher than our species has ever experienced before. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is affected and in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing and releasing methane – a dangerous greenhouse gas. Storms are becoming more intense. Droughts are spreading in some areas, extensive floods in others. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Scientists recently reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
The climate emergency is not just a quote-unquote “environmental” problem. It’s not just about polar bears and coral. It’s about people in Southern Africa, where rains have failed, crops are withering, and starving families are “reduced to eating cactus and even rocks or ashes.” It’s about Pacific islanders whose homelands are already flooding from rising seas. It’s about impoverished people here and abroad who are hit first and hardest by a changing climate, who have the fewest resources to adapt to it, and who are the least responsible for causing it.
To make matters worse, fossil fuel groups are working very hard and spending millions of dollars to keep the American public confused. The same folks who once spread doubt about the risk of smoking tobacco are now throwing their weight behind efforts to mislead the public about the reality of climate change. We learned this week that a think tank known for attacking climate science is mailing out books to public school teachers across the United States, books which contend that climate scientists have not reached a consensus on the causes and the urgency of global warming – when of course they have.
Given the climate emergency in which we find ourselves, and the political and corporate powers lined up to deny there’s a problem and eager to maintain business as usual, do I ever find myself walking beside Cleopas on that sorrowful road to Emmaus? You bet I do. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and to get stuck in fear or inertia, uncertain about what to do and doubtful that it’s worth doing anything, anyway, since, after all, maybe it’s too late, maybe we’re too far gone, and what difference can one person make? Paralyzed by fear, we can get caught in something like a death spiral, in what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon has denounced as a “global suicide pact.”
But then something happens: “Jesus himself came near and went with them” (Luke 24:15). The Lord of life is walking beside his grieving, frightened friends. What’s so poignant and even funny about this part of the story is that the sorrowing disciples don’t recognize the stranger beside them. They even rebuke him for apparently not knowing that Jesus has just been crucified and that strange reports are circulating that he has risen from the dead. But though they are not yet aware of it, the risen Christ is with them, walking beside them, patiently listening to their sorrows.
Maybe that is how our own awareness of Christ’s resurrection begins. As we pour out our grief about the climate crisis, as we pour out our protest that the web of life is unraveling, we sense that a sacred Someone is listening to us. That is how the risen Christ often comes: he draws near, he walks beside us, he listens to us – and we begin to realize that we are not alone. A divine presence and power is with us.
Or maybe, like Cleopas and his companion, we begin to sense the risen Christ as we study Scripture and come to understand, as the first disciples did, that these sacred texts speak of a suffering love that the powers of this world can never destroy.
But in order to come fully into our lives, it seems that the risen Christ needs to know that we actively want his presence – that we are willing to reach out and ask him to stay. That’s what happens in our Gospel story. Christ starts walking ahead of Cleopas and his companion, and going on, as if leaving them behind. They call out to him strongly, “Stay with us” (Luke 24:28-29). And this is just what he does: “He went in to stay with them” (Luke 24:29).
Maybe we sense the risen Christ most vividly right here at this table, when we share in the sacrament of Communion, when we take, bless, break, and share the bread. That is when the eyes of Cleopas and his companion are opened: they recognize the risen Christ, and in that moment of recognition, he vanishes. Why does he vanish? Because the disciples have been transformed. Because they have fully taken in his presence. Because their own Christ selves have been awakened, and they are now seeing with the eyes of Christ, feeling with the heart of Christ, serving with the hands of Christ.
“Were not our hearts burning within us?” (Luke 24:32), they say to each other, as they reflect on what just happened. They have received what we might call a unitive vision, an experience of union with God. They see now that their lives are filled with meaning and purpose. They know now that they belong to a sacred mystery that is larger than themselves: to a love that will never let them go. Although they are still mortal and frail, just two small people in a big, chaotic world, they understand now that they are part of a long story of salvation to which they can contribute, every moment of their lives, by choosing compassion over hate, kindness over cruelty, love over fear. This insight is a great gift. And it is also a choice and a discipline that we try to renew every day and in every aspect of our lives
Tired as they are that night, the two disciples get up and head straight back to Jerusalem to share this astonishing news with their friends – only to discover, to their further amazement, that their companions have independently had the same experience: a divine love has been set loose in the world, a love that nothing, not even death, can destroy.
That is the wave of Easter hope that filled the early disciples and that set them on fire to bear witness to the risen Christ and to resist the forces of death in the world around them. That wave of Easter hope fills us and carries us now – every one of us who feels impelled to join our Creator in re-weaving the web of life and in building a gentler and more just society.
And so we marched yesterday, and we will keep on marching. We will lobby, we will advocate, and we will press our politicians to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We will block the path of new fracked gas pipelines, we will push for a fair price on carbon, and we will work to build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health.
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God is calling us to become an Easter people, to step out of despair and inertia and to join – maybe even to lead – the joyful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
1.Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; see also Ross Gelbspan, The Heat is On; and Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2007 report on ExxonMobil.
“[Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” (John 20:27)
I feel a special kinship with this congregation, because you are pioneers in building ecumenical relations: you’ve gathered Lutheran and Episcopal communities into one shared community of worship. I can relate to that, for I serve two denominations in one job. As Missioner for Creation Care, I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. So let’s hear it for Christians coming together to praise the one God and to follow Jesus, wherever he leads!
Today is Earth Sunday, the day after Earth Day, the day when people across the country celebrate the blue-green planet that we call home. Today is also the Second Sunday of Easter, and, as we always do at this time of year, we hear a marvelous and mysterious story from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus shows himself to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day and then returns a week later to convince the disciple we call Doubting Thomas that yes, the Risen Christ is real.
“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas, showing him the wounds. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And then Thomas finds his faith, saying, “My Lord and my God.”
What happens when we consider Earth Day in the light of Easter? The first thing to say is that our Easter liturgies make it abundantly clear that Christ’s death and resurrection is good news not just to human beings but also to the whole of Creation – to rivers and mountains, forests and fields, whales and sparrows and sheep. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, we start by lighting a fire in the darkness and by listening to someone chant these ancient words:
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen!
Today’s Gospel story invites us to explore the good news of Christ’s resurrection by taking stock of our doubts. Doubting Thomas stands for all of us who wrestle with doubt – doubt about what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and doubt about the reality of the resurrection. Doubt is a perfect theme for Earth Day, too, for when it comes to climate change – the issue at the top of everybody’s list on Earth Day – we hear a lot about doubt. Is climate change real? Is it serious? Is human activity responsible for most of it? Some folks outright deny the reality of climate change; others are on the fence and don’t know what to believe, assuming that scientists have not reached a consensus on the reality and causes of global warming. Fossil fuel groups are working very hard and spending millions of dollars to keep the American public doubtful and confused. The same folks who once spread doubt about the risk of smoking tobacco are now throwing their weight behind efforts to mislead the public about the reality of climate change. Some groups are even trying to spread doubt about the validity of science itself, doubt about the value of scientific research and scientific fact. Next they will be questioning the validity of gravity! It’s no wonder that Marches for Science filled the streets on Earth Day yesterday in more than 600 cities on six continents!
Now, I don’t know you, but I’m going to assume that all of us here understand the value of science and the scientific process. I also assume that most of us are not climate skeptics; most of us do not deny outright the conclusions of science. But when it comes to climate change, most of us probably do engage in a kind of everyday doubt and denial. Thinking about climate change can make us feel anxious or overwhelmed, so it’s tempting to change the subject and focus on more manageable things.
It’s hard to face facts squarely. It’s hard to absorb the fact that the science is settled and that the debate about climate change is over. 97% of climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that climate change is already upon us. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than our species has ever experienced before. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is affected and in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing and releasing methane – a serious greenhouse gas. Storms are becoming more intense. Droughts are spreading in some areas, extensive floods in others. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Scientists recently reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
The climate emergency is not just a quote-unquote “environmental” problem. It’s not just about polar bears and coral. It’s about people in Southern Africa, where rains have failed, crops are withering, and starving families are “reduced to eating cactus and even rocks or ashes.” It’s about Pacific islanders whose homelands are already flooding from rising seas. It’s about impoverished people here and abroad who are hit first and hardest by a changing climate, who have the fewest resources to adapt to it, and who are the least responsible for causing it.
So when I hear Jesus say to Doubting Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” I hear Jesus inviting Thomas – and us – to face the truth of crucifixion. We might wish away the reality of the violence and the wounds. We might wish very ardently that none of this wounding of our dear planet were happening, that we weren’t seeing dying coral and melting icecaps, rising seas and increasing numbers of refugees. But it is happening, and just as on Good Friday the disciples couldn’t pretend that Christ’s wounds on the cross weren’t real, so we, too, can’t pretend that the wounds to God’s Creation aren’t real.
Yet because of Christ’s crucifixion, we know that God is with us in our suffering and in the planet’s suffering. And because of Christ’s resurrection, we also know that death does not have to be the end of the story.
“When it was evening of Easter day, the first day of the week,” Jesus comes and stands among his disciples and says, “‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19). Can you feel the impact of that moment? The Risen Christ comes to his guilty, worried, frightened friends and says “Peace be with you.” He gives them peace. Forgiveness. Acceptance. However much they’ve abandoned and denied him, he loves them and is with them still. In fact, in this one short passage Jesus says “Peace be with you” three times, as if the disciples need to hear that message again and again – partly in order to undo Peter’s three-fold denial, but also so that all of them – and all of us – will experience that forgiveness deep in our bones. Maybe that moment marks the beginning of our own resurrected life: the moment we hear and take in how much God loves us and how completely we are forgiven, no matter what we have done. Humans are dismantling the web of life that God gave us as a free gift to love and to steward – and yet, somehow, somehow, we are forgiven. From that place of being forgiven, we can change course and begin to live in a dramatically different way.
So it is not only peace that Jesus gives to his disciples. He also sends them on a mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he says, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. Jesus not only shares in our suffering, he not only loves and forgives us – he also sends us out to bear witness to the resurrection, to the wild, holy, and completely unexpected fact that through the grace and power of God, life – not death – will have the last word. Through the power of the Risen Christ, we are sent out to be healers of the Earth, sent out to take our place in the great work of healing the wounds of Creation, sent out to restore the web of life upon which we, and all creatures, depend.
What can we do? We can educate ourselves about the climate crisis. We can recycle more, drive less, and quit using bottled water. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation, turn down the heat, and turn out lights when we leave the room. I hope you’ll consider forming a Green Team or Creation Care Committee in this church, so that you can support each other in the urgent effort to live more lightly on God’s good Earth.
As individuals and congregations we can and should do everything we can, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with others and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Thanks be to God, people of all faiths are rising up the world over to proclaim the sacredness of God’s Creation and to express our refusal to stand idly by and let the web of life be destroyed! Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has groups (“nodes”) across the state. When you sign up for the weekly newsletter, you’ll be hooked into a vibrant local effort. I’m also part of a new group, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together Christians, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, and people of all religious traditions to push for legislation in Massachusetts that supports climate justice. Together we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to everyone, including low-income and marginalized communities. I’ve put sign-ups at the back of the church for 350Mass for a Better Future and for MAICCA.
Meanwhile a big climate march will be held next Saturday, April 29, in our nation’s capital. On the same day as this historic march in Washington, D.C., sister marches will spring up all over the country, including nearby cities like Springfield, Greenfield, and Boston. I hope you’ll grab a church banner and take your place in a local climate march, or that you will join me and other folks from the Diocese in heading down to Washington. If you go to PeoplesClimate.org, you can get all the details.
I give thanks that Christians of every denomination, and people of every faith tradition, are drawing together to proclaim with one voice that the Earth is sacred and that we intend to work together – boldly, lovingly, and without delay – to protect it from further harm. I am grateful for Doubting Thomas, for he gives voice to our doubt – doubt that we can prevent catastrophic climate change, doubt that we can make a difference, doubt that resurrection is even possible. But just as Jesus invited Thomas to move past his doubts, so, too, Jesus invites us to receive the power of his forgiveness and the gift of his energizing Spirit.
Today at the Eucharist we will stretch out our hands to receive the body and blood of Christ, just as Thomas stretched out his hands to touch Christ’s wounded hands and side. There is so much healing that we can do, so much power-to-reconcile that God has given to us, so much life that we can help to bring forth. “Reach out your hand,” I hear Jesus saying to us today. “Do not doubt but believe. Step through your doubt and receive the Holy Spirit who shows you the path of life and who gives you strength to heal our precious, ailing planet Earth.
1.Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; see also Ross Gelbspan, The Heat is On; and Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2007 report on ExxonMobil.
Faith and fear duke it out
I am not a brave person. In fact, I am quite familiar with anxiety. I know what it’s like to wake up wide-eyed in the middle of the night, imagining the future with dread. Deciding to go to Standing Rock was not easy.
I heard in late November that Chief Arvol Looking Horse was urging people of faith to travel to Oceti Sakowin Camp for a day of prayer on Sunday, December 4, 2016. I considered this a holy invitation. It spoke to my conviction that the Earth is sacred. It spoke to my desire that we learn to live in peace with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. It spoke to my longing to bear witness to our God-given hope that life and not death will have the last word.
I knew that the protest against the Dakota Access pipeline was historic. An extraordinary wave of solidarity was sweeping the world, as hundreds of once-estranged tribal nations and jurisdictions stood with the Standing Rock Sioux and proclaimed with one voice that water is sacred; water is life. Thousands of Native and non-Native people had already come to the camps near the Missouri River to resist construction of a pipeline that would endanger the river, Native lands, and the whole of Mother Earth.
What’s more, a showdown was now at hand. Energy companies had invested billions of dollars in the project; only one mile of pipeline remained to be built; the year-end deadline for completing the pipeline was just weeks away; and – though the announcement was amended almost as soon as it was issued – December 5 could be the day when the camp would be forcibly evacuated.
Strong emotions and commitments pulled me toward Standing Rock for the Interfaith Day of Prayer on December 4, but anxiety nudged me to say No. I talked it over with a friend – a religious leader and climate activist who had been arrested with me last May in a pipeline protest here in Massachusetts. We agreed that making a trip to Standing Rock was too risky. The brutal North Dakota winter was too cold. The night was too dark. The militarized police were too violent, armed with rubber bullets, guard dogs, pepper spray, and water hoses that the police willingly sprayed in frigid temperatures. Hundreds of unarmed “water protectors” had already been injured,
including one young woman so severely hurt that her arm might need to be amputated. In addition, thousands of veterans from across the country were also invited to show up that weekend. Although they pledged to carry no weapons and to serve as “human shields,” they were asked to bring body armor and gas masks. Military chaplains were likewise about to converge at Standing Rock to minister to the veterans. Everything was in place for the conflict to escalate. Would we be walking straight into a massacre? After talking with my friend on Sunday night, I hung up the phone, relieved that I was staying home.
The next morning I got a phone call from another friend, Unitarian Universalist minister and climate activist, Rev. Fred Small. He was going to Standing Rock that weekend. Would I join him?
I didn’t know whether to laugh or groan. Not you again, Fred. Fred is my burning bush. Like the burning bush that stopped Moses in his tracks, Fred has interrupted me several times over the years to invite me to do something righteous but scary. Oh no, not again. I told him I would pray about it.
But I was too anxious to pray. I asked my beloved husband if he would listen to me talk through the pro’s and con’s. In his attentive presence I enumerated the reasons to go, including my desire to bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and my desire to stand with non-violent, unarmed people at the place where the struggles for indigenous rights, human rights, economic justice, climate justice and care for the Earth intersect.
In the end, the allure was simple: I wanted to pray. I wanted to pray with Chief Looking Horse and the other Native elders. The call to pray was in my belly, like a fire.
“OK,” my husband said. “The pro’s are clear. How about the con’s?”
To my surprise, a long silence followed. I had nothing to say. The reasons not to go to Standing Rock boiled down to a single one: Fear. I looked Fear over, top to bottom. I was not impressed. Fear did not seem a reliable foundation upon which to base a decision. Besides, compared to the strong, embodied pull to go, the fear that begged me to stay was as flimsy as mist: I could blow it away with one Spirit-filled breath.
I arranged a plane reservation for Bismarck, joined a conference call (hosted by Unitarian Universalist ministers) for clergy going to Standing Rock, and assembled winter gear. I hoped to meet Fred Small on Sunday for the Interfaith Day of Prayer, but the rest of the trip I would make on my own, since my husband did not feel called to come.
I refused to let fear stop me, but fear was still prowling about. I couldn’t chase it away, so I decided to accept it. “Be not afraid” may be one of the great messages in the Bible, but a worried person who is trying to do something difficult may not find these words especially comforting. Fear can’t always be so quickly dismissed. I took greater solace in remembering that Jesus himself felt anguish before his crucifixion (Luke 22:44), yet did not flee. He managed to pray through the fear and to keep his heart steadfastly fixed on what he felt led to do. Audre Lorde got it right: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
At night I slept as best I could, in fits and starts. A few days before the trip, a man I did not know sent me an email: he’d been on the conference call and knew that I was going to Standing Rock; could we connect on the ground in North Dakota? Sure, I impulsively replied – let’s share the rental car and travel together.
That night I tossed and turned and finally sat bolt upright at 3 a.m. Have you lost your mind? You know nothing about this guy. For all you know, he’s a serial rapist or an ax murderer. I leaped out of bed, turned on the computer, and launched a Google search. Michael Arase-Barham turned out to be an Episcopal priest from California who had received a Doctorate of Ministry in the spirituality of pilgrimage. That seemed a good sign. Plus he had the friendly, bearded face of a Friar Tuck. OK, I would risk it. Jesus sent out his disciples two by two, and I needed an ally along the way.
I packed my bags. I flew to Bismarck.
Faith and doubt duke it out
Michael turned out to be a stellar fellow pilgrim. In the course of the journey, we exchanged supplies: he gave me toothpaste; I gave him hand warmers. He peered into his cellphone and did the navigating; I peered into the darkness and did the driving. At one point, when the car got stuck in snow on the side of the road, he got out and pushed us to safety. And he loved to pray. I have never met a person more devoted to the daily round of services provided by our Book of Common Prayer. As we drove from Bismarck to Fort Yates (population: 195), he led us in Evening Prayer and Compline. That night, along with other pilgrims from far-away places, we slept on the floor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Early the next morning, on Sunday, December 4, we made our pre-dawn drive to the camp. Michael led us in Morning Prayer.
On the way, I asked him to read the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). When a great battle lies ahead or is already underway, nothing is more beautiful to pray than Mary’s song of praise to the God of justice and mercy who scatters the proud in their conceit, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. Mary bursts into song because she is bearing the Christ-child, the one whose long-ago birth we celebrate at Christmas and who is born among us every time we allow divine love to fill us, guide us, and act through us, making all things new.
Michael and I drove toward Oceti Sakowin Camp in the company of a long stream of cars. Rounding a turn, we caught sight of the camp, up ahead: hundreds of tents, tepees, and yurts sprawled across a field of snow, with tall rows of flags lining the dirt road that cuts through the center of the campground. We found a place to park inside the camp, and headed toward the sacred fire.
I soon learned that nearly everything of importance at the camp takes place around the fire, which never goes out: storytelling, singing, dancing, drumming and praying. Daily activities are steeped in prayer, rooted in appeals to the Creator and to Mother Earth, the grandmother of everything. As we arrived, Native people were taking turns at the microphone near the fire, welcoming newcomers, offering coffee, and reviewing the painful history of indigenous peoples in this country: devastating wars, land grabs, broken treaties, shattered cultures, murders, betrayals. For these Native people, the weight of the past is palpable, sorrowful, dark, heavy, and immediate. Their current fight to protect sacred lands and water (“blue gold”) and to stop the pipeline (the dangerous “black snake” that legend foretold) is an extension of their long struggle against genocide.
On that Sunday morning the interfaith prayer service began at 10 a.m., attended by a large crowd that included clergy from more than thirty religious traditions. Speaker after speaker came forward to speak or sing or pray. Rev. Karen Van Fossan, a UUA minister in Bismarck, led us in singing a rousing version of “As I went down to the river to pray,” concluding with a prayer to “Give us the courage we need, and the hope that comes from courage, and the courage that comes from hope.”
Rev. Victor Kazanjian, Executive Director of United Religions Initiative, came “in a spirit of sorrow,” acknowledging religion’s “atrocities” to the Native peoples, seeking forgiveness, and bringing with him thousands of prayers for the Standing Rock Sioux from 56 countries around the world. He also brought water collected from 167 sacred water sources. He noted that these waters mingled together without separating into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’; in this, he said, they expressed “the beauty of all humanity.” Water is essential to life and to the human body. “The struggle for water,” he said, “is the struggle for the essence of our being.”
Dr. Cornel West spoke with passion about prayer as a form of reverence and a form of resistance. “I call it revolutionary love,” he proclaimed, adding: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” He pointed out that this was an historic moment. The Dakota Access pipeline is a continuation of the war against our indigenous Native brothers and sisters that began more than 520 years ago and that is still underway. He argued that we should never say that the harsh treatment of Black people was America’s Original Sin. “The enslavement of Black people was the second Original Sin.”
Muslims, rabbis, Buddhist and Hindu leaders spoke, as did Methodists, Roman Catholics, members of the Society of Friends, local Native leaders, and Native leaders from distant countries. Lewis Cardinal, Chair of the Indigenous People’s Task Force of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, spoke for us all when he said, “We stand here together on this day, at this time, brothers and sisters all, and with our Mother.”
The service went on for hours – urgent and prayerful, scented with wood smoke and sage – yet we could never forget that we were standing in something like a war zone. A helicopter and a small plane kept buzzing noisily overhead, a constant harassment. For now, we ignored these reminders of the police, the corporate powers, and the politicians bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry: we had our own healing work to do with each other. As one Native speaker put it, the Church had told his people that they were devil worshipers and that they would go to Hell. For now it was enough to absorb the miracle that people of every faith, including members and leaders of many Christian churches, were today standing as one with Native peoples, praying as one, cherishing the Earth as one, greeting each other as equals, as kin, and joining the shared struggle to protect our common home.
Another level of healing was going on, too: Native speakers were welcoming and thanking the thousands of U.S. veterans who had traveled to Standing Rock to stand with the Sioux. It astonished me to imagine the reconciliation of Native peoples with members of the U.S. military. I gasped when I heard a bugle play Reveille and other military calls, the sounds that had once preceded or accompanied attacks on Native communities. The former enemies of Native peoples were now inside the camp, seeking forgiveness, offering support, and no longer intending harm.
Near the end of the service, a Native speaker told the crowd that his grandfather had died in 1890 at Wounded Knee, the brutal massacre of Sioux warriors, women, and children by American soldiers on the Plains of South Dakota. The speaker added: “Crazy Horse said that the Sacred Hoop was broken at Wounded Knee.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped forward. It was time, he said, to mend the Sacred Hoop. The original plan for the afternoon had been for clergy to walk up to the police barricade, but now, he said, the plan had changed. Instead, everyone at the camp was going to move clockwise, on foot and on horseback, out to the far edges of the camp. There we would form a great circle, hold hands, and pray. People all over the world would be praying with us.
He pulled out an eagle bone whistle. “I will call the eagle to come.”
He blew the whistle. “We are one heart,” he said. “We are one mind. One prayer. One spirit.”
Half expecting an eagle to appear, I looked up. I wanted an eagle to come upon us like a vision, like a sign, but nothing happened. The sky was empty of life. Instead of hearing the whoosh of wings overhead, or the cry of a bird of prey, all I could hear was the chop of helicopter blades.
The crowd began to disband. Dispirited, I began walking with Michael toward what I took to be the nearest edge of the camp. I had no clear idea where we were going or what we would do when we got there. Why had the chief entrusted the crowd with this ceremony? And what sort of ceremony could it be? As an Episcopal priest, I was used to leading orderly services carried out indoors with clear lines of authority, assigned seating, and probably a service leaflet. Sounding more disgruntled than I intended, I only half-jokingly muttered to Michael that if this were an Episcopal liturgy, we would hold a rehearsal and figure out in advance where to stand, where to sit, and what to do. By contrast, this thing was completely chaotic. We ran into stragglers who hadn’t heard about the prayer circle. Would they join us? We saw people pausing to stand in line for the Port-a-Potty or to grab a bite to eat. Would they get distracted, forget about the ceremony, and move on to something else? Would enough people stay faithful to our prayerful task or would people simply drift away and let the effort peter out?
I confess it: my doubt sprang not only from discomfort with a spontaneous, disorderly ceremony that involved hundreds of people. It also sprang from not wanting to depend on other people to get the job done. I didn’t want to depend on their goodwill, their capacity to pay attention, or their ability to follow directions. I didn’t think we could complete the ritual. I didn’t think we could pull it off. I had no faith in my fellows. I was filled with doubt.
Doubt is a terrible thing. It undermines hope and resolve. But the only way to get mighty things done is to do them together, learning to trust each other and to suspend our doubts. Fortunately I was as stubborn as I was doubtful. If I didn’t carry out my own part of the mission, why should other people carry out theirs? And if we didn’t finish this task together and today, would it ever be accomplished? Despite my doubts I stubbornly kept on walking, kept on heading to the edge of camp, kept on reaching out for hands to clasp. I wanted this prayer-circle thing to work.
So, it turned out, did everybody else.
It took a number of adjustments. Should we stand close to the Cannonball River or should we stand further away? Were we the only string of people holding hands in this corner of the camp? If so, should we stand still and wait for other people to find us, or should we search for another string of people to meet up with and join?
Young Native Americans trotted by on foot, offering words of encouragement, as good at their job as any Verger in an Episcopal cathedral. Don’t let go! We’re almost there! Step this way! No, not that way – this way! To your left! To your left! Don’t let go your hands! We’ve almost got it!
Our line of people stumbled sideways, laughing. We took careful steps backward until our arms were fully outstretched and our hands firmly clasped. Excitement rose. As we waited for other parts of the circle to form, strangers introduced themselves to each other. Here on my right was Michael, and then two Quaker women from upstate New York, both of them long-time activists; here on my left was Allison, a young Native American from Minnesota who was visiting the camp for the third time.
Person by person the circle was woven, until at last we could look out and see a distant line of people holding hands in what seemed like the far-off other side of the world.
We’d done it! The circle was complete! The Sacred Hoop was mended!
But, as if that weren’t marvel enough, it was just then that a young Native messenger came bounding past. “Denied! Denied!” he yelled. “The pipeline permit has been denied!” He was breathless with joy.
What? We fell into startled silence, looking at each other. Doubt arose. I murmured to Michael, “I need some kind of confirmation before I’m going to believe that.”
Someone else appeared and repeated the good news. Was it possible? What did it mean? Did we dare to trust what we were hearing? We released hands and headed back to the sacred fire, our jubilation growing as we drew closer and heard the drumming and singing that had already begun. The good news was true: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had denied the final permit that allowed the Dakota Access pipeline to go under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe.
This is what elation sounds like: drumming, chanting, singing. This is what elation looks like: a crowd of people swaying and dancing, with individuals – even strangers – looking into each others’ eyes, wiping away tears, and exchanging an embrace. I joined in the two-step dance around the sacred fire. We danced just as every soul dances when forgiveness, justice, and mercy extend in every direction. We danced because sight had been restored to the blind and captives had been set free. We danced because the mighty had been cast down from their thrones, the lowly had been lifted up, and strangers had become friends.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the LORD,” sings Mary in the Magnificat. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…”
In between chants, drumming, and songs, Native speakers took turns at the microphone. Repeatedly they thanked the millions of people worldwide who had expressed support, the thousands who had visited the camps, the tens of thousands who had donated time and money to the struggle to stop the pipeline and protect the water.
Someone said, “Never before have we been at an intersection where everyone is here. It is a strange turn of history when the people taking care of us are the military of the U.S. government.”
Someone said, “We’ve come to this huge, giant ceremony being hosted by Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “I want to thank the person that loves spirituality. I want to thank the person that loves Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “We still have a lot of praying to do. We are not done yet. We are going to keep fighting. We will pray for the Governor” (and he named other individuals that want to build the pipeline). “They do not seek the Spirit in their hearts yet. We will pray for the ones who want to destroy.”
Someone said, “This is about more than a pipeline. This is the beginning of the world united.”
The celebration went on for hours. We knew that the battle was not over: the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline fully intends to complete the pipeline, and our President-elect seems hell-bent on extracting and burning every last ounce of fossil fuels. But for now it was enough – it was more than enough – to touch the deep truth that we belong to each other and to the Earth – to know in our bones that every person is sacred and every community is sacred, that the web of life is sacred, that the Earth is sacred.
It seems to me that we didn’t just mend the Sacred Hoop that day. We were becoming the Sacred Hoop that was no longer broken.
By the fire
On December 5, what I’d feared might happen – violence, forcible evacuation, even massacre – did not take place. Instead, a second ceremony of healing was carried out: the son of General Wesley Clark stood with the veterans and apologized for the centuries of genocide perpetrated by the U.S. military. Coming, he said, “as the conscience of a nation,” he knelt before Leonard Dog Crow, confessed the military’s sins, and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness was granted. (A brief video is here.) In these dark times, when fear and doubt threaten to tear so many communities apart, a light shines out from acts of reconciliation like these!
Michael and I returned to the camp that morning. After agreeing to meet again at the sacred fire, we went our separate ways and explored on our own. I wanted first to go up high. Picking my way through patches of ice, I climbed the small hill overlooking the camp and gazed into the distance, looking out over the helter-skelter assortment of teepees and yurts, vehicles and flags. Here we all were – a diverse company drawn together by a fierce and spirited longing for justice and healing.
Carrying this image with me, I made my way downhill and walked back to the fire. Small logs were aflame in the shallow, circular pit. A few people were sitting on benches, talking quietly or sitting alone in silent prayer. Bundles of lavender were placed around the rim of the circle, and at the circle’s entrance were bowls of tobacco and juniper sprigs, along with a turtle shell, small skulls, feathers, and sage.
I don’t know the religious traditions of the Lakota Sioux. I was touched that an outsider like me was welcome to participate in their ceremonies. I knelt to take a pinch of tobacco, a bit of juniper. As I cradled these offerings in my palm, a prayer of gratitude gradually collected within me. When the time was ripe, I cast what I was holding into the flames. Then I sat for a while and watched the fire. Gazing down, I could almost see the fire extending deep into the Earth. I could almost see the fire reaching down like roots in every direction and catching up everything it touched. The longer I gazed, the more it seemed as if that strong and living fire could ground our every step on Earth, could be inhaled with every breath of air, and could bring warmth to every human heart.
On our way home
The first flakes of snow were falling. By early afternoon, when Michael and I began our trek back to Bismarck, a ferocious blizzard was beginning to roll in from the Arctic. Eventually the winds would gust up to 50 mph, wind chills would drop to nearly 20 below zero, and the camp would be buried in snowdrifts up to 7 feet deep. For now I simply kept a gentle, wary foot on the accelerator and squinted into the white landscape of driving snow, trying to locate the next piece of highway. When I heard the tires hit one of the rumble strips on either side of the road, I’d hazard a guess: should I make the correction by steering left or right?
“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy,” I silently prayed, my fingers clutching the steering wheel. Which was worse – sliding into a ditch or into oncoming traffic? Sometimes it’s no small thing to keep to your chosen path.
Michael seemed unperturbed. “Shall I read Noon Day Prayer?” he asked, cheerfully, pulling out his prayer book.
“No, thanks,” I answered through clenched jaws. “You go ahead. I’ll just listen this time.”
Threading our way through love and fear, we prayed our way home.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
It is a joy to be with you this morning. Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to preach. As you may know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care for this diocese and also for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts, which means that I go from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. This is a great day to be visiting the Cathedral, the center of worship in our diocese, for we are right in the center of Creation Season, which began several weeks ago with the Feast Day of St. Francis on October 4 and will extend for several more weeks, until the first Sunday in Advent.
As I pondered the readings for this morning, that line from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy leaped off the page: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). What’s the context? Paul is apparently in prison, probably in Rome, and he is facing imminent death. As he says in the reading’s first line, “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6). Paul is preparing to die and he is doing what most of us tend to do when we face our death: he’s looking back over his life, carrying out a life review; he’s glancing into the future, to the life beyond death; and he’s trying to convey what really matters to him.
Maybe it’s because I celebrate a birthday tomorrow – and not just any birthday, but a milestone birthday – that I find myself drawn to this passage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, when we’re on our deathbed, to be able to look back on our lives and to say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith!” I imagine the satisfaction that someone who is able to say that must feel. Through his teaching and ministry, through his presence and words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus showed us that love sent us into the world, that love is what we’re made for, that love is what roots and grounds our lives and gives them meaning and purpose. So when we reach the end of our lives and look back, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that, as best we could, we made that love real in the world around us – that we lived our life in a way that made people as sure of love as they are of sunlight. Now that is a fight worth fighting; that is a race worth finishing; that is a faith worth keeping!
Maybe, at the end of our lives, we will hope what Paul hopes – that God has reserved for us “the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) – but today’s Gospel makes it clear that it won’t be a crown of self-righteousness. Two men stand before God in prayer, and it’s not the good man, the man who has done all the right things, who goes home justified with God, in right relationship with God, but the other man, the sinful man who honestly confesses his guilt and beats his breast in repentance, praying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) It seems that God sees deeply into the heart. What matters to God is not just outward behavior – that we do good things – but also what goes on inside us: that we don’t exalt ourselves and don’t regard other people with contempt.
I find this is a particularly poignant parable in light of this year’s combative and divisive election season, which, across our country and in our own living rooms. is arousing so much anger, fear, and even hatred. Wherever we are on the political spectrum, it’s easy to get caught up in the general mood of self-righteousness, mockery, and contempt. So, as I consider today’s Gospel passage, I imagine the vast tenderness of God, the God who says it’s OK, right here in this sanctuary, to quit all our defensive posing and posturing, to drop all our efforts to promote ourselves, to put ourselves forward and to make ourselves look good at someone else’s expense. I imagine the gentleness of God, who wants nothing more than to come to us, as God came to that wretched tax collector, and to touch that place within us where deep down we know that we can do nothing without God and that in fact we are nothing without God.
It’s when we put down our weapons and come before God with an undefended heart that we finally discover how loved we are. Whenever that happens – when we let God’s love reach us in that place where we feel most vulnerable and afraid – a great answering love rises up in us, a love for ourselves and for our neighbors and for the beautiful, fragile Earth upon which all life depends.
Jesus knew a love like that, a love that encompasses the whole Creation. Jesus obviously lived close to the Earth: his ministry began by immersion in a river and he prayed and lived and walked countless miles outdoors. In his parables and stories, Jesus talked about God in terms of natural things: seeds and sparrows, lilies and sheep, rivers, wind, and rocks. Jesus was deeply aware of the sacredness of the natural world and it’s no wonder that in our sacraments we, too, make contact with simple earthy things, with bread and wine and water. We trust that God is in these things – that when we take in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist, we take in God’s presence.
Like most Christians, I didn’t grow up hearing very much about how God’s love extended to the natural world. But because of the ecological crisis in which we now find ourselves, as Christians we need as never before to renew and reclaim our care for God’s Creation. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher today than they have been for millions of years. Scientists warn with increasing alarm that our atmosphere is warming more rapidly than expected and that climate disruption is already evident worldwide. Already oceans are heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains intensifying in others. We’re on the edge or in the midst of what some experts call the sixth major extinction event on this planet. 2015 was the hottest year on record, shattering the record set just the year before, and 2016 is right on track to set a new record for heat.
The world community is beginning to grasp that the situation is urgent. Last December nearly 200 countries pledged in the Paris Agreement to reduce their carbon emissions, agreeing that the Earth must be prevented from warming more than an average of 2˚ Centigrade (or 3.6˚ Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial levels – and ideally much less than that. That agreement is a start, but the pledges are voluntary, and even if they were carried out, they would be insufficient to avert catastrophe. So, as I’ve said before in other contexts, if we’re serious about wanting to preserve life as it has evolved on this planet, then we’re going to have to work for it – to organize, lobby, vote, pray, invent, create, protest, and push – to do this together and do it fast.
If, at the end of our lives, we hope to say with St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” then we need to place care for the Earth at the center of our spiritual and moral concern.
For there is a good fight to be fought: we are fighting for a habitable planet and for a safe and healthy world for our children and our children’s children. We are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to transform our economy so that we are free at last from dirty fuels and are set on a path to a better future.
There is a race to be won: we are racing against time, racing to make a swift transition to clean renewable sources of energy, like sun and wind, in time to avert climate chaos.
And there is a faith to keep: faith in ourselves and in each other; faith in the God who entrusted the Earth to our care; faith in Jesus who walked and loved this Earth and who reconciled all things in heaven and on earth through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:20; and faith in the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains our efforts and who makes all things new.
On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang our laundry outside to dry, eat less 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 growing among people who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration, about human rights – for all these issues intersect. I’m excited by the work of local groups right here in Springfield, such as the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and the Springfield Area Interfaith Climate Action Network. I’d be glad to talk with you after the service about efforts like these. Maybe some of you would like to join me next Sunday at 2 o’clock when I give a keynote address at an interfaith climate forum at First Church of Christ in Longmeadow that will draw together people from all over Springfield. Maybe some of you will join me a couple of weeks later, on Sunday afternoon, November 13, for a special outdoor worship service to celebrate God’s Creation and our Christian call to protect it. Our own Bishop Doug Fisher will lead the service, along with all the other heads of Protestant denominations in Massachusetts – Episcopal, UCC, and Lutheran. We’re calling the service “We Are the Earth: Public Prayer for the Planet,” and Tom and I just posted a flier in the hall.
Whatever you feel drawn to do for the Earth, as individuals and as a community of faith, I hope that we will keep encouraging each other to follow Jesus in his mission of justice, mercy, and hope. And I hope that at the end of our lives, each of us will be moved to say, “With God’s help I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”