“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.”
“Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’” (1 Kings 21:3)
What a blessing to be with you today! Thank you, Eliot, for welcoming me as preacher and celebrant for this special service that brings together the congregations of St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Congregational Church. As some of you know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC. This is my first opportunity to speak to my Episcopal and my UCC brothers and sisters in Christ at the very same time. How cool is that?
It’s particularly meaningful that our two communities are united in worship this morning, because around the world people of many faiths are marking today, June 12, as a day to stand together and lift up the sacredness of the Earth, our common home. Prayers, blessings, songs, and sermons are being offered today from Alaska to Argentina, from New Jersey to New Zealand, as religious and spiritual groups far and wide mark a global day of prayer called Sacred Earth, Sacred Trust.
Today we celebrate the six-month anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement and the first anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical, Laudato Si. Today we join the chorus of voices announcing that the Earth is holy and that it deserves our protection and care.
Whenever you and I re-awaken to God’s presence in Ashfield’s hills and woods, in the grasses and dirt beneath our feet and in the stars overhead, we discover again that we are connected not only to other human beings but also to everything else. We are part of the web of life: connected by our breath, blood, flesh, and bone to the whole creation. As our Protestant forebear, Martin Luther, pointed out: “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” God’s love and presence are everywhere – not just in church, not just inside a sanctuary built by human hands, but also outside, in the sea and sky, in the humble tomato plant valiantly trying to grow in my shady garden. The crucified, risen and ascended Christ fills all things, sustains all things, and redeems all things.
Whenever you and I come to our senses and realize that God is giving God’s self to us in every part of creation – in this breeze and bird and leaf, in this breath, in this heartbeat – then reverence springs up in us, and a deep desire to give thanks. We realize again that the Earth is sacred, and in the strength of that heartfelt wisdom we can fight the great battle of our time, which is to protect the integrity of God’s creation, to preserve a habitable planet, and to build a more just and sustainable society.
A record 175 countries have already signed the Paris Climate Agreement, which is an historic first step toward limiting the ravages of climate change. But the Paris Agreement is only a start. It doesn’t go nearly far enough. Its provisions won’t cap the rise of the world’s average temperature at 1.5˚ Celsius above pre-Industrial times, which is the uppermost limit for ensuring a stable climate and livable planet. Unless we get to work in every community and every sector of society to reduce our carbon emissions, unless we push political and corporate powers to keep fossil fuels in the ground and make a swift transition to clean, renewable energy, then the average global temperature is going to shoot far past that critical threshold of 1.5˚ Celsius. Around the world, scientists and activists, vulnerable communities and communities of faith are fighting to avert runaway climate change. Their cry and our cry is “1.5 to stay alive.”
I usually take the Gospel as my sermon text, but this week I must turn to the Old Testament passage, that hair-raising story from First Kings about a powerless citizen being framed and murdered by an unjust king and queen so that they can seize his land. Naboth has a vineyard beside the royal palace. When King Ahab makes what sounds on the face of it like a reasonable offer to buy the vineyard, Naboth turns him down: “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3). Calling the land “my ancestral inheritance” suggests that the land has been in his family for a long time and also that he holds the land in trust. To Naboth the land is not just a commodity, not just real estate, not just a source of profit and gain: it is a gift from God; it is sacred; it is entrusted to his care.
King Ahab is frustrated. He goes home “resentful and sullen” (1 Kings 12:4), lies down on his bed like a pouting child, and refuses to eat. Enter, then, the strong negative character of the story, Queen Jezebel, who basically asks, “Hey, don’t you have power to do whatever you want?” She tells him to quit moping; she will take care of this. Using Ahab’s credentials, she arranges for “two scoundrels” (1 Kings 12:10) to make false charges against Naboth in front of the city council and to have him stoned him to death. And so the deed is done: through backroom dealings that include perjury, conspiracy, and theft, Naboth is framed and murdered, and the king claims the vineyard as his own.
This is an almost archetypal story about dirty politics, about violence and the misuse of power. It resonates down through the centuries and up to the present moment. A few days ago, when I was visiting Union Theological Seminary in New York City to speak to an ecumenical group of clergy who had gathered from all over the country for an intensive, week-long training on climate change, I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice.
The mindset that allows Ahab and Jezebel to kill Naboth so that they can grab his land is the same mindset that allows governments and businesses to push aside low-income people and indigenous peoples and people of color to exploit, pollute, and take possession of their land, the same mindset that allows a nation to go to war against another nation so that it can seize control of another country’s natural resources, the same mindset that allows the fossil fuel industry to keep expanding its search for more oil and gas, despite the enormous human cost – especially to the poor – of burning fossil fuels. Injustice against human beings is intimately linked to desecration of the Earth.
Because of that mindset, Naboth is killed, and for a while it seems that Ahab has triumphed. But then, the story tells us, God intervenes. In the prophet Elijah’s heart a holy resistance rises up. A sacred protest fills him, a Spirit-filled energy to stand up against unjust power, a compelling need to protect the rights of the poor and to defend the sacredness of the land. “The word of the LORD came to Elijah” (1 Kings 21:17), says the text. We don’t know how that word came to him, whether it came through a dream, a vision, or simply through the painful and gut-wrenching awareness that what Ahab had done was wrong. What we do know is that the word of God came to Elijah, and that he received courage to stand up to the king, to stop the injustice, and to change the course of history.
The same Holy Spirit that spoke through Elijah and through the life and words and deeds of Jesus Christ is speaking through countless people the world over today.
“1.5 to stay alive” – that is the cry of every God-inspired prophet who stands like Elijah beside the vulnerable Naboths of this world.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with the low-income community of Baltimore that is fighting for the right to clean air.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with Pacific Islanders forced to leave their homeland because rising waves are washing away their buildings and contaminating their water supply.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with indigenous peoples in the Arctic whose cultures are disintegrating as the ice melts.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with frightened pregnant women in the global South and the Southern U.S. who know that the Zika virus, which spreads in a warm, humid climate, could irreparably harm their unborn child.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with every person and every community that wants to live in a just and peaceful world with recognizable seasons and moderate, predictable rains, in a world with enough clean, fresh water for all and an ocean teeming with life.
And we say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand against the political and corporate powers that view the Earth as nothing more than a source of profit and who exploit the Earth and other people as if it’s every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.
Thanks to Bob Parati, we have a sign that proclaims, “1.5 to stay alive.” After the service, I invite anyone who wishes, to join me outside so that we can take a group photo.
I invite you to do some other things, too. If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to join Climate Action Now, our vibrant, local grassroots climate action network. I’ve put a sign-up sheet in the back, so you can receive Climate Action Now’s terrific weekly newsletter. I will also gladly share your name with a new interfaith climate group I’m helping to lead, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action.
Thanks to some of the people in this room, and to people like you, Kinder Morgan’s NED pipeline was stopped. Now the fight is on to stop another dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipeline, Spectra Energy’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline. Two weeks ago I was arrested in Boston along with fifteen other religious leaders after we sat down on the edge of the trench that runs down the middle of the street where the pipeline is being constructed. Sitting at the edge of that trench was like sitting at the edge of an open grave, proclaiming the power of love and life as our legs dangled in the pit. We clergy came from a variety of denominations and traditions – American Baptist, Buddhist, Episcopal, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist. We represented a range of religions, yet all of us were drawing from a holy power greater than our selves. All of us were rooted in a reality that transcends the unjust structures of this world. And all of us were fired by the vision of a better world, by faith in the human spirit, and by faith that God would guide us to courageous and visionary action. We prayed and preached and sang until the cops handcuffed us and took us away.
More resistance is ahead. I invite you to consider joining a group from western Massachusetts that will protest the West Roxbury pipeline on June 28, and I invite you to consider joining a march against new gas pipelines that Better Future Project will lead in mid-July. I’d be glad to speak with you about those events, after the service.
Near and far a wave of religious protest and activism is rising up around the world as we respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. The first followers of Jesus tapped into a source of love and power that gave them strength to challenge injustice. And we tap into that holy power, too. Here at this table, we followers of Jesus will share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, knowing that God will give us strength for the journey and will nourish our hungry souls. The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls all people to recognize that we form one human family and that the Earth is sacred and entrusted to our care. Just as Naboth said to Ahab, so we, too, say to the powers-that-be, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3). With the Spirit of Jesus to guide us, we head into the world to proclaim the good news of the reign of God.
The day before I got arrested, I woke up singing.
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”
Resolve filled me as I sang my way through the tasks of the day, preparing for the morrow. Do you want to gather your courage? Lift your spirits? Find your true north? Stay the course? You get there by singing.
On the day I was arrested, I sang.
We all sang.
On May 25, a crowd of nearly 100 people gathered under a blue sky in a neighborhood of Boston, near the West Roxbury site of the “metering and regulating” station for Spectra Energy’s West Roxbury Lateral gas pipeline. We came to pray about our commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We came to put our bodies on the line: sixteen leaders of different faith traditions were readying for civil disobedience to stop the pipeline. And we came to sing.
Shoshana Meira Friedman, Assistant Rabbi for Engagement at Temple Sinai in Brookline, took the lead in organizing our act of interfaith prayer and protest. In her strong soprano, accompanied by guitar, she launched the event with an anthem by Holly Near, “We are a gentle, angry people and we are singing, singing for our lives. We are all in this together, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
Once you understand the urgency of avoiding climate chaos – once you grasp the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, including natural gas – once you realize that climate change is already starting to unravel the web of life and that it harms the poor first and hardest – then you know it’s no exaggeration to say that we are singing and fighting for our lives.
And sing we did, updating the words of various songs as we went along.
“Ain’t gonna let no pipelineturn me around, turn me around, turn me around…”
“Ain’t gonna let no coal mine turn me around…” “Ain’t gonna let the folks at FERC turn me around…” – “FERC” being the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency notorious for rubberstamping pipeline industry requests for new pipelines, even if those pipelines cut through conservation areas, or leak methane (a greenhouse gas far more potent and deadly in the short term than carbon dioxide), or carry highly-pressurized, potentially explosive gas into an urban neighborhood like West Roxbury, alongside a quarry engaged in active blasting.
“Ain’t gonna let no fear turn me around…”
When we reached this verse, I planted my feet more firmly on the ground and raised my head. Of all the verses, this one is the most far-reaching. Fear is what prevents us from stepping outside our comfort zone and taking part in the struggle for a more just and sustainable society – for starters, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of ridicule, and fear of bodily harm. The power of ordinary people seems puny when compared with the power of the political and corporate behemoths that rule the world. Why stick your neck out?
Yet there is no message that runs more frequently through the Bible than the message: “Fear not.” We hear it in the Old Testament: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1). “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13). “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). We hear it in the New Testament: “Do not be afraid: for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). “Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50). “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
The first followers of Jesus clearly tapped into a source of love and power that gave them strength to challenge injustice. Apparently there were two basic ways of identifying Christians: you would know Christians by their love (John 13:35) and you would know them by their commitment to “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Not surprisingly, the first followers of Jesus seem to have spent a fair amount of time in jail. As my bishop, Douglas Fisher, recently put it, “When we follow Jesus, stuff is going to happen.” How would Christianity change today if it became normative for Christians to risk arrest in acts of peaceful resistance to fossil fuels?
The sixteen of us preparing to risk arrest came from a variety of denominations and traditions – American Baptist, Buddhist, Episcopal, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist. We represented a range of diverse religions, yet all of us were drawing upon a holy power greater than our selves. All of us were rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. All of us were fired by the vision of a better world, by faith in the human spirit, and by faith that God would guide us to courageous and visionary action.
And all of us were willing to step past our fear and to put our bodies on the line.
Music helped us do that – so, after holding a worship service in front of the “metering and regulating” station, we made our way in procession up the street, following Rabbi Shoshana and singing all the way.
“The tide is rising, and so are we.
The tide is rising, and so are we.
The tide is rising, and so are we.
This is where we are called to be.
This is where we are called to be.”
(To watch a splendid videotape of this climate anthem written by Shoshana Meira Friedman and her husband Yotam Schachter, and performed at Washington National Cathedral by Rabbi Shoshana and Rev. Fred Small, visit here.)
When we reached the intersection of Grove and Washington Streets, we saw ahead of us the open trench where construction workers were installing the pipeline. The procession paused briefly on the sidewalk for a quick consultation and a quick in-breath of courage. Then we made a dash for the pit. I slid under the barrier and scrambled to a seated position, my legs dangling over the 12-foot trench.
There we stayed, the sixteen of us, sitting on the edge of the trench and taking turns calling out prayers and giving short, impassioned sermons about the moral call to stop climate change. Using prayers I’d drafted, we prayed for the construction workers, the police, and the neighborhood.
A Prayer for the Spectra Workers: Gracious God, we remember before you everyone who labors, and especially we pray for everyone working here at this construction site for Spectra Energy. We pray for their safety and well-being, and we pray for their families and loved ones. We thank you, God, for the dignity of work. We pray that, as our economy makes a swift transition from fossil fuels to clean, safe, renewable energy you will give us strength and resolve to ensure that workers everywhere share in a clean energy economy and enjoy fulfilling, safe, and well-paid jobs.
Prayer for the Police: Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women who serve in law enforcement. Thank you for their calling to public service. Watch over all police officers; protect them from harm in the performance of their duty; give them compassion, good judgment and wisdom, and fill their spirit with a balance of strength and love.
Prayer for this Neighborhood: O God, you have bound us together in a common life. We pray for the neighborhood of West Roxbury: for its safety, beauty, and good health. We pray for all communities that are divided over whether and how to end our use of fossil fuels. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for a just and sustainable economy, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect.
When the police chief gave a five-minute warning that we would be arrested if we didn’t move, we stayed put. Instead, we read aloud together the words of Buddhist activist Joanna Macy (World as Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, Parallax Press, 2007):
“When you make peace with uncertainty, you find a kind of liberation. You are freed from bracing yourselves against every piece of bad news, and from constantly having to work up a sense of hopefulness in order to act – which can be exhausting. There’s a certain equanimity and moral economy that comes when you are not constantly computing your chance of success. The enterprise is so vast, there is no way to judge the effects of this or that individual effort – or the extent to which it makes any difference at all. Once we acknowledge this, we can enjoy the challenge and the adventure. Then we can see that it is a privilege to be alive now in this Great Turning, when all the wisdom and courage ever harvested can be put to use.”
By the time the police came to put us in handcuffs and escort us to the vans, we were singing again.
“The tide is rising, and so are we.
The tide is rising, and so are we.
The tide is rising, and so are we.
This is where we are called to be.
This is where we are called to be.”
Even as we sat, handcuffed, in the dark recesses of the van, waiting to be driven to the police station, we could hear our supporters singing outside, as well as snatches of the impassioned, impromptu sermon being delivered on the edge of the pit by our friend Rev. Mariama White-Hammond.
As of today, there have been 85 arrests at the West Roxbury Lateral pipeline site. I am sure there will be more. Resist the Pipeline is organizing protests and providing training in civil disobedience. Better Future Project is planning a major march and action to stop new gas pipelines on July 14-18, which will include direct action at the pipeline construction in West Roxbury (for information and to register, visit here).
“As religious leaders, we oppose further development of fossil fuel resources and infrastructure in our nation. We envision a livable climate for our communities, for the poor, for our children, and for all life. We call for immediate and robust public investment in climate solutions, including large-scale renewable energy. We will resist new fossil fuel development through joyful, faithful, spirited, and nonviolent direct action.”
The day after I got arrested, I woke up singing.
“We will not give up the fight, we have only started, we have only started, we have only started.
We will not give up the fight. We have only started.”
The 16 religious leaders arrested in West Roxbury on May 25, 2016:
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Sinai, Brookline
Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
Rev. Anne Bancroft, Minister, Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church, West Roxbury
John Bell, Buddhist Dharma Teacher, Plum Village Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, Belmont
Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Ph.D., Missioner for Creation Care, Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass. & Mass. Conference, United Church of Christ
Rev. Heather Concannon, Assistant Minister of Youth and Families, Unitarian Universalist Area Church at First Parish, Sherborn
Cantor Roy Einhorn, Temple Israel of Boston
Rev. Rebecca Froom, Minister, United First Parish Church (Unitarian), Quincy
Rev. John Gibbons, Minister, The First Parish in Bedford
Dr. Rajesh Kasturirangan, South Asian Center, Cambridge
Rev. Rob Mark, Pastor, Church of the Covenant, PCUSA & UCC, Boston
Rev. Dr. Ian Mevorach, Co-founder and Minister of Common Street Spiritual Center in Natick
Rev. Martha Niebanck, Minister Emerita, First Church of Brookline
Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, Leadership Development Associate for Youth and Young Adults of Color, Unitarian Universalist Association
Rev. Fred Small, Minister for Climate Justice, Arlington Street Church, Boston
Rev. Rali Weaver, Minister, First Church and Parish in Dedham
If you read only one article this month about climate change, read Bill McKibben’s essay on the chemistry and politics of fracking, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry.” “Our leaders thought fracking would save our climate. They were wrong. Very wrong.”
For an eloquent essay on the West Roxbury protest and why people of faith – indeed, all people – need to interrupt business as usual, read Wen Stephenson’s essay, “A Prayer for West Roxbury – and the World”
Wen Stephenson writes for The Nation and is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon)
I am blessed to worship with you this morning. Thank you, Cricket, for inviting me back to preach. The last time I was here, I served the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts as your Missioner for Creation Care, but since then my job has expanded: now I also serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. As far as I know, I’m the only person who holds the same job in both the Episcopal and UCC Churches. To me, this joint position, is an emblem of good things to come. As we awaken to the climate crisis, Christians of every denomination – in fact, people of every faith – have a precious opportunity – even in the midst of our wonderful and colorful diversity – to pull together and to speak with one voice about the urgent need to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
Today’s Gospel text gives us a way to reflect on our call to protect and heal “this fragile Earth, our island home.” In a story from the Gospel of John, Jesus heals a paralyzed man whom he finds lying beside a pool. It is a quick little story – no more than nine sentences – so let’s pause to visualize the scene. The pool, called Beth-zatha, is located near one of the gates into Jerusalem. Years ago archaeologists actually located and excavated the pool. Apparently it was quite large and had four sides. Stairways were built in the corners of the pool, so that people could descend into the water, which may have been fed by springs that welled up at intervals. The bubbling waters were thought to have healing powers, and sick people – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed – came to the pool, believing that whenever the waters were stirred up, the first person to enter the pool would be cured of whatever sickness he or she had.
That’s the scene. Here’s the story. A man who has been ill for thirty-eight years is lying near the pool on his mat. The story doesn’t say how long he has been waiting to get into the water, but it does say that he has been there “a long time” (John 5:6).
What do you imagine this man is going through, as he lies paralyzed for so long beside the pool? As I imagine it, he feels helpless. The waters that can heal him are close by, but out of reach. What can heal him is way over there, separated from him, at some distance away, and he can’t move toward it. He can’t reach it. He can’t get there. He is cut off from the source of healing, and he is utterly paralyzed. What’s more, he is cut off from the people around him, too, as he competes with the crowd to be the first to get into the pool when the waters bubble up. Who knows what he is feeling, but I would guess anxiety, frustration, desperation, even despair – all those painful, negative feelings that get stirred up when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and alone.
Now of course we can take the story literally, as a story about physical illness, but in John’s Gospel every story has an imaginative or symbolic dimension, too. When I imagine my way into this story and hear it in the context of climate change, all kinds of connections start playing in my mind. I start thinking about the ways the world’s web of life needs healing – about the alarming levels of carbon dioxide now pouring into the global atmosphere as coal, gas, and oil continue to be burned, about the oceans heating up and becoming more acidic, about the rising seas that could flood, disrupt, and even take down our country’s coastal cities within the lifetime of our children. I think about the new report saying that continued burning of fossil fuels could cause great swaths of the Pacific Ocean to suffocate from lack of oxygen in only 15 years. I think about the 93% of coral reefs that just bleached in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. March 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded, which crushed the record set in February, which crushed the record set in January, which crushed the record set in December. A recent article in the Washington Post bears the title, “Scientists Are Floored by What’s Happening in the Arctic Right Now.”
When we hear news like this about our ailing planet, it’s easy to stop listening. It’s too much to take in, so we shut down. We may feel paralyzed by anxiety or paralyzed by grief. Like that man beside the Beth-zatha pool, we may feel immobilized and overwhelmed. How can this dire news be true, and how can we possibly respond? Where can we turn for help and healing when our planet is on track to catapult into climate chaos caused by an ever-expanding economic system that runs on fossil fuels? People the world over can become so gripped by fear, anger, and despair that they feel unable to imagine, much less create, a better future, so they just carry on with business as usual. It’s as if we can fall under a spell and make what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
So please turn with me again to our Gospel story. Jesus comes upon this scene of the blind, lame, and paralyzed beside the pool, and, the story tells us, “When Jesus saw [the man] lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” (John 5:6). That single sentence says a lot. The first step in this miracle of healing is that Jesus saw the man and knew him. John’s Gospel underscores again and again that when Jesus sees us and knows us, he sees and knows us through and through, more widely and deeply than we know ourselves. He looks deeply into us with eyes of love, with eyes that see the whole truth of who we are, and that perceive everything in us, everything about us, with loving-kindness and compassion. When we open ourselves to Jesus or to our Creator God in prayer, we open ourselves to the One “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (Collect for Purity). In prayer, we turn toward the Holy Presence who searches for truth deep within and whose loving embrace encompasses everything we are, everything we feel.
That is the first step in today’s healing miracle: Jesus sees and knows. The second step in healing is his question, “Do you want to be made well?” That is a surprising question. We might have expected Jesus to take one look at the situation, pick up the man without a word, carry him straight to the pool of healing water, and slide him in. Why waste time? Why bother asking such an obvious question? When someone is hungry, you offer food to eat; when someone is thirty, you offer drink. Why mess around asking questions?
But Jesus’ question reveals something important. The God we meet in Jesus does not force or push, even when it comes to healing. The God we meet in Jesus is deeply respectful of our freedom and gives us space in which to choose. It seems that in order for real healing to take place and new life to spring forth, God’s desire to heal us must meet our own desire to be healed. Do you want to be made well? It is not just a rhetorical question with a pro forma answer. The question invites the man paralyzed beside the pool to explore his desires and to clarify what he truly wants.
Regarding the climate crisis, do I really want to be made well? Well, yes and no. Part of me prefers to stay blind, to close my eyes, duck my head, and turn my attention to more manageable things. Part of me prefers to come up with lame solutions: OK, I’ll change the light bulbs, but that’s it, I’ve done my part. Part of me feels paralyzed: I’m no expert; I’m too small to make a difference; surely someone else will take charge and figure this out.
How does the man by the pool reply to Jesus? “‘Sir,’ [the man says,] ‘I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me’” (John 5:7). Jesus’ response is powerful and short: “‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ And at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk” (John 5:8-9).
What just happened? How did the healing miracle take place? I can’t explain it. But as I imagine it, as Jesus gazed on the man with those piercing, loving eyes that saw and knew and loved him through and through, and when Jesus asked him the probing question, “Do you want to be made well?,” in a flash of insight the man could admit his own halfheartedness and mixed motives and the ways he’d been holding back. I imagine that he felt his deep-down desire to be whole and free, his longing to love and be loved, his longing to draw close to God and to serve God “with gladness and singleness of heart.”
So I imagine him claiming his deepest desire and turning to Jesus to say, “Yes, I want be fully alive. I want to fall in love with life, to give myself in love to each moment without holding anything back. I want God’s healing power to flow through me, so that I heal others and so that I, too, am healed.” The Gospel does not record that conversation, but I imagine it happening non-verbally by glance and gesture, as the sick man looked up at Jesus and said, without words, “Yes, I want to be made well.”
“Stand up,” Jesus said, “and walk.”
And he did.
And so can we.
Amazing things happen when we join our deep desire for healing with God’s deep desire to heal. When I look around, I see a planet in peril, but – thanks be to God! – I also see people shaking off their paralysis, reaching deep into their souls, and accessing their deep, God-given desire to love and serve life. I see people standing up to join the struggle to maintain a habitable planet and to create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, as people refuse to settle for a killing status quo and declare that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled boldly and without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a growing movement that is pushing for a new social order. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances being forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice.
Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has a node right here in the Berkshires. I’ve left a clipboard at the back of the church, and if you sign up for the weekly newsletter or attend a node meeting, you’ll connect with 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 people of different religious traditions to advocate on Beacon Hill for legislation that supports climate justice. I hope you’ll sign up for MAICCA’s newsletter, too, for 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 all communities, including those that are low-income or historically underserved. As climate activist Bill McKibben points out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care.
One last word about our Gospel story: notice that the man didn’t need to be immersed in the pool of Beth-zatha in order to be healed. In Jesus’ presence, the man discovered that the healing spring was not outside him – it was inside him, just as it is inside us. As Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4:1-26), Jesus gives us water that becomes in us a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Even in troubled and scary times, we have everything we need. The healing pool is within us; the spring of healing is already bubbling up; and Jesus will nourish us with his presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the strength of that bread and wine and through the power of the Spirit, we can be healed from paralysis and become healers and justice-makers in a world that is crying out for our care.
1. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (I-XII), introduction, translation, and notes by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966, pp. 206-207.
It is good to be here at St. Paul’s and to worship with you this morning. My name is Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and I have a quite unusual ecumenical position as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and in the United Church of Christ across Massachusetts. I travel around, preaching and leading retreats about God’s love for this precious planet and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human. My dream is to help create a wave of religious activism to protect and heal the web of life that God entrusted to our care. So I want to thank you for your leadership. You’ve installed solar panels, you’ve formed a Green Team, some of you have read and studied Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’, and I’m told that many of you want to explore how to connect with nature as a spiritual practice.
Preachers around the country are marking Earth Day today and speaking about the glory and the vulnerability of God’s Creation. How wonderful that our readings this morning include Psalm 148, that powerful song of praise to God from the heights and depths of creation, from every element and creature, from every nook and cranny: “Hallelujah! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise God in the heights… Praise God, sun and moon; praise God, all you shining stars… Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps; Fire and hail, snow and fog; tempestuous wind, doing God’s will; Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars…Young men and maidens, old and young together. Let them praise the Name of the LORD…” (Psalm 148:1,3,7-9,12,13)
This kind of ecstatic poetry springs from a perception that everything is connected, everything is alive with Spirit, everything is held together by a divine presence that sustains and upholds all things.
That’s the vision of St. Francis of Assisi, whose “Canticle of the Sun” proclaims:
“Praise be my Lord for our brother the wind,
and for air and cloud, calms and all weather,
by which you uphold life in all creatures.”
That’s the vision of poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
That’s the vision of theologians like Martin Luther, who said, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.”
That’s the vision, I believe, of Jesus himself, a man who lived close to the Earth, whose ministry began by immersion in a river and who 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, sheep and lilies, rivers, wind, and rocks. Jesus was immersed in 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, wine, water, and oil. 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.
This powerful perception that the natural world is holy awakens in some of us a deep response. We want to ensure that God’s sacred creation is treated with reverence. We feel a growing resolve to take action to heal and reconcile and restore the beautiful world that God entrusted to our care. Heaven knows that God’s creation is crying out for help. 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 than our species has ever experienced before. So far that extra CO2 has forced the average global temperature to rise about one degree. That may not sound like much, but what’s so worrisome to scientists is that this process is happening so fast. 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. March 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded, which crushed the record set in February, which crushed the record set in January, which crushed the record set in December. A recent article in the Washington Post bears the title, “Scientists Are Floored by What’s Happening in the Arctic Right Now.”
We know that the situation is urgent. We know we have only a short time in which to avert a level of climate disruption that would render the world ungovernable and possibly uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children and our children’s children. The World Bank – hardly a leftist organization – recently warned that unless we quickly rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – in the next 15 years. Just imagine for a moment the human suffering and social upheaval that this would engender worldwide.
When I look around, I see a planet in peril, but – thanks be to God! – I also see person after person reaching deep into their souls and then standing up to join the struggle to re-weave the fabric of life and create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, propelled in part by the release of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, which makes a powerful connection between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. I see people rising up for life, refusing to settle for a killing status quo, and proclaiming with one voice that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a new social order being born. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances being forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice.
Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has nodes across the state. When you sign up for the weekly newsletter or attend a node meeting near you, 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 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 all our communities, including those that are low-income or historically under-served. As climate activist Bill McKibben has pointed out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care. We may live in a society where we’re told that pleasure lies in being self-centered consumers who grab and hoard everything we can for ourselves and the devil take the hindmost, but we know the truth: our deepest identity and joy is found in being rooted and grounded in love and in serving the common good.
As Jesus tells us this morning, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). That love extends not only to our own little group nor only to our family and friends. It extends not only to our town, to our nation, nor only even to other human beings – no, that love extends outward to embrace and fill the whole glorious creation, including mountains and hills, trees and beetles and stars. God has placed us in and made us part of a miraculous, intricate, and living world, and when we listen closely we will hear what the psalmist hears: a shared song of praise to our Creator.
I’ll close with the words of a contemporary song that echoes Psalm 148. Written by Kim Oler, the song (“Blue Green Hills of Earth”) is part of Paul Winter’s “Missa Gaia.” I offer these words to God as a prayer – a prayer of gratitude for the gift of life, and a prayer of hope that we can protect that life and pass it on to future generations.
For the earth forever turning; for the skies, for every sea;
to our Lord we sing, returning home to our blue green hills of Earth.For the mountains, hills, and pastures in their silent majesty;
for all life, for all nature, sing we our joyful praise to Thee.For the sun, for rain and thunder, for the land that makes us free;
for the stars, for all the heavens, sing we our joyful praise to Thee.
Sometimes I am perfectly capable of scanning large swathes of bad news with aplomb, keeping my feelings at bay. I know how to brace myself before I open the morning paper, turn on the TV, or scan the news online. OK, world, I’m ready! Bring it on! Give me the latest list of apocalyptic woes! I can take it! I can handle it without blinking an eye!
But then comes a story about one small bird.
Researchers have confirmed the first death from malaria of a loon in New Hampshire. As the global climate heats up, diseases of the south, including malaria, are marching north. Although human beings are not susceptible to avian malaria, this tropical disease could have “devastating impacts” on birds with no natural resistance. To find a bird killed by malaria in the northern reaches of New England is a foreboding discovery. As one researcher observed, “This might be a canary in a coal mine situation.”
The metaphor is apt. In the old days coal miners would bring a caged canary into the mine to provide advance warning if dangerous gases like methane or carbon monoxide were building up. A canary is sensitive. A sickened or dead canary warned miners to take action quickly lest they, too, breathe their last. Today the whole world is in “a coal mine situation,” for extracting dirty fuels like coal, gas, and oil is releasing dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, disrupting the delicate balance of the climate and threatening the web of life.
A loon is our canary today. News that a loon has died from malaria spread by climate change stops me in my tracks, appalled. I love loons. Summer by summer our family spends a week in New Hampshire beside a lake. Loons’ haunting cries erupt in the night, thrilling and wild. During the day we watch for loons as we paddle our canoes, and if we spot one – precious sight! – we pause to let the boat drift so as not to disturb these shy birds. I am not a scientist, and I can’t describe how loons contribute to the intricate balance of life in the lakes and woods of northern New England nor how their loss would affect the ecosystem, but I do know that losing the loons would somehow empty the lake, leave an aching muteness in the air, and tear a hole in my heart.
I weep for loons.
Can we grieve the losses brought about by a changing climate? I raised that question last week with Episcopal clergy from the Diocese of Delaware when we gathered for a three-day retreat in Pennsylvania at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation. We talked about how easy it is, in the face of the danger and loss brought on by climate change, to go numb, change the subject, minimize the threat, and find a way to distance and distract ourselves. Most of us don’t challenge outright the science of climate change – we know it’s real, we know that human activities account for most of it, we know it’s already having profound, damaging, and sometimes irreversible effects worldwide. But most of us do engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we avoid thinking about it. We consider it someone else’s problem. As the Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton points out in Requiem for a Species, we resist the truth about climate change for all kinds of reasons:
“Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the world only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global warming… It’s the same with our own deaths; we all ‘accept’ that we will die, but it is only when our death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of our mortality.”
When the full truth of the climate crisis finally breaks through our defenses, we experience what one journalist has called the “Oh shit” moment we all must have. Our denial breaks down. We realize that the people we want to ridicule as “alarmists” are conveying news that is both terrifying and true.
I remember exactly where I was when I had my “Oh shit” moment. It was a warm July night in 2002 and I was standing on the edge of Thompson Island, looking out over Boston Harbor. I was deep into an intensive weekend conference on the science and politics of climate change. I had spent the last couple of days jotting down facts about droughts and floods, sea levels and hurricanes, the connection between a warming world and a rise in infectious disease. I’d taken notes on the extreme social disruptions likely to be unleashed by global climate change, on the millions of refugees that would go in search of food and water, on the wars that could erupt over increasingly scarce natural resources.
I had taken in all the facts I could, I had fought valiantly against the temptation to daydream or space out, and now I was reeling. Deeply shaken, I stepped outside into the dark. I stood in silence for a while, breathing the night air. The whole planet seemed to be tilting under the stars, as if the ground were shifting beneath my feet. The old world I’d lived in was gone.
I tried that night to assimilate what I’d heard, to regain my balance, and to find my way back to God. That night I tried to sleep. The next morning I went looking for Paul Epstein, the doctor from Harvard Medical School whose presentation on climate had so overwhelmed me. I carried my breakfast tray to his table and asked if I could have a word with him. I told him how stunned I was by what he had told us.
“How do you bear it?” I asked him. “What do you do with your feelings?”
“I don’t get into my feelings,” he told me. “I focus on what I can do.”
Thus Dr. Epstein taught me one of the options after our denial breaks down: we can get busy and focus on action. His comment reminded me of what labor organizer Joe Hill reportedly said before he died, “Don’t mourn. Organize.” Some of us definitely prefer not to mourn. Most of us, in fact, prefer to engage our painful emotions as little as possible. We lock them away or we leapfrog over them. After all, we don’t want to look morbid, weak, or sentimental. Or we may dodge our feelings for fear of being overcome by anxiety or despair, or of drowning in sorrow. We may fear that experiencing our emotions will become a substitute for action or even sabotage our capacity to act. And you can’t argue with the fact that taking action is essential. In the midst of the battle to protect life as it has evolved on this planet, we do need to act. We do need levelheaded leaders who can say, This is what we must do. Let’s go.
Yet I’m convinced that for the long haul we also need to notice and experience what we feel. Is not grief a way of expressing love? Is not anger a natural response to injustice? Doesn’t learning how to ride the energies of grief and anger in a skillful way bring forth actions more likely to be wise, compassionate, and effective?
By the time that long-ago weekend workshop was over and the ferry was carrying us back to shore, I realized that I had no wish – indeed, no ability – to take action regarding the climate crisis unless I gave myself permission along the way to notice what I was feeling. After all – I’m a recovering addict. Nearly 35 years of recovery have shown me the value of respecting my emotional life: listening inwardly and honoring, even befriending, what I feel prevents me from careening into compulsive and willful behavior.
I was beginning to clarify my own approach to living with what James Howard Kunstler has since called “the long emergency,” that extensive period we are now entering, in which human beings must deal with a host of coinciding global problems, from climate change to water scarcity and economic instability. Yes, we will need to master the facts and to understand what we’re facing as accurately as we can. Yes, we will need to take action, and to do it together, building community as we go. But I would add this, too: we will also need to stay in touch with our feelings, to give ourselves room to protest and to grieve, to mark what we have lost and to name what we hope to preserve. I, at least, need such a space as a creature needs air.
So, in the course of last week’s retreat with the clergy of Delaware, we spent an evening session talking about our heartbreak. We reflected on the crucifixion of the Earth and on where we hear the groaning of God’s Creation. Then each of us took a piece of paper and a handful of oil pastels and spread out around the room to draw whatever came to us – perhaps a prayer, a poem of protest or grief, a confession of guilt, a plea for forgiveness, or a cry for help. As soft music played, each of us confronted and gave form to our pain. When we had finished our drawings, we placed them on the floor around the altar and talked about what the prayer exercise had been like and where we find hope. Tomorrow morning we would go ahead and focus on what we could do, but tonight we would pause to honor our pain.
When Lazarus died, Jesus wept (John 11:35). After pausing to feel his love and sorrow, Jesus performed a mighty act. He brought forth life out of death. He prayed to God and called out to Lazarus, and Lazarus stepped out from the tomb.
I don’t know if we’ll be able to prevent catastrophic climate change, but I do know this: When we mourn the losses caused by a disrupted climate, even a loss apparently as small as the perishing of a loon, we immerse ourselves in the love that will never let us go. Besides, God seems to have a soft spot for birds. The Bible offers images of God resembling a dove (Matthew (3:16), a hen (Matthew 23:37), and an eagle (Exodus 19:4), and, as the Gospel song puts it, “His eye is on the sparrow.” (To hear a wonderful performance by Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount, turn up the volume and visit here.) Grieving can be a sacred act. By the grace of God, grief can reconnect us with the love that brings forth life, the imperishable love that creates, redeems, and sustains. With that love breathing through us, who knows what we’ll accomplish together?
Here is a poem by Elizabeth Cunningham that I shared at the retreat.
You can only pray what’s in your heart.
So if your heart is being ripped from your chest
Pray the tearing
if your heart is full of bitterness
pray it to the last dreg
if your heart is a river gone wild
pray the torrent
or a lava flow scorching the mountain
pray the fire
pray the scream in your heart
the fanning bellows
pray the rage, the murder
and the mourning
pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it
like the small bird it is.