It is a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Peter, for inviting me to preach. I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ as Missioner for Creation Care. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is a joy to return to the Pacific Northwest and to see again the magnificent skies and sea and mountains of Vancouver and the glory that God reveals in this particular corner of God’s Creation – even if does seem to rain a lot!
Glory is our theme this morning – the glory of God, the glory of God’s Creation. In the passage from Exodus that we just heard, Moses engages in a long conversation with God. Eventually Moses asks, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
Before we go any further, allow me to suggest that when we think about Moses, we probably think first about what he did in public. Who is Moses? He is the leader of the Hebrew people. He is the prophet who confronted the Pharaoh, the liberator who set his people free and led them out of bondage in Egypt, the lawgiver who formed Israel as a nation. Moses is a public leader – yes – but in today’s reading we see a much more intimate side of Moses – we see his inner life. We listen in on his intimate conversation with the God who dwells within him, just as God dwells within each one of us while also being distinct from us, infinitely beyond us.
“Show me your glory,” Moses prays – a plea that we might render as: “God, show me your beauty, your goodness, your truth. Show me your ways. Show me your face.” It’s an ardent prayer, the prayer of a lover to his beloved or of one close friend to another (Exodus 33:11), the prayer of someone who has wrestled with and argued with and trusted in and cast his lot with a divine Presence who will never let him go. It is the prayer of someone who wants to draw close to love and to the Source of love. “Show me your glory.”
And God responds, yes, I will show you my glory, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33:19), but “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). And so God shelters Moses in a cleft of the rock, God tenderly cups a hand over him until God has passed by, and then God removes the hand, so that Moses can see God’s “back” (Exodus 33:23).
Anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf or gazing at an ancient forest or watching waves dancing on the shore knows what it’s like to see God’s “back.” Like Moses, we cannot see the glory of God directly, in all fullness, for that radiance would be too much for mortal eyes to bear, but by the grace of God we sometimes see God’s “back” – we catch glimpses of God’s glory, we see traces, as when Moses saw the burning bush that was on fire and yet was not consumed. It may have been just an ordinary bush, but at that moment Moses could see that even this lowly bush was on fire with the love and glory of God. He took off his shoes, for he knew that he was standing on holy ground.
Sometimes we are surprised by such moments of awakening to glory: maybe we are startled by the cry of wild geese flying overhead or by the sight of an Orca rising and falling in the ocean; we are seized with wonder and our restless worries fall away. Sometimes we prepare for these moments of awakening: maybe we have a particular sacred place in nature that we return to again and again, knowing that if we stop and gaze and wait and pray, we are likely to sense that God is present, God is passing by. The Creator of all that is is always disclosing God’s self to us in the natural world, always inviting us to slow down, look carefully, be curious, and greet our other-than-human kin.
I think that that’s what Jesus did: he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospels we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. His parables and stories are rich in images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds and rocks. As I meet Jesus in Scripture and in prayer, it seems to me that every creature he saw, every person he encountered he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world because he saw with his sacred eyes. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God’s glory, because he himself was lit up from the inside with God’s love. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins echoes what Moses saw and what Jesus saw when he writes: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
I wonder what it would be like if Christians around the world recovered a felt sense of the glory of God in Creation. What would happen to us, how would we change, what power would we receive, if we immersed ourselves more often in prayer outdoors in God’s Creation, and if, when indoors, we never forgot our connection with the living world outside? However alienated we may feel from nature, however enmeshed and trapped we may get in virtual reality and the hectic world of screens, emails, and tweets, however isolated we may feel as we hurtle down highways in our cars, the truth is that we live in a sacramental universe – a living, vibrant world that discloses and conveys the presence of God as surely as do the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
So when we see that living world being desecrated – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we realize that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus; we want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.
As individuals, there is a lot we can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, and move to a plant-based diet. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. You know the drill!
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we may have to confront the powers that be. That’s what Moses discovered after he saw God’s glory: after he saw the burning bush and the living radiance of God’s Creation, from within the burning bush he heard God call him to do a brave thing: to step out into the public realm to confront the Pharaoh and to set his people free.
I hear the same call in Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). That enigmatic line has been interpreted in all kinds of ways, but here is how I hear it today: when we’re faithful to God, we give to the emperor – or, we might say, to the state – the things that are the state’s; we respect the legitimate and limited functions of the state. But when the state puts itself in place of God – when it violates the vision and values that are basic to Christian faith – when it abandons the Earth entrusted to our care and rides roughshod over the needs of the poor – then as Christians we are called to protest, to resist the state, and to change our ways of doing business, because our ultimate commitment is to God.
Back where I come from, in the United States, that’s where many Christians now find ourselves: appalled by the actions of a government and of multinational corporations that seem intent on desecrating every last inch of Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. Impelled by our faith in the living God, the risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit, we are praying and protesting, resisting and organizing.
I can’t speak to the struggles that you face here in Canada, but I can say this: whatever obstacles you and I face as we try in the name of God to build a more just and sustainable future, however daunted we may feel, however challenging the battles that lie ahead of us, we trust that the glory of God is with us. In this Eucharist, as in every Eucharist, we will soon turn to God and say, “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” We will pray as Jesus taught us, “Our Father in heaven… the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours.” And we will stretch out our hands – as if to say, like Moses, “Show me your glory” – and we will be given the consecrated bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus, these simple elements of nature, filled with glory, giving us strength for the days ahead.
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.
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning, and I’d like to thank Heather, your priest, for inviting me to preach and worship here at St. James. I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, and, as you know, during October and November this year, our diocese is celebrating its first-ever Season of Creation. Across the diocese we are reflecting on the preciousness and sacredness of the natural world, and God’s urgent call to protect the Earth and its creatures. I’m delighted that the sequence of readings from Exodus gives us today’s passage about Moses, who turns to God and prays, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
We know something about that glory, don’t we? This very week we have seen God’s glory shining in the sight of orange and yellow leaves standing out against a clear blue sky, and – if we’ve been lucky and the timing has been just right – we have felt God’s glory in the wind that makes the leaves whirl and tumble all around us. This week God’s glory was revealed to me in a vivid sunset that played out for a good half-hour with all the drama and details of a symphony. This happens from time to time around here. I live in Northampton, and in the late afternoon when I’m heading west on the Coolidge Bridge, there are times near sunset when I think that we should all just pull over, get out of our cars, and stop to gaze, praising God and rejoicing. I know this would create a traffic jam and so far I have resisted the impulse. But you know what I’m talking about – those moments when something like scales suddenly fall from our eyes, and we perceive the beauty and splendor of the living world around us. We stop in our tracks, overcome by a sense of wonder and awe.
“Show me your glory,” Moses prayed to God, and God granted his request. Because seeing the divine presence in all its fullness would be more than mortal eyes could bear (Exodus 33:20), God sheltered Moses in the cleft of a rock and tenderly covered Moses with his hand, so that as God’s glory passed by, Moses could see only what Scripture calls God’s “back” (Exodus 33:23). It is only after death that we will see God’s glory directly – as Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Until the day comes when we see God face to face, here on earth God grants us glimpses of divine glory, brief and holy glimpses that come to us when our eyes are opened, when, as poet William Blake puts it, “the doors of perception” are cleansed, and “everything appears… as it is, Infinite.”
Nature is one of the primary places we perceive God’s glory. In fact, Christian tradition speaks of two “books” that reveal God – the book of Scripture and the book of Nature. As Martin Luther so wonderfully puts it, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” The opening pages of the Bible tell us that God created the world, took a look around, and was filled with delight. “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The web of life – what scientists call the biosphere – is radiant with God’s presence. The psalmist proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Meadows and rivers, seeds and soil, animals, air and sea ultimately belong to God, not to human beings, for, as we also hear in the psalms, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1).
Moses is a fine companion to keep beside us during this Season of Creation, for he was a man of deep prayer who spent much of his life outdoors and experienced there what theologian Rudolf Otto calls the “awesome and rapturous mystery” of God (mysterium tremendum et fascinans). Just think of Moses walking repeatedly up the mountain to commune with God, or of his vision, early on, of the ever-burning bush that conveyed God’s voice and presence.
Most of us don’t live like that. Most of us don’t spend much prayerful, conscious time outside. I’ve heard that the average North American spends 4% of a typical day outdoors, including time spent in a car. What’s more, many of us work and play in ways that are mental, and we get absorbed in the “virtual reality” of the TV or smart phone or computer screen. When we lose touch with nature, it is easy to think of nature as “out there” and distant, to be ignored and taken for granted, or to be dominated and used up. And when we lose touch with nature, we lose touch with God.
I invite us, this Creation Season, to do what Moses did: to take time for solitary prayer and silence, and to look for God’s glory in the natural world. For a while now – and I hope to keep this up until the weather gets too cold – I’ve been going outside first thing in the morning to walk barefoot and to put my body in direct contact with the body of the Earth. We live in a noisy world, a world of bustle, frenzy, and haste. I know that only if I spend regular time alone and in silence, as Moses did, will I come to see a bush that is aflame with God – in fact, come to see that every bush is lit up with God’s radiance. A quiet mind is a spacious mind, a mind that begins to perceive what we might call the hidden vastness or hidden depths of things. The change of consciousness that Moses repeatedly experienced, that “cleansing of the doors of perception,” is available to everyone who takes time to pray in silence and who learns some practices for quieting the mind and paying attention. It seems to me that one of the most essential tasks of our time is to move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to one of intimacy with all creation. Being attentive in nature with eyes and ears of love is a practice that can open our eyes to God’s glory.
I take Moses as a spiritual guide, and I take him as a guide to activism, too. For what happens when he sees the burning bush? What happens when he sees the divine Presence shining out toward him and hears God addressing him intimately by name? What happens next is that he hears God calling him to become not just a mystic, but also a prophet, a healer and liberator. God calls him to confront the Pharaoh and to set the slaves free. Moses discovers – as we do, too – that God invites us into an interior, intimate, and sometimes ecstatic encounter with God in prayer, and then God sends us out into the world to engage in the struggle for justice, healing, and liberation. God’s Spirit is like a flow of air that moves through our body as we breathe: we breathe God in, and we discover God in our depths; we breathe God out, and we are sent out to heal, repair, and restore the world. As one of the Desert Fathers used to say, “Always breathe Christ.” Contemplation and action become the rhythm of our lives, like breathing in and breathing out.
God’s Creation has never needed our help and healing more than it does today. The web of life is unraveling around us. Climate change caused by human activity is already having drastic and far-reaching effects around the world. In only two centuries – just a blink in geologic time – human beings have pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher today than they’ve been for millions of years. I heard a climate scientist remark, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.”
Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, gas, and oil, at present rates could raise worldwide average temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, which would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Already our planet is changing before our eyes: oceans are heating up and becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide that cars and power plants release; 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 are intensifying in others. Last spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” This week the Pentagon released a report asserting decisively that climate change poses “an immediate risk to national security” and is a so-called “threat multiplier,” increasing the likelihood of terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages.”
We live in an unprecedented time in human history, a time when our choices really matter and what we do, or don’t do, makes all the difference to what kind of world we leave our children and our children’s children. What can we do? Well, we can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and turn down the heat. I know that this parish includes ardent recyclers and composters, and that you’ve talked about planting a community garden. I salute you for that, and I’d be glad to support you in any way I can. If you are interested in joining a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation, I hope you will give me your name and contact information.
As individuals we can and should do everything we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with other people and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Like Moses, we, too, need to stand up to the political and corporate powers-that-be and to push our country to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy like sun and wind. We need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels and to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a level that allows life as it has evolved to continue on this planet.
We are blessed, right here in the Pioneer Valley, to have a strong, local, grassroots climate action group, which is called Climate Action Now. I hope you will sign up for weekly emails and read the news and connect. I am also happy to say that tomorrow night you can join me, Bishop Doug Fisher, and the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Jim Munroe (whom many of you know), along with a crowd of other folks from the diocese who will be marching to Springfield’s City Hall to support a resolution proposing a climate action plan for the city. Springfield is the largest city in Massachusetts without a climate action plan, its residents suffer severely from asthma and other respiratory diseases caused by dirty air, and tomorrow faith communities from within and beyond Springfield will show their support for a resolution to develop a climate action plan that City Council members will be discussing that night. A range of folks in Springfield – including poor Hispanic, African-American and immigrant communities – is joining together in an extraordinary coalition to ask the city to prepare for and to slow down climate change. All the things they are asking for – such as more bike paths, better public transportation, better insulated buildings, and more trees and community gardens – will contribute to public health and safety as well as to a healthier and more stable environment. When climate justice meets social justice, I am truly thankful. If you come, please bring your church banner. This is a Jesus moment, a moment when God is making all things new.
“Show me your glory,” Moses prays, and where do we see God’s glory? In the beauty and intricate complexity of nature, in every gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation, in every word of kindness, in every face that shines with love, in every mind and hand and heart that is devoted to creating a better world. The melting ice in West Antarctica may be unstoppable, but so, too, is the divine love that made us, that sustains us, and that calls us to stand up for life. Breathing in, we pray and give thanks. Breathing out, we serve. Jesus is with us, offering us here at this table the nourishing gift of his presence and power, and then he will send us out to love and to serve in his name. I wish you a blessed Season of Creation through the end of November, and also in all the days to come.