Baccalaureate Sermon for St. Timothy’s School, June 5, 2010.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas ’69, St. Timothy’s School, Stevenson, MD
|1 Corinthians 13||Matthew 5:2-16|
As you set out into the world
Blessed be the God who has brought us to this day.
Blessed be the God of all our days. Amen. 1
I am grateful to Randy Stevens for inviting me to speak. Thank you. It is a pleasure to be back at my alma mater and to see that it is thriving, although it is startling to realize that a full forty-one years have passed since I sat where you Sixes are sitting today, preparing to set out into the world. This is a big moment in your lives, and in the lives of your family-members, as well. My son graduated from high school two years ago, and I know how proud you parents and grandparents are feeling right now, how sweet and joyful this transition is, and yet how poignant, too, for it is a tender moment when young ones grow up and head out into the world as young adults.
As I prayed about what to say, I knew that I wanted to give you Sixes something, and what kept coming to my mind was not ideas, or even words, but the image of a leaf. I kept imagining myself standing here and holding up a leaf. As it happens, I am finishing a book, a spiritual memoir about becoming a climate activist, and its working title is Love Every Leaf. I decided to trust what was coming to me in prayer, so I went outside after lunch and wandered about. I found a maple tree by the chapel, and I came away with this [holds up maple leaf] .
As I imagined holding this very leaf before you, I asked it: OK, Leaf, what do you have to say to these good people who are graduating from St. Tim’s? And the leaf gave me three messages.
The first one: Here is the world in all its beauty. This leaf is unlike every other leaf. If you spent just five minutes examining its stem and veins and color and shape, you would see that this leaf is a very particular leaf, one that has its own contribution to make to the world, just as each of us has our own particular part to play in the whole web of life. This particular, irreplaceable leaf emerged in connection to the rest of the tree: its stem connected to a branch, the branch to the trunk, and the trunk to the roots. From below, the roots absorbed water and nutrients that were drawn up the tree-trunk and passed along to the leaf. And from above, sunlight shone down and made the leaf grow. So this leaf is intimately connected to sunshine and water, to dirt and cloud, worms and sky. And this leaf is connected to us, and to every creature that shares what the Book of Genesis calls “the breath of life” (Genesis 1:30). When we breathe in, we take in oxygen that leaves have released, and when we breathe out, we exhale carbon dioxide that the leaves in turn take in as food. With every breath we exchange the elements of life with plants.
What a beautiful world we live in — one that is so very particular, so full of such unique and exquisitely designed creatures as a leaf, a tree, a person. And everything is so interconnected. Here is the world in all its beauty — that is the cry of mystics from every religious tradition, and the deep perception of things that animates the Bible, when in the Creation story God takes a look at the world that God has made, and God pronounces it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Everything is particular; everything is connected.
What would it be like to look at the world with eyes that see its beauty, its hidden radiance? It is easy to turn away from the actual world and to focus instead on the virtual world of screens and electronic devices, or on our own worried or self-absorbed thoughts. Many of us are alienated from the living body of the earth, and have forgotten its beauty. For many years I lived with a food addiction, and during that time I felt completely out of touch with the first bit of nature with which I have been entrusted — my body. For me, re-connecting with the earth began with learning to inhabit my own flesh, to listen to it, and treat it kindly and with respect.
So what a discovery it was for me, as it is for many of us, to fall in love with the beauty of God’s Creation, to look at the world around us with gratefulness, wonder, and awe, and to begin to experience how deeply God loves us not only in ourselves, but also as an integral part of this blooming, buzzing, bellowing, flapping, whirling life that surrounds us on every side. Our great Protestant forebear, Martin Luther, once said, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” And our great Roman Catholic forebear, Thomas Aquinas, once said, “Revelation comes in two volumes – the Bible and nature.” Study this leaf with a quiet eye, and you will glimpse the imperishable shining through what perishes. You will see the invisible illuminating what is visible.
As you set out into the world, I hope that you will keep your eyes open to its beauty, and let your spirit be renewed. I hope that you will walk with gratefulness, for a grateful heart is sensitive to God. I hope that you will breathe with awareness, for every breath connects you to the living world around, and to the Holy Spirit — the divine Breath of God — that, moment to moment, is giving us life.
Here is the world in all its beauty, the leaf says. And it says a second thing, too: Here is the world in all its fragility. This leaf is soft and easily torn, and it has been separated from its tree. It speaks to me about the vulnerability of the world, about its mortality and pain. For weeks, many of us have been riveted to the terrible sight of oil and gas gushing up from the floor of the sea, a mile down deep in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP oil spill is one of the most violent assaults on the natural world that any of us have ever seen. And yet, as environmentalist Bill McKibben points out, if everything had gone smoothly, if the oil had made its way “up through the drilling pipe, onto the platform, off the gulf into some refinery and thence into the gas tank of a car,” 2 the damage it would have created would have been even more severe. The relentless burning of dirty energy is changing the planet in “large and fundamental ways,” and, as McKibben points out, global warming is not just a future threat. It is, he writes, “no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” 3 “We’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet,” he says. Of course, different places might have a string of cool or warm days, but the average planetary temperature is going in only one direction. “NASA [recently reported] that we’ve come through the warmest January, February, March on record, [and] that 2010 is going to be the warmest year that we’ve ever seen.” 4 The global climate with its delicate balance of gases turns out to be more fragile then we ever imagined.
Fragile, afflicted, under assault — that is a truth about the world in which we live. The life systems of the earth are in decline. Since I was a student at St. Tim’s, the human population has doubled worldwide, a heavy burden on the planet. Species are going extinct at a rate unprecedented since the death of the dinosaurs. “The whole creation [is] groaning,” wrote St. Paul (Romans 8:22), and we sense that, too, more acutely than ever.
When we see the world’s fragility, we pierce the illusion that human beings can treat the earth with impunity, drilling, mining, dumping at will, burning fossil fuels without care for the consequences, buying the next new thing, and the next, and the next — as if nature were at our beck and call, a supposedly endless supply of “resources” for the use of a single species, as if the natural world were a business, and we were holding a liquidation sale.
When we see the world’s fragility, we allow ourselves to grieve what human beings have done. We break through our numbness and denial, and feel the anger and sorrow that spring from love. We find the courage to acknowledge our uneasiness and fear, and the moral clarity to admit that we need to change course.
This is where a third message speaks from the leaf: Here is the world in its need and longing to be healed. The world is beckoning us, inviting us, even crying out to us: Stand with me! Protect me! Set me free! If we perceive the beauty of the world, if we perceive its fragility, then we can’t help but hear its call to each of us to become a — what shall I say? The traditional word is “steward,” but I am looking for a word that is more robust and urgent than that. How about “a healer,” “a liberator,” “a guardian,” “a protector”? We need, as McKibben says, to find ways to live more “lightly, carefully, and gracefully” 5 in the world. We need to join the search that so many others have begun, the search to bring forth a human presence on the planet that is “environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just.” 6 We don’t have much time to accomplish this, so it is a precarious and very precious time to be alive. We have a chance to take part – if we choose – in a great work of healing.
What does that look like in our own lives? We take the steps that individuals can take. Maybe we recycle, drive less, and quit using bottled water. Maybe we choose a hybrid over a Hummer, a bicycle over a hybrid, a pair of walking shoes over a bicycle. Maybe we eat local, organic foods, start a community garden, and support our local farmers. Maybe we install insulation, put up solar panels, switch to energy-efficient light bulbs, turn down the heat, use AC in moderation — hey, you know the drill.
Working to stabilize the climate begins at home, but it cannot end there. The scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale. As I see it, we need to push the Senate to pass the strongest possible energy and climate bill. We need to get this country and other countries on track to bring down the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to no more than 350 parts per million, the uppermost level that many scientists say is safe for life as we know it to continue on this planet. I am happy to mention that our beloved brother in Christ, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is supporting the international campaign to reduce atmospheric levels of CO2 to 350 parts per million. What is the level today? 389 — and climbing. There is work to be done.
The good news is that we have an opportunity every day to bear witness to the God who loved us, and all Creation, into being. If God created us to love God, our neighbors and ourselves — if deep in our guts, our bones, our genes, is a God-given affection for the rest of the created world — then our rising up to protect that world is an act of love, an act of faithfulness to God. To use images from my own religious tradition, the face of the Good Shepherd, the face of the Risen Christ, shines out in every leaf and blossom, in every chickadee and butterfly, in every worm and wren. Taking action to protect God’s Creation and to mend the fabric of life that seems so swiftly to be unraveling is an act of reverence to our Creator. We may be struggling to stop the deathly flow of oil that is erupting at the bottom of the sea, but nothing can stop the love of God that is being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). That love will guide and sustain us in the struggle ahead.
Here is the world in all its beauty… its fragility… and its need and longing to be healed.
If I could, I would place this leaf in your hands, and yours, and yours, and yours. We need people who live with grateful awareness of life’s beauty and fragility, people willing to take the risk, and bear the cost, and carry the joy of standing up for life.
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus says to you (Matthew 5:14). Let your light shine.
Blessed be the God who has brought us to this day.
Blessed be the God of all our days. Amen.
1. Prayer from Changes: Prayers and Services Honoring Rites of Passage, New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2007, p. 31.
2. Bill McKibben, “It’s about the carbon: What’s worse than the gulf oil leak?” The Christian Century Magazine, June 1, 2010, http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=8460
3. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket. Italics in original.
4. Bill McKibben interview, Democracy Now!, April 15, 2010 http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/15/mckibben
5. McKibben, Eaarth, p. 151.
6. “Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream,” a symposium sponsored by the Pachamama Alliance – http://www.awakeningthedreamer.org