A NEW BOOK! Margaret contributed a sermon to the new anthology, A Stranger and You Welcomed Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle B, ed. Jim Knipper. Other contributors include Nadia Boltz-Weber, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, and Mark Bozzuti-Jones. All proceeds from book sales go to groups that help immigrants, refugees, and those who are undocumented.
Author Archives: mbj
I put my trust in you“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” (Luke 1:38)
Friends, I want to tell an Advent story1 that took place fifteen years ago. In 2005, two massive hurricanes, strengthened by the unusually warm waters of the Gulf, slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi. Millions of Americans were forced from their homes; within hours, most of one city lay in ruins. Soon after Katrina, some members of the wonderful church I served, Grace Church in Amherst, began organizing a service trip to Mississippi. I was planning to go, but then I received an invitation to join a delegation of interfaith religious leaders at the upcoming United Nations’ climate change conference in Montreal.The trips overlapped, and I couldn’t take both. I decided to head to Montreal, since I wanted to urge world leaders to address global warming before it was too late. So, for several days in Advent I met with representatives of the World Council of Churches; I listened to speeches, wrote editorials, and marched with seven thousand people through the city streets. It was the most vigorous celebration of Advent I’d ever experienced, for the signs and banners sounded the urgent themes of the season: Now is the time to wake from sleep. Now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our lives, to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. That exuberant march was one of the gifts I received that Advent, a glimpse of the growing worldwide movement that draws upon humanity’s deepest reserves of hope. The other gift came as a surprise, when I was alone in my hotel. By then I was steeped in the stark reality of climate change. I had studied the aerial photographs of Mount Kilimanjaro without snow; listened to climate reports from the Arctic to Argentina; heard survivors of Katrina describe the vulnerability of the poor. As for my government, it seemed unable to take the issue seriously. After a restless night, I woke up gasping with sorrow and anger, needing badly to pray. I pulled a chair to the window and let my anguish spill out before God – grief for what is irreparably lost, rage at the inertia that kills with such abandon. I felt helpless. Dear Lord, what can I do? What can anyone do? Then I heard something. I put my trust in you. Startled, I opened my eyes and looked around. Who said that? I often say those words to God, but now the message seemed addressed to me. Its meaning was: Fear not. Keep going. I am with you. How bizarre. Was there some mistake? I had a choice: to accept or reject that assurance, to believe it or blow it off. What I heard came as a complete surprise, just as God’s message to Mary was surely a surprise: you will conceive by the Holy Spirit; your son will be the savior of the world. Absurd! Yet God’s hope for the future hung on Mary’s willingness to consent. Maybe it hangs on our willingness, too. Who knows how many messages God delivers daily to the countless faithful of every religion, and of none? Trust the good, wherever you find it. Trust the truth. Trust love. Trust yourself. Let my life be born in you. Who knows what power will be released in us when we dare to believe those unseen encounters that offer a word of love? Here on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we know that climate change is intensifying, causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms. We know that we endured a historic hurricane season in the Atlantic this year, with an unprecedented number of named storms and with Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota crashing one after another into Nicaragua and Honduras. We know that record concentrations of greenhouse gasses are filling the atmosphere and that 2020 is on track to be the hottest year on record. We know that we also face a host of other challenges, including protecting our democracy, establishing racial and economic justice, and solving the pandemic. But we know this, too: There is a love that wants to be born within us and among us, a love that knows no bounds. Right here, in the midst of our lives exactly as they are, Christ longs to be born again, perhaps at a deeper level than ever before. Christ yearns to make a home in you, in me, and in us all. The birth of that divine love is what will give us the strength and courage to meet whatever comes with creativity and clarity and kindness. Still, when love draws near, we may feel an urge to hold back. We may hesitate, wondering: “What will happen if I give myself fully to that love? What will I do? Who will I become?” We may say to ourselves, “Really, I do want God to come into my life, but let’s not get carried away! I’m kind of used to being who I am. There’s something to be said for staying in control. It’s risky to let go. I’m not sure. Let me get back to you.” Can you feel the pull between attraction and fear, between trust and hesitation? Like every love song, the love song between God and the soul is about longing and resistance, about desire and holding back. If we could put words to it, the conversation might go something like this. Here is a poem (“Covenant”) by Margaret Halaska, a Franciscan nun: The Father knocks at my door seeking a home for his son: Rent is cheap, I say. I don’t want to rent, I want to buy, says God. I’m not sure I want to sell, but you might come in to look around. I think I will, says God. I might let you have a room or two. I like it, says God. I’ll take the two. You might decide to give me more some day. I can wait, says God. I’d like to give you more, but it’s a bit difficult. I need some space for me. I know, says God, but I’ll wait. I like what I see. Hmm, maybe I can let you have another room. I really don’t need that much. Thanks, says God. I’ll take it. I like what I see. I’d like to give you the whole house but I’m not sure — Think on it, says God. I wouldn’t put you out. Your house would be mine and my son would live in it. You’d have more space than you’d ever had before. I don’t understand at all. I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that. You’ll have to discover it for yourself. That can only happen if you let him have the whole house. A bit risky, I say. Yes, says God, but try me. I’m not sure – I’ll let you know. I can wait, says God. I like what I see. You’ll notice that God does not force or compel, because that is not the language of love. God simply waits and longs and asks to draw close. When we dare to say Yes, Christ is born again. Two thousand years ago God entered human history and became one of us, one with us. God came then, and God comes now, because God longs to join us on our journey, in our daily life and relationships, in our pain and worry and hope. In these turbulent times, when so much hangs in the balance, will we consent to God’s birth within us? Like Mary, will we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”? I invite you to close your eyes and to join me in praying to the Holy Spirit: “Come. Come into my life, just as it is, and help me find my way to You. Help me step through my fear, my anxiety, my worry, my need to be in control. Help me find You in my ordinary, everyday living. I trust You more than I trust myself, and I thank you for your trust in me.” Amen. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________
- For a longer version of this story, see Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down: Meditations for Advent and Christmas (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), 54-60.
Invited to love’s banquet
Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast has been interpreted in all sorts of ways, some of them helpful – some, not so much. Over the years, commentators have interpreted the parable as an angry rebuke of the religious authorities who rejected Jesus; as an allegory to justify the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers in the year 70 C.E.; and as an account of why early Christian communities opened their doors to Gentiles as well as Jews. At their worst, interpretations of the parable smack of conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism; at their best – well, let’s give it a shot. What meaning can this parable have for us today? In particular, can it give us any spiritual guidance in these turbulent times?Let’s take it from the top. Once upon a time there was a king – a wise, all-powerful king who decided to hold a wedding banquet for his son. He got everything ready and prepared a feast of the finest foods. He sent out invitations to his chosen guests, saying “Everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:4). But the guests refused to come. Twice they were asked, and twice they turned him down. They “made light” of the invitation, the story tells us, and some “went away, one to his farm, another to his business” (Matthew 22:5), while the rest attacked and killed the messengers. When we read this through the lens of spiritual experience, what might this part of the story mean? What comes to my mind are all the times that I refuse those invitations to the feast. Too often I act like one of those guests who is handed a beautiful, hand-engraved wedding invitation: I cross my arms and say, “Nope; not interested.” Has this ever happened to you? Maybe you’re sitting indoors, and you’ve been inside all day, getting some work done, and you look up and notice that the sun is now low in the sky, casting a marvelous golden light across the purple underbelly of the clouds, and some part of you stares and says Oh! And you want to get up and gaze out the window for a while – or even step outside. But you don’t. Or maybe there’s a man with a loose gray coat and an unshaven face who is standing on the sidewalk where you just parked your car, and as you put a quarter in the meter, he mumbles a request: could you give him money to buy a cup of coffee? You look across the street and sure enough, there’s a coffee shop right there; even if you don’t want to give the man cash, you could perfectly well walk across the street and get him a cup of coffee. But you don’t. Or maybe you feel stressed and distracted, or maybe sad and discouraged, and you sense a deep tug to prayer. You know that new life will blossom in you only if you get yourself to sit down and pay attention to what is going on inside, only if you let yourself rest for a while in God’s embrace. But do you let yourself pause to take in that nourishment? You don’t. You’ve got other things to do – good things, important things. That inner tug can wait. If you ignore it long enough, maybe it will go away. Invitations to love’s banquet can take many forms, and they come not just once, but every day, and many times a day – maybe as an invitation to gaze at the beauty of the world, or as an invitation to be generous, or as an invitation to pause for a while to give the lover of our souls our full and undivided attention in prayer. Yet how easy it is to say No! I have a million excuses – I’m too busy, too focused on my own agenda, too scattered or overloaded to relinquish my worried, busy mind, to let my awareness open, and to drop down to my heart. That’s a loss, because deep at the center of our being is an unquenchable thirst for union with the divine. Deep in our guts, our bones, our very DNA, is an irrepressible yearning to move toward the Source of life, the All, the Ultimate, the Holy One. Call it what you will – human beings the world over, whatever their religion, share a desire for what one writer calls “the union on this earth and in this body of the human with the divine. This is the true spiritual marriage, the consummation of love that in one way or another is the aim of every ritual and every practice in every religion.”1 It’s no wonder that the Bible so often uses wedding imagery as a way to express the complete and intimate union of God and God’s people, or of God and the individual soul. Sometimes the Bible depicts the bridegroom as God; sometimes the bridegroom is Christ. Sometimes, as in this parable, we are invited to be guests at the wedding, and sometimes we ourselves are the bridegroom or we ourselves are the bride. Love poets and mystics know all about the ecstasy of spiritual marriage. Take, for instance, St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrated last week. Francis gazed deeply into the natural world as if into a mirror, and he saw reflected back to him the outpouring love of God. For him, God was not an entity “out there” – God was within him and around him; God infused and sustained and shone out from all things. Here is a little poem adapted from St. Francis:2 Such love does the sky now pour, that whenever I stand in a field, I have to wring out the light when I get home. The human longing for union with God is universal, but how quickly we repress it, ignore it, or push it away! Who knows why? Maybe we don’t want to feel our need and vulnerability; maybe we’re afraid to relinquish control; maybe we’re convinced we’re not good enough and we can’t possibly be loved that much. But if we keep pushing God away, if we keep shutting ourselves off from the invitation to love and to be loved, then before long we will start to experience God as the enemy, and that’s the next part of the parable: some guests mock the messengers and blow them off, and other guests seize, mistreat, and kill them. The text tells us that “the king was enraged” (Matthew 22:7). He sends in his troops, destroys the murderers, and burns their city down. As a spiritual story, this parable is quite accurate and exact: when we turn ourselves into the enemy of God, eventually we begin to experience God as an enemy. God has not changed, but we have – we have pushed God away and have deliberately alienated ourselves from the divine. Before any spiritual union can possibly take place, maybe that stubborn, resisting part of the self needs to be brought low and to fall away. All of us who at some point have made a mess of our lives, who have made terrible mistakes and headed too far down a willful, self-centered, and defiant path, know what that’s like. Sometimes the ego must be crucified before the soul can be born. Yet the invitation to love never ceases. In fact, it keeps getting wider, deeper, more expansive and more inclusive. There is no guest list now. The king’s love reaches out to everyone. The wedding is ready, he says; the feast is about to be served and the food is hot. He sends messengers into the streets to invite everyone to come, both good and bad, and they stream into the wedding hall until it is filled at last. If you read this as a story of the interior life, it seems that only now – after our pride and defiance have been humbled and brought low – only now can we understand that every part of ourselves is being invited to the feast, that everything in us that we have cast away, abandoned, and rejected is being invited into the presence of God to be welcomed and healed and made whole. Our whole selves are invited to the feast, and everybody else is invited with us. There is no need now to shrug hopelessly and to say that we have to settle for being alienated from each other, that we have keep living driven, restless, distracted lives, that we have to make peace with poverty, with racial injustice and economic injustice, that we have to condone destroying the earth and that we have to tolerate an endless succession of wars. Now we know the truth: we have been invited to feast at the table of divine life. We have been invited into the very heart of God, and in the strength of that divine presence we are sent out into the world to bear witness to God’s justice and mercy and love. The parable ends with the startling little story of the guest who comes to the feast with no wedding robe and is summarily bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness (Matthew 22:11-14). Maybe this is a reminder to stay humble: God loves us completely and invites everyone to the feast, but we have our own work to do: to clothe ourselves day by day with the intention to love. As St. Paul put it in Colossians, our job is to “[strip] off the old self with its practices and [to clothe ourselves] with the new self…” The passage continues: “As God’s chosen ones… clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and…forgive each other… Above all, clothe yourselves with love” (Colossians 3:9-10, 12-14). In short, we wear the right clothes to the wedding feast of life when we clothe ourselves with love. We are living through a time of extraordinary stress, a time in which each of us must clarify who we are and what we value. So, here is what I want to tell you. When love’s holy invitation comes, I want to say yes. When love calls me to marvel at the sunset, to stop and gape at the beauty of the world, I want to say yes. When love calls me to walk across the street to bring someone a cup of hot coffee and to add some honey to it, and some milk, as well, because that’s the way he says he likes it, I want to say yes. When the divine call comes to sit down in prayer and to give the lover of my soul my full and undivided attention, I want to say yes. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “When Death Comes,”3 When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. I want to say yes to life, yes to God, yes to the One in whose invisible, irresistible Presence we step fully into life, daring to connect deeply with ourselves and each other, refusing to be spectators, refusing to hold back, stepping out to create a world – and to fight for a world – in which everyone has a chance to experience how deeply God loves them. The banquet table is prepared, Jesus says to us. Will we come to the feast? I will give the last word to Rumi, a Sufi poet who ends one of his poems like this:4 On a day when the wind is perfect, the sail just needs to open and the love starts. Today is such a day. _______________________________________________________________ The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ. Her Website is RevivingCreation.org. 1. Roger Housden, For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics, (New York City: Hay House, Inc., 2009), xiii. 2. St. Francis of Assisi, “Wring Out My Clothes,” in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky (New York, Penguin Compass, 2002), 48. 3. Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 10. 4. Jalaludin Rumi, “On a Day When the Wind is Perfect,” in Love Poems from God, 80.
“Praying With Our Bodies”: A brief meditation (videotaped for American Climate Leadership Summit 2020, hosted by ecoAmerica) to ground us in love. Videography and background shakuhachi music by Robert A. Jonas. Filmed in Ashfield, MA.
Faith for the Earth: What will sustain us in the struggles ahead?
I’m imagining that many of you recognize this passage from the Song of Solomon, which is often read at weddings. The Song of Solomon – also known as the “Song of Songs” – is a collection of sensual poems between two lovers who delight in each other and who long to consummate their desire. It turns out that Christian mystics wrote about the Song of Songs more extensively than about any other book in the Bible, interpreting these poems as a passionate conversation between God and the soul.I’m drawn to this passage today because it’s tough to pay attention to what’s happening to Mother Earth and our fellow creatures, to our oceans, forests, and waterways, to the very air we breathe. As a species we are hurtling willy-nilly down a suicidal path that is bringing down human communities and the very web of life as it has evolved for millennia. What will sustain us in the struggles ahead? I hear an answer in these words: “Arise, my love… and come away.” In a challenging time, it is empowering to remember that God is a lover who is always reaching out to us, always speaking in our depths, always luring us to stay in relationship with each other, with Earth, and with God. For here is God, reaching out a hand to pull us into the dance of life. That’s one way that Christians understand the Holy Trinity: as a dance of love between the lover, the beloved, and the love that flows between (Augustine). “Come on in,” says God, “and join the dance!” “Arise, my love,” God says to our soul. “Arise and come away.” The inner voice of love is quiet. We hardly hear it amid the roar and bustle of the world. We hardly sense it when we’re gripped by worry, depression, or alarm. That’s why many of us reclaim a practice of prayer: we know we will hear the inner voice of love only if we practice stillness, only if we regularly set aside some time in solitude to steady our minds and to listen in silence for the love of God that is always singing in our hearts. As our minds grow quiet and as our stillness grows, a holy Someone – capital S – beckons to us in the silence: “Arise, my love… and come away.” It’s the voice of Jesus, the voice of Spirit, the voice of God. “Arise, my love.” From what do you need to arise? Maybe the Spirit is saying: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from the agitation that holds you in its grip. Arise from hopelessness, for I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness, for I am with you, and I love you. You are my love, says the Spirit. I see your beauty, your intelligence, courage, and resolve, and you are precious in my sight. Arise and come away – away from the cult of death, away from the path of destruction, away from the lie that your efforts to protect life are useless. Come with me and join in the dance of life. Come be a sacred warrior, a warrior for the common good. I will help you find your place in the great struggle to protect life and to build a more just society. “But,” we may protest, feeling helpless before the horrors of the world, helpless before its injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power.” Arise. “What can I do? What can any of us do? It is too late to make a difference!” Arise. “I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to deal with.” Arise. The voice of love is like that, right? It may be soft and hard to hear in a noisy world, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it never goes away. The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that is awakening our hearts – that holy love sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, warriors for truth, and protectors of life. I may have a thousand and one reasons to dodge love’s call, but then it comes again, that voice: Arise. I love you. I need you. I am calling from the trees, from the wind, from the very stones beneath your feet. I am calling from the orcas and the salmon, from the black bear and the mountains, from the fig trees and the vines. I am calling from the strangers who are not really strangers, but brothers and sisters, siblings you don’t yet recognize, those who are suffering right now from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from the men, women and children who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world. Arise, my love, and join the effort to save our precious planet. Arise! When we stand in the holy presence of God, we are given fresh strength to renew the face of the Earth. And we arise, joining with indigenous leaders to protect the water and the land, joining with activists to stop new pipelines, joining with city-dwellers to renew crumbling communities beset by poverty and racism, joining with young and old to plant new forests. We cast our lot with people of faith and spirit who have been awakened – as we have been awakened – by a fierce longing to join the dance of life. What does it look like when we join God’s dance of life? Maybe we cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels. Maybe we eat local, eat organic, and move to a plant-based diet – for eating less meat turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. Maybe we start a compost pile, visit a farmer’s market, support our local land trust, or have a friendly, socially distanced chat with a neighbor we’ve never met before. We need to build up our local communities and to live in ways that are closer to the earth, more life enhancing, more about sharing than consuming, more about self-restraint than self-aggrandizement, more about generosity than fearful survivalism, so that we can take care of each other when the hard times come. There are some very useful Websites that show us how to cut back on our use of fossil fuels, such as LivingTheChange.net and WeRenew.net. Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change, too. So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to hold Big Polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused (and continue to cause). We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. If our religious institutions haven’t yet divested from fossil fuels, we can urge them to do so – just last week the Vatican urged all Catholics to divest from fossil fuels. Maybe we can join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line. Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, inclusive, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen. What will sustain us in the struggles ahead? The love of God, the power of community, and the resolve to join together to heal and serve and reconcile. In whatever ways we step out to join the dance of life, we will take risks we never imagined we would take. We will connect with people we never imagined we would meet. And we will make more of a difference than we will ever know. I give thanks for the ways that the Spirit is speaking in our hearts right now and for the ways that you are already responding to its call: “Arise, my love… and come away.”
Faith for the Earth: What are we longing for?
What do you long for most?What is most precious to you? What do you want more than anything else? To some Christians these may be surprising questions, since many of us associate our faith with self-denial rather than desire. But when two disciples of John the Baptist are curious about Jesus and start to follow him, Jesus doesn’t turn around and deliver a lecture or a teaching; he doesn’t give advice or moral counsel. Instead, he asks a question – an essential and revealing question: What are you looking for? What do you seek? What do you really want? This is a piercing question, especially for all of us who live in an addictive society that is quick to tell us what we want. You’ve probably noticed that if we don’t know what we truly want, our desires are likely to get hijacked by what the culture around us tells us to want. I remember driving one day and seeing an advertisement on the back of a truck up ahead. I could just make out the headline, which declared in big letters, “What you are looking for.” I took the bait. I said to myself: Alright, what do you think I’m looking for? I drove a little faster and pulled up behind the truck, and there it was: a picture of a woman lounging comfortably with a cigarette between her lips. A cigarette was what I must be looking for. And, if not a cigarette, how about a car or the latest gadget or the newest fashion or the up-to-the-minute app? Whatever you’re looking for, we’ve got it. We’ll sell it to you. The purpose of advertising is not just to sell a particular product but to create a climate of craving, so that we devote our best energies to buying and selling, to the endless process of acquiring, discarding, updating, and accumulating. Of course, there are material things that we need to survive and thrive, but we live in a throwaway culture that is based on the perpetual expansion of markets, the boundless consumption of resources, and the relentless burning of fossil fuels. No wonder Earth is groaning beneath the burden of human wants – while human need grows exponentially. What are we longing for? What do we seek? What do we really want? These questions require honest self-examination. You could say that they come with a shovel, because when we’re fired up by questions like these, we carry out an archaeology of our motives and desires and dig down deep to discover the bedrock of what we truly want. What truly will make us happy? What truly will fulfill our restless cravings and set our hearts at rest? After we have sorted through our lesser wants, what we may discover is that deep down what we want is to be fully alive. Deep down we want to love and to be loved, to know and to be known, and to draw close to the holy Source of love. Deep down we want our lives to be about something much larger than ourselves and our endless, insatiable striving and self-promotion. We want our lives to have a creative purpose and meaning, and we want to be a blessing to other people. Knowing and claiming our heart’s desire is like having a compass in our pocket. It is like having the North Star overhead, to guide our way. When we know our heart’s desire, in every moment we have a dependable indicator that helps point the way to wise action and loving speech. Moment to moment, in everything we do, in every situation we encounter, we can ask ourselves: How do I meet this situation in a way that taps my creativity and resonates with my deepest desire and highest purpose? What can I say in this moment, what can I do in this moment that will let that deep intention be more fully expressed? The more completely our lives align with what we value most, the more inner peace and stability we will feel, no matter what our outer circumstances may be. I assure you, when you are lit with creativity, curiosity, compassion and love, you will light up other people’s lives! As I speak these words, we are hurtling toward a future in which all of us will live on a harsher, hotter, and more turbulent planet than the one into which we were born. As Bill McKibben succinctly puts it, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen… We’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet.”1 Already we are experiencing massive droughts and floods, extreme storms and wildfires, and millions of people are already on the move, looking for a safer place to raise their families. A warming climate is the perfect breeding ground for the spread of tropical diseases and pandemics. And because climate change is a so-called “threat multiplier,” we can expect an increasing push toward conflict and war as regions and nations struggle over scarce resources. How do we prepare for adversity? Here’s one answer: We find out what we really value, what we really long for, and what kind of world we want to create. We find our moral compass, our own North Star, and we set our course accordingly. We join hands with other people who want to cast their lot with love and justice and compassion. One of the people we interviewed for our book, Rooted and Rising, was Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. He’s the President and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus, which is a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that engages young people and communities of color in the political process and that has registered tens of thousands of young voters to the polls. Rev Yearwood is giving his life to the struggle for racial, economic, and environmental justice. Like so many other people, he is dedicated to a possibility that can seem impossibly out of reach. I asked him where he turns for strength when he feels discouraged or overwhelmed, and here is part of his reply. He said: “You have to believe in something outside yourself. You have to find your anchor. For me, it’s God and Christianity, but you’ve got to find your own anchor. If you don’t, you will be blown away. You can’t do activism without an anchor. You can’t do activism without faith or some form of belief – maybe a belief in the future, or in children. It’s great if you have a faith tradition, because there are pieces there that you can hold on to, such as a sacred text, poetry, music – all kinds of things that can inspire you. But you need to have something.”2 He went on to say, “I’m anchored. I’m anchored in my tradition as a person of color, knowing that the people before me had to fight so hard to overcome slavery, to overcome the injustice of Jim Crow, to overcome acts of voter suppression. I’m in a tradition of waking up with those who have already fought. And then, as a person of faith and a minister, I link to this tradition of faith so that whatever I do, my steps are ordered. I know that God is leading me on the right path of fighting for other people, not just for myself. I’m fighting for God’s children and for God’s planet. That allows me to continue and sometimes to do remarkable things with other people….”3 Those are the words of someone who has found his heart’s desire – someone who knows that in this time of multiple emergencies, we need healers and justice-seekers, people who will stand up and cast their lot with life and do justly, now. And love mercy, now. And walk humbly, now. If God were to whisper in your ear, “This is why I sent you here. This is what I sent you to do,” what would God say next? Find out. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010), xiii and book jacket. 2. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., “Interview,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham. MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 99. 3. Ibid.
Faith for the Earth: Who do we think we are?
In a time that is so precarious and uncertain, I think it’s worthwhile to go back to basics and to claim the deep wisdom of our different faith traditions. Who do we think we are? That’s the question I’d like to reflect on this morning. Every religious tradition has its own ways of answering that question, its own ceremonies and celebrations to help its members remember what it means to be a human being. For Christians, the ceremony of baptism has a crucial role to play in revealing our human identity and vocation.The passage we just heard is one of the essential, not-to-be-missed stories of Christian faith, a story that is told or referred to in all four Gospels, and it’s the very first story about Jesus in the very earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan was clearly a decisive experience, a pivotal event that revealed who he was and launched his public ministry. When Jesus was baptized, he accepted the identity that had been his since before time began: He was, and had always been, the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one could take that love away. Following Jesus, Christians of every denomination consider baptism a basic practice of our tradition, although not all of us take a plunge into a river or another body of water – many of us get only a small splash at a font inside a church. Still, however the ceremony is carried out, we believe that what happened to Jesus in his baptism can happen to us in ours, if we desire to be awakened to the divine within. From that moment and for the rest of our lives, we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable, unshakable relationship of love. Do you ever wonder who you are, who you really are, deep down? Today’s Gospel story gives the answer. Without doing a thing to earn it or deserve it, you are the son, you are the daughter, you are the beloved of God – you are the one with whom God is well pleased. Of course, every day we can have doubts about ourselves and wonder whether we’re good enough, smart enough – beautiful, handsome, or successful enough. But we have a deeper identity that we can claim. Those who follow the Abrahamic traditions believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, which means that deep within our everyday self, we have an eternal Self that is always embraced by our loving God. Wherever you go, whatever you do, wherever the Spirit sends you, the divine life is flowing through you, as close as your breath, as close as your heartbeat. You and I belong to the eternal Divine forever, and love is our essential nature. I don’t know about you, but I find it deeply consoling to hold on to this truth right now, when so many of us feel stressed, scattered, anxious or depressed. We live in a turbulent time, and the world is rapidly changing. Sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, and it’s easy to feel unmoored, ungrounded, and afraid. What a perfect moment to remind ourselves of our eternal Self (capital S) and to touch in again to the deep truth that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, and that at this very moment nothing can separate us from the love of God (Roman 8:35-39). Here’s the thing: the love that is awakened within us through baptism or other rituals, the love that flows through us with our every breath – that love extends not only to us or to people like us, but also to the whole human family – in fact, it extends to the whole Creation. Scripture tells us so – we see this message and promise in Genesis and the psalms, in the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul.1 God’s love is boundless and sustains all things. We don’t have to be mystics to “get” this, for we glimpse that truth in our own experience. Anyone who has ever been amazed by the beauty of the world – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf, or gazing at a mountain, or looking at the stars at night knows what it’s like to feel a wave of wonder, humility, gratefulness and awe. We meet God when we open our eyes and hearts to the natural world. When we spend time outside, God invites us to slow down, look carefully, and greet our other-than-human kin. We belong to each other; we were created by the same divine Source of love. I think that Jesus knew this, for he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospel stories we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. In today’s story, he’s immersed in a river! Jesus’ parables and stories are full of nature, full of seeds and sheep, lilies and sparrows, vines and rocks, storms and sunsets. It seems to me that Jesus recognized the inherent sacredness of the created world. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God. Jesus knew what the psalms proclaim – the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it (Psalm 24). He knew what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” We’ve been keeping company this week with an image of St. Francis of Assisi that was painted by artist Nancy Earle. St. Francis is often called the patron saint of ecology, and I’m told that his go-to prayer was to sit in silence, exploring the question, “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Pray that prayer for a while and see what happens! Maybe we’ll discover that our identity doesn’t stop with our skin! It turns out that our boundaries are porous and permeable and include much more than our individual selves. In this image, Francis is so aware of the give-and-take between himself and other creatures, so aware of his inter-relationship with everything else, so aware of what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” that his very body includes moon and wind, water and fire, wolf and turtle and whale. Francis experienced all of God’s Creation as kin – hence he could say Brother Sun and Sister Moon. It is easy to romanticize or sentimentalize St. Francis, but in an increasingly degraded natural world, what would it mean to take our place as humans who experience this kind of intimate connection with wolf and wind and whale? Christians plunged (or dipped) in the waters of baptism learn that we are part of a living, sacred whole. Other faith traditions, especially indigenous religions, have their own ways to remind humans beings that we belong to land and sea and sky, to other animals, and to the Spirit that created us all. What would it feel like to inhabit the world in this way? To quote Douglas E. Christie, what would it feel like “to relinquish the habitual tendency to stand against the world, to see the world as somehow existing outside of or beyond oneself, and instead allow oneself to become immersed in the world, suffused with its life and spirit?”2 Would we live more gently? Would we treat each other more kindly – not because we want to be “nice people” but because we know in our bones that those other people – whatever their race or religion or political affiliation or class – are truly our siblings and part of our family? Would we think twice before cutting down a tree? And, because we have fallen in love with life and with the God who loved this world into being, would we be appalled by governments and 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 protect clean air and water and the stability of our global climate? Impelled by our faith in the living God and by our loving solidarity with all of life, would we pray and protest, resist and organize? Who do we think we are? As I see it, we humans are on a long journey back to understanding that we are more than isolated individuals, more than consumers or dog-eat-dog competitors: we are intimately and deep-down connected with God, with each other, and with Earth. In a time when Earth’s life-systems are failing, our task is to find our way back to union with God and God’s Creation; to reclaim the ancient Judeo-Christian understanding that the natural world is sacred, that it “belongs to” God and is filled with God; and to renew our partnership with our human kin and the other beings with whom we are blessed to share this planet. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. See, for instance, Gen. 1:31; Gen. 9:8-10, 15; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 24:1; John 3:16; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 1:10, 4:9-10; Col. 1:19-20. 2. Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 232.
Faith for the Earth: What is breaking our hearts?
We spoke yesterday about God inviting us to listen deeply, especially to voices that have long been silenced or ignored – to the voices of the poor, the voices of black and brown and indigenous peoples, and to the voices rising from the living Earth itself – for if we listen with the ear of the heart, surely we can hear, as the prophet Hosea puts it in today’s reading, that the land itself is mourning, “and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.”How do we pray with all this? How do we pray with the things that are breaking our hearts – the dying coral and acidifying oceans, the animals that are leaving us, and the web of life that is unraveling before our lives? Scientists say that unless we change our way of living fast, entire eco-systems could begin to collapse, starting in the next ten years. What do we do with this information? Do we shrug it off (I can’t deal with that! That’s someone else’s problem!)? Do we shut down inside, go numb and slip into despair? It’s difficult to face the predicament in which we find ourselves, and our culture gives us endless opportunities to turn away and distract ourselves with mindless consumption and entertainment. Still, I don’t think any of us have found that shopping or snacking or swilling alcohol can ease the anguish we feel inside. In my view, one essential remedy is prayer. Bold action is urgent and necessary, but action alone won’t give us the strength or wisdom to sustain the hard struggles ahead. And if Hosea got it right – if what’s ultimately wrong with the world is that there is “no knowledge of God in the land,” if he’s right that the ultimate source of our troubles is spiritual disconnection – then surely part of the remedy is prayer. For, as Hosea says, when there is “no knowledge of God,” then “swearing, lying, and murder” break out among human beings – “bloodshed follows bloodshed” – and the land mourns, and wild creatures languish and perish. Hosea understands that a broken relationship with God leads to a broken relationship with each other and with the Earth. If we abandon the love and justice of God and get locked into patterns of abusing each other and abusing the land, the remedy is repentance and amendment of life. The remedy is to dismantle the systems that exploit people and the planet. The remedy is to restore our connection to God, to our souls, to each other, and to the Earth upon which all life depends. So I’m all in with Hosea. The climate crisis is not just a scientific or political or economic crisis – it’s also a spiritual crisis, one that summons us to do everything we can to restore within ourselves – and to encourage in our communities – a lively, vital relationship with our divine Source who brings courage where there is despair, love where there is hate, and inspiration when a path forward is hard to see. In these challenging times, we need spiritual resilience. We need to connect with the divine lover of our souls. We need to root ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power so that we can rise up to take effective action. Last year, a book I co-edited with a friend of mine, Leah Schade, was published. It’s an anthology of essays by 21 colleagues in the faith-and-climate movement who speak about the spiritual practices and perspectives that sustain us as we work to create a more just and sustainable future. The book is titled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and I’d like to read a short excerpt from my chapter, for it’s all about prayer.1 In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief? How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb? …It’s important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. Just as important, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency. Prayerful lament and protest can be an act of resistance, a way of shaking off the dominant consumer culture, which prefers that we stay too busy, dazed, and distracted to feel a thing. My prayer takes many forms. Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty. They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees. Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.2 Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines. Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose. I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species. I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests. I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part. I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation. I feel God’s presence when I pray like that. I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me. Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love. What kinds of prayer restore your connection with God? These days many people across the country are praying in the streets, propelled by love and a fierce need for public mourning and public lament.3 Some people are praying alone in their rooms and in silence, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, listening to their breath as they breathe God in and breathe God out. Some people find that music helps them pray, and I commend a new piece called “A Passion for the Planet,” a climate oratorio composed by Geoffrey Hudson, which, broadcast free on the internet, in less than one hour carries the listener through the wide range of feelings evoked by the climate crisis. That can be another way to pray. I encourage all of us to pray, to find ways, as Hosea might put it, to restore knowledge of God in the land. Prayer is what leads us, alone and together, into an unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death. Trusting in that love, guided by that love, we will know what is ours to do and, God willing, may be led to take actions commensurate with the emergency we are in. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Love Every Leaf,” Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 175-76. 2. “We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018. 3. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Accepting Death is Not an Option, Anymore,” a sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, June 14, 2020
Faith for the Earth: Are we listening?
Our text this morning is the well-known story of the call of Samuel. Samuel will go on to become one of the great prophets of Israel – a prophet not in the sense of being a fortune-teller who claims to predict the future, but rather a prophet in the sense of being someone so deeply rooted in the love and justice of God that he or she views the world with moral clarity, speaks out against an unjust status quo, and holds up God’s vision of what could be and should be. I chose this passage because in a sense all of us are called today to become prophets: all of us are called to root ourselves in the love and justice of God, to face and confront the ways in which we and our society have gone astray, and to find ways to proclaim and to bring forth God’s dream of a world in which all people and living beings can thrive. That’s what a prophet does, and God knows we need prophetic voices today in this time of social and ecological emergency.Scientists are telling us that we are at the brink of catastrophe: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We need to make a decisive change of course toward clean, renewable sources of energy. We need to protect forests and topsoil, rivers and oceans, pollinators and the other living creatures with whom we share this planet, to say nothing of the eco-systems upon which all life depends. And we must do this quickly and notwithstanding the opposition of political and corporate powers that are determined to keep drilling, burning, mining, and extracting for as long as they can – to keep plundering and profiting, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. The task before us is daunting, and it brings us to our knees. This is a holy moment, a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning. Will we as a society choose life or will we continue on the path of business as usual, a path that leads to death? At this crossroads, at this moment that is pregnant with both danger and possibility, we must call upon the power of God. For, surely, we need a power beyond ourselves to help us in this grave hour of need. We need a source of holy strength and guidance to give us wisdom and courage and stamina to find a way forward. Yes, we need good policies, we need good legislation and God knows we need good leaders, but we also need to tune our hearts and minds to the divine presence so that we can learn what to do and find the strength to do it. Today and in each of my homilies this week I’d like to reflect with you on some of the spiritual perspectives and practices which, in this perilous time, can keep us grounded in God’s presence. So, let’s say a word about listening. That’s where the call of the prophet Samuel begins: with listening. Samuel grew up in a time when God seemed remote and uncommunicative. As the passage says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1). Yet the story tells us that Samuel’s ears are open, and one night, as he is lying down in the temple, he hears God call him by name – and not just once, but three times. After Eli, the priest whom Samuel is serving, explains that it is God who is addressing him, Samuel responds, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” One of the core characteristics of a prophet is the willingness to listen. Are we listening? To what and to whom are we listening? What is the quality of our listening? It’s easy to listen with half an ear, to look as if we’re paying attention when someone speaks, while actually we’re busy composing our reply. It’s also easy to plant ourselves at the center of what we’re hearing, so that we only listen for confirmation of what we already believe and only for what might be useful to us – never mind the rest. And if I hear something that makes me uncomfortable or that I don’t want to hear, I’m outta here. If the speaker belongs to a different political party, I’m outta here. If the speaker is of a different color or religion, I’m outta here. So many opportunities to close our ears! I’m tuning you out! I was interested to note that when the lockdown began, many people reported a change in what they heard. City-dwellers were startled by the quiet as traffic abated and as fewer airplanes passed overhead. People heard birdsong, they heard sirens, and in New York City they heard the banging of pots and pans every night as people celebrated healthcare workers. The sounds changed, and people noticed. They listened. And after George Floyd died and howls of pain and shouts of anger rose up from Black communities, and the cry rose up again that Black Lives Matter, millions of people listened. Millions of white people listened. Surely, we had heard that cry of pain many times before – it’s a cry that has been lifted up for generations, for hundreds of years, in the face of racism – but we white people have hardly listened. Because of what Richard Rohr calls “the unspoken privilege of being white,” we have generally turned away. But not this time – this time, at least for now, it seems that many white people have actually begun to listen – not only to the words, but also to the pain and longing behind the words. When you listen with respect, when you listen with an open heart, when you listen with empathy and an intention to understand – then you are moved to respond. Listening leads to action, and across this country we’re now seeing an unprecedented, multiracial, multigenerational, multisector upsurge against racism. I pray that such listening and responding will deepen and continue in the years ahead. And how about the Earth? Are we listening to her cries? Just as there is the unspoken privilege of being white, I think there is also the unspoken privilege of being human – a privilege that we like to think exempts us from having to listen to what Scripture calls the “groaning” of “the whole creation” (Romans 8:22). What would it be like to step outdoors and to listen with full attention? What would we hear? The sound of wind, a dog’s bark, a car passing, birds? With the ear of the heart, would we notice the silence of all the birds that have gone missing? Three billion birds have disappeared in the last 50 years. With the ear of the heart, might we hear the sound of heavy machinery and chainsaws as tropical forests are felled for beef cattle and palm oil? Might we hear the noise that fills the oceans as energy companies deploy seismic air guns to map the ocean floor for oil and gas? The din in the oceans caused by commerce and offshore drilling is deafening and even outright killing countless sea creatures, large and small. Can we hear it? With the ear of the heart, might we hear the boom and crack of glaciers as chunks of ice fall into the sea, or the whoosh of rushing water as rivers of ice slide off the Greenland Ice sheet? Last year, Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in a single day. Can we hear it? Are we listening? A few years ago, I heard a man from Greenland speak. He’s a shaman, a traditional healer and storyteller whose name I can’t pronounce: Angaangaq Angakkorsuak. He tells the story of journeying to the United Nations some years ago to warn the gathered assembly that the Big Ice is melting. He came home pleased – he had done it! He had addressed the world’s leaders and shared this urgent news! His friends replied, “But did they hear you? Did they hear you?” Are we listening? A prophet listens deeply to what Pope Francis and liberation theologians call “the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor.” I invite us to take as a mantra the words of Samuel and to repeat the phrase inwardly as we go through our day: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” We are listening. We are listening.