A presentation by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Creation Justice Ministries on March 24, 2022. Facilitated by Avery Davis Lamb, Co-Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries, this online workshop was part of CJM’s ongoing exploration of how the church might become a hub of resilience in the midst of the spiritual and physical storms of the climate crisis. A recording of this conversation, along with CJM’s other workshops on climate resilience, is available on their YouTube channelA PDF is available for download.

Let’s begin by taking a quick pulse.

 

    • How many of you have heard a sermon about the climate emergency and our moral obligation as Christians to tackle it? Please raise your hand.
    • How many of you preachers – lay or ordained – have preached a sermon about the climate emergency and our moral obligation as Christians to tackle it?
    • How many of you preachers intend to preach a climate sermon sometime soon, and how many of you non-preachers will give them your full support when they do?

I hope everybody’s hands went up that time!

For a while now I’ve been traveling around, preaching about climate change, and you’d be amazed how many times I’ve asked a group of parishioners whether they’ve ever heard a sermon about climate change, and no one raises a hand. So, let’s talk about preaching resilience and cultivating climate justice from the pulpit.

I want to be real. I want to acknowledge right off the bat that it can be hard to preach about climate emergency. Preaching of any kind is challenging but preaching about climate emergency is especially difficult. Why is that? What are we afraid of?1

Maybe we fear being ill-informed (I don’t know enough science).

Maybe we fear provoking division in the congregation (Climate change is too political).

Maybe we fear stressing out our listeners (Daily life is hard enough; why add to their worries?).

Maybe we fear our parishioners won’t be able to handle the bad news (If I do mention climate change, I’d better tone it down and underplay the dire science).

Maybe we fear that climate preaching is not pastoral (People come to church for solace, not to get depressed).

Besides, we may tell ourselves, preaching about climate change should be someone else’s responsibility (Climate change isn’t really “my” issue; someone else should deal with it).

A preacher’s fears may cut close to home (I could lose pledges; I could even lose my job).

And climate preaching may require a painful and very personal reckoning with oneself that the preacher would prefer to avoid (How do I preach resurrection when watching the web of life unravel before my eyes fills me with despair?)

Reckoning with ourselves may also be difficult as we admit our own complicity and consumerism. Years ago, a friend of mine, a suburban priest in a wealthy parish, confessed to me, “How can I preach about climate change when I drive an SUV?”

No wonder so many preachers delay addressing the climate crisis – most of us weren’t trained for this, we don’t want to stir up trouble, and we face an array of fears. As a result, many of us kick the can down the road, perhaps waiting until the lectionary provides the supposedly “perfect” text.

Well, I think it’s fair to say that the time for shyness about preaching on climate change has long since passed. It’s high time for us preachers to overcome our fears and step into the pulpit to preach a bold message of Gospel truth and Gospel hope, because climate change is bearing down on us fast. The winds of war are howling.  We live amidst a war against Ukraine that is underwritten by oil and gas, and a relentless war against Earth herself as coal, gas, and oil continue to be extracted and burned.  This week the U.N. Secretary General warned that the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is “on life-support.”2  He went on to say: “Last year alone, global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 6% to their highest levels in history. Coal emissions have surged to record highs. We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe. Our planet has already warmed by as much as 1.2 degrees, and we see the devastating consequences everywhere. … If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach.”

So, do we need to preach and practice resilience? You bet we do. Do we need to wake up and quit sleepwalking? You bet we do. For a long time, we may have been sitting on the sidelines, telling ourselves: Things aren’t that bad. The scientists are exaggerating. Or: If I don’t pay attention, it will go away. But eventually our efforts to ignore the reality of a rapidly changing climate can’t help but fall apart. One too many reports of melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs, one too many accounts of withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, one too many stories of massive downpours and flash flooding, one too many experiences of devastating wildfires and record heatwaves, and it becomes impossible to suppress awareness of the climate crisis. Our defenses crumble. And we experience what journalist Mark Hertsgaard calls the “Oh, shit” moment we all must have. Climate change is real. It’s here. It’s accelerating.

The truth is that if we keep burning fossil fuels and stick to business as usual, by the end of century, average global temperature will rise 4.2 degrees Celsius (= 7.6 degrees F). Human beings simply can’t adapt to a world that hot.

And let’s not forget that, depending on their social location – on their race and class – people experience ecological breakdown differently. As the saying goes: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.” Low-income and low-wealth communities, racial minorities, and the historically underserved are those hurt first and worst by a changing climate, those least able to adapt, and those least likely to have a seat at the table where decisions are made.

Oh, shit.

This is where preachers have an essential role to play.  This is where preaching resilience, preaching justice, preaching faithfulness to the crucified and risen Christ becomes crucial.  Why?  Because the more that people know about the social and ecological breakdown going on worldwide – and the more they experience it directly, in their own lives – the more they may feel overwhelmed, hopeless, or depressed.  That’s why a message of urgency needs to be accompanied by a message of agency, a message of empowerment and strength: God is with us, we’re not alone, and there’s a lot we can do.

Here are nine things I try to do when preaching on climate.

  1. Push back against helplessness

That’s one of the main functions of good climate preaching: push back against helplessness. Your parishioners might not have mentioned it to you, but it’s likely that many of them are grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. A national survey recently conducted by Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reports that seven in ten Americans (70%) say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming and that one in three (35%) are “very worried” about it – numbers that have reached a record high.3  It can be a relief when a preacher finally names and addresses their fears, makes climate change “speakable,” and pushes back against the helplessness and “doomism” that suck our spirits dry. That’s why preaching about climate emergency can be deeply pastoral, an act of kindness to your congregation.

Simply gathering for worship can also push back against helplessness: we see each other’s face, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands.  How do people get through tough times?  We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories, we raise our spirits together.  We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world.  Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

  1. Enable people to face hard facts

Like all spiritual seekers, Christians are committed to the search for truth, to cutting through fantasy and self-deception. So, in my sermons I share some facts about climate science. As climate preachers we need to know the basics: climate change is real, it’s largely caused by human activity, it’s gotten worse in recent decades, and it will have disastrous effects unless humanity changes course fast. Basic information is available from many sources, such as NASA or reputable environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council.4 For up-to-date climate information, I subscribe to daily news from Climate Nexus.5

So – we share some science, but we don’t have to worry that we need to be a scientist. In preaching, I keep my science comments short, brisk, and sober. To summarize the big-picture effects of a changing climate, I often quote a couple of sentences by Bill McKibben from his book, Eaarth: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”6 Then I cite specific examples that resonate most strongly with the local congregation. In California, I mentioned drought, wildfire, and mudslides; on Cape Cod, I mentioned rising and acidifying seas, and threats to fishing and groundwater.

When so much misinformation is being spread and funded by fossil fuel corporations and by the politicians in their pockets, faith leaders need to be resolute in speaking hard truths. A religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is surely a religion that can face painful facts.

 

 

  1. Offer a positive vision of the future

Climate science has done its job, reporting on the catastrophic effects of burning fossil fuels. But facts aren’t enough to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal and purpose and values. That’s what preachers do: we lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” How do you build resilience? By lifting up God’s vision of a Beloved Community and by inviting everyone to join God’s mission of reconciling us to God, each other, and the whole Creation.  This is the mission that Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ.

  1. Explore ethical questions and provide a moral framework

The climate crisis forces upon us existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life.  What is our moral responsibility to future generations?  What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet?  How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that arise with this awareness?  Are we willing to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste?  What does a “good” life look like, once we know the deadly consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of an inherently unsustainable, extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?

Such questions may hover in the background or roar to the foreground. Congregations provide a context for grappling with these questions, and preachers can offer moral grounding and guidance, reminding their listeners of such old-fashioned values as compassion and generosity, self-control and selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.

  1. Encourage reconciliation

Climate change has become a deeply divisive political issue – so polarizing that people may fear to mention the subject to family members, co-workers, and friends. Sermons can open a space for conversation, and congregations can follow up by providing settings for difficult conversations and active listening.  If we can express compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, we can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that otherwise might not exist.

Jim Antal points out in his seminal book, Climate Church, Climate World, that “truth and reconciliation” groups could be modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after the abolition of apartheid.  Antal writes: “Initiating Truth and Reconciliation Conversations could well be the most important contribution of the church to creating a world able to undergo the great transition we are now beginning.  For many generations we have sought to conquer, dominate, and exploit nature.  Now we must seek intergenerational and cross-species atonement. It seems to me that if the church, the synagogue, and the mosque are to offer meaningful hope in the years ahead, they must host such personal and communal, transparent and sacred conversations.”7

  1. Provide opportunities for emotional response

The climate crisis can make us go numb.  Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that died in less than two months?  What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct?  It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death.  How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it?  How do we move beyond despair?

Preachers can offer practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change.  We can create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we can hold public ceremonies outdoors.  Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change.  Some were held after environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; others were held before significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C., and the U.N. climate talks in Paris.  Preachers and congregations can create public spaces for expressing grief, naming hopes, and touching our deep longing for healing and reconciliation.  We can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. Our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.

  1. Build hope by taking action

How do we maintain hope?  That’s a question many contributors address in the anthology I co-edited with Leah Schade, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. One author, Tim DeChristopher, is a Unitarian Universalist who spent two years in federal prison after disrupting an oil and gas auction in Utah. When someone asks him, “What gives you hope?” Tim replies, “How can anything ‘give’ me hope?” He writes: “Hope is inseparable from our own actions.  [Hope] isn’t given; it’s grown. Waiting to act on climate change until we have hope is like waiting to pick up a shovel until we build callouses on our hands.  The hope never arrives until we get to work.”8

In my climate sermons I include suggestions for action, such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, protecting forests, and planting trees. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and they help to propel social change.  Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. As environmental justice activist, Mary Annaise Heglar, puts it: “I don’t care if you recycle. Stop obsessing over your environmental ‘sins.’ Fight the oil and gas industry instead.”9

So, in my sermons I encourage parishioners not only to live more lightly on Earth but also to use their voices and votes to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to push banks to stop financing fossil fuel projects.  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, and the needs of workers in the fossil fuel industries as we transition to a clean energy economy. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. We can support 350.org, ThirdAct.org (a new climate action group led by Bill McKibben for people over 60), Sunrise Movement (a climate action group led by people under 30), Extinction Rebellion, and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. We can put our bodies on the line and risk arrest in non-violent resistance to fossil fuels. By inspiring significant action, preachers can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of apathy and inaction.

  1. Deepen reverence for nature

Our society treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, and preachers can call us to reclaim the sacredness of Earth. After all, nature is a place where humans have always encountered God – so say generations of mystics and theologians, including Moses, Jesus, and St. Paul (Romans 1:20). As poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.

So, in addition to preaching reverence for God’s creation, maybe we can plant a community garden in the vacant lot behind our church.  Maybe we can support land trusts to preserve farms, woods, and open space; maybe we can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; maybe we can sponsor retreats, hikes, and worship services that explore the wonders of Creation. Step by step we can begin to reclaim what traditional indigenous societies have never forgotten: the land itself is sacred. Discovering this for ourselves will affect our behavior: we only fight to save what we love.

Which brings me to my final aim in preaching:

  1. Encourage love

Cultivate love. That really should be Point #1! Whenever I preach, I try to evoke the presence of a God who loves us beyond measure, a God who heals and redeems, who liberates and forgives. I preach about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us. I preach about a God who understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed; a God, in the words of Peter Sawtell, who calls us “to active resistance, not to quiet acceptance.”10 I preach about a God who knows our guilt and complicity in that destruction and who gives us power to amend our lives. I preach about a God who longs to create a Beloved Community that includes all beings, not just human beings. I preach about a God who sets us free from the fear of death and who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.

When we deliver a strong climate sermon and we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re like the boy in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-14): we put our words in Jesus’ hands.  Through his grace and power, maybe our small offering will become a catalyst that enables a crowd to be fed. Maybe our words, like those of Ezekiel, will be infused with Spirit-power to enliven that valley of dead, dry bones and breathe life into a multitude (Ez. 37:1-14).  Maybe that homily – that word of challenge or encouragement – will contribute to a social tipping point that releases rapid societal transformation.

Holy Week, Easter, and Earth Day are all approaching, and this year we have a special opportunity to amplify the power of our witness: we can register our climate sermons and prayer vigils with GreenFaith’s global initiative, Sacred Season for Climate Justice. All five of the world’s major religions celebrate a holy day or season between now and early May, and faith communities around the world will hold special events and services that proclaim one urgent message: climate justice now!  So, when you preach a climate justice/climate resilience sermon sometime this month, as I hope you will, please be sure to register your service with Sacred Season for Climate Justice.11

Thank you, friends.

___________________________________________________________________________

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest, author, retreat leader, and climate activist.  She has been a lead organizer of many Christian and interfaith events about care for Earth, and she leads spiritual retreats in the U.S.A. and Canada on spiritual resilience and resistance in the midst of a climate emergency. Her latest book, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (2019) is a co-edited anthology of essays by religious environmental activists. She has been arrested in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to protest expanded use of fossil fuels.  She serves as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass. and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, and as Creation Care Advisor for the Episcopal Diocese of Mass. Her Website, RevivingCreation.org, includes blog posts, sermons, videos, and articles.

Selected resources for climate-crisis preaching are available on her website, as are about 100 of her lectionary-based sermons on climate change.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

1. This section is drawn from “Preaching When Life Depends on It: Climate Crisis and Gospel Hope,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Anglican Theological Review (Spring, 2021, Vol. 103, 2), 208–219, https://revivingcreation.org/preaching-when-life-depends-on-it-climate-crisis-and-gospel-hope/

2. https://www.democracynow.org/2022/3/22/headlines/un_secretary_general_says_paris_climate_agreement_goal_is_on_life_support

3. Leiserowitz A. et al, Climate Change in the American Mind, September 2021. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, November 18, 2021.

4. https://climate.nasa.gov/resources/global-warming-vs-climate-change/
https://www.nrdc.org/stories/global-climate-change-what-you-need-know/

5. To sign up, send an email to: info@climatenexus.org.

6. Bill McKibben, Eaarth (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2010) xiii, book jacket. The title is deliberately mis-spelled in order to signal that the planet onto which you and I were born is not the same planet we inhabit today.

7. Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 77.

8. Tim DeChristopher, “Working Up Hope,” in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, ed. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 148.

9. Mary Annaise Heglar, “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle. Stop obsessing over your environmental ‘sins.’ Fight the oil and gas industry instead.” (Vox, June 4, 2019)

10. Peter Sawtell, “Three Layers of Environmental Preaching,” http://www.eco-justice.org/3layers.asp/. (If the link doesn’t work, you can search for the article directly.)

11. Creation Justice Ministries has also produced an Earth Day resource for 2022, “Weathering the Storm: Faithful Climate Resilience,” a timely and applicable resource for all of 2022.

Preaching Hope in a Climate Emergency

If the world’s average temperature will soon shoot past the 1.5ºC target to ensure climate stability, how do we preach about hope?  How do we preach about taking moral responsibility for addressing climate change? Focused on these two questions, Rev. Margaret held a lively 30-minute conversation on climate preaching with her friend and colleague Rev. Dr. Jim Antal.  Their discussion included brief comments on how to preach the lectionary texts assigned for the Third and Fourth Sundays in Lent.

“Hope is inseparable from our own actions.  [Hope] isn’t given; it’s grown. Waiting to act on climate change until we have hope is like waiting to pick up a shovel until we build callouses on our hands.  The hope never arrives until we get to work.”
           – Tim DeChristopher (“Working Up Hope,” in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, ed. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, p. 148)

Links:
Margaret’s Website: https://revivingcreation.org/
Jim’s Website: https://www.jimantal.com/
Sacred Season for Climate Justice
Climate Crisis Preaching: Selected Resources 
Margaret’s 2019 sermon on the Prodigal Son
Recent climate news: InsideClimateNews.org

This ecumenical event was co-sponsored by Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ.

With her husband, Robert A. Jonas, Rev. Margaret was interviewed in 2021 for the Henri Nouwen Society’s 25th anniversary webinar on the life of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Roman Catholic priest, theologian, and writer who died on September 21, 1996.  “Remembering Henri: The Gifts of a Fruitful Life | 25th Anniversary Webinar,” also includes reflections by Karen Pascal, Fred Rogers, Sue Mosteller, Robert Ellsberg, John Deer, and other individuals who were blessed by Henri’s life and spiritual gifts.  At 36:10-46:29, Robert Jonas and then Margaret Bullitt-Jonas discuss how their friendship with Henri affected significant personal transitions, such as Margaret’s ordination to the priesthood and the death of Rebecca, their second child.

#HenriNouwen #WoundedHealer 

Just published!  Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink is a new collection of homilies and reflections for Cycle C, edited by Jim Knipper, to which Rev. Margaret contributed a sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14. Other contributors include Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Mark Bozzutti-Jones, Jan Richardson, and many more. Proceeds from the sale of every book go to non-profits that give drink to those who thirst.  Choose from the soft-covered book, the Kindle version, and the Apple iBook version.

 

“Standing Up When Things Fall Apart” is a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, delivered to Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas (November 28, 2021).
“… The Bible’s end-time passages and their frightening imagery of chaos and distress were not given to us so that we can indulge in wasteful and disheartening political rhetoric, in helplessness, resignation, or fatalism, but just the opposite: in order to sustain our courage, hope, and perseverance even in the midst of crisis.”

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent November 28, 2021 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas Psalm 25:1-9 Jeremiah 33:14-16 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Luke 21:25-36

Standing up when things fall apart

Friends, I am blessed to be with you this morning. Thank you for inviting me to preach.  I was hoping to join you in person because I’d planned to come to San Antonio to speak at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. But because of the pandemic, my presentation went virtual, so here I am at home, bringing greetings from the East Coast, where I serve the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts as well as the United Church of Christ in southern New England.  In this ecumenical role, I speak to people of faith about our call to cherish and protect God’s creation.  If you’d like to know more about what I’m up to, please visit my Website, RevivingCreation.org.  I want to give a special shoutout to members of your Creation Care team – thank you for your leadership.  If there’s anything I can do to support you, please let me know.

I can’t think of a better day to be with you than today, as we launch the season of Advent and begin a new church year.  During these four weeks leading up to Christmas, we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Christ, when God became incarnate in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And we prepare for his second coming, too. We look ahead to that last, great day sometime in the future when Christ will come again, when everything will be gathered up in love, when all that is broken will be healed, all that is estranged will be reconciled and forgiven, and the Lord of life will return at last to reign in glory.
Late November Sunrise, Ashfield
Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
Christianity is full of hope about where we are ultimately heading – into the loving arms of God.  But it is also bracingly realistic about the suffering and turmoil that will take place in the meantime.  Today on the first Sunday of Advent, as we do every year, we must grapple with the Bible’s portrayal of the end-times, which include frightening predictions of social breakdown and cosmic turmoil.  As we heard two weeks ago in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus foretells “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7); he speaks of earthquakes, famines, and persecution. In today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes at the end of time, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26). It’s scary stuff.  And it resonates with our own experience of a shaking world.  Snow in Houston.  Triple digit temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.  Withered crops and empty reservoirs in the American Southwest.  Shorelines dissolving in Florida.  Flash floods rising so quickly that people drown in their basement apartments. Wildfires so hot that they generate their own storms. Oceans emptying of life and filling with plastic.  Changes in the jet stream.  Changes in the Gulf stream. The signs of a changing climate are visible everywhere.  Around the world, throngs of people are already on the move, because drought or crop failure or fires or storms have dislodged them from their homes. Indeed, the once-stable web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Huge populations of creatures have vanished in less than 50 years. Human activity has wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970.1 With dismay, scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.”2 And about one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, many within decades. The world is reeling, so I come to today’s Gospel passage with relief – it tells the truth.  It speaks to our condition. The Bible has wisdom to convey in apocalyptic times like these. What is “apocalypse”?  It comes from the Greek word “kalypto,” which means “to cover” or “to hide.”  “Apocalypse” refers to a great unveiling, a lifting of the veil of illusion.  In that sense, surely, we live in apocalyptic times: something like scales have fallen from our eyes and everything that was hidden is being laid bare. For instance, now we know that we can’t take the natural world for granted.  Now we see the miracle of what we once thought would be ours forever: predictable seasons, moderate weather, thriving coral reefs, ice sheets as big as a continent.  Now we know that the stable natural world into which you and I were born is coming apart, and – to quote a conservation wildlife photographer – that “even the lowliest ants or butterflies can no longer be taken for granted ever again.”3 Do apocalyptic, end-time passages like these mean that we should passively accept natural disasters that result from human-caused climate change as somehow preordained and part of God’s plan?  That’s what some Christians would have us believe, but I don’t see it that way.  I don’t for one minute believe that God wants human beings to burn the Earth to a crisp. I don’t for one minute believe that biblical end-time passages give human beings a license to rip apart the web of life and to destroy the world that our Creator proclaimed “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  On the contrary, I believe that God’s creative, holy presence fills our precious, living planet, and that all of it belongs to God – meadows, rivers, soils and seeds, animals and oceans. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). And the very first task given to human beings is to care for the earth, to serve as custodians and stewards. As I see it, the Bible’s end-time passages and their frightening imagery of chaos and distress were not given to us so that we can indulge in wasteful and disheartening political rhetoric, in helplessness, resignation, or fatalism, but just the opposite: in order to sustain our courage, hope, and perseverance even in the midst of crisis.
Icy twigs, Ashfield
Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
In this time of climate emergency, I hear three messages in today’s Gospel. The first is: Don’t be surprised by suffering. Jesus warned of social breakdown and conflict. He anticipated natural and even cosmic disruption. Don’t be surprised by suffering, our Gospel text reminds us.  Don’t take your suffering or the world’s suffering to mean that God is powerless or that God doesn’t care or that God has abandoned us. Everything we are experiencing is held within the gaze – indeed, within the embrace – of a loving God. So, don’t be surprised. A second message: Don’t be afraid.  Although many people “will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” followers of Jesus should take heart.  “Now when these things begin to take place,” says Jesus, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).  “Stand up!” he says. “And raise your heads!”  What bracing words these are when we may feel like curling up in a ball and ducking our head under a pillow!  It’s easy to feel hopeless about ecological collapse and climate change.  It’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed.  What can I possibly do? We may say to ourselves. What difference can I possibly make?  But here comes Jesus, telling us to stand up and not be afraid, for our redemption is drawing near.  He is very close (Luke 21:27). And here comes message number three:  Don’t fall asleep.  Stay awake, says Jesus. “Be alert at all times” (Luke 21:36). Look for the small but telling signs that God is in our midst, bringing forth something new. Just as the branch of a fig tree becomes tender and puts forth its first, soft leaves, assuring us that summer’s abundance is near, so Jesus urges us to notice that even in the midst of chaos, violence, and endings, God’s kingdom is drawing near. In the very midst of endings, something new is being born. As I hear it, Jesus is calling us to stand up and take part in that birth – the birth of a new community, the birth of a new society that lives more lightly on God’s good Earth and that treats human beings and other-than-human beings with reverence, compassion, and respect. In this perilous time, God calls us to stand up, raise our heads, and bear witness in word and deed to God’s never-failing love, which embraces the whole creation. And when it comes to healing, there is so much we can do!  Earlier this year the Episcopal bishops in Massachusetts declared a climate emergency.  Our two dioceses have begun to work together in a more coordinated way as we discuss how we can pray, learn, act, and advocate on behalf of God’s creation.  The Diocese of Western Massachusetts has web pages on Creation care loaded with ideas about ways to make a difference.  Some actions are simple, like eating less meat and moving to a plant-based diet, recycling more, driving less, protecting trees, and reducing our use of fossil fuels in every way we can.  Other actions are bigger and bolder and address systemic change.  That’s important, because the scope and speed of the climate crisis require more than changes in individual behavior – they require massive, collective action and a push for policies that help us move away quickly from fossil fuels and that encourage clean renewable energy like sun and wind. A just and equitable transition to a new economy means creating lots of good green jobs for folks now working in the fossil fuel industry, and it means ensuring that historically marginalized and low-income communities – the people hurt first and hardest by climate change – have a voice at the table where decisions are made. If humanity is going to keep living on a reasonably habitable planet, then this transition must happen now. It’s up to us to insist that political leaders lead the transition – especially in places where so much of the economy and so many jobs are dependent on fossil fuels. Here’s the last thing I’ll say.  After COP26, the U.N. climate summit that just finished in Glasgow, every member of the Episcopal delegation made it clear that “protecting the Earth and preventing human suffering are not merely political talking points but central tenets of the Episcopal faith.”4 I was especially touched by the words of the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, a delegate from the Diocese of Olympia and a member of the Shackan First Nation people. She said: “The faith of re-greening the world must become as central to our theology, and to our worship, as crucifixion and resurrection… We must give nothing less than all we have and all we are in order to assure new life if generations are to follow us at all. The world to come that we pray for in our Sunday worship is ours to entomb or to liberate.”5 I pray that our Church – the Church of Reconciliation and our Church as a whole – will become a beacon of light and a leader of bold climate action.  As we step into this Advent season and into a new year, may Jesus keep us steadfast in faith and abounding in love for one another and for all, until his coming in glory.  Amen.   ________________________________________________________________________________ NOTE: To subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Creation Care Network e-news, please click here.  A video of “Standing Up When Things Fall Apart” is posted at my YouTube channel. ________________________________________________________________________________ 1. “A Warning Sign from Our Planet: Nature Needs Life Support,” Living Planet Report 2018, World Wildlife Fund, Oct. 30, 2018 2. Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo, “Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines,” PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), July 25, 2017. 3. Cyril Christo, “Climate change is really Apocalypse Now,” The Hill, July 17, 2021. 4. Egan Millard, “Episcopal delegates to COP26 climate conference share lessons of hope and struggle with the church,” Episcopal News Service, November 19, 2021. 5. The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, quoted by Millard, “Episcopal delegates to COP26.”

Today I spoke at a rally on the front steps of Northampton’s City Hall. Pulled together in less than 48 hours, this public witness drew almost 30 people eager to express support for five young climate activists in the Sunrise Movement who, as part of their campaign “Nothing to Lose,” began a hunger strike today in front of the White House. The five Sunrisers intend not to eat until Democrats pass climate policy that matches the urgency and scale of the climate emergency. People who support their demands for bold climate legislation were invited to carry out a 24-hour fast.

This is a crucial week in the fight to include strong climate policy initiatives in the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, including the Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) and the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP). Fifty Republicans and the corporate Democrats most captive to the fossil fuel industry – Senators Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) – are pushing to gut the most significant climate legislation this country has ever tried to pass. Not incidentally, coal mining, oil and gas, and gas pipeline companies gave more to Manchin during the current election cycle than to any other member of Congress. Unless the U.S. passes meaningful climate legislation shortly, its leadership and credibility at the upcoming U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, COP26, will be substantially weakened.

I invite readers to phone the White House (888/724-8946) and urge President Biden to stop fossil fuel projects, including Line 3. I also invite my clergy colleagues to preach about the climate crisis. This new 20-minute podcast, “The Urgent Need to Preach on Climate,” delivered by my friend and colleague Jim Antal and released by Yale Divinity School, should encourage you.

Below are my remarks from today’s rally.

Speaking at the rally. Photo credit: René Theberge

My name is Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. I’m an Episcopal priest who works for the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and for the United Church of Christ in Southern New England to help build a faith-filled, justice-seeking movement to stop climate change and create a better future.

I am fasting today, as some of you are, too. Fasting or not, all of us are standing with the five resolute young people in the Sunrise Movement who today launched a hunger strike in front of the White House to demand climate action from our government commensurate with the crisis we are in.

So, let’s think about fasting. Fasting is a spiritual practice in just about every religion. Moses fasted. Elijah fasted. Mohammed fasted. The Buddha fasted. Jesus fasted.

The ancient practice of fasting has spiritual and moral power and has played a part in many non-violent struggles for social change.

Why do we fast today?

We fast to break through the habits and routines of daily life and to say that something matters more than business as usual. Business as usual must stop.

We fast to break through the paralysis of disengagement and despair.

We fast to purify ourselves, to open our hearts and steady our minds, so that we can ground ourselves in the love that wants to be the center of our lives.

We fast to express repentance and remorse for whatever ways we have participated in, colluded with, and benefited from a system that is killing life.

And we fast to protest – to express in and through our bodies our deep grief and our moral outrage that corporate and political powers are driving this country – and this planet – to the brink of climate catastrophe.

We fast to proclaim that another world is possible. We can move beyond fossil fuels. We can create a society that lives more gently and more justly on God’s good Earth.

After the rally. Photo credit: René Theberge

To our friends in the Sunrise Movement, we say: we stand with you. We stand with climate activists everywhere who hunger for justice.

We stand with everyone who is hungry, especially those whose stomachs are empty because of poverty, injustice, or a changing climate, where drought or heat have withered your crops or where extreme storms and rising seas have destroyed your homes.

We join our hunger to yours. And we join our hunger to the hunger of every living being, human and more-than-human, that hungers for life and a healthy, habitable planet.

Our hunger pangs invite us to hunger for what really matters.

Today we re-commit ourselves to the struggle to fight for a society that invests in our families, our communities, and our future.

Let’s get it done! Let’s Build Back Better. Thank you.

On October 3, 2021, I helped to lead a multifaith service of prayer, celebration, and resolve at Old South Church in downtown Boston.  Organized by Rev. Fred Small, Policy Director of Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light, “Love. Earth. Justice.” brought together representatives of indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant, and Roman Catholic communities. Near the beginning of the service, I spoke about climate grief; at the end, I offered a blessing.

Lament for Creation

Friends, I want to acknowledge the courage and the tenderness in this room.  Courage, because it takes courage to see clearly what human beings are doing to our precious planet.  It takes courage to hold a steady gaze and to witness the melting glaciers, the bleaching coral reefs, the withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, the flash floods and massive downpours, the record waves of heat.  It takes courage not to look away but to hold a steady gaze as climate change makes sea levels rise and islands disappear, as oceans grow acidic and full of plastic, and as vast populations of our fellow creatures disappear.


Thank you for your courage, and thank you, too, for your tender heart.  Thank you for all the moments – and maybe this is one of them – when you allow yourself to feel your emotional response to what we have lost and are losing as climate change accelerates and as governments in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry fail to take decisive, meaningful action to address the crisis.

Here in this quiet space and with the support of each other’s company, virtually and in person, I want to honor our tender hearts. Grief is the normal, healthy response to loss, but the culture we live in doesn’t handle grief well. Have you noticed that? Maybe we sidestep our grief because we’re afraid of looking weak, sentimental, morbid, or pathetic. Or because we’ve taken in the constricting message, “Big boys don’t cry” and “Nice girls don’t get angry.” And some of us avoid thinking about climate change because we fear that our emotions will overwhelm us.

Are we willing – can we allow ourselves – to take a moment, or maybe more than a moment, to feel our grief, fear, and outrage as parts of the world become too hot and humid for humans to survive, as children choke from asthma in our inner cities, as millions of climate migrants are displaced from their homes, or as the great redwoods burn, those ancient trees that survived for thousands of years and through hundreds of fires and could now disappear because of forest mismanagement and a changed climate?

Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman and Rev. Margaret before the service, briefly maskless

Are we willing – can we allow ourselves – to take a moment, or maybe more than a moment, to mourn the loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which once thrived in swamplands down South and this week was officially declared extinct?  According to the Washington Post, it earned the nickname “The Lord God Bird” “because it was so big and so beautiful that those blessed to spot it blurted out the Lord’s name.”  Actually, every creature, every species, is a manifestation of God.  As Thomas Berry says [The Dream of the Earth], “To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.”

And now “The Lord God Bird” is dead.

Can we feel it?  Can we pause for a moment and feel it?

We are blessed that many faith traditions provide rituals and practices for accessing and processing grief.  In my own tradition, lament is an ancient form of prayer found in the Book of Lamentations, in the Psalms, in the Prophets, and in the words and actions of Jesus. He wept at the death of Lazarus, he wept over the city of Jerusalem, and he cried out to God on the cross, using the lament of Psalm 22. Lament can’t be dismissed as just self-pity or whining. Lament is a deep outpouring of sorrow to God.  It means daring to share our anguish with God.  It means daring to feel what is breaking God’s heart.

The image on the cover of the worship leaflet was designed by Jamie Garuti, Director of Multimedia, Old South Church

And lament can be empowering. Theologians from Abraham Heschel to Walter Brueggemann (and many more) point out that lament is the beginning of criticism of an unjust social order.  The powers-that-be would much prefer that we stay too busy, too distracted and numb to feel our emotional responses to what unjust systems are doing to human beings and to the planet on which all life depends. What Brueggemann calls “the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel”1 is the enemy of any society built on refusing to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. Grieving is how we begin to challenge an unjust social order, cultivate hope, and open a space for bold actions commensurate with the crisis we are in.

So, let’s dare to lament!  Let’s tell the truth. Our hearts are breaking, because that’s how fiercely we love this beautiful world that God entrusted to our care.

Where do you feel the ache of the Earth?  What is breaking your heart?

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Benediction

May God bless us, my friends, for our bodies are one with the body of Earth.

May God bless us, for the rivers and seas run through our veins.

May God bless us, for the spirit of life breathes in our lungs.

May God bless us, for the fire of love burns in our hearts.

May we go forth as healers and justice-seekers, filled with God’s spirit.

 

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  1. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 41.