Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Pittsfield, MA.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Comfort, O comfort my people
It is a pleasure to worship with you on this Second Sunday of Advent, and I want to thank my friend Cricket for inviting me to preach. Since last January I’ve been serving the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to protect the Earth. I am honored to be back at St. Stephen’s. Six or seven years ago – as if anticipating my present ministry – I visited this parish to talk about climate change, and I still haul my groceries in a canvas bag that someone gave me, emblazoned with the words “Living Green, St. Stephen’s.” Thank you for your ministry of Creation care!
I find it consoling, and strengthening to the heart, to turn to this morning’s readings and to hear the opening lines from the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (Isaiah 40:1-2a). For couldn’t we use some comfort right now? Couldn’t we use some tenderness? So many issues are confronting us today, from racial injustice and economic disparity in this country to ISIS, and infectious diseases abroad and at home.
As for climate change, I know I’m not the only one who sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, anxious about the planet’s basic health. In just two centuries – only a blink in geologic time – we have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of years. The average worldwide temperature is rising, and if we stick to business as usual and keep to our present course, we could raise average global temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century. This may not sound like much, but in fact it would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit.
I know that climate change can seem distant and abstract, like something that’s going to happen to somebody else in a far-off place at a distant time in the far-off future. After all, it’s been cold this week in western Massachusetts, and we’ve had snow on the ground. A couple of weeks ago many parts of the U.S. endured some record-breaking cold as Arctic air began pouring south across the Plains and Midwest, burying Buffalo in a snowfall that was unusually severe even by that city’s standards. Climate scientists have noticed in recent years an unusual number of extreme jet stream patterns, and they are studying how big dips in the jet stream are linked to the rapidly warming Arctic and the exceptionally warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. It turns out that the phrase “global warming” is too simple – a better term might be “global weirding.” In a warming world, we can expect more erratic and extreme fluctuations in local weather, and some places will sometimes become unexpectedly cold. Yet all the while the average global temperature is heading in only one direction: up. 2014 is on track to be the hottest year worldwide since record keeping began in the 1800’s, according to the World Meteorological Organization, and 14 of the warmest 15 years have occurred since the year 2000.
So what I bring with me this morning, and what I want to place on the altar for God’s mercy and healing, is our painful awareness that climate change is not a future threat. It is our reality. Oceans are heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains are intensifying in others. How do we pray with this? What would Jesus do? How does the Holy Spirit call us to respond as we watch the web of life as we know it unravel before our eyes? Last spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” The latest climate report from the U.N. warns of food shortages, waves of refugees, and the mass extinction of plants and animals, if we keep to our present course. Of course, here in this country and around the world it is the poor who are hit first and hardest.
In a situation that speaks so much of death, of hopelessness and fear, it is deeply reassuring to hear God say, through the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” For of course we do need comfort. We need fresh confidence and hope, for we fear for our children and our children’s children. We know that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, just keep carrying out our usual daily activities in our usual way, then within two, three, four generations we will bring an end to life as it has evolved on this planet.
Advent brings us the bracing and enlivening call of the prophets, the people who dare to face the world’s darkness and to proclaim that the light of God is coming and indeed is already here. Isaiah is speaking to a people in exile, a people who have lost their homeland and for whom everything familiar has been destroyed. All around him, Isaiah sees injustice, alienation, and loss, and he is keenly aware of the brevity of life: “the grass withers, the flowers fades” (Isaiah 40:7). Yet Isaiah can sense the enduring glory and power of God. He can feel God’s presence and sense God’s coming, and he knows in his bones that God’s justice, goodness, and beauty will prevail at last. “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5).
John the baptizer comes to us, as Isaiah did, with a call to prepare the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3; Mark 1:3). John may seem like a strange guy, a man on the margins who lives in the wilderness, eating nothing but locusts and wild honey and wearing nothing but animal skins. But this almost archetypal Wild Man is on fire with hope for God’s coming, passionately confident that the Savior of the world will come at last with power. Unlike most of us, John refuses to go through life with one hand on the parking brake. He doesn’t settle for cynicism, apathy, or phony optimism. He doesn’t settle for living grimly in the darkness nor does he try to pretend the darkness away. He faces the darkness of the world: he grieves it, protests it, and does everything in his power to bear witness to the light. In the end he is willing to endure imprisonment, even death, for the sake of the light that is coming into the world.
Who will stand with John the baptizer and stand up for the long-term future of this planet? I see a line of prophets stretching from Isaiah to John the baptizer to Jesus, and beyond, to the prophets of today – to all the people whose lives proclaim that life, and not death, will have the last word, all the people who embody in words and actions their trust in the enduring love of God and their hope in the life of the world to come.
For once we have grasped what the bishops of the Episcopal Church call “the urgency of the planetary crisis in which we find ourselves,” and once we begin to repent for our acts of “greed, overconsumption, and waste,”1 there is so much we can do, so many ways that we can contribute to the healing of Creation. We can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and turn down the heat. I am so glad that you already have a “green team” here at St. Stephen’s, and if you’d like to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation, I hope that you will give me your name and contact information. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can.
As individuals we should do everything we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with other people and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We need to push our leaders to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. We need to quit our addiction to fossil fuel and to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a level that allows life as it has evolved to continue on this planet. Here in Massachusetts we are blessed to have a growing network of volunteers called 350Mass.org, which is engaged in many local campaigns and has a group right here in Pittsfield. I hope that many of you will sign up with 350Mass.org to receive weekly emails, to read the news and connect.
In these fearsome times, Advent reminds us that God longs to comfort our hearts, to speak in our depths a tender word of hope. And God calls us to be bearers of comfort and hope to the world around us, to be a “herald of good tidings” (Isaiah 40:9), as Isaiah says. If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with our fellow creatures, now would be the time. Now is the time, as theologian Sallie McFague would say, to recognize that the world is not a hotel, but our home.2 When we visit a hotel, we may feel entitled to use copious amounts of hot water, to throw towels on the floor, to use and discard everything in sight and then to head to the next hotel – in short, to exercise what she calls the “Kleenex perspective” of the world. But when we realize that in fact the earth is our home – that God created it and loves every inch of it and entrusts it to our care – then everything changes. We realize that we live here; we belong here; we can no longer tolerate a life-style that exhausts the planet’s resources and that treats land, sea, and sky alike as receptacles for waste.
I will close with a prayer written for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, by one of today’s prophets, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As you may know, thousands of the world’s diplomats are gathered right now in Lima, Peru, to negotiate the foundation of an international climate treaty that will be finalized in Paris next year. We urgently need that U.N. treaty to be just, to protect the poor, and to be strong enough to avert catastrophe. And we urgently need, as individuals and as a society, to awaken at last to the call to love God, our neighbors and our dear, God-given earth as ourselves.
With hope-filled hearts, let us pray.
Holy God, Earth and air and water are your creation, and the web of life is yours. Have mercy on us in the face of climate chaos. Help us to be keepers of your Earth: to simplify our lives, to reduce our use of energy, to share the resources you have given us, to raise our voices for justice, and to bear the cost of change. Amen.
1. In 2011 the bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a pastoral teaching on the environment that begins with a call to repentance “as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth.” For the full text of “A Pastoral Teaching from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church,” meeting in Province IX, in Quito, Ecuador, September 2011, visit here.
2. Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008, p. 53.