Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 10, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace St. Paul’s Church, Tucson, AZ.
|1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20||2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1|
|Psalm 138||Mark 3:20-35|
Confrontation, collision, and the realm of God
“No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” –Mark 3:27
It is a pleasure to worship with you this morning and to speak from this pulpit. I bring greetings from Grace Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, a community that I think you would find very compatible with this one.
For many years I’ve been involved in efforts to reclaim the sacredness of creation. My dream is to help build a religious and spiritual movement in this country that can lead us toward a more just, peaceful, and sustainable way of living on Earth. You can imagine my surprise and delight when my husband and I walked over to this church a couple of day ago, and I caught sight of a car parked in the rectory with the license plate ECOPRST. Heavens – have I come home or what? I met Rev. Steve and I told him that back in Amherst, my car’s license plate reads KINSHP. It was inspired by the prophet Isaiah’s plea that we not turn our back on our own kin — and really, when it comes right down to it, who isn’t our own kin? As I see it, now is the time to honor our kinship with our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman, and to create a world in which all beings can thrive. If we keep to our present course, in which human beings think we can get away with dominating, exploiting, and pillaging the Earth – and the Devil take the hindmost — we are on a fast track to leaving the world in ruins. So I thank you for the witness and leadership of this community in your work toward social justice and climate justice.
We have launched into the season after Pentecost, and today and for the next six weeks our Gospel reading is from Mark. Today’s Gospel begins smack in the middle of a sentence, and drops us straight into the center of a conflict between Jesus and his family, and between Jesus and the religious authorities. Jesus has been doing the work that his Creator sent him to do – he has been teaching, healing, and setting free, reaching out to the lost and the forgotten, lifting up the oppressed, and proclaiming the inclusive, expansive, and liberating love of God. Some people respond with joy, crowding around Jesus so eagerly that – as today’s Gospel tells us – “they could not even eat” (Mark 3:20). But some people are saying that Jesus is a crackpot; he is nuts; he has lost his mind. Members of Jesus’ family hear the rumor that he has gone insane. Do they believe it, too? The text doesn’t say. But his family goes out to restrain him – maybe to bring him home, to settle him down, to tell him not to care so darn much about the coming realm of God and to make peace with the status quo. The scribes take it one step further: Jesus is not only insane — he is possessed. He is casting out demons in the name of the prince of demons himself, Beelzebul.
How does Jesus respond? He says, in effect — Look, if Satan is casting out Satan, then Satan is going down; Satan will fall. A kingdom that is divided against itself cannot stand. And he adds, “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” In other words, Satan is like a strong man who takes us into his house and holds us captive, making us his possession and turning us into his property, and Jesus is entering Satan’s house, tying him up, and plundering his property – that is, setting us captives free and restoring our full humanity. If Satan-the-Strong-Man represents the forces that capture or kidnap our capacity to love – if Satan-the-Strong-Man stands for everything inside us and outside us that actively opposes the compassionate and reconciling love of God — then Christ is the one who enters our hearts, enters our world, and contains that evil energy and frees us again for love.
Maybe original sin is our tendency to be so desperately self-centered. It’s a powerful force, linked to our wish to survive. But Jesus comes to us with an even more powerful force, the strength of a gentle invitation to step out of our Strong-Man-dominated house into the larger, vast territory of God’s love and God’s community of love. We are attracted to this invitation because it is actually our deepest identity: we are made in God’s image. We are made in the image of love, so we are empowered to respond to love with love – to open our hearts to the One who created us, and by love’s grace, by God’s grace, to overcome that dark, self-centered tendency within ourselves.
Once we understand this on a personal level and have made a commitment to keep following where love leads, we will want to live this out in relation to other people and to nonhuman creatures and ecosystems. We will start creating communities with other people who are committed to facing life’s challenges from this place of compassion and non-violence. We will look for each other; we will find each other; we will join hands; and we will come together as a community. And together, as the Body of Christ, we will find God’s way through perhaps the most serious crisis that human beings have ever faced.
You probably know that the decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest on record, and that 2005 and 2010 tied for the hottest years ever recorded. 1 Mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels (such as coal, gas, and oil), heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide are accumulating in the atmosphere. Those gases are driving the Earth’s climate beyond the relatively stable range within which human civilization developed over the last 10,000 years. On average, the Earth has already warmed about one degree worldwide, and the Earth’s temperature is not only rising — it’s rising increasingly fast. Already we are starting to experience the extreme weather events — droughts, floods, and storms — that are associated with an unstable climate. A recent study shows that since 2006, four out of five Americans have been affected by weather-related disasters. 2 Two weeks ago we reached what scientists call a “troubling milestone” 3when monitoring stations across the Arctic measured more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As the news report explains, “Years ago, it passed the 350 [parts per million] mark that many scientists say is the highest safe level for carbon dioxide. It now stands globally at 395. So far, only the Arctic has reached that 400 level, but the rest of the world will follow soon.” 4 Scientists tell us that it has been “at least 800,000 years – probably more – since Earth saw carbon dioxide levels in the 400s… Until now.” 5
Climate change is upon us. As author and environmentalist Bill McKibben explains in his recent book, global warming is not just a future threat. It is, he writes, “no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality. 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
Am I the only one who feels anxious as we contemplate this new reality? I don’t think so. When it comes to the climate crisis, I know that many people feel a growing sense of urgency. As Christians, we long to know how to face the peril of this moment with all the wisdom, courage, and resilience that a loving God can give us. We want to find a way of life and a way of being that enable us not only to live skillfully in the present, but also to look ahead to the future with hope. We want to move out of inertia, denial, and fear. We want to offer the world — and our children, and our children’s children — more than a shrug of hopelessness or a sigh of resignation. We want to see with the eyes of Christ, to feel with the heart of Christ, to serve with the hands of Christ, and to share with God in the great work of restoring all people and all creation to unity with God and each other in Christ. 7
We are beginning to realize that basing an economy on fossil fuels has become just as unethical and even demonic as basing an economy on slavery. And just as Christians and other people of faith rose up with Christ to put an end to slavery and an end to segregation, so we too can rise up with Christ to bind the strong man of our time – to restrict man-made greenhouse gas emissions and to move our economy as swiftly as possible to clean, safe, renewable forms of energy.
How do we do that? Well, we can start at home, by taking the next step toward energy conservation, whatever that might be – swap our light bulbs to something more energy efficient; turn off unused lights, and our computers when we’re not using them; make less use of the air conditioner; renew our commitment to recycling, bicycling, and walking; get a home energy audit and implement its recommendations.
As congregations, we can get to work carrying out the Genesis Covenant, which was adopted unanimously at General Convention three years ago. The Genesis Covenant commits the Episcopal Church to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from all its facilities — including church buildings, schools, offices, camps, and retreat centers — by 50 percent within ten years. If you Google ‘Getting Started on the Genesis Covenant,’ you can download a brand-new guide 8 that can help Grace St. Paul’s take action on this important goal. You can also do what my own parish is doing: you can look into the GreenFaith Certification Program, 9 a nationally recognized two-year program that helps congregations to ‘green’ their worship, education, facilities, and outreach. GreenFaith guarantees that it can reduce the operating costs of church facilities, and help congregations to deepen their environmental work and attract new members.
So I’m thinking – let’s go for it! There is so much that we can do as individuals in our homes and places of work, and so much that we can do as congregations. Yet because the pace and scope of climate change require action on a much broader scale, we must become politically engaged, as well, and push to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. For instance, we can stay in touch with the National Council of Churches of Christ Eco-Justice Programs. Maybe you know that the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a rule that would set a stronger standard for carbon emissions from power plants. This is a bold move by the EPA, a good first step, and the EPA is accepting public comments until June 25. The National Council of Churches of Christ Eco-Justice Programs is trying to collect 9,000 comments from people of faith, and their Website makes it easy to send a letter to the EPA. 10
My parish and I are especially excited about Bill McKibben’s group, 350.org, the online network that is building a global, grassroots movement to tackle climate change. I’ve been an ally of Bill McKibben since 2001, when we marched outside car dealerships in a city near Boston to protest the auto industry’s promotion of SUV’s. Last November I – along with many other people of faith — was among the 10,000 people inspired by Bill McKibben to stand in an enormous circle around the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.
Right now 350.org is engaged in a campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies. Did you know that 30 million of our tax dollars go to coal, oil, and gas polluters every day in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and loopholes? A new bill is pending in Congress to end these giveaways — the End Polluter Welfare Act.
I don’t have to tell you that the fossil fuel industry is powerful. Reining it in could be the battle of our lives. More than 1200 people were arrested last summer in Washington, D.C., in a peaceful protest of the tar sands pipeline, and I expect that in the months ahead there will be other excursions into non-violent civil disobedience as ordinary people of faith like you and me stand up with other Americans to protect our precious Earth and its inhabitants.
If you join this struggle, as I hope you will, get ready to be derided as a tree-hugger, an idealist, a fool on the lunatic fringe, or worse. No surprises there – Jesus himself was the target of similar accusations. But we trust that his Spirit is with us and that he stands beside us as we confront the “strong man” of our time. In his presence and with his Spirit I have no doubt that we can create a life-giving, praise-filled, heart-opening movement that will be a blessing to the people and creatures and ecosystems of the world.
Besides, what better way to make new friends and allies? In my work in the interfaith environmental movement I’ve prayed and stood and lobbied and protested with Catholics and Protestants, Unitarians and Jews, Buddhists, Greek Orthodox, and pagans, and people of no religious affiliation at all. Somehow it seemed to me that all of us were serving Christ, whether we named it that way or not. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3: 33b) asked Jesus. “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35).
I give thanks today for the great work that God has given us to do – to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart — and for the chance to make a difference at such a crucial moment in the history of life on this planet.
3. Seth Borenstein, “Warming gas levels hit ‘troubling milestone,’” www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5ipc4bjIcD1EVVbtFW77P1zmb3EkQ?docId=f9fcd923d48d49fdb7b794db01a46fd0
6. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii. Italics in original.
7. Bishop Ian T. Douglas gave me this re-statement of the Church’s mission, which improves on the one found in The Book of Common Prayer (p. 855).
8. A new resource guide by the Episcopal Church, “Getting Started on the Genesis Covenant: Reduce Energy Use, Save Money, and Care for God’s Creation” is available here: genesis_convenant_final.pdf