Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter (Creation Sunday), April 23, 2005.
Delivered by The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Ma.
Conversion to Eco-Justice
“Be joyful in God, all you lands. Dear God, the earth bows down before you, sings to you, sings out your Name.” Amen.
Along with – literally – something like half a billion people around the world, this weekend we’re celebrating Earth Day. Today is Creation Sunday – a day for giving thanks to God for the extraordinary mystery and miracle of God’s Creation. And it’s a day for sober reflection and recommitment, as we consider the environmental perils that face us today.
For several years I’ve been asking myself what inspires Christians to place care for the earth at the center of our moral and spiritual concern. What needs to happen inside us – what deep change in perspective, what significant shift in values must we experience – before we become willing to offer ourselves to the great work of healing the earth? One reason I’ve been asking this is that I’m trying to make sense of my own spiritual journey. Some of you know that three years ago I was arrested in front of the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., during an interfaith prayer vigil organized by a group called Religious Witness for the Earth to protest our national energy policy and the intention to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The decision to participate in non-violent civil disobedience came as a surprise to me. I’m not “the type.” I mean – hey, I’m an Episcopal priest. I lead retreats. I teach courses on prayer. By temperament I’m a peacemaker, not a rabble-rouser. When a photograph of me being led away in handcuffs showed up in the Boston Globe, more than one startled person told me, “You’re the last person I would have thought would get arrested!”
Of course, civil disobedience is not the only, or even the most important, sign of someone’s conversion to eco-justice, since God calls us out in many different ways. But what inspires conversion to eco-justice in the first place? Based on my own experience, here’s what I propose: for Christians it involves three steps or stages. I call them “creation,” “crucifixion,” and “resurrection.” I have no idea whether this model of conversion applies to every Christian who is committed to earth-care, for our journeys in faith take many different routes. But I invite you to check this against your own experience as a Christian: to what extent does your conversion to earth-keeping include these three elements?
The first stage, “creation,” is when we fall in love with the beauty of God’s creation. We experience amazement, gratefulness, wonder, and awe. In this first stage of the mystical journey, we discover how loved we are as creatures made in the image of God and connected by breath, blood, bone, and flesh to the whole of God’s creation.
I don’t take this first step for granted. It’s a huge discovery to experience creation as sacred. Some of us grew up in a city, and to some degree city-dwellers are cut off from the natural world. For the first time in history, more than half the planet’s human population now lives in cities, which means that they don’t see stars at night, don’t hear spring peepers, don’t smell hay. Even living here, in the beauty of the Pioneer Valley, we may experience a certain alienation from the natural world. We are embedded in a culture that tells us daily in a thousand different ways that we are the most important thing on earth and that our deepest identity as human beings is to be a consumer: to buy, discard, and buy again. We are conditioned to think of nature as a “resource” for us to exploit and use up, and in the midst of our busy, distracted, and often car-centered lives, I sometimes find it easy to think of nature as nothing more than the weather that does or doesn’t get in my way as I drive from one appointment to the next.
To add to our alienation from the earth, many of us grow up in families riddled with addiction, or we develop an addiction of our own. If you’ve ever been close to an addict, you know that addictions function to disconnect us from the needs and rhythms of the body. In my own years of addiction, I paid no attention to my body’s signals. Addicts don’t much notice – or care – if they are tired or sad, if they are anxious or lonely – whatever they’re feeling, they just do their compulsive thing – grab the food, swig the drink, hunker down with the Internet, find something to buy. Addiction of any kind dulls our awareness and cuts us off from our bodies and the natural world.
I began my recovery in 1982, and in the years that followed I gradually learned to honor the first bit of nature with which I’d been entrusted: my own body. As I learned to listen to my body and to live within its limits, I began to connect more deeply with nature. I began to see that God loved not only my body – God also loved the whole “body” of creation. God began showing up all around me – in the pond, the hills, the willow tree – and I began to understand the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I began to understand the words of Genesis: “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
“Creation” is the stage when we discover the great love affair that is going on between God and God’s creation. We enter that stage when we experience God’s love for us, and not only for us, not only for our own kind. Because God’s love is infinite, this stage is one that we can never “outgrow,” never finish exploring.
The second stage is “crucifixion.” Nobody likes this part of the journey, but it’s becoming harder and harder to avoid. The more fully we experience the ways in which the creation reveals the love of God, the more we recognize the relentless assault on the natural world. Clear-cut forests. Vanishing topsoil. Disappearing wetlands. Acid rain. Worst of all, perhaps: global warming. The ice in the Arctic is melting so rapidly that there is now no ice in the sea during the summer; by the year 2050 there may be no ice in the sea at any time of year. One news outlet [Reuters] reports that “Inuit hunters are falling through ice, permafrost is thawing [and] the habitat of creatures from polar bears to seals is literally melting away.” In recent months we’ve learned that up to 30 percent of the world’s species face extinction in the next 50 years, that more than 40 percent of birds in Europe face an uncertain future, and that North American wildlife species ranging from butterflies to red fox are “scrambling to adapt to Earth’s rising temperatures and may not survive” [AP report, 11/8/04].
We try not to notice these things. We try to shrug them off or look away. But crucifixion is the place where God finally breaks through our denial. When we reach this stage we finally dare to feel the pain, to mourn what we’ve lost and what our children will never see. It’s important to feel our protest and grief because it’s an expression of our love. We can’t sidestep this stage if we are to become truly human. I wonder what the church would be like if it became a genuine sanctuary, a place where we felt free to mourn, free to express our anger and sorrow.
At the foot of the cross we express not only our grief, but also our guilt, because if we’re honest with ourselves, we must confess the ways that we ourselves benefit from the destruction of the earth. We must admit our own patterns of consumption and waste. When it comes to eco-justice none of us – at least, not most North Americans – can stand in a place of self-righteousness, because we, too, are implicated. In penitence and sorrow we approach the cross of Christ, where God gives us grace to face and to confess our malice and ignorance, our grief and guilt. We can take heart at the cross of Christ, because it is here that all evil and suffering are continually met by the love of God. In a time of ecological crisis, we need to take hold of the power of the cross as never before.
If in the first stage of conversion we fall in love with the beauty of God’s creation, and in the second stage we share in Christ’s crucifixion, mourning creation’s wounds and acknowledging our own deep grief and guilt, then, as we enter the third stage, we find ourselves sharing in Christ’s resurrection. Filled with the love that radiates through all creation and empowered by the cross that like a lightning rod “grounds” our suffering and sin in the love of God, we come at last to bear witness to the Christ “who bursts out of the tomb, who proclaims that life, not death, has the last word, and who gives us power to roll away the stone.”* When we’re led to resurrection we move out into the world to participate in works of compassion and justice. We enter the stage when the mystic also becomes a prophet, standing up to the powers-that-be. As we heard in today’s reading from Acts, the early Christians were known for being people who were “turning the world upside down” [Acts 17:6].
What we feel ourselves sent out to do can take many forms. God’s creation needs healing at every level, so wherever you feel led to begin is a good place to start. Commitment to care the for earth will affect what we buy and what we refuse to buy, what we drive and what we refuse to drive, how we heat our homes, how much we re-use and re-cycle, whether we’re willing to do something as simple as switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and whether we’re willing to go even further and engage in public protest and civil disobedience.
Living out the resurrection begins right here. I invite you to take a look at the green insert in today’s service leaflet for some local environmental events. I invite you to throw some extra money in the offertory plate, for it will go to Clean Water Action to support their efforts not only to protect clean water but to fight global warming and to get rid of toxic chemicals like mercury that threaten the health of our children. I invite you to consider signing the petition about climate change that the Episcopal Peace Fellowship has put on a table in the parish hall, along with some handouts on ecology and faith. I invite you to take a walk through the town common and learn how you can participate in protecting the earth while you enjoy the music and the fun.
I’m inspired by the commitment of those leading our parish’s Restoration Project to make the renovations as energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable as possible. You may know that the Church School’s Sixth and Seventh Graders spent some time thinking about today’s biblical readings, including the passage from First Peter that calls us “living stones . . . being built into a spiritual house.” The students commented that our church building is made of stone, and one child reported having heard that we’re named Grace Church because the stones are gray. (Don’t you love it?) Well, the stones may be gray, but I’m happy to say that Grace is going green.
Some people want to ignore the environmental crisis, to deny its urgency, to deal with it some other time. As comedian George Carlin once remarked, “I don’t believe there’s any problem in this country, no matter how tough it is, that Americans, when they roll up their sleeves, can’t completely ignore.”
Well, when we Americans do get past our denial and actually take a look at the challenges we face, what may come next is despair – the awful sense that it’s too late, it’s gone too far, we won’t be able to turn this around. I know only two antidotes to despair: prayer and action. Prayer roots us in the first stage of that 3-part journey: in the love of God that extends through all creation. Prayer also gives us courage to enter the second stage, as we share Christ’s crucifixion, mourn the losses and feel the grief. And through the Spirit of the risen Christ, we embark on the third stage: we are sent out to act, to do what we can to transform the world. Conversion invites us to become people of prayer, people who take time to steep ourselves in the love of God. And it invites us to become people of action, too, people who try in every aspect of our lives – from what we eat to what we drive and how we vote – to move toward ecological sustainability and to honor our first and most basic God-given call: to become care-takers of the earth.
*First written for “To Serve Christ in All Creation – A Pastoral Letter from the Episcopal Bishops of New England” (sent to the Episcopal Churches of Province One on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ, 2003)