Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13A), August 3, 2014. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Williamstown, MA

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Feasting on hope

It is a pleasure to be with you on this green, summer morning, and I’d like to thank your rector Peter Elvin for inviting me. I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, and today’s Gospel passage provides a wonderful story for us to consider as we reflect on our call to protect the Earth.

Most of us have heard the story before – in fact, many times before – and evidently it was a significant story for the early Church: it’s told more often than any other story in the Gospels. A story of Jesus feeding a crowd of thousands shows up in every one of the four Gospels, and the Gospels of Mark and Matthew even tell the story twice (Mark 6:30-44, Mark 8:1-9; Matthew 14:13-21, Matthew 15:32-39; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13)! That’s how important this story was to the first Christian communities.

The stories vary in their details, but the basic plot-line is the same: a crowd gathers around Jesus in a deserted place. Jesus teaches them and heals them. Hours pass, evening approaches, and by now everyone is very hungry, but there are only a few scraps of food to be found and no grocery store in sight. The disciples are baffled – maybe even desperate. What can they do? All they have rustled up are five loaves and two fish. Yet when these small offerings are placed in Jesus’ hands, he takes them, blesses and shares them, and behold – everyone eats and is satisfied, with baskets of leftovers to spare.

This is a story of hopelessness shifting to hope, of scarcity transformed into abundance, of empty places filled to overflowing. Generations of Christians facing hard times – times of poverty or war, of personal loss or societal breakdown – Christians in times like these have clung to this story, for it assured them, as it assures us still, that even if we feel depleted, tired, or afraid, even if our stomachs are growling or our hearts are yearning, even if we’re sitting in a great crowd of people and feeling anxious, helpless, and alone, there is Someone – capital S, a holy Someone – within us and beside us who will meet us where we are and in whose presence we will be filled with hope and new life, even in the midst of suffering and grief.

Now is a very good time to find our selves in this story, for the crisis of climate change is leading many of us to feel as if we’re sitting among those hungry, late-afternoon crowds in the Gospel story, out in the middle of nowhere with night coming on; and the hour is late. Just to say the words “climate change” and most of us tighten up; we duck and draw back; we feel a weight on our chest. The reports from scientists are increasingly urgent and grim, and it’s no wonder, when we allow ourselves to pay attention, that we react with a mix of disbelief, sorrow, and fear. Strictly speaking, most of us are probably not climate skeptics: we believe what the scientists are saying. It’s just that the situation is too much to take in – we can’t deal with it, we don’t know how to respond to it or what we can possibly do about it.

How do you respond when you hear from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group, that climate change is already having far-reaching effects on the world’s continents and oceans? In only two centuries, human beings have pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher today than they’ve been for millions of years. Recently I heard a climate scientist remark, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.” Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas, at present rates could raise worldwide average temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, which would make the world extremely difficult to inhabit. Already our planet is changing before our eyes: oceans are heating up and becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide released by cars and power plants; 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. You know about that – you’ve been through Hurricane Irene.

This 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.” As the environmentalist Bill McKibben has written, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”1

Given the many pressures on the planet’s web of life, we are now in the midst of Earth’s sixth major extinction event. Maybe half the world’s species could vanish before the century is out.

When we hear things like this, most of us freeze. We shut down. We stop listening. We go into shock, into denial, or into despair. We get paralyzed. Either we tell ourselves that it can’t be that bad, surely this is not going to affect me or my children, surely climate scientists are exaggerating and this is just some awful mistake. Or we slide into hopelessness: it’s too late, we tell ourselves; we’re not experts; we don’t have the skills or knowledge or leverage to turn this around; we can’t make a difference; we’re goners; we’re cooked. Either way, like the crowds in the Gospel story, we sit on the grassy hillside as the hours tick by, unable to move, feeling increasingly anxious and empty. And unlike the crowds in the story, we don’t have any nearby villages to which we can go look for food. We’re out here by ourselves, facing an unprecedented historical situation, in which the whole human enterprise on this planet is at stake. Where will we find the inner food, the inner nourishment to meet this crisis with courage and hope?

Today’s Gospel story suggests three ways that Jesus’ presence nourishes and empowers the crowds. First, he loves them. He has, as the Gospel says, “compassion” (Matthew 14:14) for them. Jesus knew in his very bones that he was deeply loved by God. He knew that he was cherished to the core, and he came among us to us to show us what we, too, are cherished. We, too, are the children of God. We, too, are beloved. Whenever we know ourselves as precious – whenever we take in the divine love that is streaming through us in every moment, in the gift of this breath and this heartbeat – whenever a person we care about turns and looks at us with eyes of love – whenever we gather together as a community and tell the sacred stories and share the sacred meal that remind us that God is with us – we touch the divine love that will never let us go. Hope comes back to us when we know that we are loved, for whether or not our efforts are successful, we know they are worthwhile – because we are worthwhile, and because God’s Creation is worthwhile. Jesus’ first gift to the crowds is the gift of love.

His second gift is empathy. He shares in our suffering, in our brokenness and fear. At the end of the day in our Gospel story, Jesus was just as hungry as the crowds were – just as tired, just as thirsty. Jesus was fully human and he shared fully in the human condition. When it was hot, he sweated. When he was hungry, he needed to eat. Not only that – in this version of the story, Jesus was also feeling an immediate and very personal sorrow. Right before Jesus fed the five thousand, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus heard the news that his dear friend John the Baptist had been brutally executed. Out of that well of shock and grief, Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself, presumably to grieve and pray. Only then could he come out of prayer to share the Good News.

The God we meet in Jesus is a God who shares our grief. I know that many of us can’t even begin to feel the cascade of losses that has already been initiated by climate change. We may be afraid that sorrow will overwhelm us, and that we will drown in the grief. But unfelt emotions can keep us immobilized, so it is good to know that Jesus is with us in our grief, that Jesus shares it and understands it and can give us a heart to hold it without being overcome by pain. It is good to feel our sorrow about climate change, because tears can water the soul. It is good to feel our anger and protest, because anger can be an energy for life. It is good to invite Jesus into our hopelessness, because in that place of emptiness, impasse, and waiting, God’s hope, not ours, can be born.

So Jesus offers us, just as he offered the crowds, the gift of his love and the gift of his empathy. He offers a third gift, too: the capacity to act, the power to make a difference. What we have to contribute may seem very small. I mean, come on – all I’ve got here are five loaves and two fish! I’m not a climate scientist or a politician! I’m just an ordinary citizen with a pile of other responsibilities on my plate! What can one person possibly do?

But of course there is plenty that we can do. We can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and cut back on AC. As individuals we can and 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 political leaders to get this country and other countries on track to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, the uppermost level that many scientists say is safe for life as we know it to continue on this planet. What is the level today? 400 parts per million, and climbing. So we have work to do.

Hope arises when we move into action. I like to say that hope is love in action. So if you don’t already have a “green team” or a Creation Care committee (whatever you want to call it) here at St. John’s, I hope you’ll form one and will start to explore what you can accomplish together. I hope that those of you interested in building a network of people in the diocese committed to Creation care will give me your names, so that we can work together and support each other. I hope you’ll read the blog posts on my new Website, Reviving Creation. And I hope that some of you will join me on Sunday, September 21st, when the largest rally in the history of the climate movement will be held in New York City, the People’s Climate March. As Bill McKibben puts it, “If you’re wondering how to react to the devastating news that the Antarctic is melting out of control: New York. If you’re scared like I am by the pictures of the fire and drought across the West: New York. If you’re feeling like it’s time to change the trajectory of this planet: we’ll see you in New York.”

The melting ice in West Antarctica may be unstoppable, but so is the love that made us, that sustains us, and that calls us to stand up for life. Jesus is among us now, just as he was among those hungry crowds, offering us here at this table the nourishing gift of his presence and power. There is so much left to save, so much good that we can do, so many ways that we can help to build a better world.

I’ll close with the words of Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do.” What is Jesus inviting you to do?


1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii.