Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield, MA
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Fighting the good fight
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
It is a joy to be with you this morning. Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to preach. As you may know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care for this diocese and also for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts, which means that I go from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. This is a great day to be visiting the Cathedral, the center of worship in our diocese, for we are right in the center of Creation Season, which began several weeks ago with the Feast Day of St. Francis on October 4 and will extend for several more weeks, until the first Sunday in Advent.
As I pondered the readings for this morning, that line from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy leaped off the page: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). What’s the context? Paul is apparently in prison, probably in Rome, and he is facing imminent death. As he says in the reading’s first line, “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6). Paul is preparing to die and he is doing what most of us tend to do when we face our death: he’s looking back over his life, carrying out a life review; he’s glancing into the future, to the life beyond death; and he’s trying to convey what really matters to him.
Maybe it’s because I celebrate a birthday tomorrow – and not just any birthday, but a milestone birthday – that I find myself drawn to this passage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, when we’re on our deathbed, to be able to look back on our lives and to say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith!” I imagine the satisfaction that someone who is able to say that must feel. Through his teaching and ministry, through his presence and words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus showed us that love sent us into the world, that love is what we’re made for, that love is what roots and grounds our lives and gives them meaning and purpose. So when we reach the end of our lives and look back, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that, as best we could, we made that love real in the world around us – that we lived our life in a way that made people as sure of love as they are of sunlight. Now that is a fight worth fighting; that is a race worth finishing; that is a faith worth keeping!
Maybe, at the end of our lives, we will hope what Paul hopes – that God has reserved for us “the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) – but today’s Gospel makes it clear that it won’t be a crown of self-righteousness. Two men stand before God in prayer, and it’s not the good man, the man who has done all the right things, who goes home justified with God, in right relationship with God, but the other man, the sinful man who honestly confesses his guilt and beats his breast in repentance, praying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) It seems that God sees deeply into the heart. What matters to God is not just outward behavior – that we do good things – but also what goes on inside us: that we don’t exalt ourselves and don’t regard other people with contempt.
I find this is a particularly poignant parable in light of this year’s combative and divisive election season, which, across our country and in our own living rooms. is arousing so much anger, fear, and even hatred. Wherever we are on the political spectrum, it’s easy to get caught up in the general mood of self-righteousness, mockery, and contempt. So, as I consider today’s Gospel passage, I imagine the vast tenderness of God, the God who says it’s OK, right here in this sanctuary, to quit all our defensive posing and posturing, to drop all our efforts to promote ourselves, to put ourselves forward and to make ourselves look good at someone else’s expense. I imagine the gentleness of God, who wants nothing more than to come to us, as God came to that wretched tax collector, and to touch that place within us where deep down we know that we can do nothing without God and that in fact we are nothing without God.
It’s when we put down our weapons and come before God with an undefended heart that we finally discover how loved we are. Whenever that happens – when we let God’s love reach us in that place where we feel most vulnerable and afraid – a great answering love rises up in us, a love for ourselves and for our neighbors and for the beautiful, fragile Earth upon which all life depends.
Jesus knew a love like that, a love that encompasses the whole Creation. Jesus obviously lived close to the Earth: his ministry began by immersion in a river and he prayed and lived and walked countless miles outdoors. In his parables and stories, Jesus talked about God in terms of natural things: seeds and sparrows, lilies and sheep, rivers, wind, and rocks. Jesus was deeply aware of the sacredness of the natural world and it’s no wonder that in our sacraments we, too, make contact with simple earthy things, with bread and wine and water. We trust that God is in these things – that when we take in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist, we take in God’s presence.
Like most Christians, I didn’t grow up hearing very much about how God’s love extended to the natural world. But because of the ecological crisis in which we now find ourselves, as Christians we need as never before to renew and reclaim our care for God’s Creation. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher today than they have been for millions of years. Scientists warn with increasing alarm that our atmosphere is warming more rapidly than expected and that climate disruption is already evident worldwide. Already 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 intensifying in others. We’re on the edge or in the midst of what some experts call the sixth major extinction event on this planet. 2015 was the hottest year on record, shattering the record set just the year before, and 2016 is right on track to set a new record for heat.
The world community is beginning to grasp that the situation is urgent. Last December nearly 200 countries pledged in the Paris Agreement to reduce their carbon emissions, agreeing that the Earth must be prevented from warming more than an average of 2˚ Centigrade (or 3.6˚ Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial levels – and ideally much less than that. That agreement is a start, but the pledges are voluntary, and even if they were carried out, they would be insufficient to avert catastrophe. So, as I’ve said before in other contexts, if we’re serious about wanting to preserve life as it has evolved on this planet, then we’re going to have to work for it – to organize, lobby, vote, pray, invent, create, protest, and push – to do this together and do it fast.
If, at the end of our lives, we hope to say with St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” then we need to place care for the Earth at the center of our spiritual and moral concern.
For there is a good fight to be fought: we are fighting for a habitable planet and for a safe and healthy world for our children and our children’s children. We are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to transform our economy so that we are free at last from dirty fuels and are set on a path to a better future.
There is a race to be won: we are racing against time, racing to make a swift transition to clean renewable sources of energy, like sun and wind, in time to avert climate chaos.
And there is a faith to keep: faith in ourselves and in each other; faith in the God who entrusted the Earth to our care; faith in Jesus who walked and loved this Earth and who reconciled all things in heaven and on earth through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:20; and faith in the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains our efforts and who makes all things new.
On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang our laundry outside to dry, eat less meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on.
But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are growing among people who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration, about human rights – for all these issues intersect. I’m excited by the work of local groups right here in Springfield, such as the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and the Springfield Area Interfaith Climate Action Network. I’d be glad to talk with you after the service about efforts like these. Maybe some of you would like to join me next Sunday at 2 o’clock when I give a keynote address at an interfaith climate forum at First Church of Christ in Longmeadow that will draw together people from all over Springfield. Maybe some of you will join me a couple of weeks later, on Sunday afternoon, November 13, for a special outdoor worship service to celebrate God’s Creation and our Christian call to protect it. Our own Bishop Doug Fisher will lead the service, along with all the other heads of Protestant denominations in Massachusetts – Episcopal, UCC, and Lutheran. We’re calling the service “We Are the Earth: Public Prayer for the Planet,” and Tom and I just posted a flier in the hall.
Whatever you feel drawn to do for the Earth, as individuals and as a community of faith, I hope that we will keep encouraging each other to follow Jesus in his mission of justice, mercy, and hope. And I hope that at the end of our lives, each of us will be moved to say, “With God’s help I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”