Homily for the Bishops’ Advent Retreat, Wednesday, December 1, 2010.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Barbara C. Harris Camp & Conference Center, Greenfield NH
|Isaiah 25:6-9||Psalm 23|
I put my trust in you
What does the future hold? What is the world coming to? Where are we headed? These are Advent questions, and they are also the questions that beset me as I study climate change. Will human beings learn at last to live in a peaceful, creative way on our planetary home? These are not abstract, neutral questions, but urgent questions, the kind that wake me up in the middle of the night.
I want to tell an Advent story that took place five years ago. In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita – strengthened by the unusually warm waters of the Gulf – plowed into Louisiana and Mississippi. Millions of Americans were evacuated. Within a matter of hours, most of an American city lay in ruins.
Soon afterwards, a small group from my parish, Grace Church in Amherst, began organizing a service trip to Mississippi. In late November we would drive down a truck full of supplies, sleep in a makeshift camp, and do whatever was needed – haul debris, dig mud, offer a shoulder to cry on, or just listen and pray. I was eager to go, but then I received an invitation to join a delegation of interfaith religious leaders who would attend the upcoming United Nations climate change conference in Montreal. It was the first international summit since the Kyoto Protocol came into force, a gathering to discuss the future of the fight against global warming — the same group that is meeting this week in Cancun, Mexico.
The two trips overlapped, and I could not take them both. How should I lend a hand in the fight against climate change – head down to Mississippi or up to Montreal? Stand in the mud with my brothers and sisters, or try in some small way to influence world leaders? Both efforts were worthy. I debated what to do. Finally a friend reminded me that if you are watching dead or wounded people floating down a river, it is important that someone rescue them and tend to them. But it is also important that someone head upstream and stop the war.
I decided to go to Montreal.
In late November, I flew to Canada as part of the U.S. Climate Action delegation, which included representatives of Interfaith Power & Light. For several days I mingled with delegates sent by the World Council of Churches, attended climate workshops, listened to speeches, and wrote editorials. Best of all, on a cold Saturday afternoon I marched through the streets of Montreal. I had never stood shoulder to shoulder with so many climate activists. Seven thousand protesters walked through the city, a throng of all sorts of people — parents pushing strollers, the sturdy middle-aged, the valiant elderly, and a large contingent of young adults fairly bouncing with glee. I, too, was buoyed by joy. Here was the most vigorous celebration of Advent that I could imagine. The placards and banners rang out the season’s urgent themes: Now is the time to wake from sleep, to clean up our act, to sort out our lives, to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light.
“The time is high,” read one sign.
“People in power: wake up!” read another.
One sign declared in big black letters: La terre n’est pas une guimauve. I understood the first part: The earth is not…, but the meaning of the last word escaped me. I pushed through the crowd to view the placard’s other side: a sketch of a round earth skewered like a marshmallow on a stick, suspended over flames.
No, the earth is not a marshmallow, although we are treating it like one.
One group of protesters streamed in from the east, and another from the west, everyone cheering, waving signs, or playing drums. When the two crowds met, we marched together down the road that led to the building where the pale blue U.N. flag was whipping in the wind. There we held a rally, and we were not alone. Companion marches were being held simultaneously in 29 countries around the world.
That ebullient march was one of the gifts I received on the trip to Montreal, a glimpse of the burgeoning worldwide movement that draws upon humanity’s deepest reserves of hope, and calls upon the world’s political and corporate leaders to protect life as we know it on this planet.
The other gift came as a surprise, when I was alone one morning in the hotel. By then I had been in Montreal for several days, and I was steeped in the stark reality of climate change. I had studied the aerial photographs of Mount Kilimanjaro, newly naked, bereft of snow, and had listened to reports of “climate witnesses” from Argentina and the Arctic. I had learned about the many ways that climate change puts stress on organisms and eco-systems, and had heard survivors of Katrina speak about the particular vulnerability of the poor and dispossessed. I had listened as the delegates debated, and had read about our government’s intransigence, its complete refusal to take the issue seriously.
After a restless night, I woke up gasping with anger and sorrow, needing badly to pray. Death was prowling nearby and I was ardent for life. I sat in the hotel room and let my anguish spill out before God – grief for what we have lost and the harm that has been done, rage at the inertia and indifference that kill with such abandon. I felt utterly helpless. Dear Lord, what can I do? What can any of us do?
Then, as if to one side, I heard a quiet message.
I put my trust in you.
Startled, I opened my eyes and looked around. Who said that? I had heard the sentence as clearly as if someone were standing in the room. I had often said those very words to God, but now the message was addressed to me. How bizarre. Was there some mistake? Who was speaking? How could God trust me?
I saw that I had a choice: to accept the message or to reject it, to believe it or to blow it off. The message was as improbable as the message that the angel Gabriel delivered to Mary so many years ago: you are a virgin, you will conceive a son, and he will be the savior of the world.
Yeah, right is surely a sensible response.
Yet God’s hope for the future hung on Mary’s willingness to trust and her decision to say yes. Perhaps it hangs on our own willingness and our decisions, too. Who knows how many such messages are delivered every day to the countless faithful of every religious tradition around the world? Trust the good, wherever you find it. Trust love. Trust the truth. Trust yourself. Who knows how much energy for life would be released into the world if we dared to believe in those intimate, hidden encounters when, at a deep level of our being, we are offered a divine word of love, an assurance of forgiveness, an expression of trust?
Musing in my hotel room, I considered the words: I put my trust in you. What I heard in those words was the quiet assurance that I was exactly where I was meant to be, and that I was not alone. I was trusted. I was loved. My task was simply to keep listening to the deepest truth within me, and to follow where it led.
I decided to accept the message that I had received. Maybe I was a fool to do so — I will never know, at least not on this side of the grave. But I learned again that there is a fountain within us that is not contingent on outward circumstance, an upwelling of love that comes from nowhere. Maybe that is what gives us hope even in the midst of loss, terror, or failure.
I touch that hope in every service of Holy Communion. During this retreat we have been considering the resources that Christian theology and practice can offer us in the face of the environmental crisis now unfolding in our midst. My short list of essential Christian resources would have to include the sacrament of Holy Communion.
It is here at this table that we receive the simple elements of bread and wine, and realize that these apparently ordinary things – like Nature herself – are actually filled with God.
It is here at this table that we learn to eat mindfully, to take God’s creatures of bread and wine into our hands with reverence and a grateful heart.
It is here at this table that we share the one loaf and one cup and discover that a bit of bread can fill us and a sip of wine can quench our thirst. We don’t have to grab for more; we don’t have to be greedy “consumers” who must constantly replenish ourselves with material things in order to reassure ourselves that we matter or that we exist. At this table we discover that in sharing what we have, our hearts are satisfied at last.
It is here at this table that God gives God’s self to us, and we in turn give ourselves to God. It’s here at this table that our bonds with God in Christ, with each other, and with the whole Creation are restored and renewed. I wish that this last point was made explicit in our Eucharistic prayers, so I have taken the liberty of changing the wording of the post-Communion prayer. 1
1. A line in the Enriching Our Worship post-Communion prayer was changed from “you have united us with Christ and one another; and you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth” to “you have united us with Christ and one another; and you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth, and with all creation.”