Acts 17:22-31 1 Peter 3:13-22
Psalm 66:7-18 John 14:15-21
In God we live and move and have our being
It is a pleasure to be with you on this Memorial Day weekend, and I’d like to thank your rector for inviting me to preach. As your Missioner for Creation Care, I am especially glad that today is Rogation Sunday. Celebrating rogation days is a custom that goes all the way back to the 5th century. The word “rogation” comes from the Latin verb rogare, which means “to ask” and also gives us the root of our English word, “interrogate.” Rogation Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, is all about asking: we ask God to bless the land and to give us a fruitful harvest.
In olden times, people would celebrate rogation days by a “beating of the bounds”: priests and parishioners would gather outside the church building and walk in procession along the boundaries of the parish, asking God to protect it during the coming year. They would rededicate themselves to good stewardship of the particular piece of earth that God entrusted to their care. As far as I know we’re not going to do an outdoor processional today, and the entire service will be held inside (right?), but today we acknowledge with joy the fact that we worship the God who loves all creation into existence – seas and sky, warblers and whales, penguins and peonies. Here at the height of Easter season we celebrate the risen Christ who restores, redeems and heals not only human beings, but also the whole natural world (Colossians 1:20). Like generations of Christians before us, on this Rogation Sunday, we, too, want to rededicate ourselves to the care of God’s creation.
In this morning’s first reading, we heard Paul proclaim, in his famous speech in front of the Areopagus, a hill beside the Acropolis in Athens, that God “made the world and everything in it.” The God “who is Lord of heaven and earth” does not live in buildings, “in shrines made by human hands” (Acts 17:24), but everywhere – in the vastness of the great outdoors and in the intimacy of this breath, this heartbeat. God “is not far from each one of us,” says Paul. “For ‘In [God] we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27).
In God we live and move and have our being. That is what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel passage, which starts where last Sunday’s left off, in the middle of the section of John’s Gospel that scholars call Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends, and as he prepares to go to the Cross and to return to the loving Father who sent him into the world, he shows his friends the path to the same union with God that he experienced throughout his life. What is that path? To love God and one another, just as Jesus has loved us. To abide in his love (John 13:34-35; 15:9-12). To share in his mission of justice, mercy, and compassion (Matthew 28:19-20). Soon the disciples will no longer see the human Jesus, so in order to empower his disciples to abide in that never-failing flow of love between God the Father and God the Son, Jesus will ask the Father to give them what he calls “another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). That advocate – that counselor and sustainer, that comforter, helper and guide who leads us into all truth and who abides with us always – is the Holy Spirit. At its most basic level, that’s what it means to be a Christian: someone who, through the power of the Spirit, connects with and trusts in the ever-flowing love of God that is always circulating among us. Someone who bears witness in very tangible ways – even in the face of suffering and death – to the ongoing love, power and presence of God that fills the whole creation.
Given the frightening news about human-caused climate change that we’ve been hearing in recent days, it’s clear to me that we need people like that – in fact, lots of people like that: people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts, people who can reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope, people who can step out to bear witness to the God who entrusted the world to our care and in whom we live and move and have our being.
A quick scan of the headlines will show you what I mean. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group, shows, in the words of one reporter, that “climate change is already having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans… and [that] the problem [is] likely to grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control…[I]ce caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct. The oceans are rising at a pace that threatens coastal communities and are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide given off by cars and power plants….[Ocean acidification] is killing some creatures or stunting their growth.”
On top of this grim news, two landmark studies disclosed a couple of weeks ago that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” Researchers had expected that, despite human-caused climate change, the ice sheet would last for thousands of years, but the new studies found that the loss is happening much more quickly than scientists expected. The slow-motion collapse will eventually lead to a rise in global sea levels of 12-15 feet, “overrunning many of the world’s islands, low-lying areas, and coastal cities.”1
When it comes to climate disruption, the scientific controversy is over. The science is settled. 97% of climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that climate change is not a future threat. It is our reality. Burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil emits gases into the atmosphere that make the climate hotter and more unstable. Of course there has always been some natural variability in the planet’s average temperature, but ever since the Industrial Revolution we’ve been forcing the climate to change in a way that human beings have never experienced before. Around the world we’re seeing the result in extreme fluctuations of weather. People in the American Southwest are experiencing a massive, record-breaking drought and a prolonged fire season, while people in the Balkans just endured an unprecedented deluge of rain that triggered thousands of landslides and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Boats plucked countless people to safety from their roofs.
When weather erupts in such extremes, no wonder global warming is sometimes called “global weirding.” The environmentalist Bill McKibben puts it succinctly: “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.”2
What must we do to turn this around? I wonder if we need a conversion of heart and a change of behavior as radical and transforming as Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, when he turned his life around and put his faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 9:1-19). A first step in that new behavior might be for us to recycle more, drive less, and quit using bottled water. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and turn down the heat. 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, as well. 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.
I invite you to imagine a church, imagine a diocese, in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet. That is the kind of Church that we need today. We are facing the greatest challenge that human beings have ever faced, and as Christians we must take our stand in creating a world for our children and our children’s children that is habitable, peaceful, and just.
I hope that you will form a “green team” or Creation Care committee – whatever you want to call it – here at St. Paul’s, and 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 that all of you will consider joining me in New York City on the weekend of September 20th and 21st. Bill McKibben just wrote a new article calling for the largest rally in the history of the climate movement to be held that weekend in New York. As Bill McKibben put 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.”
On this Rogation Sunday, we ask God not only to bless the harvest and the land, the seas and the sky – we ask God to bless us with the Spirit as we take hold of our vocation to be healers of the earth. 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. There is so much left to save, so much good that we can do – if we act right now – to prevent the worst effects of climate change, so many ways that we can build a better world.Today, as we prepare to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we open to the love that will never let us go, to the love that is stronger than death. We share in what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and other stars,” and we remember who we are – a people created by God to love and be loved, and sent out by God to make that love real in the world in every way we can. For in God we live and move and have our being.
© 2014 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
1. See also: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=131369&org=NSF&from=news; http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/center/articles/2014/los-angeles-times-05-12-2014.html
2. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket (http://www.billmckibben.com/)