Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24A), October 18, 2014. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. James Episcopal Church, Greenfield, MA

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Show me your glory

It is a pleasure to be with you this morning, and I’d like to thank Heather, your priest, for inviting me to preach and worship here at St. James. I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, and, as you know, during October and November this year, our diocese is celebrating its first-ever Season of Creation. Across the diocese we are reflecting on the preciousness and sacredness of the natural world, and God’s urgent call to protect the Earth and its creatures. I’m delighted that the sequence of readings from Exodus gives us today’s passage about Moses, who turns to God and prays, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).

We know something about that glory, don’t we? This very week we have seen God’s glory shining in the sight of orange and yellow leaves standing out against a clear blue sky, and – if we’ve been lucky and the timing has been just right – we have felt God’s glory in the wind that makes the leaves whirl and tumble all around us. This week God’s glory was revealed to me in a vivid sunset that played out for a good half-hour with all the drama and details of a symphony. This happens from time to time around here. I live in Northampton, and in the late afternoon when I’m heading west on the Coolidge Bridge, there are times near sunset when I think that we should all just pull over, get out of our cars, and stop to gaze, praising God and rejoicing. I know this would create a traffic jam and so far I have resisted the impulse. But you know what I’m talking about – those moments when something like scales suddenly fall from our eyes, and we perceive the beauty and splendor of the living world around us. We stop in our tracks, overcome by a sense of wonder and awe.

“Show me your glory,” Moses prayed to God, and God granted his request. Because seeing the divine presence in all its fullness would be more than mortal eyes could bear (Exodus 33:20), God sheltered Moses in the cleft of a rock and tenderly covered Moses with his hand, so that as God’s glory passed by, Moses could see only what Scripture calls God’s “back” (Exodus 33:23). It is only after death that we will see God’s glory directly – as Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Until the day comes when we see God face to face, here on earth God grants us glimpses of divine glory, brief and holy glimpses that come to us when our eyes are opened, when, as poet William Blake puts it, “the doors of perception” are cleansed, and “everything appears… as it is, Infinite.”

Nature is one of the primary places we perceive God’s glory. In fact, Christian tradition speaks of two “books” that reveal God – the book of Scripture and the book of Nature. As Martin Luther so wonderfully puts it, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” The opening pages of the Bible tell us that God created the world, took a look around, and was filled with delight. “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The web of life – what scientists call the biosphere – is radiant with God’s presence. The psalmist proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Meadows and rivers, seeds and soil, animals, air and sea ultimately belong to God, not to human beings, for, as we also hear in the psalms, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1).

Moses is a fine companion to keep beside us during this Season of Creation, for he was a man of deep prayer who spent much of his life outdoors and experienced there what theologian Rudolf Otto calls the “awesome and rapturous mystery” of God (mysterium tremendum et fascinans). Just think of Moses walking repeatedly up the mountain to commune with God, or of his vision, early on, of the ever-burning bush that conveyed God’s voice and presence.

Most of us don’t live like that. Most of us don’t spend much prayerful, conscious time outside. I’ve heard that the average North American spends 4% of a typical day outdoors, including time spent in a car. What’s more, many of us work and play in ways that are mental, and we get absorbed in the “virtual reality” of the TV or smart phone or computer screen. When we lose touch with nature, it is easy to think of nature as “out there” and distant, to be ignored and taken for granted, or to be dominated and used up. And when we lose touch with nature, we lose touch with God.

I invite us, this Creation Season, to do what Moses did: to take time for solitary prayer and silence, and to look for God’s glory in the natural world. For a while now – and I hope to keep this up until the weather gets too cold – I’ve been going outside first thing in the morning to walk barefoot and to put my body in direct contact with the body of the Earth. We live in a noisy world, a world of bustle, frenzy, and haste. I know that only if I spend regular time alone and in silence, as Moses did, will I come to see a bush that is aflame with God – in fact, come to see that every bush is lit up with God’s radiance. A quiet mind is a spacious mind, a mind that begins to perceive what we might call the hidden vastness or hidden depths of things. The change of consciousness that Moses repeatedly experienced, that “cleansing of the doors of perception,” is available to everyone who takes time to pray in silence and who learns some practices for quieting the mind and paying attention. It seems to me that one of the most essential tasks of our time is to move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to one of intimacy with all creation. Being attentive in nature with eyes and ears of love is a practice that can open our eyes to God’s glory.

I take Moses as a spiritual guide, and I take him as a guide to activism, too. For what happens when he sees the burning bush? What happens when he sees the divine Presence shining out toward him and hears God addressing him intimately by name? What happens next is that he hears God calling him to become not just a mystic, but also a prophet, a healer and liberator. God calls him to confront the Pharaoh and to set the slaves free. Moses discovers – as we do, too – that God invites us into an interior, intimate, and sometimes ecstatic encounter with God in prayer, and then God sends us out into the world to engage in the struggle for justice, healing, and liberation. God’s Spirit is like a flow of air that moves through our body as we breathe: we breathe God in, and we discover God in our depths; we breathe God out, and we are sent out to heal, repair, and restore the world. As one of the Desert Fathers used to say, “Always breathe Christ.” Contemplation and action become the rhythm of our lives, like breathing in and breathing out.

God’s Creation has never needed our help and healing more than it does today. The web of life is unraveling around us. Climate change caused by human activity is already having drastic and far-reaching effects around the world. In only two centuries – just a blink in geologic time – 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. 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, gas, and oil, at present rates could raise worldwide average temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, which would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures 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 that cars and power plants release; 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. Last 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.” This week the Pentagon released a report asserting decisively that climate change poses “an immediate risk to national security” and is a so-called “threat multiplier,” increasing the likelihood of terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages.”

We live in an unprecedented time in human history, a time when our choices really matter and what we do, or don’t do, makes all the difference to what kind of world we leave our children and our children’s children. What can we do? Well, we can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and turn down the heat. I know that this parish includes ardent recyclers and composters, and that you’ve talked about planting a community garden. I salute you for that, and I’d be glad to support you in any way I can. If you are interested in joining a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation, I hope you will give me your name and contact information.

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. Like Moses, we, too, need to stand up to the political and corporate powers-that-be and to push our country to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy like sun and wind. We need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels and to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a level that allows life as it has evolved to continue on this planet.

We are blessed, right here in the Pioneer Valley, to have a strong, local, grassroots climate action group, which is called Climate Action Now. I hope you will sign up for weekly emails and read the news and connect. I am also happy to say that tomorrow night you can join me, Bishop Doug Fisher, and the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Jim Munroe (whom many of you know), along with a crowd of other folks from the diocese who will be marching to Springfield’s City Hall to support a resolution proposing a climate action plan for the city. Springfield is the largest city in Massachusetts without a climate action plan, its residents suffer severely from asthma and other respiratory diseases caused by dirty air, and tomorrow faith communities from within and beyond Springfield will show their support for a resolution to develop a climate action plan that City Council members will be discussing that night. A range of folks in Springfield – including poor Hispanic, African-American and immigrant communities – is joining together in an extraordinary coalition to ask the city to prepare for and to slow down climate change. All the things they are asking for – such as more bike paths, better public transportation, better insulated buildings, and more trees and community gardens – will contribute to public health and safety as well as to a healthier and more stable environment. When climate justice meets social justice, I am truly thankful. If you come, please bring your church banner. This is a Jesus moment, a moment when God is making all things new.

“Show me your glory,” Moses prays, and where do we see God’s glory? In the beauty and intricate complexity of nature, in every gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation, in every word of kindness, in every face that shines with love, in every mind and hand and heart that is devoted to creating a better world. The melting ice in West Antarctica may be unstoppable, but so, too, is the divine love that made us, that sustains us, and that calls us to stand up for life. Breathing in, we pray and give thanks. Breathing out, we serve.  Jesus is with us, offering us here at this table the nourishing gift of his presence and power, and then he will send us out to love and to serve in his name. I wish you a blessed Season of Creation through the end of November, and also in all the days to come.