Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Tucson, AZ Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Psalm 22:22-30 Romans 4:13-25 Mark 8:31-38

Keep the faith

What a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Steve, for welcoming me back to this pulpit. I’m an Episcopal priest and long-time climate activist, and I have the world’s longest job title. I work as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. I am not a “missionary,” a word that’s often associated with trying to convert someone, but a “missioner,” which means someone who has been sent out on a mission, someone who has been sent out to serve God beyond the boundaries of a building. As Missioner for Creation Care, I travel in and beyond Massachusetts, preaching and speaking and leading retreats about the sacredness of God’s Creation and our call to become faithful stewards of God’s good Earth, particularly our call to address climate change. The God whom we meet so intimately in our depths is the same God who sends us out into the world to be healers and justice-seekers. My Website is, where you can read articles and sign up for blog posts.

My sermon boils down to three words: Keep the faith. That’s the phrase I often find myself saying to friends as we prepare to go our separate ways: Keep the faith. Other people have other favorite go-to phrases when they say goodbye. I remember Walter Cronkite signing off at the end of every nightly newscast: “That’s the way it is.” Before him there was Edward R. Murrow, who ended his radio and TV broadcasts with the words, “Good night, and good luck.” And as long as we’re on the subject of television, let’s not forget Dr. Spock from Star Trek, with his farewell blessing, “Live long and prosper.” I like all these expressions, but what I want to say, what I want to hear, is “Keep the faith.” We live in a precarious time, a time of turmoil when for all kinds of reasons many of us feel rattled and anxious, and brace ourselves for the next bit of bad news. So how glad I am that today, on the Second Sunday in Lent, we are invited to remember Abraham, our brother in the faith, our father in the faith, “the father of all of us,” as St. Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans (Romans 4:16). When the story begins, Abraham is the archetype of someone stuck in a hopeless place, a place without faith. He is ninety-nine years old, for heaven’s sake, his body “already as good as dead,” according to St. Paul (Romans 4:19). He has no children by his wife, Sarah, who is no spring chicken, either. The data would suggest that he has reached a dead end. This man who wished for progeny for so long is all washed up; he’s at the end of his rope; his future is barren; the door has closed. But then he has an encounter with God that changes everything. We don’t hear the details of that encounter in today’s reading, though in another passage from Genesis it seems that Abraham’s experience took place at night, in the desert, under the stars (Genesis 15:5). Abraham encounters a God of life, a creative God with the power to make all things new, a God, says St. Paul, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). This wild and life-giving God, a God of justice and mercy, makes a covenant with Abraham, an unshakable bond, and promises him offspring, and a good land, and a future. None of those promises are visible yet, none of them has yet come to be, but Abraham’s faith awakens. It comes alive: he puts his faith in God. He trusts in God’s presence; he trusts in God’s power. He casts his lot with a God of infinite love and creativity, a God who has the power to restore and make whole. And in response to God’s call, Abraham sets out in faith. I want to emphasize that last point: he sets out. He walks. Today’s first reading makes it clear that faith is active, not passive: faith is practiced and made manifest in action. What does God say to Abraham? “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” Walk – don’t stand still, don’t get passive, don’t stay stuck and hopeless. Don’t wait for someone else to do something. Get going. Get moving. Take action. And don’t walk alone. “Walk before me,” says Yahweh, “and be blameless.” It is if God were an unseen presence and power that is always behind us, as if our job were to clear the way for divine love to move through us, freely and fully, like a river that flows through us and out into the world, so that all people and all beings can be blessed and healed and reconciled. Our task in the course of a day is to stay in conscious contact with God, so that as far as possible we are walking before God, not walking alone, not being driven by our ego or by our anxiety. Activists usually depend on people power, but spiritual activists – people who walk in faith – depend on God-power. It is God who energizes and emboldens us, God who gives us power to do more than we can ask or imagine. We live in a time that cries out for the imagination, determination, and heart of people of faith. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – are rapidly disappearing from Earth. Scientists tell us that a mass extinction event is now underway – what they’re calling a “biological annihilation.” In addition to species extinction, we also face a changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. As Bill McKibben wrote, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” 1 To cite just one example of how burning fossil fuels is affecting our planet: a recent study examined all the major research on oxygen loss in the ocean and concluded that over the past fifty years the amount of water in the open ocean that is without oxygen has more than quadrupled. As one headline puts it, the ocean is losing its breath. To put it another way, the ocean is suffocating. Lest we imagine that land creatures will not be affected, one scientist points out that about half of the oxygen on Earth comes from the ocean. A professor of marine science who reviewed the study commented that the need for action was best summarized by the motto of the American Lung Association: “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.” I suppose that’s one reason I’m a climate activist: I like to breathe. Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about, but a cause that affects everything we cherish. If you care about the poor, you care about climate; if you care about immigration and refugees, you care about climate; if you care about public health, you care about climate; if you care about human rights, you care about climate; if you care about loving God and your neighbor, you care about climate. Climate justice is not an issue for a special interest group. If you like to breathe, if you like to eat, if you’d like to leave your children a world they can live in, you care about climate. To heal God’s Creation, there is a great deal that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local land trusts and non-profits focused on conservation. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have investments, we can divest from fossil fuels, and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest. Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we will have to confront the powers that be, especially when multinational corporations and members of our own government seem intent on desecrating every last inch of God’s Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that preserve clean air and water and maintain the stability of our global climate. Under the circumstances, I wonder at what point the practice of carrying out acts of civil disobedience will become as normative for faithful Christians as the practice of prayer.2 We will also have to confront versions of Christianity that contend that God has given us license to pillage and destroy the natural world, as if everything on God’s green Earth were placed here solely for the pleasure and benefit of a single species, Homo sapiens, or at least its privileged elite. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, revealed this week, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, that he believes that the Bible gives human beings the (quote-unquote) “responsibility” to “harvest” natural resources like coal and oil, although we know full well that burning these fuels is wrecking the planet entrusted to our care. As Mother Jones reports in its cover profile of Pruitt in its March/April issue, the EPA chief’s beliefs are rooted in a version of Christianity that is the “polar opposite from that of other religious leaders, including Pope Francis, who interpret stewardship as the responsibility humans have to protect God’s creation.” When corporate and political powers set us on a path of disaster – when they remain hell-bent on locating, extracting, and burning as much coal, gas and oil as they possibly can, never mind the potentially catastrophic effects of what they’re doing – the time has come for us to unleash our faith, to make it visible and make it bold. I give thanks for the story of God’s covenant with Abraham, our father in the faith. It reminds me that in perilous times, God calls forth a people who put their trust in a power greater than themselves; a people who start walking even if they have no map and must create the map as they go; a people with the God-given imagination to envision a future in which the land will prosper and our offspring will thrive; a people who trust in the creative, liberating power of the God who is within them and among them, beyond them and behind them, making a way where there is no way, giving life to the dead, and calling into existence the things that do not exist. Thank you for whatever you are doing – or will do – to re-weave the web of life and to love God and all our neighbors, human and other-than-human. You know, we are all missioners for Creation care. Every who shares the faith of Abraham and Sarah, everyone who follows Jesus – every one of us here is a missioner for Creation care. Thank you for being on the journey with me. Keep the faith.
1. 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. Italics in original. 2. I credit the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal with issuing this challenge, which he explores in his new book, Climate Church, Climate World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

Here is a story from this week’s trip to Arizona, where I attended a retreat led by James Finley, preached in Tucson, and hiked in the desert.

Twin Peaks before 1948
Twin Peaks before 1948, White Stallion Ranch
© Robert A. Jonas

What value does a mountain have? In 1949 the Portland Cement Company built the first cement plant in Arizona, 20 miles northwest of Tucson. They built the plant about four miles from Twin Peaks, a pair of small mountains that rose side by side from the desert floor, and they set to work extracting limestone from one of them. The business of digging into the mountain proceeded swiftly and efficiently, especially after a covered conveyer belt nearly four miles long was built in 1972: it could transport up to 800 tons of limestone and shale from the quarry to the plant every hour. By then the plant was operating three kilns, each one longer than a football field, and supplying the growing cities of Tucson and south Phoenix with 3 million barrels of cement every year.

Today a traveler visiting Twin Peaks will look in vain for the pair of mountains. One of them has vanished. Not just the mountaintop has been removed – the whole mountain is gone. Even its roots have been excavated. All that remains is an empty pit, an open wound. (For an aerial view, click here.)

There are several ways to tell this story. Is it a tale of humanity’s cleverness and ingenuity? Of how adept we are at exploiting natural resources to satisfy our comforts and needs? Thanks to limestone and the other industrial minerals that are mined in Arizona, consumers enjoy products that we use every day, from cement to brick, from tile, glass, and asphalt to trains, planes, and cars. You might call this is a success story: because of the cement company, countless jobs have been created, families fed, and buildings constructed.

Or is it a cautionary tale? I gaze across the desert, looking at the empty space where a mountain once stood, and mourn the loss. Twin Peaks exists now only in name and memory. A drawing of the two peaks as they looked before 1948 is sketched on the wall of a nearby ranch. Seeing what remains of them now, it is hard not to think of a radical mastectomy.

Remaining Twin Peak
Remaining Twin Peak
© Robert A. Jonas

Meanwhile, the economic engine keeps pounding. Every year in Tucson, more acres of desert are scraped bare, more subdivisions are erected, and more houses clamber up the mountain slopes. Year by year more saguaro are cut down, more animals are displaced, and more groundwater is pumped out to farm the desert and to feed the sewer systems, fountains, and swimming pools that accompany the construction that cement makes possible. The Sonoran Desert is large, and in theory there is still plenty of space for human habitation to expand. But what seems like the possibility of endless growth, a march of Manifest Destiny into the desert, is just a mirage. A few days ago officials in Arizona made the startling announcement that in as few as five years, Tucson and Phoenix could face cutbacks in their deliveries of water from the Colorado River. The metropolis that swallowed up a small mountain is now sucking its water reserves dry.

Is this a parable of a civilization in peril? Of a society that can’t stop itself from gobbling up the Earth upon which all existence – including its own – depends? What value does a mountain have? Does it matter when a mountain is lost?

I walk into the desert to pray. To my right, I glimpse the lone remnant of Twin Peaks, looking odd and forlorn, an amputee. Straight ahead is a grand ridge of mountains that rises near the border of Saguaro National Park. Eagerly I study the ridge’s contours and jagged cliffs. I watch shadows play across its flanks as the sun rises, and I sense its vast and solid bulk. Who are you, Mountain? What is it like to be you? Who am I to you? Who are you to me?

Safford Peak, Saguaro National Park
Safford Peak, Saguaro National Park
© Robert A. Jonas

My interchange with Mountain is carried out in silence by intuition and imagination. I give Mountain my steady attention, observing everything I can. I notice that it is producing nothing, achieving nothing, planning nothing, regretting nothing. By human standards it has no purpose at all; it simply is. I sense its inscrutable existence beyond the grasp of human thought. I sense its silence, and my mind grows quiet. I sense its wildness, and my spirit stirs. I sense its freedom, and my spirit takes flight. In the company of Mountain, I am restored to myself and filled with joy.

It is strange that an impenetrable mountain can become a doorway to the Holy, strange that from arid rock we can drink from a river of life. I wonder if human beings discover our true identity only in relation to something that is greater than ourselves.

What value does a mountain have? From the mountains of Sinai and Zion to the Mount of Transfiguration, Mount Athos, and beyond, we know that mountains are a place of encounter with the divine. Their value is beyond human calculation. It’s no wonder that groups such as Christians for the Mountains are active in trying to stop mountaintop removal in West Virginia, for even more is at stake than protecting clean air, clean water, decent jobs, and public health. What’s ultimately at stake is protecting our relationship with God.

Tucson has lost a small mountain, but, God willing, those who live and work in Tucson, and those who visit, will learn something essential from the mighty mountains that remain. I hope that we humans never lose our capacity to cherish mountains as more than scenic backdrop to a swimming pool and more than deposits of limestone or coal. I pray that we humans rediscover the intrinsic value of wilderness and perceive its holiness. Sometimes such places remind us, as nothing else can, that we belong to a sacred mystery whose wild, more-than-human presence gives value and meaning to our lives.


I am co-leading two upcoming retreats on Christianity and ecology:
“Pilgrimage for Earth: From Loss to Hope”
on Saturday, June 28, 2014, at Mission Farm, Killington, VT; and
“The Heart of Creation: Cultivating Hope in a Wounded World” on the weekend of July 11-13, 2014, at Adelynrood Retreat & Conference Center, Byfield, MA.
See the Events page on this Website for more information.