Margaret speaks on the radio about the Episcopal Church’s divestment from fossil fuels, for Bill Newman’s morning show, “The Rev. and the Rabbi” (WHMP, FM 96.9), on July 9, 2015. Listen to an MP3.
The Episcopal Church voted to divest from fossil fuels.
I write that sentence and lean back in my chair, beaming in amazement. I’ve been working toward this moment for a long time, and lo, it is here. I can hardly believe it.
The Episcopal Church now becomes the third national faith group in the United States to divest from the fossil fuel industry, joining the United Church of Christ, which divested in 2013, and the Unitarian Universalist Association, which divested in 2014.
Other faith groups are also moving forward on divestment. To cite some examples, last year the World Council of Churches, which represents half a billion Christians worldwide, decided to divest from fossil fuel companies. In January, the United Methodist Church announced that its $21 billion pension fund would divest from coal. The Church of England is divesting from coal, and Anglican churches and dioceses in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom have divested from fossil fuels.
So far the Episcopal Church is the largest denomination in the U.S. to divest from all fossil fuels, and surely it won’t be the last.
The decision made by the Episcopal Church’s 78th General Convention on July 2, 2015, came as a surprise even to the most ardent supporters of the divestment resolution. Several members of our grassroots network of activists, Episcopalians for Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Reinvestment, attended the convention, which was held in Salt Lake City. A friend tells me that shortly before the House of Deputies took the vote that sealed the deal, she and another activist exchanged a look of amazement and confessed to each other their tentative hope: Maybe the resolution will actually pass!
Not only did the resolution pass – it passed by an overwhelming margin of 3-1.
I had the sweet responsibility of informing Bill McKibben. It turns out that one of the greatest satisfactions in the life of a climate activist is to be able to give Bill McKibben some good news.
Bill called the Episcopal Church’s decision “unbelievably important.” He added: “The Episcopal Church is putting into practice what the Pope so memorably put into words. It’s an enormous boost to have communities of faith united on the most crucial question facing the planet.”
Why is this decision such good news? Because the Episcopal Church is sending a powerful message to the world: it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet.
Divesting from fossil fuels and investing in clean energy will accelerate the transition to a just, healthy, and low‐carbon future. Engaging in stockholder activism isn’t good enough – not when an industry’s core business model needs to change. Changing light bulbs isn’t good enough – not when an entire social and economic system needs to be transformed. Waiting, watching, and wringing our hands isn’t good enough – not when the Earth cries out for healing, and when the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change, cry out for justice and mercy.
Averting climate catastrophe requires that at least 80% of known fossil fuel reserves remain where they are, in the ground. The only way to keep them there will probably be some combination of carbon pricing, governmental regulation, and strong international treaties. How can we build the spiritual, moral, and political pressure to accomplish that? We can divest from fossil fuels. We can align our money with our values. We can make it clear that fossil fuels have no place in a healthy portfolio if you’re hoping for healthy kids or a healthy planet.
I don’t know to what extent the release of the Pope Francis’ encyclical several weeks ago affected the divestment decision that was made by the Episcopal Church, but I do know that countless people the world over have been inspired the Pope’s bracing reminder that the climate crisis is not just a scientific, political, or economic concern, but also an issue that raises fundamental moral and spiritual questions.
What kind of world do we want to leave our children? What does it mean to live with reverence for the living, intricate, beautiful biosphere into which you and I were born? What responsibility do we have for ensuring that the web of life continues intact for generations yet to come? What responsibility do we have for the poor? How can we possibly love God and our neighbor if we scorch and desecrate the world that God entrusted to our care, and dislocate, drown, and starve our neighbors, beginning with the poorest?
The Episcopal Church resolution commits more than $350 million for divestment, and it urges all parishes and dioceses in the Church to engage the topic of divestment and reinvestment within the coming year, potentially unlocking an additional $4 billion in assets. The pension fund, which manages $9 billion, was not included in the final version of the resolution. Episcopalians for Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Reinvestment looks forward to ongoing conversations with the pension board, recognizing that all of the Church’s assets are called to serve God’s mission and that the Episcopal Church is now on record in recognizing that restoring Creation is at the center of God’s mission today. (For more discussion of the resolution, here is an interview I gave to our local newspaper.)
Sometimes it seems that human beings are determined to careen toward catastrophe. Oddly enough, it gives me hope when I consider that no one knows whether or how we will save ourselves from disaster. I keep thinking of a piece of wisdom that has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Not knowing what, if anything, will make humanity change course gives me energy to be persistent and creative, even if my efforts seem insignificant. Maybe this letter to urge divestment, this phone call, this lobbying for carbon pricing, this climate rally, this campaign to stop new pipelines, this vegetable garden, this decision to walk rather than drive, this willingness to borrow rather than to buy – maybe each small effort will combine mysteriously with other people’s efforts and suddenly we will surprise ourselves and society will shift to a life-sustaining path. I can’t argue with a remark that country music singer-songwriter Naomi Judd once made: “A dead end street is a good place to turn around.”
Unexpected changes, shifts, and transformations happen. Call it chaos theory. Call it an expression of “punctuated equilibrium,” Stephen Jay Gould’s term for the way that a system can look completely stable even though an unseen tension or energy is secretly building up. Suddenly it bursts forth, producing a new species, moving tectonic plates apart, or generating abrupt, rapid, and unforeseen changes in society. (For a wonderful essay that develops these ideas, see David Roberts’ “For a Future to Be Possible: Hope & Fellowship.”)
History is like that: non-linear and full of surprises. So, too, is the Holy Spirit. She blows where she wills, opening minds and touching hearts, making all things new.
The prophet Isaiah was right. Awakened to the presence of a merciful, dynamic, and ever-living God, Isaiah heard God say: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
We just saw it happen: the Episcopal Church voted to divest from fossil fuels.
Want to know what will happen next in the ever-expanding, unpredictable, and non-linear movement to save the planet? Find out. Jump in and join the struggle. Do what you can, even if it seems insignificant. And get ready to be surprised.
When we think about climate change, we often focus on the outer landscape, such as how the rising level of greenhouse gases affects the planet’s oceans and continents, its animals, plants and human societies. Gazing at the landscape outside us, we know that the news is grim. The web of life is unraveling. As Bill McKibben succinctly puts it, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”
But what about our inner landscape? That’s the question that interests me here. Given what we know about the crisis in which we find ourselves, what happens to the emotional and spiritual dimension of our lives? How do we face our fear and grief without being overwhelmed? How do we move out of denial and despair into a life that is filled with purpose, even joy? What will sustain our spirits as we struggle to sustain the Earth?
We need people – in fact, we need lots of people – who are willing to face the most challenging, even devastating facts, people who are learning how to enlarge their reserves of courage, faith, and hope, people who will step out to bear witness in very concrete ways to the God in whom we live and move and have our being, and who entrusted the world to our care.
So here is a 3-part framework for the heart, a way of “holding” the climate crisis in a way that helps us to respond wisely and creatively to the challenges we face. I’ll sketch a spiritual journey in which we cultivate an awakened heart, a broken heart, and a radiant heart.
We begin with an awakened heart. What is an awakened heart? It is a heart that is more and more deeply, more and more frequently, more and more consciously attuned to love. A person with an awakened heart is someone whose heart is repeatedly touched by a boundless love that seems to well up from nowhere or that unexpectedly shines out in the world around. A person with an awakened heart is someone who is learning to see themselves, and others, and all creation, with eyes of love in each and every present moment. This is when we perceive the beauty and preciousness of God’s creation. We experience gratefulness, wonder, amazement, awe. We discover how cherished we are as creatures that are part of creation.
Experiencing our God-given preciousness is a powerful antidote to the messages we hear that human beings are “a cancer on the planet,” a “virus” taking down life. I understand the anger and deep frustration behind such statements, the anger that is evoked by the enormous damage that humans are doing to the ecosystems on which all life depends. It’s true that our industrial economy, based on fossil fuels, is acting like a cancer that takes down life. But the only way forward is not to feed the voice of self-hatred, but instead to listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts and that alone can guide us on a new path. As I see it, all the world’s religious practices, from mindfulness meditation to practicing gratitude, are disciplines we’ve been given to help our hearts awaken.
As we walk forward with awakened hearts we experience a broken heart. Of course none of us wants to move into this second stage of the journey, and there are many reasons we fear and repress our grief. As Joanna Macy, the Buddhist ecophilosopher, points out, we don’t want to feel pain; we don’t want to look morbid; we don’t want to bring other people down; we don’t want to seem weak and emotional. And yet we do feel pain for the world. We can’t help it. No one is exempt from it, because we’re part of the whole, and suffering in one place ripples across the planet.
So, as you consider the suffering caused by climate change, where do you feel the grief? What are the tears you need to shed? What is breaking your heart? And how do we open to the pain of our precious world without drowning in the pain? The divine love in which we participate does not close itself off from suffering, but enters it, shares it, and touches it with love. For Christians, the symbol of that divine sharing in our suffering is the cross of Christ. So, as a Christian, I go in prayer to the cross, where I believe that everything in us – our pain and anger, our grief, our guilt – is perpetually met by the mercy and love of God. One way or another, all the world’s spiritual traditions teach that there is no escape from suffering and that, paradoxically, a broken heart can be the gateway to hope and even joy.
Now comes the third part of this spiritual framework. Filled with love, because day by day our heart is awakened, and wide open to our suffering and the suffering of the world, we want the love that is flowing into our lives to pour out into the world around us. We have been cultivating an awakened heart, we are accepting a broken heart, and now we want to express what I’m calling a radiant heart. We want our lives to bear witness in tangible ways to the love that has set us free.
What we feel sent out to do can take many forms. Commitment to care for the earth will affect what we buy and what we refuse to buy, what we drive and what we refuse to drive, how we heat our homes, how much we re-use and re-cycle, and how ardently we join hands with other people to push for the enormous systemic changes that are required if we’re going to save life as it has evolved on this planet.
Yet just because we’re very busy doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re manifesting a radiant heart. For example, sometimes I get super-busy because I’ve lost touch with my basic preciousness: I think that I must prove my worth, demonstrate my value. Then I say to myself, “Margaret, remember that you’re cultivating an awakened heart. Let yourself rest in God’s goodness. Breathe in God’s love, recall how loved you already are, and let that energy carry you into the next situation.”
Or I get busy because I want to stay one step ahead of my feelings — I don’t want to feel the pain or grief; I’d much rather keep moving. Then I say to myself, “Margaret, remember that you’ve accepted a broken heart. Go back to the cross of Christ. Let yourself stop for a while and bring whatever you’re feeling to the crucified Christ, where everything in you – like it or not – is met with love.”
When we know that we’re cherished to the core and when our anguish is met again and again by the ever-merciful love of God, then our actions are more likely to spring from wisdom than from fear or compulsion, and we live with a new sense of spaciousness and freedom, unattached to results.
Attending to our inner landscape while we tend to the outer landscape can heal our souls and our communities, as well as the Earth itself.
Margaret gave this talk at “Spiritual and Sustainable: Religion Responds to Climate Change,” an interfaith conference held at Harvard Divinity School on November 7, 2014, which focused on addressing the issues and challenges of maintaining a sustainable planet. Other panelists included Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Tim DeChristopher, Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, Lama Willa Miller, and Munjed M. Murad, with Professor Prof. Dan McKanan serving as moderator.
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.
On a sunny, late summer morning, a brisk wind blew across the waters of Mount Hope Bay. It blew against the two broad towers of the Brayton Point power plant, which squat on the bay’s west side. It blew through the streets of Fall River, an old mill city on the east side of the bay. Like the creative, Spirit-filled wind that swept over the face of the deep at the beginning of time, like the breath that God blew into the nostrils of the first human beings to give them life, like the healing and liberating spirit that Jesus breathed into his startled, grateful friends – on a sunny, late summer morning in 2014, a wind blew across Mount Hope Bay and made its secret way into Fall River’s Bristol County Courthouse. It breezed past the security guards, swept up the stairs, and slipped soundlessly into a fifth-floor courtroom.
I didn’t notice that wind at first. After all, I was packed tightly into a seat at the back, squashed hip-to-hip, thigh-to-thigh with an overflow crowd of clergy and other people of faith. We had come to support Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward as they stood trial for using a small lobster boat to block the shipment of 40,000 tons of coal to the Brayton Point power plant, the largest coal plant in the state. There wasn’t any breeze to speak of in the courtroom, for the air was thick with suspense and uncertainty.
We stood when the judge entered the room; we listened as the district attorney and the defense attorney took turns speaking; we watched the backs of Jay and Ken, willing them strength, praying for their protection and freedom. And then the air began to move. An instruction from the judge was being repeated in whispers around the room: No clapping or cheering. No clapping or cheering.
“How about booing and hissing?” I murmured wryly in the ear of my friend Fred Small, who was sitting beside me. I hardly dared to hope.
But to our amazement, the district attorney was explaining that they had reached an agreement: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was reducing the criminal charges against the two defendants to civil infractions, and the two men would simply pay restitution of $2,000 apiece to the City of Somerset. That was it.
“This ends the matter, as far as Bristol County is concerned.”
As directed, we refrained from cheering or applause, but a lively wind blew through the room and drew us outside. We gathered as a crowd in front of the courthouse, exultant and marveling. Jay, who is a Quaker, explained to the TV cameras and radio crew that the climate crisis demands action, and that we must immediately stop burning coal. He described the moment as “bittersweet,” for he had wanted Bill McKibben and NASA’s James Hansen to mount their “necessity defense” and to put climate change on trial. A reporter asked: Are you satisfied that your action reached enough people? Sometimes, Jay quietly replied, there are actions we need to take, even if no one is looking. What will you do next? Another reporter asked. Sail down the Atlantic coast, he replied, to join the People’s Climate March in New York City.
Ken added a few fierce words of his own: the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting irreversibly. We need not just a handful of people blockading the delivery of coal, but everyone’s action, everyone’s help.
I felt the Spirit in their moral conviction and clarity: there comes a time when business as usual must give way to a more life-giving path. If business as usual is taking down life on this planet, then business as usual must be stopped. Business as usual must be challenged and transformed, even if doing so violates the law of the land. Protests and acts of non-violent civil disobedience may be essential to creating a path forward.
But the Spirit was not done with us yet. For here was District Attorney Sam Sutter, standing with us on the plaza, beginning to speak. Climate change, he told the reporters and the crowd, was “one of the greatest crises our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been sorely lacking.”
The DA understood the position of the defendants. To emphasize his point, he waved in the air a copy of Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone, “A Call to Arms”. He announced that he agreed with McKibben and that he was answering the call; he, too, was coming to the march in Manhattan on September 21.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt it: the wind was blowing. And everyone clapped and cheered.
The reporters were quick to pepper him with questions: Was the District Attorney inviting other people to blockade shipments of coal? Was he encouraging other acts of civil disobedience to protest climate change? No, the DA replied; every case had to be taken separately and addressed one by one. But in this case, he said, the decision was just. This is what Bristol County stood for.
I don’t know what historians or legal scholars will make of this moment, but on that sunny, late summer morning at Fall River Justice Center, it seemed to me that, when even the people who enforce the law recognize the justice of breaking the law, then surely it’s time to change our laws. If burning fossil fuels is laying waste to the land, causing flooding, drought, and severe storms, then we must challenge the law of the land. We can no longer allow fossil fuels to be relentlessly and ceaselessly extracted, mined, and burned, even if the law allows it. The DA of Bristol County took a brave step in making that clear. In his own way, he seemed to be following in the footsteps of Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward. I wonder how many other ordinary citizens will be inspired to join them, breaking laws that perpetuate injustice and lobbying for laws that create a sustainable, just, and low-carbon future.
When I left Fall River, I drove over the bridge that rises beside Mount Hope Bay. Glancing across that vast expanse of water, I could see that the wind was blowing.
NOTE: The Boston Globe wrote a front-page article about the decision, “DA drops charges in case of blocked coal shipment,” on September, 8, 2014.
The People’s Climate March is only a few weeks away, and conference calls to organize the event are coming thick and fast. In New York City at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, September 21, tens of thousands of people – projected estimates run as high as 250,000 – will step out in the largest, most diverse climate march in history. I am told that over 850 businesses and labor unions, faith groups, schools and seminaries, and social justice, environmental and civic organizations have been working together to create this historic event. No single celebrity or entity is behind it – this will be a movement made of many movements, a collective call to action. As far as I can tell, it’s an unprecedented collaboration. I missed the 1963 March on Washington, but I don’t intend to miss this one.
The purpose of the People’s Climate March? To build momentum for a strong international climate treaty. To stand with front-line communities being hit hard by the impacts of climate change. To show world leaders gathered in New York City at a U.N. climate summit that we’re not willing to settle for more inaction.
In short, we hope to create a pivot toward justice and healing.
Speaking by phone with a range of religious leaders has generated a lot of creative thinking. People of different faiths will be marching together, and we’re looking for ways to keep our part of the march prayerful and focused. What shall we sing? How shall we express our deep conviction that Creation is sacred? How shall we particularly honor indigenous peoples whose religious traditions have always been connected with Earth? How shall we call upon Spirit as we walk together in all our diversity to protect life on this planet? What symbols might we carry?
Someone proposed making an Ark. We brainstormed possibilities. Maybe the Ark could be hauled on a flatbed truck that runs on biodiesel. Maybe it could be made of papier-mâché and pulled by volunteers. Maybe Sunday School children could walk alongside, wearing homemade masks of animals. But how would we frame the meaning of the Ark? What would we want it to represent? Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the indomitable prophet and the founder and director of The Shalom Center, offered to give an invocation and to develop something along these lines: “The Ark as an island of safety in a world of danger; the Ark as an act of creativity in a world that is stuck in old habits; the Ark as a community modeling Eco-system Earth.”
The Ark is an ancient symbol of hope: here is where human beings and the rest of the natural world learn to co-exist in harmony. Here is where we find refuge. Here is where bio-diversity is saved for generations to come. In times like these, when climate emissions are sky-rocketing and political will is flagging, when the draft of a major U.N. report warns of “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts” of climate change in the decades ahead, and when you can sit in stunned silence at your computer and watch a Greenland glacier melt before your eyes, it is good to tap into our inner Noah: to discover the self that is willing to rise up in response to God’s call to preserve life on Earth.
Channeling your inner Noah does not even require an Ark – sometimes a lobster boat will do. On May 15, 2013, Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara used a little white lobster boat to blockade the delivery of 40,000 tons of West Virginia coal to the Brayton Point Power Station, the largest coal plant in New England. Their action fired up a summer of protests and actions at the Brayton Point plant, and the owners announced last fall that the plant will shut down in 2017.
Meanwhile, Ken and Jay are about to stand trial on September 8 and 9 on charges of disturbing the peace, conspiracy, and motorboat violations. If convicted, they face up to nine months in jail. At the Fall River courthouse they will use a groundbreaking legal approach: they will admit to all the charges, but they will bring to the stand expert witnesses such as Bill McKibben and NASA scientist Jim Hansen. Ken and Jay will argue that their actions were necessary to defend their lives from the imminent threat of climate change. The Boston Globe recently featured an article (fancifully entitled, “The Climate Made Me Do It!”) about this historic case, which would be the first time that a climate necessity defense is used in American court.
People of faith will gather at the Fall River courthouse to express their solidarity with these two brave men. Will you join me there on Monday, September 8? For more information and to RSVP, please visit Lobster Boat Blockade.
As for joining the Climate March in New York City on September 21, here comes a last call to buy seats on our bus reserved for Episcopalians in western Massachusetts. More than half the seats have already been sold, so please reserve your seat today.
The bus will leave Springfield, MA at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, September 21, stop in New Haven to pick up seminary students at Berkeley Divinity School/Yale Divinity School, and arrive in New York in plenty of time for the march. Holy Communion will be celebrated on the bus, so get ready for your first Eucharist on wheels! The Presiding Bishop is recording a homily for the occasion that will be broadcast on the bus. After the march, everyone is invited to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for a vibrant interfaith service at 6 p.m. The bus will arrive back in Springfield on Sunday night.
The bus trip is being subsidized by the bishops of Province 1 (the Episcopal dioceses of New England), so a round-trip ticket costs only $15, plus a service charge. The Rev. Stephanie M. Johnson, Environmental Missioner for Province 1, will be the celebrant aboard the bus, and I will greet everyone when you arrive in New York.
Please bring a church banner. Clergy, please wear a collar.
Register for the People’s Climate March here.
Reserve a seat on the Episcopal bus and review FAQ here.
(For more transportation options, see below.)
Request a free pass to the 6 p.m. service at St. John the Divine (which will be crowded) here.
Even if you can’t make it to the march, your congregation can support the march in other ways. I know of two Episcopal churches – Church of the Holy Trinity (NY, NY) and Grace Church (Amherst, MA) – whose vestries passed a strong resolution endorsing the March. And congregations everywhere can register to be a Climate March Faith Community. To register as a Climate March Faith Community, go to GreenFaith here, and commit to carrying out four or more of the eight suggested actions. Suggested actions are straightforward: for instance, a congregation can encourage members of the community to join the climate march. It can offer a sermon about climate change, lift up prayers, or invite march participants to report back on their experience.
The most unusual suggested action is the last one: at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 21, a congregation can “sound off” outdoors in support of climate action for 5 minutes and 50 seconds. Why 5 minutes 50 seconds? Because that’s 350 seconds. In the global atmosphere, the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas that causes global warming, is 350 parts per million. Currently we are close to 400.
How do we “sound off”? Churches will ring bells; synagogues will publicly sound a shofar; mosques will offer a public call to prayer; sanghas will ring a meditation gong or bell; Hindu temples will chant a mantra – or your community can carry out an outdoor walking prayer/meditation or design its own outdoor observance. “Sounding off” events will take place at 1 p.m. in a great rolling wave of sound around the world – from Europe and Africa to the U.S. and Asia.
The best part of the story of Noah’s Ark comes at the end. God makes a decisive promise to all of creation, human and non-human alike: “I have set my bow in the clouds,” God says (Genesis 9:13). From now on the rainbow will mark “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:16). Looking ahead to the climate march, I hold on to that promise. If there is going to be any kind of flood, let it be a flood of people filling the streets of New York. God has promised to stand with every living creature, and so will we.
In honor of Noah, and just in time for the Climate March, here’s a song to sing to the tune of “Jacob’s Ladder” — with lyrics by the Rev. Fred Small, Senior Minister of First Parish in Cambridge UU, and Co-Chair of Religious Witness for the Earth:
We are saving Noah’s cargo…. (sing 3x, closing with the refrain: Children of the Earth.)
Every creature has its purpose…
Wolves and whales and owls and otters…
Send a dove to find safe harbor…
In the rainbow, see God’s promise….
See you in New York!
If you are looking for other ways to get to NYC on Sept. 21 (train, light rail, carpool), stay tuned here, the Pioneer-Valley-focused site for getting to the March.
Also, 350MA.org has organized both September 20 and September 21 buses from cities across Massachusetts, including Amherst and Worcester. To order tickets, visit here. Sales end Sept. 10.
If you are traveling from Cape Cod, you can find bus seats here.
Feasting on hope
It is a pleasure to be with you on this green, summer morning, and I’d like to thank your rector Peter Elvin for inviting me. I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, and today’s Gospel passage provides a wonderful story for us to consider as we reflect on our call to protect the Earth.Most of us have heard the story before – in fact, many times before – and evidently it was a significant story for the early Church: it’s told more often than any other story in the Gospels. A story of Jesus feeding a crowd of thousands shows up in every one of the four Gospels, and the Gospels of Mark and Matthew even tell the story twice (Mark 6:30-44, Mark 8:1-9; Matthew 14:13-21, Matthew 15:32-39; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13)! That’s how important this story was to the first Christian communities. The stories vary in their details, but the basic plot-line is the same: a crowd gathers around Jesus in a deserted place. Jesus teaches them and heals them. Hours pass, evening approaches, and by now everyone is very hungry, but there are only a few scraps of food to be found and no grocery store in sight. The disciples are baffled – maybe even desperate. What can they do? All they have rustled up are five loaves and two fish. Yet when these small offerings are placed in Jesus’ hands, he takes them, blesses and shares them, and behold – everyone eats and is satisfied, with baskets of leftovers to spare. This is a story of hopelessness shifting to hope, of scarcity transformed into abundance, of empty places filled to overflowing. Generations of Christians facing hard times – times of poverty or war, of personal loss or societal breakdown – Christians in times like these have clung to this story, for it assured them, as it assures us still, that even if we feel depleted, tired, or afraid, even if our stomachs are growling or our hearts are yearning, even if we’re sitting in a great crowd of people and feeling anxious, helpless, and alone, there is Someone – capital S, a holy Someone – within us and beside us who will meet us where we are and in whose presence we will be filled with hope and new life, even in the midst of suffering and grief. Now is a very good time to find our selves in this story, for the crisis of climate change is leading many of us to feel as if we’re sitting among those hungry, late-afternoon crowds in the Gospel story, out in the middle of nowhere with night coming on; and the hour is late. Just to say the words “climate change” and most of us tighten up; we duck and draw back; we feel a weight on our chest. The reports from scientists are increasingly urgent and grim, and it’s no wonder, when we allow ourselves to pay attention, that we react with a mix of disbelief, sorrow, and fear. Strictly speaking, most of us are probably not climate skeptics: we believe what the scientists are saying. It’s just that the situation is too much to take in – we can’t deal with it, we don’t know how to respond to it or what we can possibly do about it. How do you respond when you hear from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group, that climate change is already having far-reaching effects on the world’s continents and oceans? In only two centuries, 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. Recently 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, oil, and gas, at present rates could raise worldwide average temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, which would make the world extremely difficult 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 released by cars and power plants; 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. You know about that – you’ve been through Hurricane Irene. This 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.” As the environmentalist Bill McKibben has written, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”1 Given the many pressures on the planet’s web of life, we are now in the midst of Earth’s sixth major extinction event. Maybe half the world’s species could vanish before the century is out. When we hear things like this, most of us freeze. We shut down. We stop listening. We go into shock, into denial, or into despair. We get paralyzed. Either we tell ourselves that it can’t be that bad, surely this is not going to affect me or my children, surely climate scientists are exaggerating and this is just some awful mistake. Or we slide into hopelessness: it’s too late, we tell ourselves; we’re not experts; we don’t have the skills or knowledge or leverage to turn this around; we can’t make a difference; we’re goners; we’re cooked. Either way, like the crowds in the Gospel story, we sit on the grassy hillside as the hours tick by, unable to move, feeling increasingly anxious and empty. And unlike the crowds in the story, we don’t have any nearby villages to which we can go look for food. We’re out here by ourselves, facing an unprecedented historical situation, in which the whole human enterprise on this planet is at stake. Where will we find the inner food, the inner nourishment to meet this crisis with courage and hope? Today’s Gospel story suggests three ways that Jesus’ presence nourishes and empowers the crowds. First, he loves them. He has, as the Gospel says, “compassion” (Matthew 14:14) for them. Jesus knew in his very bones that he was deeply loved by God. He knew that he was cherished to the core, and he came among us to us to show us what we, too, are cherished. We, too, are the children of God. We, too, are beloved. Whenever we know ourselves as precious – whenever we take in the divine love that is streaming through us in every moment, in the gift of this breath and this heartbeat – whenever a person we care about turns and looks at us with eyes of love – whenever we gather together as a community and tell the sacred stories and share the sacred meal that remind us that God is with us – we touch the divine love that will never let us go. Hope comes back to us when we know that we are loved, for whether or not our efforts are successful, we know they are worthwhile – because we are worthwhile, and because God’s Creation is worthwhile. Jesus’ first gift to the crowds is the gift of love. His second gift is empathy. He shares in our suffering, in our brokenness and fear. At the end of the day in our Gospel story, Jesus was just as hungry as the crowds were – just as tired, just as thirsty. Jesus was fully human and he shared fully in the human condition. When it was hot, he sweated. When he was hungry, he needed to eat. Not only that – in this version of the story, Jesus was also feeling an immediate and very personal sorrow. Right before Jesus fed the five thousand, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus heard the news that his dear friend John the Baptist had been brutally executed. Out of that well of shock and grief, Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself, presumably to grieve and pray. Only then could he come out of prayer to share the Good News. The God we meet in Jesus is a God who shares our grief. I know that many of us can’t even begin to feel the cascade of losses that has already been initiated by climate change. We may be afraid that sorrow will overwhelm us, and that we will drown in the grief. But unfelt emotions can keep us immobilized, so it is good to know that Jesus is with us in our grief, that Jesus shares it and understands it and can give us a heart to hold it without being overcome by pain. It is good to feel our sorrow about climate change, because tears can water the soul. It is good to feel our anger and protest, because anger can be an energy for life. It is good to invite Jesus into our hopelessness, because in that place of emptiness, impasse, and waiting, God’s hope, not ours, can be born. So Jesus offers us, just as he offered the crowds, the gift of his love and the gift of his empathy. He offers a third gift, too: the capacity to act, the power to make a difference. What we have to contribute may seem very small. I mean, come on – all I’ve got here are five loaves and two fish! I’m not a climate scientist or a politician! I’m just an ordinary citizen with a pile of other responsibilities on my plate! What can one person possibly do? But of course there is plenty that we can do. We can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and cut back on AC. 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. 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. Hope arises when we move into action. I like to say that hope is love in action. So if you don’t already have a “green team” or a Creation Care committee (whatever you want to call it) here at St. John’s, I hope you’ll form one and will 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 you’ll read the blog posts on my new Website, Reviving Creation. And I hope that some of you will join me on Sunday, September 21st, when the largest rally in the history of the climate movement will be held in New York City, the People’s Climate March. As Bill McKibben puts 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.” 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. Jesus is among us now, just as he was among those hungry crowds, offering us here at this table the nourishing gift of his presence and power. There is so much left to save, so much good that we can do, so many ways that we can help to build a better world. I’ll close with the words of Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do.” What is Jesus inviting you to do?
1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii.
Holy Trinity: Joining the dance
It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning at Grace-St. Paul’s, and I want to thank your rector for welcoming me back. Some things have changed since the last time I was here. An array of solar panels has shown up on every roof! It’s fantastic! Some things in my own life have changed, too. Last fall I resigned from my job at Grace Church in Amherst, Massachusetts. I went to my bishop and told him that I didn’t want climate activism to be only a part of what I do – I told him that I felt called to focus all my energy on awakening people of faith to the urgency of tackling climate change, and that my dream is to help build a movement to protect life as it has evolved on this planet. Through the grace of God, funding was found, a position was created, and since January I’ve been serving the Diocese of Western Massachusetts as its first Missioner for Creation Care. Now I travel around the diocese like an itinerant 19th century Methodist minister on horseback, or maybe like Paul Revere, spreading the word from church to church that climate change is not only coming, it is upon us, it is here, and that as people blessed and sustained and empowered by God we have the great privilege and holy responsibility to rise up and to do something about it.As I wrote today’s sermon, I had to do some wrestling. How in the world does Trinity Sunday, which we celebrate today, connect with climate change? How does understanding God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit help to inform and inspire our struggle to stabilize the climate and to pass on to our children and our children’s children a sustainable, just, and habitable world? That is not an idle question, for the news from climate scientists in the last few months has been increasingly grim. Maybe you heard about the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group, which 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…” On top of this bleak news, last month two landmark studies showed 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 The environmentalist Bill McKibben has commented that it’s as if we were running Genesis backwards. Given the perilous situation in which human beings and all other living creatures now find ourselves, what can we learn from the doctrine of the Trinity? What gift of hope can we receive as we consider the God we meet as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? A quick word about history: probably no doctrine of the Church developed with more contentiousness and controversy than the doctrine of the Trinity. After the life and death of Jesus Christ, generation by generation Christians searched the Scriptures and found hints and clues that suggested how to think about the nature of God. They pondered passages such as the ones we heard this morning. At the end of Second Corinthians, Paul blesses his community by invoking “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:13), and at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18). From these biblical hints and clues, from their ongoing lives of prayer, and from their forays into Greek philosophy, in the 4th century the teachers and scholars of the Church began to hammer out the doctrine of the Trinity. It took many acrimonious arguments to work out the phrasing of the Nicene Creed, and it took decades for that Creed to be accepted across the Church. In fact, one of the causes of the Great Schism between East and West was whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or whether it proceeds from the Father and the Son – the so-called “filioque” debate, to use the Latin word, as you’ll see in your service leaflet in the note at the end of the Nicene Creed. That is how much it mattered to the Church that we get it right when we think about the Trinity – a thousand-year-old Church split over who proceeds from whom! I am grateful that our Christian forebears thought so rigorously about the nature of God, and that they gave us an intellectual framework for speaking about the divine. It matters how we think about God. But no matter how subtle, even brilliant, our analysis, there are limits to what the intellect can do. God is not an object – even a very big object – that we can separate from other objects and then analyze, dissect, and probe, as we might study a star in the sky or a specimen in a lab. God is not an object at all, but a mysterious Presence that abides within and beyond all things; not another being among many beings, but the very Ground of all being; not a monolithic, omnipotent Man in the Sky but a dynamic communion of self-giving love. We can’t know the Trinity from the outside, by thinking about it, but only from the inside, by experiencing it. As St. Augustine put it long ago, “We come to God by love, not by navigation.” And he describes the Trinity very simply as the Lover, the Beloved, and the love that flows between. Step into that flow of love, and we are caught up in a love affair that has been going on since before time began. The divine Mystery that we call “God” is an ongoing exchange of love between God the Father – the Lover, the Creator – and God the Son, the Beloved. Flowing between them is the never-ending, tender love of the Holy Spirit. God is one, and yet God is also three, a dynamic relationship, a giving and receiving of love. When the early Councils of the Church debated the nature of God, they came up with a wonderful image of the Trinity as a dance. The word in Greek is perichoresis and it means a “dance-around” of love. Imagine that! At the center of reality, a dance of love is in full swing! Jesus came to invite us to join the dance. He was completely caught up in a love affair with God, his beloved abba, which is the Aramaic word for Father, and through the Holy Spirit, our counselor and comforter and the guide who leads us into all truth, we, too, are drawn into the flow of love between God the Father/Mother and God the Son. Our baptism in the name of the Triune God signals the fact that God is not just “out there,” but also “in here,” and that from the very beginning, God has made a home in us. 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 circulating everywhere. 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. Someone who knows, as we heard in the creation story from Genesis, that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), who is a dance-around of love – which is why, when we give and receive love, we feel most joyful and alive, and most truly and fully ourselves. The so-called “dominion” that God gives to human beings in the Genesis story is permission not to dominate or exploit the other creatures of the earth, but rather to love as God loves, to exercise a dominion of love that protects the wellbeing and integrity of God’s creation. So in the face of the climate crisis, we Christians have a chance to show who we really are: people whose very nature and truest identity is to love as God loves; people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; people who can reach into our reserves of courage, faith, and hope and can step out to bear witness to the God who entrusted the world to our care. There is so much that we can do. We can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and cut back on AC. 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. 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. And the dance of love that is circulating within us will empower us to do this work. The Diocese of Massachusetts recently decided to divest from fossil fuels, reasoning that if it’s unethical to ruin the world by burning fossil fuels, then it’s unethical to profit from that ruin. The Diocese of Western Massachusetts, where I serve, is in the midst of debating whether or not to divest its portfolio, and perhaps that it is a conversation that some of you can initiate or join here in the Diocese of Arizona. Divestment is one of the best strategies around for mobilizing a movement that will eventually accomplish what we really need: a stiff price on carbon and strong, binding international treaties. Meanwhile Bill McKibben has written an article calling for the largest rally in the history of the climate movement. It will be held in New York City on the weekend of September 20. As McKibben puts 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.” I’m not going to ask you to expand your carbon footprint by joining me in September at what’s being called the People’s Climate March, but maybe you can invite your New York friends to come, and your friends in New England, and anyone who lives, let’s say, a half-day’s train ride from Manhattan. The melting ice in West Antarctica may be unstoppable, but so is the love that made us and sustains us and 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, so many ways to help build a better world. On this Trinity Sunday we celebrate the living God who is beyond us, and among us, and within us, the God in whose image we are made, the God who meets us in every Eucharist and who sends us out to make love tangible and visible in the world. “Go,” the Risen Christ says to his disciples in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. Don’t hang around and worship me. Go. Take part in my mission of mercy, justice, and compassion. Step into the dance and invite everyone else to join in, too. And, whatever comes, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). c) 2014 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
1. http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/may/nasa-uci-study-indicates-loss-of-west-antarctic-glaciers-appears-unstoppable/#.U3FiNflLWRO 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
Take a moment to feel the earth beneath your feet. As you inhale your next breath, take a moment to give thanks for the air that is flowing through your lungs. Notice the living world around you. In awakening to the gift of God’s creation, you are not alone! Today (June 5) is World Environment Day, and people around the world are turning with grateful hearts to oceans, rivers, and trees, to birds, marine animals, and mountains, as we honor our corner of creation and remember how interdependent everything is.
The United Nations invites us to celebrate World Environment Day, or WED, a pretty fine acronym evoking the possibility that one day human beings and the rest of creation will be “wed” together in love. That may sound impossibly quaint or far-fetched, given humanity’s collective assault on the natural world, from deforestation and the spread of toxic chemicals to species extinction and climate change. But it’s a vision that speaks to my heart. To play with the marriage imagery, I’d say that humanity and the rest of creation could definitely use some marital counseling.
So today is a good day to refresh our personal relationship with the natural world. We can ask ourselves: What kind of relationship am I creating with the living world around me? Do I hurtle through the day with my head down, absorbed in my own thoughts, wired for worry and ignoring my non-human kin? Or do I make myself available for encounter? Do I notice the hawk overhead, the shining leaf and passing cloud? Do I give myself permission to slow down and pay attention, to relish each breath and to bless the ground with every step? Is there something I can do this week to express my affection for the web of life of which I am a part, and my concern for its well-being?
Love every leaf. So says Father Zossima, the Russian Orthodox abbot in The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that I read in high school, studied in college, and studied yet again while completing my doctorate in Russian and comparative literature. From his deathbed, the abbot describes the ecstatic perception of reality that inspired his life.
Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
A version of that passage is taped to the back of every “Compassion Mandala” icon made by Robert Lentz, a wonderful image for meditation and prayer. The image shows a Christ-figure surrounded by golden light, bending over to embrace the Earth. Without a word, the image portrays the all-embracing compassion of Christ, whose love extends not just to each of us as individuals, and not just to human beings, but also to the whole creation.
If you want to safeguard our world, which is so loved by God (John 2:16), please join me in New York City on the weekend of September 20th and 21st for the largest rally in the history of the climate movement. As environmentalist Bill McKibben puts 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.” Here is a link for more information about the march, and to register, and here is Bill McKibben’s article, “A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change.”
I imagine a crowd of Christians from across New England, the Atlantic seaboard, and beyond, gathered on that September weekend in New York, along with thousands upon thousands of other people. I imagine us walking, singing and carrying banners from our respective churches. I imagine us witnessing to a creative and redeeming God who loves the world with an all-embracing love and whose Spirit empowers us to tackle the biggest challenge that human beings have ever faced. Find a way to come! I’ll see you there.
1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, revised and edited by Ralph E. Matlaw, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976, p. 298.
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/)