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 RevivingCreation.org, 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).
Over the years, science and religion have had a complicated and sometimes hostile relationship. As our convener Professor Mark Silk observed, religion and science have distinct approaches to reality. Although scientists sometimes serve as advisers and consultants to religious leaders, and although scientists may turn to religion for inspiration, to form a coalition of religious leaders and scientists “would be something new under the sun.”
Such a partnership has enormous potential in this perilous time. In fact, such a partnership may be not just desirable, but even essential. Given the massive disruption of our global climate that is now underway, we need to hear from scientists, who have made it abundantly clear that continuing to burn fossil fuels will lead in a very short time to climate catastrophe. And we also need to hear from spiritual and religious leaders, who can give us the inspiration, motivation, and moral courage to change course and to create a more just and life-sustaining society.
Professor Silk put it like this: “If a coalition of scientists and faith leaders can’t communicate what is necessary to do, no one can. If no one can communicate what is necessary, no one can do what is necessary.”
Professor Robert DeConto of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gave a brief, stark presentation of his research on the Antarctica ice sheet, noting that business as usual would result in a one meter global rise in sea levels by 2100 that would affect 152 million people worldwide – just from the melting of Antarctica’s ice. Lest those numbers sound abstract, he brought his message home with a slide depicting how much of Boston would be underwater.
I was invited to speak about the current state of religious climate action in Massachusetts, and my remarks are posted below. Some of the other faith-based speakers included the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Bethel AME Church, who, in a talk entitled “The Cry of the Poor,” spoke eloquently about climate justice, urging us to grapple with the contradiction that the people most harmed by climate change are not the people who make policy decisions.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, whose new book Climate Church, Climate World is about to be released, pressed the religious leaders in the room to recognize that witnessing for God’s Creation is the vocation of the church, the synagogue, the mosque and the temple. “What if taking action on climate were to become as defining a quality of what it means to be religious, as prayer? What if religious leaders in Massachusetts gave at least as much attention to collective salvation as they currently give to personal salvation? What if every person of faith understood that ‘To be a person of faith, I have to speak up for Creation?’”
Professor Moomaw suggested: What if this second notice about the ways that human activity is unraveling the web of life were handed out in every congregation and cited in the newsletters of every faith community?
The Rev. Fred Small, Minister for Climate Justice at Arlington Street Church, Boston, stood up to say, “This is a historic gathering. If it isn’t a historic gathering, we will have failed.” He urged us to take to heart Pope Francis’ admonition in Laudato Si that we must become politically engaged and strategic. To quote the Pope’s encyclical: “Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.” (179).
Rev. Fred went on to say, “My prayer and my entreaty to the Archdiocese is to bring the same passion and priority to climate justice as to any pro-life effort heretofore — because there is nothing more pro-life than protecting and preserving Creation, the environment on which all human life depends.” If we don’t do this, he added, the cost would be enormous in fire, famine, flood, and refugees.
Looking back on these intensive two days of discussion and our plans for next steps, I live in hope that something new is indeed being born right here in Massachusetts as people of science and people of faith come together to unite head and heart and to work together to protect our common home.
My thoughts are expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who heard God saying,
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:16)
Here is my presentation to the gathering of scientists and faith leaders at the Archdiocese of Boston on February 8, 2018
The Current State of Religious Climate Action in Massachusetts
I am blessed to be here. Thank you, Cardinal O’Malley, for convening us. To you and to everyone here I bring greetings from Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, whom I am representing.
I’ve been asked to speak briefly about the current state of religious climate action in Massachusetts, and I’ll start with a word about myself. I was ordained in June 1988, the same month that NASA climate scientist James Hanson testified to the US Senate that scientists were increasingly concerned about the effects of burning fossil fuel and what at that point they were calling “the greenhouse effect.” Concern about climate change was placed on my heart at the very beginning of my ordained ministry, at its root, and in the years since then, I have tried to understand our spiritual and moral responsibility as human beings – as religious leaders – in a time of such great peril.
Just from looking around, I can say that the interfaith climate justice movement in Mass. is alive and well. With people in this room (and beyond) I’ve preached about climate change and led workshops for clergy on how to preach about climate. With people in this room I’ve led retreats and written pastoral letters and ecumenical statements. With people in this room I’ve pushed for divestment from fossil fuels, lobbied for carbon pricing, marched for climate justice, held prayer vigils, and been arrested for acts of non-violent civil disobedience to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
I am heartened by what I see as an upsurge in awareness and concern here in the Commonwealth among people of faith and good will, and a growing desire to connect the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. I am thrilled that The Poor People’s Campaign is taking shape and linking justice of every kind – social, racial, economic and ecological. Meanwhile, I want you to know that a group of people of many faiths is organizing a climate witness that will take place in Boston on Monday in Holy Week, March 26, a few days before Passover. We’re calling it Exodus from Fossil Fuel. We will hold an interfaith ceremony at the State House, appeal to the Governor to stop the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, and then march in procession to the Back Bay, where a new pipeline project is slated to power luxury high-rises with fracked gas. There we plan to witness to our vision of a beloved community, and to our intention to build a just and livable future for our planet and all its inhabitants. I expect that young people will join us, because I know they are looking for moral leadership on climate. I invite you to join us, too.
The movement is growing, but what we’re missing is an effective, strategic, and well-organized network that mobilizes faith communities from top to bottom, rouses the general public, and becomes an unstoppable force on the political scene. Some of us recently tried and failed to create such a network. Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (or MAICCA, for short) came into being in 2015, inspired by the release of Laudato Si. It had a good two-year run. MAICCA did many wonderful things, such as making it easy for congregations to become politically engaged, organizing legislative action days at the State House, setting up waves of meetings with local legislators, and taking a leadership role in the huge climate march and rally that was held in Boston in December 2015. But MAICCA ran into trouble – for one thing, we never worked out our organization or a sustainable strategy.
The time is ripe for a new initiative.
I hope for three things:
1) I hope that top leaders of faith communities will make it crystal clear that addressing the climate crisis is central to our moral and spiritual concern. It’s not one of 26 different causes that we care about, but a cause that affects everything we cherish. I hope that top faith leaders will convey to their congregations that 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. The climate 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.
2) I hope that faith communities will get organized within our selves and across traditions so that we become scientifically informed, spiritually grounded, and politically effective, enabling us to speak with one voice about the sacredness of God’s Creation and the moral imperative to protect it.
3) I hope that faith communities will draw from our deep spiritual wisdom as we confront the climate crisis. We know that the massive West Antarctica ice shelves are collapsing and sliding into the sea in a process that some scientists call “unstoppable.” Yet we also know that the love of God is unstoppable. With that love in our hearts and in our midst, who knows what we will be able to accomplish?
Sermon for the First Sunday After the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA
Psalm 29Acts 19:1-7Mark 1:4-11
Baptism and the call to protect Earth
Our Gospel text this morning tells one of the foundational stories of Christian faith, the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan. Before I say one word more, I invite you to take your thumb and to trace the sign of the cross on your forehead. Are you with me? Let’s do it together, once or twice. Let’s make it a prayer, for with grateful hearts we recognize that this simple gesture recalls the fact that our forehead has been indelibly marked with the sign of the cross and that we were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether that once-in-a-lifetime event took place many years ago, before conscious memory, when we were babies, or whether it took place more recently, in a ceremony that we remember – through our baptism we have been drawn into the divine life of God and marked as Christ’s own forever.
It’s clear that Jesus’ baptism was a decisive experience, a pivotal event that launched him into his public ministry. The story is told in all four Gospels, and it’s the very first story about Jesus that we hear in the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. In his baptism, Jesus consciously received the identity that had been his since before the beginning of time: he was, and had always been, the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one could take that love away. That’s what happens in our baptism, too: like Jesus, we, too, are forever claimed as God’s own. From that moment and for the rest of our lives, we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable relationship of love. Do you ever wonder who you are, who you really are, deep down? Today’s Gospel story gives the answer. Without doing a thing to deserve it or to earn it, you are the son, you are the daughter, you are the beloved of God – you are the one with whom God is well pleased. Wherever you go, whatever you do, wherever the Spirit sends you, the divine life is flowing through you, as close as your breath, as close as your heartbeat. You and I belong to Christ forever, and we are loved to the core.
I don’t know about you, but I find this a deeply consoling truth to hold on to right now, when so many people feel stressed and scattered, anxious or depressed. We live in a turbulent time, and the world is rapidly changing. Sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, so it’s easy to feel unmoored, ungrounded, and afraid. What a perfect moment to remind ourselves of our baptism and to touch in again to the deep truth that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Roman 8:35-39)!
Here’s the thing: the love that embraced us in our baptism, the love that flows through us with our every breath – that love extends not only to individuals, not only to the baptized, and not only to human beings. The love of God embraces the whole Creation. Scripture tells us so (e.g. Gen. 1:31; Gen. 9:8-10, 15; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 24:1; John 3:16; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 1:10, Ephesians 4:9-10, Col. 1:19-20), and we glimpse this truth in our own experience. Anyone who has ever been amazed by the beauty of the world – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf, or gazing at a mountain, or looking at the stars on a frosty night knows what it’s like to feel a wave of wonder, humility, gratefulness and awe. The Creator of all-that-is is always disclosing God’s self to us in the natural world, always inviting us to slow down, look carefully, and greet our other-than-human kin.
That’s what Jesus did, I think: he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospels we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. Here he is in today’s story, plunging into a river! His parables and stories are rich with images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds and rocks. As I consider Jesus, it seems to me that he encountered every person and creature he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world because he saw with his sacred eyes. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God, because he himself was lit up with God. Jesus knew what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
So when we see that living world being desecrated – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we realize that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we understand that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus; we want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.
I wish I could tell you, as some highly placed but misinformed politicians have recently claimed, that the bitter cold that has gripped North America and the hurricane-force winds that just blasted the East Coast are a sign that global warming is not real. In fact, researchers point out that climate change may well be related to these frigid temperatures: the Arctic is warming rapidly, and the jet stream that once functioned like a strong fence or lasso that held cold air firmly around the pole now seems to be giving way and growing weak. Some scientists compare it “to leaving a refrigerator door open, with cold air flooding the kitchen even as warm air enters the refrigerator.” In any case, except for Canada and the northern United States, just about every other part of the world is warmer than normal. Last year was the second hottest on record for our planet as a whole, just behind a sweltering 2016, which crushed the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years have all been in this century.
Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. You know the drill!
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’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.
Here in the Berkshires you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage.
We who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are faithful stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all her communities. Jesus took risks to oppose the unjust authorities of his time, and we must do the same.
Here on the first Sunday of the Epiphany we have a chance to make a radical new start. We have a chance to reclaim a covenant more powerful than any stack of New Year’s Resolutions. This morning we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and we affirm the power of our own baptism in His name. We are loved beyond measure by a divine love that will never let us go. Day by day, as long as we live, we have countless opportunities to bear witness to that love. Who knows what compassion will rise up from our renewed commitment, what new cherishing of our selves and each other, what fresh energy for justice seeking and peacemaking in this precious world entrusted to our care?
NOTE: On January 12, 2018, ClimateNexus posted an updated analysis of the relationship between the cold snap and climate change that does not mention changes in the jet stream:
Strange Times for Chilly Temps: The type of extreme cold North Americans experienced in early January has become increasingly rare as the planet warms, a new analysis shows. An initial breakdown of January’s cold snap from World Weather Attribution finds such frosty temperatures are now 15 times rarer than they were a century ago, when cold waves were an average of 4 degrees F chillier. This winter’s extreme cold “wouldn’t have been that strange” 100 years ago, study co-author Gabriel Vecchi told the AP. “Things like this are becoming stranger.” (New York Times $, AP, Washington Post $, Earther, Mashable)
Under threatening skies, a group of men and women gathers in the basement of the Paulist Center, less than a block from the Boston State House. One by one we introduce ourselves and offer a one-word summary of how we feel as we prepare to risk arrest.
Everyone has been trained in non-violent civil disobedience. Everyone has taken the necessary practical steps, such as removing wedding bands and other jewelry, slipping a driver’s license or other identification into a pocket, and scribbling the phone number of the jail support person onto an inner arm. In a moment, everyone will select a buddy for the day, for it is good to stand with a friend when you are arrested, handcuffed, put in a police van, and locked in a holding cell.
Some of us have faced arrest before, others will risk arrest for the first time, but just now all of us are carrying out a ritual of personal preparation that has been passed down through generations. We are clear about our goals: to leave a just and habitable world to our children. We are clear about our methods: to be non-violent in action, speech, and spirit. We divest ourselves of everything unnecessary. We take with us only what is necessary: a few physical essentials and an open heart. We head out two by two.
That’s what Jesus did: he sent out his disciples two by two, ordering them to take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts (Mark 6:7-8). His first followers, the men and women of the Jesus Movement, repeatedly challenged unjust power and were accused of disturbing the peace and “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). These brave souls seemed to spend as much time in jail as they did walking free.
At the moment I don’t feel particularly inspired or brave, but that doesn’t matter: I feel called to be here, doing what needs to be done. All around the world, other people are with us in spirit as we gather strength in this Boston basement: they, too, are standing up for what is right, refusing to settle for a death-dealing status quo.
We have our own climate action to take here in Massachusetts. Mass Power Forward, a coalition of environmental, climate, community, and faith groups (including the Social Justice Commission of Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Environmental Ministries of United Church of Christ in Massachusetts) is running a campaign (#StandUpCharlie) to push Governor Charlie Baker to sign an executive order that directs all state agencies to do everything in their legal authority to stop new fossil fuel projects. We want him to speak out against the pipeline tax and make it clear to fossil fuel executives that the Commonwealth is not willing to pay billions of dollars to fund their pipeline projects. We want him to establish a policy of climate justice and to stand up for clean energy, not to perpetuate the lethal grip of fossil fuels.
What did Governor Charlie Baker say last week when six protesters resolutely sat down in his Statehouse office, refusing to leave until he stopped all new fossil fuel projects in Massachusetts? He said he didn’t want to “take options off the table.”
Keep more fracked gas on the table? That means taking climate stability off the table,1 taking moderate weather off the table, taking intact ice sheets off the table, taking your children’s future off the table, taking a habitable world off the table.
Keep all options on the table? No way. Not if you love your children; not if you love the beautiful blue-green planet into which you and I were born; not if you care about climate migrants and refugees; not if you’re concerned about resource wars over clean water and arable land; not if you want to preserve some remnant of the web of life that is fast unraveling before our eyes.
So it’s no wonder – when the twenty-six of us risking arrest have finished initial preparations and walked to the Boston State House, passed through security and assembled with hundreds of supporters in a large hall – that the crowd quickly takes up the chant: “No new pipelines, keep it off the table!” Our cries reverberate against the walls, filling the space.
Claire Miller (Toxics Action Center) and Craig Altemose (Better Future Project and 350 Mass for a Better Future) speak about the growing movement to stop new fossil fuel projects and to build a safer, healthier economy. The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, a national leader on climate, speaks with concise eloquence: “We are assembled here on the hinge of history. Time is short. We are here to give Governor Baker the opportunity to make the most important decision of his career.”
Then up the stairs we go, to the Governor’s Executive Office. State troopers stand guard at the doorway, preventing us from stepping inside, so the twenty-six of us sit down on the hallway’s marble floor. We intend to sit there until the Governor signs the executive order we seek or until we are forcibly removed.
At first the police hassle us. They point out that a visitor has arrived in a wheelchair. They argue that, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the hallway must be kept completely clear. The police tell us to move along. Our spokespeople counter: “Fine. We’d be glad to empty the hallway. Since only twenty-six people are refusing to leave, there is plenty of room for us to move into the Governor’s office and to carry out our sit-in there.”
The police back off. Protesters keep a pathway open for pedestrians and wheelchairs, and there in the hallway we stay. Hundreds of supporters, holding banners and signs, spread out nearby. Everyone settles in for a long afternoon.
We pass the hours by belting out every inspiring song we know, from “Singing for Our Lives” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” to songs with lyrics written especially for the occasion. We take turns standing up to explain what motivates our activism. A labor organizer speaks of his many years of learning when and how to negotiate. “Sometimes negotiation isn’t possible,” he tells us. “You can’t negotiate with climate change.” Activities that push the world to the brink of climate chaos will never be able to strike a deal with physics and chemistry.
A physician in a white lab coat stands up. “In medical school, we learn ‘First, do no harm.’” Policies that cater to fossil fuel companies are doing grave harm to our state, our country, and our planet.
A middle-aged woman stands up to speak about extreme weather events and rising seas. An elderly woman speaks about her love and concern for her grandchildren. A young man speaks about his Millennial friends who, anticipating terrible years ahead, are deciding not to bear children. Activist and independent journalist Wen Stephenson recites by heart a compelling passage from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” that concludes: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”
I speak about the love that propels me. Climate change is not only a scientific, economic, and political issue, but also one that is deeply spiritual. What do we love most? To what are we willing to commit our lives? What is the North Star that guides our decisions? When we know what we love most, we make energy choices that are wise. And, I might add, we push our elected officials to stop desecrating the Earth entrusted to our care and to move as swiftly as possible to a clean energy future in which all beings can thrive.
The hours pass. When a supporter needs to leave, he or she approaches the group that is sitting in the hallway and hands one of the protesters a small flower. I am touched by this gesture of support: “I may not be with you in person, but I am with you in spirit.”
Many people are with us in body or spirit. A hundred miles west, local activists led by Arise for Social Justice and Climate Action Now are carrying out a simultaneous #StandUpCharlie protest at Governor Baker’s Springfield office. They ask him to meet additional demands that affect climate justice in western Massachusetts: to prevent large-biomass burning, to expand our system of public transportation, and to implement East-West high-speed rail.
The hour is late. The building will close at 6:00 p.m. Additional police officers assemble nearby. After brief, intense discussions among ourselves, we decide that we are willing to face criminal charges and to be summoned to court without undergoing arrest – a decision that some of us regret (see Wen Stephenson’s subsequent article in The Nation). A police officer announces the charges – trespassing and unlawful assembly – and we hand over our driver’s licenses to be photocopied.
We head out into the night.
The #StandUpCharlie campaign plans a brief hiatus, to give the Governor some time over the holidays to consider his leadership on climate. In January, we intend to come back, and in greater numbers, until the Governor agrees to take a clear stand against more fracked gas projects in Massachusetts.
Preserving a habitable planet depends on local and regional action by every sector of society, especially when our national government seems determined to dig us ever deeper into the pit of relying on fossil fuels. Whatever form our actions take – whether or not they include arrest – we will need to be loving, bold, relentless, and strong.
And persistent. Jesus encourages persistence in prayer. He encourages his friends “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Then he tells a parable about a persistent widow who refuses to quit pestering a judge until he grants her justice (Luke 18:1-8). Fed up by her tenacity, the judge at last relents, saying, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).
That’s the kind of persistence we intend to maintain as we press Governor Baker to become a climate leader. We intend to be persistent in prayer and to pray persistently as we put our bodies on the line. We aim to tend our inner fires, to be steadfast in listening to the inner voice of love that gives us courage and strength. And when God calls us to take action, we hope, by God’s grace, to be able to answer:
What a blessing to be back at St. Mark’s Cathedral! Thank you, Steve, for inviting me to preach. I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ as Missioner for Creation Care. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is a joy to return to Seattle, where my father was born, and to see again your magnificent forests, lakes, seas, and mountains.
My husband Robert Jonas is with me, and we’ve spent the past week in the Pacific Northwest, speaking and leading retreats about spiritual resilience. I am drawn to the topic of spiritual resilience because it seems that most of us could use some resilience right about now. Many people tell me that they’re feeling bone tired. Partly it’s the demands of family life and work life, the hectic effort to keep so many balls in the air. And partly we’re tired because of the stress of knowing that as a nation we’re facing so many difficult issues all at the same time. Day by day, as we read the headlines or hear about the latest developments, many of us are gripped by outrage and alarm. We are living in turbulent times when upheaval seems to be the new normal and we brace ourselves for the next scary bit of bad news.
As Missioner for Creation Care, what most concerns me is the fact that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – are rapidly disappearing from Earth. You may have noticed the report in Friday’s Seattle Times that Orcas may be extinct by the end of the century because of dwindling numbers of salmon, human pollutants, and underwater noise. 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. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sea ice is melting. Land ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. The deep oceans are heating up and growing more acidic. Hurricanes – like those that ravaged Puerto Rico and the southeastern U.S. – are growing more intense. Soon after that succession of hurricanes, catastrophic wildfires began roaring up the California coast, accelerated by high winds, extreme heat, and bone-dry landscapes. Climate change didn’t cause these monster storms and fires, but it certainly made them worse. These so-called “natural” disasters are not entirely natural – they are driven by dirty energy like coal, gas, and oil, which dump carbon and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and disrupt the climate.
In a precarious time, when many of us, for good reason, are stressed or tired or scared, we need once again to sink our roots deep into the love of God, to remember how loved we are, how cherished we are in God’s sight, how nourished we are by a love that will give us strength for the journey ahead and will never let us go. So thank God for St. Mark’s Cathedral! Thank God for every congregation where people draw together to pray, to listen to the wisdom of Scripture, to draw close to Jesus, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
Today’s readings give us a beautiful image for spiritual resilience. In Psalm 1 we read that those who trust in God are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). Imagine being such a tree! Your roots go deep into the love of God, which runs like a river beside you. No matter what is happening in the world around you, even if what’s going on feels dangerous or chaotic, even in times of storm or drought, your roots reach deep into the ground and you stand beside a divine river that is endlessly flowing. As another psalm puts it, “the river of God is full of water” (Psalm 65:9). Like trees planted beside a stream of living water (John 7:37-38), we are “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). We know that God is with us. We feel God’s power and we feel God’s strength. Drawing from those deep roots we rise up like trees, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. We drink deep of abundance, absorb it into every cell of our bodies, and then share that abundance with the world – freely, generously, without holding back, because there is plenty more where that came from!
The same image of spiritual resilience and aliveness plays out in a passage from the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:7-8):
7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8 They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
I find this image so compelling that when my husband and I traveled to Seattle to lead a series of events on spiritual resilience, we named the whole thing “Rooted and Rising.” I’m not a botanist, but I’m learning that trees are more intelligent than we thought. Books like The Hidden Life of Trees tell us that the root systems of trees and fungi communicate with each other, and that trees develop social networks and share resources. There is a whole lot of underground life going on beneath our feet! And so it is with us: when we sink our own roots deep into the love of God, we, too, discover that everyone and everything is connected. On the surface, we may see only our differences, what divides us from each other, but from below, on the level of roots, we discover what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community: here, where God’s love is always being poured into our hearts, we realize that everyone, and the whole Creation, is loved and that we belong together. Beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, we belong to one living, sacred whole.
Every time we tap into the deep-down truth of our essential belovedness, we discover fresh energy for life. And so – up we rise, like a mighty tree, offering our gifts to each other and to the world: our fruits and leaves; our time, talent, and treasure; a kind word, a healing gesture.
When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much 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 farms and land trusts. 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 may have to confront the powers that be, especially in a time 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.
I can’t help thinking of the African-American spiritual that became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, a protest song and a union song, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Even now, I can hear Pete Seeger singing, “We shall not, we shall not be moved; we shall not, we shall not be moved, just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” He goes on: “Young and old together, we shall not be moved… women and men together, we shall not be moved… city and country together, we shall not be moved… black and white together, we shall not be moved… just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”
Rooted in love and rising up in action, Christians and other people of faith will not be moved. We intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are good stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all its communities. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong; some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a carbon tax; those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. There is so much that we can do – so many ways to bear fruit!
On this day of stewardship ingathering I give thanks for the ways that this community continues to root itself in the love of God and neighbor and to offer its gifts to a hungry, thirsty world. You are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). I trust that everything you do in Jesus’ name will prosper.
Stories like these pull us into prayer – grief for those who perished, anguish for those in harm’s way, gratitude for the people saving everyone they can, and a rising tide of anger and resolve: we will not stand idly by as people drown and are dislocated in extreme storms like these.
Part of a faithful response is concrete and immediate: if we live nearby and have a boat or clothes to spare, we can offer what we have. Wherever we live, if we have money to spare, we can donate to a disaster relief organization, including faith-rooted groups such as Episcopal Relief and Development and Church World Service.
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University likewise confirmed the connections between climate change and Harvey’s destructive power. In his article entitled, “It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly,” Mann pointed out that, while climate change did not “cause” Harvey, “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”
This week, author and social activist Naomi Klein also pointed out that Harvey “didn’t come out the blue”: it was just the kind of extreme weather event that climate scientists have long been predicting. Surely now is the time, she argues, to have a serious policy debate in this country about the host of questions that Harvey raises: What kind of energy should we rely on (a question, she points out, “with jarring implications for the dominant industry in the region being hit hardest: oil and gas”)? What kind of safety net do we need to provide for the poor, the ill, and the elderly, given their vulnerability in times of disaster and given the certainty that storms like Harvey are only a harbinger of the climate-related storms that lie ahead?
Journalist Wen Stephenson is also attuned to the links between climate change and social justice. In an article with the bold headline, “Houston’s Human Catastrophe Started Long Before the Storm,” he writes: “Our unfolding climate catastrophe… is rooted in social and economic inequalities that render most vulnerable the most marginalized and powerless… Decades of neglect, inequality, and disenfranchisement – to say nothing of heedless development and a lack of flood planning tantamount to criminal negligence – mean that Houstonians of all backgrounds, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities, primarily communities of color, have been left utterly undefended.”
Climate change has never been only about polar bears. Stabilizing the climate is about social, racial, and economic justice, too – about treating Earth and each other with reverence and respect. How many more floods need to drown or displace our citizens and destroy our homes before we wake up to the climate crisis and take urgent steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground? How many more vulnerable communities are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and keep enriching fossil fuel industry billionaires?
Meanwhile, as Harvey brings devastation to our Gulf Coast, a record-breaking strong monsoon season in Southeast Asia has caused over 1200 deaths this summer. Thanks to Harvey, Americans are newly aware of the suffering caused by floods exacerbated by climate change. Perhaps now we can look with greater empathy at similar images coming from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh – images of other mothers wading through flooded areas, carrying their children in their arms; images of other homes destroyed and other communities cut off, with no food and clean water for days.
Perhaps now, after seeing what Harvey is doing to Houston, we can look ahead and grasp more clearly – more viscerally – what it means when scientists predict that sea level rise will flood hundreds of American cities in the near future. A new report published by The Union of Concerned Scientists shows that by the end of the century, chronic flooding – defined as flooding so unmanageable that it drives people to move away – “will be occurring from Maine to Texas and along parts of the West Coast. It will affect as many as 670 coastal communities, including Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida; and four of the five boroughs of New York City.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts? I was born and grew up there. By the end of the century? I do the arithmetic, figuring the ages of my children and grandchildren. I imagine the social chaos, the streams of refugees, the abandoned buildings.
Will we look back on Harvey (and Katrina and Sandy) as the first in a relentless wave of storms that eventually brought down many of America’s great cities? Or will we look back on Harvey as the storm that finally got the attention of the American public and showed us the urgent need to take action on climate?
Climate change is neither distant nor abstract. It is real, present, and personal. Our country’s President denies the existence and human causes of climate change, and his environmental policies surely make matters worse, but people of faith, and people of good will, refuse to abandon the Earth entrusted to our care.
Tomorrow, on September 1, Christians will mark a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Whatever your faith tradition, I invite you to join in this planet-wide pause to hold our troubled world in our hearts. I invite you to go outside and appreciate the living world around you – the trees, soil, water, birds, and clouds. I invite you to acknowledge your own grief, anger, and fear about the Earth’s unraveling web of life, and I invite you to seek the guidance, resolve, and courage that come from listening to our deepest inner wisdom, the place where Love dwells.
For millions of Christians worldwide, September 1 marks the first day of the Season of Creation, a season dedicated to lifting up the sacredness of the natural world. Creation Season generally ends on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the man often called the patron saint of ecology. (For resources to mark this day of prayer and the whole Creation Season, visit Creation Justice Ministries.)
Here in Massachusetts, Episcopal congregations will mark their own Season of Creation, from October 4 through the end of November. In the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, we have assembled a mass of resources to help individuals and communities of faith to mark Creation Season. I hope that you will take a look, and decide how you and your community of faith will act, advocate, learn, and pray on behalf of God’s good Earth. How will you celebrate Creation Season this year? Will you design an outdoor worship service at a place of environmental degradation? Offer prayers to bless solar panels? Preach about the climate crisis? Carry out non-violent civil disobedience to protest a new gas pipeline? Organize a study group?
How will the extraordinary suffering and tragedy of Harvey – much of it endured beyond the reach of TV cameras and crew – strengthen your intention to become an agent of healing and hope?
Text of a keynote address for “An Interfaith Climate Justice Meeting” organized by Springfield Area Interfaith Climate Action Network (SAICAN), held at First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA, on October 30, 2016
Thank you for inviting me to speak. I am excited by what you’re up to as a coalition, and very interested to see what emerges from today’s meeting.
I have worked with some of you. Some of you I haven’t yet met. But I greet all of you as friends. I am an Episcopal priest and a long-time climate activist, and I now have the world’s longest job title. I work as “Missioner for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.”
I am not a “missionary,” a term that can evoke imperialist, colonial-era associations of forcibly converting someone to a religion, but rather a “missioner”: someone who is sent out on a mission, serving a purpose greater than herself, out of the box, outside the boundaries of a building. And I’m a missioner for “Creation care,” a term, it turns out, that some people confuse with “creationism,” the belief that the universe originated from acts of God that are literally described in the Bible. Being a missioner for “Creation care” (not creationism) means that I’m trying to protect the beautiful world that God created. My Website is RevivingCreation.org, where you can find blog posts, sermons, articles, and more – including an article on how to start a green team, and an article on the roles that communities of faith can play in a time of climate crisis.
My job is like a swinging door: on the one hand, I preach, speak and lead retreats for people of faith, saying that we need to place the climate crisis at the center of our moral and spiritual concern and we need to take action. Then I turn, and I speak to activists who may have no particular faith tradition. I thank them for engaging in the struggle to protect the web of life, which is such urgent and difficult work. I tell them that the only way to keep going, without burning out or going off the rails, is to draw from inner resources of spiritual wisdom, from spiritual practices, and ideally from the support of a spiritual community.
Today the swinging door is an open door: people of faith and climate justice activists are here together in one place! How sweet it is! I hope we can break down (or at least soften) the false split of people into two camps: “spiritual” people (people who pray, meditate, and take time to contemplate beauty of the world; people who give thanks and who attend to their inner lives) and “active” people (people on the front lines who are serving, helping, organizing, advocating). I hope we can keep working to heal that false split, because right now we need people who can do both: people who can tap into their deep inner wisdom and who can also step out to take bold, creative action on behalf of life on this planet.
Christians often say that we need to be good “stewards” of the planet. That’s true. But sometimes the word “steward” can sound rather wimpy, as if it’s enough for us to recycle a can once in a while, or to turn off a light. I think we need a term that is more robust, more full of juice. Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”
More than ever we need wise people, bold people, dedicated people, because we’re in the midst of an emergency. The house is on fire. Through burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil, in 200 years – just a blink in geologic time – we’ve pumped so much heat-trapping CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than they’ve been for millions of years. In a TED talk a few years ago, climate scientist James Hanson explained that the added energy (or heat) that we’re pouring into the atmosphere is equivalent “to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day.” Not surprisingly, this is having a profound effect on planet. In his book Eaarth, Bill McKibben writes: “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” Scientists tell us with increasing alarm that unless we change course fast, we’re on a fast track to catastrophic, runaway climate change that would render the world very difficult to inhabit, perhaps in the lifetime of our children.
I’ve been a climate activist for many years, but I have never felt the rising tide of commitment and momentum that I now feel. I’m deeply thankful for that, even as I am keenly aware that we have a long struggle ahead. Every religion has issued some kind of statement about the moral and spiritual urgency of addressing the climate crisis – here is just one collection, Faith-based Statements on Climate Change, collected by Citizens Climate Lobby volunteers.
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, a justice issue. The poorest nations and the poorest citizens in each nation are those most vulnerable to climate change, because of flooding, food shortages, and the loss of clean water. As we see in Flint, Michigan, and right here in Springfield, the front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color. The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, and the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects. As the Pope’s encyclical makes crystal clear, healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. We can see that very starkly in the struggle going on right now at Standing Rock in North Dakota, in the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children.
So climate change is a justice issue. And it’s a spiritual issue, too. I titled these remarks “Climate change: An emergency of the heart,” because in the face of the climate crisis, it’s so easy to get emotionally overwhelmed, to go into panic mode and be flooded by anxiety, or to shut down entirely, go numb and not feel a thing, because we don’t know what to do with our fear and anger and grief.
Each of you probably has your own favorite “go to” strategy for avoiding your feelings. Here are a few popular methods. Some of us get into our heads and give all our attention to mastering the facts – we intend to stay on top of every last fact about the rate of melting ice, every last bit of awful climate news, every single detail about the terms of a Senate bill. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for mastering essential facts and for educating ourselves and staying informed. But sometimes we can get so busy using our wonderful brains to analyze, memorize, conceptualize, and so on, that we lose touch with our inner landscape. Then we wonder why we’re so short-tempered or why we woke up with insomnia or why we got into a car accident. It’s only when we’re connected with our feelings that we have access to our emotional intelligence, to our intuition and moral imagination. When we get into our heads and lose contact with our greater intelligence, we forget who we are and we act, as Joanna Macy puts it, like “brains on a stick.”
Another strategy to avoid our feelings is to get really busy. If I stay super busy, if I have an endless list of things to do, if I try to cram in more tasks in a day than any human beings could possibly accomplish, then I won’t have to feel the clench in my belly or the ache in my heart.
Addictive behaviors are another “go-to” strategy. Don’t like what I’m feeling? Maybe it’s time to do some shopping, eat another cookie, have a smoke, have a drink – there are lots of ways to go numb and repress what’s going on inside.
Yes, we are in a climate emergency. We’re also in an emergency of the heart. We need to learn to be “first responders” to ourselves and to each other. We need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. We can’t think our way out of anxiety. So I will share three remedies, three spiritual practices for responding to the cry of the heart.
I invite us to pray. I invite us to explore practices that quiet our minds, bring us into the present moment, and help us listen to our deepest wisdom. This could include practices of mindfulness, practices of gratefulness, practices of meditation and contemplative prayer. Practices like these help us to open to the deep inner wisdom that is always speaking in our hearts. Practices of prayer and meditation help us to listen to the inner voice of love.
Here’s a quote from Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk and prolific writer who practiced contemplative prayer: “If we descend into the depth of our own spirit and arrive at our own center, we confront the inescapable fact that at the root of our existence we are in immediate and constant contact with God.”
That’s a very different image of God than the one we may be used to. God is not “out there,” far away in the heavens. God is “in here,” closer than our next breath.
I invite us to allow ourselves to grieve. We have lost so much, and there is more loss ahead. I invite us to let ourselves feel the pain so that we are able to move forward and to be fully alive. Until we allow ourselves to grieve, parts of ourselves will stay numb, even dead.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a climate summit in Washington, DC, and I happened to be seated beside the Executive Director of the US Climate Action Network. Our task at each table was to do a go-round and to name the top three things that need to be done in order to tackle climate change. The first suggestion from this activist was: Grieve.
Let me add that there are two ways to grieve: one is to grieve alone, in a state of despair – the kind of grief that does not bring healing. The other way to grieve is to grieve within the embrace of love. If we believe in God, we do this when we pray our grief: we grieve in the presence of a loving God who embraces and shares in everything we feel. But whatever our religious beliefs, we can grieve with each other and we can hold each other with love.
Finally, I invite us to discover who we really are. I brought in this icon of St. Francis, who is often called the patron saint of ecology. You can see that Francis didn’t think that that he was alone and that his identity stopped with his skin. He is interpenetrated by other creatures – by wolf, bird, turtle, and snake – and even by elements like wind and fire. He spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Francis’ daily prayer was “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Pray that prayer for a while and see what happens! Our identity does not stop with our skin!
When we experience ourselves like that, as interpenetrated with all of life, then we know that when we take action to save life on earth, we do so in the company of the trees, of the earth and sky. When we stand up for life – when we get arrested in a protest against fossil fuels, when we divest, when we take whatever actions we’re called to take – the trees are thanking us. The animals are thanking us. We are not alone. The whole creation is offering its support.
Thank you for the work you’re doing to re-weave the web of life. I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I only hold that title on your behalf. Each of you – everyone in this room, every single one of you – you too are missioners for Creation care.
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about? You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan about how you can put out the fire, or how you can best exit the house. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
These are the opening lines of a fascinating essay that every climate activist and every faith leader should read.
“Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement” recognizes that when we face an existential or moral crisis, we can pull back into paralyzed inaction or rush about in panicked, ineffective, chaotic action. But choosing between paralysis and panic is not our only option. Instead, we can enter a state of consciousness in which we become highly focused and purposeful, pour our resources into solving the crisis, and accomplish great feats.
Margaret Klein Salamon, author of the article and the Founding Director of The Climate Mobilization, calls this “emergency mode.” She considers emergency mode a particularly intense form of flow state, which has been described as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” She cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow and who described it as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
When we enter emergency mode, inertia or panic are replaced by focused, productive action toward a few critical goals. Non-essential functions are curtailed. Failure is not an option.
In ordinary times, a country is governed in what Salamon wryly labels “normal political-paralysis mode.” We experience a lack of national leadership, and politics is “adversarial and incremental.” By contrast, when a country is in emergency mode, “bipartisanship and effective leadership are the norm.” People work together because they face a shared and urgent threat.
Salamon accurately calls the climate crisis “an unprecedented emergency.” She writes: “Humanity is careening towards the deaths of billions of people, millions of species, and the collapse of organized civilization.” Her article and her organization, The Climate Mobilization, are devoted to developing strategies to mobilize an emergency response. Although I don’t agree with all her policy recommendations, I believe that her basic framing of the challenge is just right.
Most faith communities do not recognize the climate crisis and are not in emergency mode. Yet when faith communities enter this heightened state of awareness about our planetary emergency, we have significant gifts to offer.
I. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what roles do we play? We…
• Address helplessness
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed (“The situation is dire. What difference can I possibly make?”). Faith communities address helplessness in multiple ways, both directly and indirectly. For instance, gathering for worship can be understood as turning toward a Higher Power (God, divine Mystery, Creator, Source) in whose presence we are uplifted, and feel our strength renewed. Entrusting ourselves to God can release within us unexpected power “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
• Face facts
A person of faith is someone who is committed to the search for truth. A Zen Buddhist might speak of facing reality as it is. A Jew, Muslim, or Christian might speak of relating to an all-seeing, all-knowing God who is truth and who leads us into all truth. At their best, the Abrahamic faiths believe that God has given us the capacity to learn about the created world through the lens of science. Science is one important avenue to discovering what is true. People of faith try to see through self-deception and illusion in their quest to discover what is true and to live their lives in accordance with the truth.
Truth includes both material and spiritual realities. By definition, facts are true until proven otherwise. We do not have any right to our own facts.
Science has established that climate change is real, largely caused by human activities, already inflicting widespread damage, and, unless humanity swiftly changes course, on track to make it difficult or impossible for civilization to continue to exist. We know that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, lest we plunge past the point of no return. We know we must make a just and swift transition to a clean energy economy.
Such facts are difficult to face and absorb. But faith communities have the capacity to face facts, tell the truth, and dismiss denial. We trust, and are accountable to, a sacred reality that includes and transcends the material world. From this vantage point, faith communities are uniquely positioned to see through the lies of climate denial. Thanks to our commitment to the truth, we can let go the comfortable fibs and fantasies we may be tempted to tell ourselves (“I don’t need to change; I can continue with business as usual; climate change is someone else’s problem”). We also seek to uncover the confusion, misinformation, and lies about climate change that are deliberately spread by the fossil fuel industry and by the political leaders they fund. Not to do so is to participate in idolatry and to betray our own commitment to bear witness to the truth.
As a Christian, I believe that a religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is a religion that can face painful facts. As a Christian, I also believe that perceiving God’s presence in the very midst of suffering and death is a gateway to transformation and new life.
• Provide vision “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).
Climate science has done its job, giving us essential facts about the potentially catastrophic consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels. But facts alone are not sufficient to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal, purpose, and values. This is what faith communities can do: lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world. Faith communities have a vital role to play in inspiring action to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
As Antoine de Saint Exupery observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Simon Sinek makes the same point in his terrific TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” when he says, “Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”
• Offer hope
Human beings hope for so much: we want a good future for our kids; we want a livable world; we want the web of life to remain intact. The climate crisis challenges these cherished hopes. It renders uncertain the future of the whole human enterprise.
Faith communities offer a context in which to explore and take hold of the kind of hope that does not depend on outward circumstances but that emerges from a deep and irrepressible place in the human spirit. Animated by a radical, God-given hope, people of faith throw themselves into healing the Earth and its communities, human and other than human. Active hope – actively embodying ones deepest values and being ready at every moment to welcome and build the longed-for future – is a path to joy.
• Renew love
Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing problems, such as poverty, hunger, terrorism, refugees on the move, and the spread of infectious diseases. Racism, militarism, and xenophobia – the fear of what is perceived to be foreign or strange – are likely to increase as the planet warms and as various groups battle over depleted resources, such as arable land and clean drinking water. Religious groups, like every other group, can be hijacked by fear and become sources of discord and violence.
Yet the deep message of all the world’s religions is that we are interconnected with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. Faith communities can help to restore our capacity to love God and our neighbor. The climate crisis is already bringing together leaders and members of many faiths in a unified call to protect Earth and all its inhabitants, human and other than human. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on climate justice, Laudato Si’, generated an ardent and enthusiastic response from diverse faith communities around the world.
In a sermon, a D’var Torah, or a dharma talk, in prayer circles, worship services, and meditation groups, in pastoral care, outreach, and advocacy, faith communities can renew our intention and deepen our capacity to act in loving ways, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to cherish the sacredness of the natural world.
Faith communities speak to the heart of what it means to be human. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
• Give moral guidance
The climate crisis raises existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet? How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that can arise with this awareness? How can we live a meaningful life when so much death surrounds us? How determined are we to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste? What does living a “good” life look like today, given everything we know about the consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of (and probably benefiting from) an extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?
Faith communities provide a context for wrestling with these questions, for seeking moral grounding, and for being reminded of such old-fashioned values as compassion, generosity, self-control, selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, sharing, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.
Maybe we should think of the climate crisis as our doorway to enlightenment. The climate crisis challenges us, individually and collectively, to expand our consciousness and to live from our highest moral values. As Jayce Hafner points out in an article published in Sojourners, “I’m Ready to Evangelize…About Climate,” “The act of confronting climate change calls us to be better Christians in nearly every aspect of our lives.”
I expect that this is true not only for Christians, but for people of every faith.
• Encourage reconciliation and seek consensus The coal miner who just lost his job… the CEO of a fossil fuel company who is making plans to drill for more oil… the woman whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy… the farmer watching in despair as his crops wither from a massive drought… the construction worker laying down pipeline for fracked gas… the activist arrested for stopping construction of that pipeline… these are just some of the people who probably have wildly divergent views about the climate crisis and who may feel harmed by and angry with each other.
The climate crisis includes both victims and offenders. To some degree (though to quite different degrees) all of us bear some responsibility for the crisis. At the same time, all of us have a part to play in healing the damage and contributing to a better future. As we work to transition to a clean energy economy whose benefits are available to all communities, we need all hands on deck. Entering emergency mode requires that people work together toward a shared and deeply desired goal, and we need the participation and input of every sector of society as we try to protect our common home. As an African proverb puts it, “Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue.”
Faith communities can provide settings for difficult conversations, active listening, and “truth and reconciliation” groups modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after apartheid was abolished. By expressing compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, faith communities can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that would otherwise never exist. What’s more, because of their historic commitment to the oppressed, marginalized, and poor, faith communities can give voice to the needs of people and all creatures who are generally ignored or exploited by the people in power.
• Allow emotional response The climate crisis can make us go numb. Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that just died in less than two months? What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct?
It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death. How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it? How do we move beyond despair?
Faith communities can give us practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, express, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change.
To ignite and sustain an emergency response, society needs to overcome what Salamon calls our “affect phobia,” our tendency to repress our feelings and to react to climate change only in terms of intellectual analysis and facts (How many heat records were broken last month? How many parts per million of CO2 are in the atmosphere now?). With the support of communities of faith, we can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis without being overwhelmed by grief. Our emotions can also become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
(For a comprehensive overview of the psychological impacts of climate change, take a look at “Beyond Droughts and Storms,” prepared by ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association.)
• Offer pastoral care Faith communities can provide practical and spiritual assistance during climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Congregations can make “disaster preparedness plans,” prepare a response in collaboration with local agencies, and develop networks of communication. One leader involved in this kind of preparation comments that congregations can be “sanctuaries of hope in times of disasters.”
Faith communities can also provide comfort and solace day by day. We can develop networks of pastoral care and spiritual outreach to address the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological challenges that are associated with climate change, being mindful that low-income communities may be particularly vulnerable to climate-related stressors.
• Heighten reverence for nature In a society that treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, faith communities can call us back to the sacredness of the Earth. Faith communities can support the efforts of land trusts to preserve farms, woods, wetlands, and open space (to locate your local land trust, visit Land Trust Alliance); can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; and can sponsor retreats and hikes that explore the wonders of Creation. Faith communities can learn, and help others to learn, what a stone or cloud or bird can teach (see, for instance, “Opening the Book of Nature,” developed by National Religious Coalition on Creation Care). They can help people from different religious background to become environmental leaders (see, for instance, the programs of GreenFaith and of The Center for Religion and the Environment at Sewanee). Some communities of faith gather for spiritual practice outside. For instance, Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH, founded by the Rev. Steve Blackmer, is a new kind of “church”: “a place where the earth itself, rather than a building, is the bearer of sacredness.”
• Inspire bold action
Faith communities have a long history of leading movements for social and environmental justice, from child labor to women’s rights, peace, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Faith communities tap into our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that is greater than our personal comfort and self-interest. Faith in God (however we name that Higher Power) can inspire people to take bold actions that require courage, compassion, and creativity.
Faith communities can model best practices for “going green,” such as to get an energy audit, increase energy conservation and efficiency, look into installing solar panels, put in bike racks, replace lawns with community gardens, and so on. But taking care of our immediate buildings and community is just a start. An adequate response to the scope and speed of the climate crisis requires collective action and political engagement.
In the footsteps of trailblazers such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, including countless people of faith, have been arrested in recent years as non-violent resistance to fossil fuels continues to grow. With fifteen other religious leaders, I was arrested on May 25 at a prayerful protest against construction of Spectra’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline in Boston. On June 29 twelve faith leaders – Buddhist, Jewish, Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist – were among 23 people arrested in another protest of the same pipeline. In solidarity with the hundreds of people who recently died from deadly heat waves in Pakistan and India and were buried in mass graves, the clergy led a climate ‘mass graves’ funeral, featuring eulogies, prayers, and mourning, with some of the resisters lying down in the grave/trench for nearly two hours.
By inspiring significant action, such as divesting from fossil fuels and engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
For religious leaders who want to network with colleagues to engage in visionary and prayerful civil disobedience, sign up at ClergyClimateAction.org.
To join an epic march, July 14-18, against new gas pipelines that will go all the way to the Massachusetts State House, visit People Over Pipelines.
II. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what tools do we offer?
• Storytelling The myths, tales, parables and stories of religious traditions give us powerful ways to re-imagine our selves and our situation, and to absorb deep (not necessarily literal) truths. Stories speak not just to our rational mind but also to our affections, will, and imagination. From the Judaeo-Christian tradition, stories of Moses confronting Pharaoh and of Jesus healing, teaching, suffering, dying, and rising again – all these and more can be brought to bear to address the climate crisis and to give us courage, guidance, and motivation to act. Recently I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-21a) to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice and to inspire their own acts of resistance.
• Prayer and silence
Every faith tradition offers practices that teach us how to move out our habitual narrow orbit of self-involvement and to connect with a larger, sacred reality. The climate crisis invites people who until now have felt immune from any desire to pray, to explore practices of prayer and meditation.
Expressive forms of prayer empower us to move beyond denial and numbness and to acknowledge the full range of our feelings. My article, “Feeling and pain and prayer,” originally published in Review for Religious, presents four ways that Christians can pray with difficult feelings. The article also describes how expressive prayer can change us over time, deepening our sense of intimacy with God, our experience of a peace that passes understanding, and our capacity to move from helplessness and hopelessness to effective action.
Contemplative forms of prayer (such as Centering Prayer and mindfulness meditation) strengthen our capacity to sit in silence with the unknown, to accept impasse, and to keep listening and trusting even in the darkness. Practices that lead the mind into silent awareness offer more than a respite from thinking about the climate crisis. They can open us to an intuitive, non-verbal experience of communion, even union, with others, with the natural world, and with ultimate reality. Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death is the great gift of contemplative prayer. Rooted in that fierce and openhearted love, we are guided to actions commensurate with the emergency we’re in.
• Rituals Faith traditions offer a range of ceremonies and rituals that seek to awaken our awareness and revive our relationship with a sacred presence or power beyond the limited world of “I, me, and mine.” In a time of climate crisis, people need rituals that address our fear of death and give us courage to trust in a life greater than death. We need rituals that ask us to name our guilt and regrets, that grant us forgiveness, and that give us strength to set a new course. We need rituals that remind us of our essential connection with each other, with the rest of the created world, and with the unseen Source of all that is. We need rituals that remind us of how loved we are, how precious the world is, and what a privilege it is to be born in a time when our choices and actions make such a difference.
Faith communities have a heritage of holy days, festivals, days of atonement, and liturgical seasons that gain fresh meaning in light of the climate crisis.
• Sermons It takes courage to preach about climate change. If you’re a faith leader who speaks or preaches frequently about the climate emergency, then yours is a rare and much-needed voice. If you’re a member of a faith community whose leaders speak rarely, weakly, or never about climate justice, then please give them steady encouragement to say what needs to be said.
As my climate activist friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ) often says, if clergy don’t preach about climate change every few weeks, then in ten or fifteen years every sermon will be about grief.
• Public liturgies and outdoor prayer vigils Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. In the wake of environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or on the eve of significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C. or the U.N. climate talks in Paris, people of all faiths often feel a need to gather so that we can express our grief, name our hopes, and touch our deep longing for healing and reconciliation. Faith communities can lead the way in providing public contexts for renewing our spirits, both indoors and outside.
III. What does this add up to? Faith communities can become agents of transformation.
Humanity stands at a crossroads. As individuals and as a species we face a decision of ultimate importance both to our souls and to the future of life. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
This is not a fire drill. This is an actual emergency. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right: we face “the fierce urgency of now.” “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Armed with this knowledge, faith communities can enter emergency mode. Speaking as a Christian, I envision a church 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 the world needs today.
I am thankful for all people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; who reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope; and who step out to bear witness in very tangible ways – even in the face of suffering and death – to the ongoing presence and power of a love that abides within us and that sustains the whole creation.
“The huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call ‘unstoppable.’ …If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be ‘unstoppable,’ but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life.”
— Excerpt of my sermon, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Climate Movement,” January 18, 2015
NOTE: I was prompted to write this essay after serving on a panel of faith leaders at the 2016 conference of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, DC. The panel’s moderator, Peterson Toscano, asked two questions: What role(s) do you see faith communities take on in times of crisis? What tools does your faith tradition offer that can be used to address climate change? The four panelists included Dr. Steven Colecchi (Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Rachel Lamb (National Organizer and Spokesperson, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action), Joelle Novey (Director, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light), and me. The hour was over well before we’d finished exploring the topic. This essay is a bid to extend the conversation.
“Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’” (1 Kings 21:3)
What a blessing to be with you today! Thank you, Eliot, for welcoming me as preacher and celebrant for this special service that brings together the congregations of St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Congregational Church. As some of you know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC. This is my first opportunity to speak to my Episcopal and my UCC brothers and sisters in Christ at the very same time. How cool is that?
It’s particularly meaningful that our two communities are united in worship this morning, because around the world people of many faiths are marking today, June 12, as a day to stand together and lift up the sacredness of the Earth, our common home. Prayers, blessings, songs, and sermons are being offered today from Alaska to Argentina, from New Jersey to New Zealand, as religious and spiritual groups far and wide mark a global day of prayer called Sacred Earth, Sacred Trust.
Today we celebrate the six-month anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement and the first anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical, Laudato Si. Today we join the chorus of voices announcing that the Earth is holy and that it deserves our protection and care.
Whenever you and I re-awaken to God’s presence in Ashfield’s hills and woods, in the grasses and dirt beneath our feet and in the stars overhead, we discover again that we are connected not only to other human beings but also to everything else. We are part of the web of life: connected by our breath, blood, flesh, and bone to the whole creation. As our Protestant forebear, Martin Luther, pointed out: “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” God’s love and presence are everywhere – not just in church, not just inside a sanctuary built by human hands, but also outside, in the sea and sky, in the humble tomato plant valiantly trying to grow in my shady garden. The crucified, risen and ascended Christ fills all things, sustains all things, and redeems all things.
Whenever you and I come to our senses and realize that God is giving God’s self to us in every part of creation – in this breeze and bird and leaf, in this breath, in this heartbeat – then reverence springs up in us, and a deep desire to give thanks. We realize again that the Earth is sacred, and in the strength of that heartfelt wisdom we can fight the great battle of our time, which is to protect the integrity of God’s creation, to preserve a habitable planet, and to build a more just and sustainable society.
A record 175 countries have already signed the Paris Climate Agreement, which is an historic first step toward limiting the ravages of climate change. But the Paris Agreement is only a start. It doesn’t go nearly far enough. Its provisions won’t cap the rise of the world’s average temperature at 1.5˚ Celsius above pre-Industrial times, which is the uppermost limit for ensuring a stable climate and livable planet. Unless we get to work in every community and every sector of society to reduce our carbon emissions, unless we push political and corporate powers to keep fossil fuels in the ground and make a swift transition to clean, renewable energy, then the average global temperature is going to shoot far past that critical threshold of 1.5˚ Celsius. Around the world, scientists and activists, vulnerable communities and communities of faith are fighting to avert runaway climate change. Their cry and our cry is “1.5 to stay alive.”
I usually take the Gospel as my sermon text, but this week I must turn to the Old Testament passage, that hair-raising story from First Kings about a powerless citizen being framed and murdered by an unjust king and queen so that they can seize his land. Naboth has a vineyard beside the royal palace. When King Ahab makes what sounds on the face of it like a reasonable offer to buy the vineyard, Naboth turns him down: “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3). Calling the land “my ancestral inheritance” suggests that the land has been in his family for a long time and also that he holds the land in trust. To Naboth the land is not just a commodity, not just real estate, not just a source of profit and gain: it is a gift from God; it is sacred; it is entrusted to his care.
King Ahab is frustrated. He goes home “resentful and sullen” (1 Kings 12:4), lies down on his bed like a pouting child, and refuses to eat. Enter, then, the strong negative character of the story, Queen Jezebel, who basically asks, “Hey, don’t you have power to do whatever you want?” She tells him to quit moping; she will take care of this. Using Ahab’s credentials, she arranges for “two scoundrels” (1 Kings 12:10) to make false charges against Naboth in front of the city council and to have him stoned him to death. And so the deed is done: through backroom dealings that include perjury, conspiracy, and theft, Naboth is framed and murdered, and the king claims the vineyard as his own.
This is an almost archetypal story about dirty politics, about violence and the misuse of power. It resonates down through the centuries and up to the present moment. A few days ago, when I was visiting Union Theological Seminary in New York City to speak to an ecumenical group of clergy who had gathered from all over the country for an intensive, week-long training on climate change, I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice.
The mindset that allows Ahab and Jezebel to kill Naboth so that they can grab his land is the same mindset that allows governments and businesses to push aside low-income people and indigenous peoples and people of color to exploit, pollute, and take possession of their land, the same mindset that allows a nation to go to war against another nation so that it can seize control of another country’s natural resources, the same mindset that allows the fossil fuel industry to keep expanding its search for more oil and gas, despite the enormous human cost – especially to the poor – of burning fossil fuels. Injustice against human beings is intimately linked to desecration of the Earth.
Because of that mindset, Naboth is killed, and for a while it seems that Ahab has triumphed. But then, the story tells us, God intervenes. In the prophet Elijah’s heart a holy resistance rises up. A sacred protest fills him, a Spirit-filled energy to stand up against unjust power, a compelling need to protect the rights of the poor and to defend the sacredness of the land. “The word of the LORD came to Elijah” (1 Kings 21:17), says the text. We don’t know how that word came to him, whether it came through a dream, a vision, or simply through the painful and gut-wrenching awareness that what Ahab had done was wrong. What we do know is that the word of God came to Elijah, and that he received courage to stand up to the king, to stop the injustice, and to change the course of history.
The same Holy Spirit that spoke through Elijah and through the life and words and deeds of Jesus Christ is speaking through countless people the world over today.
“1.5 to stay alive” – that is the cry of every God-inspired prophet who stands like Elijah beside the vulnerable Naboths of this world.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with the low-income community of Baltimore that is fighting for the right to clean air.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with Pacific Islanders forced to leave their homeland because rising waves are washing away their buildings and contaminating their water supply.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with indigenous peoples in the Arctic whose cultures are disintegrating as the ice melts.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with frightened pregnant women in the global South and the Southern U.S. who know that the Zika virus, which spreads in a warm, humid climate, could irreparably harm their unborn child.
We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with every person and every community that wants to live in a just and peaceful world with recognizable seasons and moderate, predictable rains, in a world with enough clean, fresh water for all and an ocean teeming with life.
And we say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand against the political and corporate powers that view the Earth as nothing more than a source of profit and who exploit the Earth and other people as if it’s every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.
Thanks to Bob Parati, we have a sign that proclaims, “1.5 to stay alive.” After the service, I invite anyone who wishes, to join me outside so that we can take a group photo.
I invite you to do some other things, too. If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to join Climate Action Now, our vibrant, local grassroots climate action network. I’ve put a sign-up sheet in the back, so you can receive Climate Action Now’s terrific weekly newsletter. I will also gladly share your name with a new interfaith climate group I’m helping to lead, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action.
Thanks to some of the people in this room, and to people like you, Kinder Morgan’s NED pipeline was stopped. Now the fight is on to stop another dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipeline, Spectra Energy’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline. Two weeks ago I was arrested in Boston along with fifteen other religious leaders after we sat down on the edge of the trench that runs down the middle of the street where the pipeline is being constructed. Sitting at the edge of that trench was like sitting at the edge of an open grave, proclaiming the power of love and life as our legs dangled in the pit. We clergy came from a variety of denominations and traditions – American Baptist, Buddhist, Episcopal, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist. We represented a range of religions, yet all of us were drawing from a holy power greater than our selves. All of us were rooted in a reality that transcends the unjust structures of this world. And all of us were fired by the vision of a better world, by faith in the human spirit, and by faith that God would guide us to courageous and visionary action. We prayed and preached and sang until the cops handcuffed us and took us away.
More resistance is ahead. I invite you to consider joining a group from western Massachusetts that will protest the West Roxbury pipeline on June 28, and I invite you to consider joining a march against new gas pipelines that Better Future Project will lead in mid-July. I’d be glad to speak with you about those events, after the service.
Near and far a wave of religious protest and activism is rising up around the world as we respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. The first followers of Jesus tapped into a source of love and power that gave them strength to challenge injustice. And we tap into that holy power, too. Here at this table, we followers of Jesus will share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, knowing that God will give us strength for the journey and will nourish our hungry souls. The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls all people to recognize that we form one human family and that the Earth is sacred and entrusted to our care. Just as Naboth said to Ahab, so we, too, say to the powers-that-be, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3). With the Spirit of Jesus to guide us, we head into the world to proclaim the good news of the reign of God.