Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent                  December 20, 2020 Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Grace Church, Newton, and Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts Luke 1:26-38

                                   I put my trust in you

“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”   (Luke 1:38)  

Friends, I want to tell an Advent story1 that took place fifteen years ago.  In 2005, two massive hurricanes, strengthened by the unusually warm waters of the Gulf, slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi.  Millions of Americans were forced from their homes; within hours, most of one city lay in ruins. Soon after Katrina, some members of the wonderful church I served, Grace Church in Amherst, began organizing a service trip to Mississippi.  I was planning to go, but then I received an invitation to join a delegation of interfaith religious leaders at the upcoming United Nations’ climate change conference in Montreal.

The trips overlapped, and I couldn’t take both. I decided to head to Montreal, since I wanted to urge world leaders to address global warming before it was too late. So, for several days in Advent I met with representatives of the World Council of Churches; I listened to speeches, wrote editorials, and marched with seven thousand people through the city streets.  It was the most vigorous celebration of Advent I’d ever experienced, for the signs and banners sounded the urgent themes of the season: Now is the time to wake from sleep.  Now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our lives, to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. That exuberant march was one of the gifts I received that Advent, a glimpse of the growing worldwide movement that draws upon humanity’s deepest reserves of hope.  The other gift came as a surprise, when I was alone in my hotel.  By then I was steeped in the stark reality of climate change.  I had studied the aerial photographs of Mount Kilimanjaro without snow; listened to climate reports from the Arctic to Argentina; heard survivors of Katrina describe the vulnerability of the poor.  As for my government, it seemed unable to take the issue seriously. After a restless night, I woke up gasping with sorrow and anger, needing badly to pray.  I pulled a chair to the window and let my anguish spill out before God – grief for what is irreparably lost, rage at the inertia that kills with such abandon.  I felt helpless.  Dear Lord, what can I do?  What can anyone do?  Then I heard something. I put my trust in you.
“ANGELICO, Fra Annunciation, 1437-46” by carulmare is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Startled, I opened my eyes and looked around.  Who said that?  I often say those words to God, but now the message seemed addressed to me.  Its meaning was: Fear not.  Keep going.  I am with you. How bizarre.  Was there some mistake?  I had a choice: to accept or reject that assurance, to believe it or blow it off.  What I heard came as a complete surprise, just as God’s message to Mary was surely a surprise: you will conceive by the Holy Spirit; your son will be the savior of the world. Absurd!  Yet God’s hope for the future hung on Mary’s willingness to consent.  Maybe it hangs on our willingness, too.  Who knows how many messages God delivers daily to the countless faithful of every religion, and of none?  Trust the good, wherever you find it.  Trust the truth.  Trust love.  Trust yourself.  Let my life be born in you.  Who knows what power will be released in us when we dare to believe those unseen encounters that offer a word of love? Here on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we know that climate change is intensifying, causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.  We know that we endured a historic hurricane season in the Atlantic this year, with an unprecedented number of named storms and with Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota crashing one after another into Nicaragua and Honduras.  We know that record concentrations of greenhouse gasses are filling the atmosphere and that 2020 is on track to be the hottest year on record. We know that we also face a host of other challenges, including protecting our democracy, establishing racial and economic justice, and solving the pandemic. But we know this, too: There is a love that wants to be born within us and among us, a love that knows no bounds. Right here, in the midst of our lives exactly as they are, Christ longs to be born again, perhaps at a deeper level than ever before. Christ yearns to make a home in you, in me, and in us all.  The birth of that divine love is what will give us the strength and courage to meet whatever comes with creativity and clarity and kindness. Still, when love draws near, we may feel an urge to hold back. We may hesitate, wondering: “What will happen if I give myself fully to that love?  What will I do?  Who will I become?”  We may say to ourselves, “Really, I do want God to come into my life, but let’s not get carried away!  I’m kind of used to being who I am. There’s something to be said for staying in control.  It’s risky to let go.  I’m not sure.  Let me get back to you.” Can you feel the pull between attraction and fear, between trust and hesitation?  Like every love song, the love song between God and the soul is about longing and resistance, about desire and holding back.  If we could put words to it, the conversation might go something like this.  Here is a poem (“Covenant”) by Margaret Halaska, a Franciscan nun:                             The Father                 knocks at my door    seeking a home for his son:             Rent is cheap, I say.  I don’t want to rent, I want to buy, says God.             I’m not sure I want to sell, but you might come in to look around. I think I will, says God.             I might let you have a room or two.  I like it, says God.  I’ll take the two. You might decide to give me more some day.             I can wait, says God.             I’d like to give you more, but it’s a bit difficult.  I need some space for me. I know, says God, but I’ll wait.  I like what I see.             Hmm, maybe I can let you have another room.             I really don’t need that much.  Thanks, says God.  I’ll take it.  I like what I see.             I’d like to give you the whole house             but I’m not sure — Think on it, says God.  I wouldn’t put you out. Your house would be mine and my son would live in it. You’d have more space than you’d ever had before.              I don’t understand at all. I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that.              You’ll have to discover it for yourself. That can only happen if you let him have the whole house.             A bit risky, I say. Yes, says God, but try me.              I’m not sure –              I’ll let you know. I can wait, says God.  I like what I see. You’ll notice that God does not force or compel, because that is not the language of love.  God simply waits and longs and asks to draw close.  When we dare to say Yes, Christ is born again. Two thousand years ago God entered human history and became one ­of us, one with us. God came then, and God comes now, because God longs to join us on our journey, in our daily life and relationships, in our pain and worry and hope. In these turbulent times, when so much hangs in the balance, will we consent to God’s birth within us?  Like Mary, will we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”? I invite you to close your eyes and to join me in praying to the Holy Spirit: “Come.  Come into my life, just as it is, and help me find my way to You.  Help me step through my fear, my anxiety, my worry, my need to be in control.  Help me find You in my ordinary, everyday living.  I trust You more than I trust myself, and I thank you for your trust in me.” Amen. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________
  1. For a longer version of this story, see Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down: Meditations for Advent and Christmas (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), 54-60.
July 3, 2020 This is the last in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. Song of Solomon 2:10-13

Faith for the Earth: What will sustain us in the struggles ahead?

I’m imagining that many of you recognize this passage from the Song of Solomon, which is often read at weddings. The Song of Solomon – also known as the “Song of Songs” – is a collection of sensual poems between two lovers who delight in each other and who long to consummate their desire. It turns out that Christian mystics wrote about the Song of Songs more extensively than about any other book in the Bible, interpreting these poems as a passionate conversation between God and the soul.

I’m drawn to this passage today because it’s tough to pay attention to what’s happening to Mother Earth and our fellow creatures, to our oceans, forests, and waterways, to the very air we breathe. As a species we are hurtling willy-nilly down a suicidal path that is bringing down human communities and the very web of life as it has evolved for millennia. What will sustain us in the struggles ahead? I hear an answer in these words: “Arise, my love… and come away.” In a challenging time, it is empowering to remember that God is a lover who is always reaching out to us, always speaking in our depths, always luring us to stay in relationship with each other, with Earth, and with God. For here is God, reaching out a hand to pull us into the dance of life. That’s one way that Christians understand the Holy Trinity: as a dance of love between the lover, the beloved, and the love that flows between (Augustine). “Come on in,” says God, “and join the dance!” “Arise, my love,” God says to our soul. “Arise and come away.” The inner voice of love is quiet. We hardly hear it amid the roar and bustle of the world. We hardly sense it when we’re gripped by worry, depression, or alarm. That’s why many of us reclaim a practice of prayer: we know we will hear the inner voice of love only if we practice stillness, only if we regularly set aside some time in solitude to steady our minds and to listen in silence for the love of God that is always singing in our hearts. As our minds grow quiet and as our stillness grows, a holy Someone – capital S – beckons to us in the silence: “Arise, my love… and come away.” It’s the voice of Jesus, the voice of Spirit, the voice of God. “Arise, my love.” From what do you need to arise? Maybe the Spirit is saying: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from the agitation that holds you in its grip. Arise from hopelessness, for I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness, for I am with you, and I love you. You are my love, says the Spirit. I see your beauty, your intelligence, courage, and resolve, and you are precious in my sight. Arise and come away – away from the cult of death, away from the path of destruction, away from the lie that your efforts to protect life are useless. Come with me and join in the dance of life. Come be a sacred warrior, a warrior for the common good. I will help you find your place in the great struggle to protect life and to build a more just society. “But,” we may protest, feeling helpless before the horrors of the world, helpless before its injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power.” Arise. “What can I do? What can any of us do? It is too late to make a difference!” Arise. “I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to deal with.” Arise. The voice of love is like that, right? It may be soft and hard to hear in a noisy world, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it never goes away. The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that is awakening our hearts – that holy love sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, warriors for truth, and protectors of life. I may have a thousand and one reasons to dodge love’s call, but then it comes again, that voice: Arise. I love you. I need you. I am calling from the trees, from the wind, from the very stones beneath your feet. I am calling from the orcas and the salmon, from the black bear and the mountains, from the fig trees and the vines. I am calling from the strangers who are not really strangers, but brothers and sisters, siblings you don’t yet recognize, those who are suffering right now from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from the men, women and children who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world. Arise, my love, and join the effort to save our precious planet. Arise! When we stand in the holy presence of God, we are given fresh strength to renew the face of the Earth. And we arise, joining with indigenous leaders to protect the water and the land, joining with activists to stop new pipelines, joining with city-dwellers to renew crumbling communities beset by poverty and racism, joining with young and old to plant new forests. We cast our lot with people of faith and spirit who have been awakened – as we have been awakened – by a fierce longing to join the dance of life. What does it look like when we join God’s dance of life? Maybe we cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels. Maybe we eat local, eat organic, and move to a plant-based diet – for eating less meat turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. Maybe we start a compost pile, visit a farmer’s market, support our local land trust, or have a friendly, socially distanced chat with a neighbor we’ve never met before. We need to build up our local communities and to live in ways that are closer to the earth, more life enhancing, more about sharing than consuming, more about self-restraint than self-aggrandizement, more about generosity than fearful survivalism, so that we can take care of each other when the hard times come. There are some very useful Websites that show us how to cut back on our use of fossil fuels, such as LivingTheChange.net and WeRenew.net. Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change, too. So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to hold Big Polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused (and continue to cause). We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. If our religious institutions haven’t yet divested from fossil fuels, we can urge them to do so – just last week the Vatican urged all Catholics to divest from fossil fuels. Maybe we can join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line. Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, inclusive, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen. What will sustain us in the struggles ahead? The love of God, the power of community, and the resolve to join together to heal and serve and reconcile. In whatever ways we step out to join the dance of life, we will take risks we never imagined we would take. We will connect with people we never imagined we would meet. And we will make more of a difference than we will ever know. I give thanks for the ways that the Spirit is speaking in our hearts right now and for the ways that you are already responding to its call: “Arise, my love… and come away.”
July 2, 2020 This is the fifth in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. John 1:35-39a

Faith for the Earth: What are we longing for?

What do you long for most?

   What is most precious to you? What do you want more than anything else?  To some Christians these may be surprising questions, since many of us associate our faith with self-denial rather than desire. But when two disciples of John the Baptist are curious about Jesus and start to follow him, Jesus doesn’t turn around and deliver a lecture or a teaching; he doesn’t give advice or moral counsel.  Instead, he asks a question – an essential and revealing question: What are you looking for?  What do you seek?  What do you really want? This is a piercing question, especially for all of us who live in an addictive society that is quick to tell us what we want.  You’ve probably noticed that if we don’t know what we truly want, our desires are likely to get hijacked by what the culture around us tells us to want.  I remember driving one day and seeing an advertisement on the back of a truck up ahead.  I could just make out the headline, which declared in big letters, “What you are looking for.”  I took the bait. I said to myself: Alright, what do you think I’m looking for?  I drove a little faster and pulled up behind the truck, and there it was: a picture of a woman lounging comfortably with a cigarette between her lips.  A cigarette was what I must be looking for.  And, if not a cigarette, how about a car or the latest gadget or the newest fashion or the up-to-the-minute app?  Whatever you’re looking for, we’ve got it.  We’ll sell it to you. The purpose of advertising is not just to sell a particular product but to create a climate of craving, so that we devote our best energies to buying and selling, to the endless process of acquiring, discarding, updating, and accumulating.  Of course, there are material things that we need to survive and thrive, but we live in a throwaway culture that is based on the perpetual expansion of markets, the boundless consumption of resources, and the relentless burning of fossil fuels. No wonder Earth is groaning beneath the burden of human wants – while human need grows exponentially. What are we longing for?  What do we seek?  What do we really want? These questions require honest self-examination. You could say that they come with a shovel, because when we’re fired up by questions like these, we carry out an archaeology of our motives and desires and dig down deep to discover the bedrock of what we truly want.  What truly will make us happy?  What truly will fulfill our restless cravings and set our hearts at rest?  After we have sorted through our lesser wants, what we may discover is that deep down what we want is to be fully alive.  Deep down we want to love and to be loved, to know and to be known, and to draw close to the holy Source of love.  Deep down we want our lives to be about something much larger than ourselves and our endless, insatiable striving and self-promotion. We want our lives to have a creative purpose and meaning, and we want to be a blessing to other people. Knowing and claiming our heart’s desire is like having a compass in our pocket.  It is like having the North Star overhead, to guide our way.  When we know our heart’s desire, in every moment we have a dependable indicator that helps point the way to wise action and loving speech.  Moment to moment, in everything we do, in every situation we encounter, we can ask ourselves: How do I meet this situation in a way that taps my creativity and resonates with my deepest desire and highest purpose?  What can I say in this moment, what can I do in this moment that will let that deep intention be more fully expressed?  The more completely our lives align with what we value most, the more inner peace and stability we will feel, no matter what our outer circumstances may be. I assure you, when you are lit with creativity, curiosity, compassion and love, you will light up other people’s lives! As I speak these words, we are hurtling toward a future in which all of us will live on a harsher, hotter, and more turbulent planet than the one into which we were born. As Bill McKibben succinctly puts it, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen… We’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet.”1  Already we are experiencing massive droughts and floods, extreme storms and wildfires, and millions of people are already on the move, looking for a safer place to raise their families. A warming climate is the perfect breeding ground for the spread of tropical diseases and pandemics.  And because climate change is a so-called “threat multiplier,” we can expect an increasing push toward conflict and war as regions and nations struggle over scarce resources. How do we prepare for adversity?  Here’s one answer: We find out what we really value, what we really long for, and what kind of world we want to create.  We find our moral compass, our own North Star, and we set our course accordingly.  We join hands with other people who want to cast their lot with love and justice and compassion. One of the people we interviewed for our book, Rooted and Rising, was Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.  He’s the President and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus, which is a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that engages young people and communities of color in the political process and that has registered tens of thousands of young voters to the polls.  Rev Yearwood is giving his life to the struggle for racial, economic, and environmental justice.  Like so many other people, he is dedicated to a possibility that can seem impossibly out of reach. I asked him where he turns for strength when he feels discouraged or overwhelmed, and here is part of his reply.  He said: “You have to believe in something outside yourself.  You have to find your anchor.  For me, it’s God and Christianity, but you’ve got to find your own anchor.  If you don’t, you will be blown away.  You can’t do activism without an anchor.  You can’t do activism without faith or some form of belief – maybe a belief in the future, or in children.  It’s great if you have a faith tradition, because there are pieces there that you can hold on to, such as a sacred text, poetry, music – all kinds of things that can inspire you.  But you need to have something.”2 He went on to say, “I’m anchored.  I’m anchored in my tradition as a person of color, knowing that the people before me had to fight so hard to overcome slavery, to overcome the injustice of Jim Crow, to overcome acts of voter suppression.  I’m in a tradition of waking up with those who have already fought.  And then, as a person of faith and a minister, I link to this tradition of faith so that whatever I do, my steps are ordered.  I know that God is leading me on the right path of fighting for other people, not just for myself.  I’m fighting for God’s children and for God’s planet.  That allows me to continue and sometimes to do remarkable things with other people….”3 Those are the words of someone who has found his heart’s desire – someone who knows that in this time of multiple emergencies, we need healers and justice-seekers, people who will stand up and cast their lot with life and do justly, now. And love mercy, now. And walk humbly, now. If God were to whisper in your ear, “This is why I sent you here.  This is what I sent you to do,” what would God say next?  Find out. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010), xiii and book jacket. 2. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., “Interview,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham. MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 99. 3. Ibid.  
June 30, 2020 This is the third in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. Hosea 4:1-3

Faith for the Earth: What is breaking our hearts?

We spoke yesterday about God inviting us to listen deeply, especially to voices that have long been silenced or ignored – to the voices of the poor, the voices of black and brown and indigenous peoples, and to the voices rising from the living Earth itself – for if we listen with the ear of the heart, surely we can hear, as the prophet Hosea puts it in today’s reading, that the land itself is mourning, “and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.”

How do we pray with all this?  How do we pray with the things that are breaking our hearts – the dying coral and acidifying oceans, the animals that are leaving us, and the web of life that is unraveling before our lives?  Scientists say that unless we change our way of living fast, entire eco-systems could begin to collapse, starting in the next ten years.  What do we do with this information?  Do we shrug it off (I can’t deal with that!  That’s someone else’s problem!)? Do we shut down inside, go numb and slip into despair?  It’s difficult to face the predicament in which we find ourselves, and our culture gives us endless opportunities to turn away and distract ourselves with mindless consumption and entertainment.  Still, I don’t think any of us have found that shopping or snacking or swilling alcohol can ease the anguish we feel inside. In my view, one essential remedy is prayer. Bold action is urgent and necessary, but action alone won’t give us the strength or wisdom to sustain the hard struggles ahead. And if Hosea got it right – if what’s ultimately wrong with the world is that there is “no knowledge of God in the land,” if he’s right that the ultimate source of our troubles is spiritual disconnection – then surely part of the remedy is prayer.  For, as Hosea says, when there is “no knowledge of God,” then “swearing, lying, and murder” break out among human beings – “bloodshed follows bloodshed” – and the land mourns, and wild creatures languish and perish. Hosea understands that a broken relationship with God leads to a broken relationship with each other and with the Earth. If we abandon the love and justice of God and get locked into patterns of abusing each other and abusing the land, the remedy is repentance and amendment of life.  The remedy is to dismantle the systems that exploit people and the planet.  The remedy is to restore our connection to God, to our souls, to each other, and to the Earth upon which all life depends.
Oak tree
So I’m all in with Hosea.  The climate crisis is not just a scientific or political or economic crisis – it’s also a spiritual crisis, one that summons us to do everything we can to restore within ourselves – and to encourage in our communities – a lively, vital relationship with our divine Source who brings courage where there is despair, love where there is hate, and inspiration when a path forward is hard to see.  In these challenging times, we need spiritual resilience. We need to connect with the divine lover of our souls. We need to root ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power so that we can rise up to take effective action. Last year, a book I co-edited with a friend of mine, Leah Schade, was published.  It’s an anthology of essays by 21 colleagues in the faith-and-climate movement who speak about the spiritual practices and perspectives that sustain us as we work to create a more just and sustainable future. The book is titled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and I’d like to read a short excerpt from my chapter, for it’s all about prayer.1 In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal.  How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief? How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves?  How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb? …It’s important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive.  Just as important, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.  Prayerful lament and protest can be an act of resistance, a way of shaking off the dominant consumer culture, which prefers that we stay too busy, dazed, and distracted to feel a thing. My prayer takes many forms.  Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty.  They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees.  Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.2 Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors.  I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines.  Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose.  I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species.  I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale.  I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests.  I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part.  I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation. I feel God’s presence when I pray like that.  I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me.  Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love. What kinds of prayer restore your connection with God?  These days many people across the country are praying in the streets, propelled by love and a fierce need for public mourning and public lament.3  Some people are praying alone in their rooms and in silence, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, listening to their breath as they breathe God in and breathe God out.  Some people find that music helps them pray, and I commend a new piece called “A Passion for the Planet,” a climate oratorio composed by Geoffrey Hudson, which, broadcast free on the internet, in less than one hour carries the listener through the wide range of feelings evoked by the climate crisis.  That can be another way to pray. I encourage all of us to pray, to find ways, as Hosea might put it, to restore knowledge of God in the land.  Prayer is what leads us, alone and together, into an unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death. Trusting in that love, guided by that love, we will know what is ours to do and, God willing, may be led to take actions commensurate with the emergency we are in. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Love Every Leaf, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 175-76. 2.We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018. 3. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Accepting Death is Not an Option, Anymore,” a sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, June 14, 2020    
June 28, 2020 This is the first in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. John 15:9-13

Faith for the Earth: Love and fear in a time of emergency

I chose this morning’s Gospel text because I want to speak about love and fear in a time of emergency.  For Christians it’s a familiar passage from the section of John’s Gospel that we call Jesus’ farewell address. The scene is the Last Supper, and Jesus is beginning to say goodbye.  He knows that his life will be cut short and that the next day he will die. In this perilous moment he does what most likely we would do if we knew that our lives were on the line and that at any moment we could die: he tries to express what matters most. So, he gives a long riff on love: “As [God] the Father has loved me,” he says, “so I have loved you; abide in my love… Love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

That call to love is at the heart of every religious tradition – which brings to mind a poem by Michael Leunig:1 There are only two feelings.  Love and fear. There are only two languages.  Love and fear. There are only two activities.  Love and fear. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear. So, let’s talk about fear.  Fear is everywhere these days. We know how visceral the feeling of fear can be.  We feel it in the tight clutch in our stomach and in our racing pulse and rapid, shallow breaths.  Fear can freeze us in our tracks, so that we are paralyzed in helpless inertia and feel powerless to take action. And fear can push us to lash out violently and fight.  Fear can also make us vulnerable to authoritarian leaders. On the one hand, they may tell us not to be frightened about the coronavirus or about police brutality or racial injustice or economic injustice or climate change. “Don’t worry,” they tell us. “We’ve got it handled. There is no problem here. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” On the other hand, the powers-that-be may try to stoke our fears, telling us that we’ll be safe if we turn against each other and build walls that keep each other out and keep each other down.  Fear can goad us to try to oppress and dominate other people, and fear is what drives the politics of “divide and rule.” But fear can be precious, too, a vital signal that alerts us to genuine danger. Regarding the health of planet Earth, there is good reason to be afraid.  Scientists are reporting with increasing alarm that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse.  Just imagine: the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by the destruction of habitat. Human activity has wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970.  With dismay, scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation,” and one expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” It’s not just great numbers of animals that are disappearing because of human activity; entire species are being wiped out at accelerating speed. We’re in the midst of a mass extinction event, and research just published by the National Academy of Sciences shows that we are racing faster and closer toward the point of ecological collapse than scientists previously thought, with maybe ten years left to take action. Meanwhile the planet just keeps getting hotter and hotter as we burn fossil fuels. The level of greenhouse gases in the air hit a record high last month and Earth just passed its warmest May on record. Siberia is experiencing a prolonged heatwave that climate scientists call “undoubtedly alarming.” Just this week, one little town in Siberia recorded a temperature of 100º degrees Fahrenheit. The people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are almost always people in poor and low-wealth communities, often indigenous people and people of color, so the struggle to tackle climate change is a struggle for justice, too. But in the end, unless we change course fast, none of us will be able to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world.  The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have just a short span of time – now, maybe ten years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming. So, are we afraid?  You bet we’re afraid, and if we’re not, we ought to be.  Fear is the appropriate response to a frightening reality, and fear can propel us to take urgently needed and long-delayed action. So, I thank God for prophets like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager and climate activist who launched the school strikes for climate that galvanized the world community and inspired millions of people across more than 150 countries to take to the streets last year. When Greta addressed the World Economic Forum, she said, “I don’t want you to be hopeful.  I want you to panic.  I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire.  Because it is.” I thank God for the climate justice movement, the human rights movement, the indigenous rights movement, for the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, for the Poor People’s Campaign, and for the thousands upon thousands of people across this country who have been pouring into the streets day after day to say that they are sick and tired of institutional racism and sick and tired of being afraid.  Thank God for all the people who are willing to face their fear, to empathize with other people’s fear, and to stand together.  Thank God for all the people who refuse to turn away from each other or to turn against each other, but who decide instead to turn toward each other, to join forces and join hands in ways that truly the world has never seen before. Jesus says to us today: “Abide in my love.  Love one another as I have loved you.” Our fear may be strong, but we can place our fear, and all the intense feelings being stirred up in this time of uncertainty, within something bigger. We can experience our fear within the embrace of love.  Jesus reminds us that we are infused and surrounded by a divine love that holds us together, that lives in our hearts, and that will never let us go. God loves us and God’s whole Creation with a love that nothing can destroy. As we breathe that divine love in and as we share it with each other, our moral courage and strength are renewed.  We may still be afraid, but we don’t have to settle for a life that is overcome by fear.  As the Persian poet Hafiz once put it, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house.  I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”2 Will our efforts be successful?  Will we avert runaway climate change?  I don’t know.  But I do know that every choice matters.  Every degree of temperature-rise matters. “Even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.” And love matters.  Love matters most of all.
Religious Witness for the Earth holds worship service in front of Dept. of Energy, Washington, DC, in May, 2001
I will end with a story about love and fear.3  Back in 2001 I gathered up my courage and decided to carry out my first extended act of civil disobedience. I joined a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, and headed to Washington, DC, to protest the Administration’s intention to drill for more oil in the Arctic. Here’s what happened: about a hundred of us from different faith traditions marched down Independence Avenue in our diverse religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, which was surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. So far, so good: everything was legal.  Then came the part that wasn’t. At the end of the worship service, we sang “Amazing Grace,” and the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy. I felt us cross an invisible boundary.  With the others, I stepped over a threshold I could not see.  I walked out of my ordinary life. I’m not a lawbreaker or a thrill seeker, and I usually follow the rules, but here I was, intentionally and publicly breaking the law.  As if some inner revolution had quietly taken place, the old “me” was no longer in charge.  Whatever security I’d felt in operating within the rules was gone.  That’s partly why I felt so frightened as I left the safety of the circle and moved toward the door: I hardly recognized myself.  I hardly knew who I was. We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard.  At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray.  Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone.  I lift up my hands.  I’m dressed for Holy Communion.  I might as well hold out my arms as I do at Communion. Instead of pews filled with parishioners, I see ranks of police and a cluster of supporters.  I am afraid.  I’ve never been arrested before.  Years ago, as a VISTA volunteer in Mayor Rizzo’s Philadelphia, I heard countless stories of police brutality.  It’s not that I really expect the same thing to happen to me – the punch in the gut, the assault behind closed doors.  Still, my body tenses as I place myself against the cops, the Feds, the law.
Religious Witness for the Earth: civil disobedience at the doors of the Dept. of Energy, Washington, DC, in May 2001
I close my eyes.  One by one we pray aloud… Suddenly I realize that behind the tension, behind the fear…, something else is welling up.  I am jubilant. “Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at Communion. “We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response. How did I miss it?  After years of going to church, after years of celebrating Communion, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance.  That worship is an act of human liberation.  The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world.  Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released? I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt.  It is God I love, and God’s green earth.  I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great. So what if our numbers are small?  So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power?  I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering.  We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand.  This is what I love.  Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.” I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy.  That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy. Love and fear.  Love and fear.  I invite you to take a moment for reflection. When it comes to the climate crisis, under what circumstances might you be willing to risk arrest and to carry out an act of nonviolent civil disobedience?  Of course, civil disobedience is not the only path of resistance. We are communities with many personalities and gifts. But if you knew you could not fail – if you were set free from fear – what would you do for the healing of our world? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer (NY: HarperCollins, 1991). 2. Hafiz, quoted by Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2002), 83. 3. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 78-81.  
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter May 10, 2020 Delivered (pre-recorded) by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for St. Anne’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, Lincoln, MA Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 Acts 7: 55-60 1 Peter 2:2-10 John 13:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled”: Searching for steadiness in a precarious time

Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – are from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.”  It is the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus is saying goodbye, telling his disciples that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. Jesus says to his friends: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).

The passage goes on from there, but my attention was grabbed by the very first sentence. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  How do we make sense of those words – how do those words resonate within us – in a time of such enormous uncertainty, loss, and fear?  Here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic.  Our lives have suddenly turned upside down and we are acutely aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. People we know and love may be sick or may have died. Businesses have closed, the economy is teetering, and not far behind, coming on fast, we know that an even larger crisis is bearing down upon us, the climate and ecological crisis. Week by week the news from climate science seems to get more dire: this year is on track to be the warmest on record, and the risk of climate breakdown is much greater than we thought. This week, scientists reported that 50 years from now as many as one-third of the world’s people will be living in areas too hot to inhabit. I can only begin to imagine the poverty and famine and the numbers of desperate migrants on the move.  Meanwhile, another new study shows that unchecked climate change could collapse entire eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years. This precious blue-green planet is reeling – and we reel with it as we face the threat of social and ecological collapse. Yet Jesus tells us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  What can this mean when we live in such a troubling time?  Is he counseling avoidance and denial? Is he urging us to go numb – to repress and push away our anger, grief, and fear?  I can’t imagine that to be the case, for the Jesus I meet in the Gospels and in prayer – and who is with us right now – is a man of deep feelings, a man who was not afraid to enjoy a good laugh and relish a good party, a man who sometimes got angry, who wept when his friend Lazarus died and who wept over the city that would not listen to him.  The Jesus I love is a man who was open to the full range of human emotion and who experiences our sorrows and joys.
Ashfield, MA
Last week I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling as if I were covered by a great blanket of sadness, as if the sorrow of the whole world were weighing me down. Nearby the sorrow was fear: fear of death, fear that everything is unraveling, fear that life on Earth, including human society, is coming apart. So, what did I do?  I prayed.  I turned to Jesus and prayed for mercy, guidance and help. It wasn’t just my own sorrow and fear that I brought to him: I felt as if I were bringing with me all the world’s sorrow and fear and placing it in his loving arms: Here, Lord, over to you. Share it with me.  Help me bear what I cannot bear alone. As I lay there in the dark, praying the world’s anguish, sorrow, and fear, it seemed to me that I was not alone: I was praying with, and for, all my brother-sister beings – for the dying coral and the seas choked with plastic, for the forests going up in smoke and for the children who look to us with their innocent, wondering eyes, hoping against hope that good, and not ill, will be done to them.  And it seemed to me that Jesus was with me and with all of us, sharing our pain, and I felt as if I were touching into the peace that passes understanding and into the love that will never die. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When Jesus said this, he wasn’t denying the reality of suffering and death.  He wasn’t repressing his emotions or dodging painful facts: he knew full well that he was on the brink of being arrested, tortured, and killed. Yet he was able to say to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  How?  Because he was rooted in the love of God.  Because he knew that nothing could separate him – or us – from that love.  Because he knew that through the power of his Spirit, we would be drawn, as he was drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed. That is the great promise of today’s Gospel passage: at the deepest level of our being we belong to God; we abide in God and God abides in us. This precarious time of coronavirus and climate crisis is also a holy time: a time when all of us are invited to deepen our spiritual lives and to grow up to our full stature in Christ. So, I want to suggest three practices as we shelter in place, three practices that I hope will attune us to the presence and power of Jesus as we try to chart a path to a more just and sustainable future. First, I hope we will take regular time to pray in silence. Solitude and silence can create a wonderful context for prayer. As Meister Eckhart, the great mystic, once said, “There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence.” As we sit alone in silence, we listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, although we are usually too busy or too distracted to hear it.  We pay attention to our breathing, receiving each breath as the gift that it is, a gift from a loving God who breathes God’s Spirit into us and whose Spirit we offer back to God as we breathe out.  And if – in the quiet – strong feelings arise, we welcome them and let them move through us, whatever they are – sorrow, fear, anger or joy – knowing that in our vulnerability we find strength and that the God of love is always with us.  This kind of quiet, solitary prayer is where we can gradually develop a trusting and very personal relationship with Jesus, as we disclose what is on our hearts. Second, I hope we will take regular time to go outside and connect with the natural world.  The love of God extends not only to us, not only to human beings – it extends to the whole created world and to its weird and wild diversity of living creatures.  Our planet’s living systems are in peril, so it is good – actually, it is essential – to reclaim our God-given connection with the Earth, to move, as Thomas Berry would say, from a spirituality of alienation from Earth to a spirituality of intimacy.  So, go outside and encounter the God who shines out in the blooming magnolias and azaleas, in the breeze on our faces, in the cry of the blue jay, in the touch of bark or stone against our hand and in the sprouts coming up in our garden.  Whatever we’re worried about – be it climate change, coronavirus, or anything else – spending at least 20 minutes a day in a peaceful place can help restore our soul.
Azaleas in May
Third, I hope we will make time to educate ourselves about the climate crisis and to take every step we can toward effective climate action. When the pandemic has passed and the lockdown is over, we simply can’t go back to business as usual, for business as usual is killing the planet.  As a society we have to change course.  Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable.  Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable.  Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable.  We are living beyond our ecological means. The good news is that when it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change.  So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.  I hope that many of you will join 350Mass for a Better Future, our local grassroots climate action group, whose MetroWest node includes Lincoln. There are other groups that we can be grateful for, too, and find ways to support, such as Poor People’s Campaign, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Environmental Voter Project.  Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen. I pray that we followers of Jesus will take our place in that movement, maybe even be out in front sometimes, singing and praying, maybe risking arrest, as we give glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). In a time of pandemic and climate crisis, the risen Christ is among us and within us.  Do not let your hearts be troubled.      
Sermon for Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day, April 12, 2020 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (via online platform) for First Congregational Church, Williamstown, MA Matthew 28:1-10

Arise to new life: Easter for Earth and for all

What a blessing to be with you!  I’ve been looking forward to seeing your faces and joining in worship with you on this Easter morning.  I was invited to preach because I’m your conference’s Missioner for Creation Care. I know that many of you are deeply concerned about addressing climate change and protecting the web of life that God entrusted to our care.  As you know, we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and surely the pandemic we are now enduring has made it clear that we belong to one connected family on Earth. We share a single planet, drink from the same water, breathe the same air, and face the same dangers.

The coronavirus is communicating very swiftly and without words the same message that climate scientists have been trying urgently to convey for many years: science matters; how we treat the natural world affects our well-being; the sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place; and if we are sufficiently motivated, we have the capacity to make drastic changes very quickly and to suspend business as usual. That’s a good thing, because business as usual is wrecking the planet.  We simply can’t keep burning fossil fuels or keep destroying biodiversity and wild habitats and expect to survive. But what I want to speak about today is our inner lives. How is it with your soul?  How are you doing?  These weeks have been so hard, so full of uncertainty, loss, and fear. Our lives have been turned upside down, and as individuals and a global community, we are deeply aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. In the old days – that is, before the pandemic – we Christians could skip Holy Week and Good Friday, if we wanted to, and just show up at church on Easter morning. When we skip Holy Week and Good Friday, it’s easy to imagine that Easter is a stand-alone miracle, just a feel-good event that gives us a chance to dress up, get together with family and friends, maybe hold an Easter egg hunt and enjoy a nice meal. Well, I confess that right now that sounds pretty good. But here’s the thing: this year, maybe more than any other, we’re being asked to experience the full meaning and power of the Easter miracle.  Because this year we can’t skip Good Friday.  It’s not a choice this time: we are undergoing a collective trauma and we can’t pretend, even for a day, that suffering and death aren’t real. To have any meaning – much less the power to transform lives – the miracle of Easter must speak to our actual condition. Thanks be to God, Easter is not like the miracles we’re most familiar with, the kind that are nice and small and safe.  The “miracles” that our society generally accepts are the ones that make life pleasant and don’t give anyone any trouble.  We water our plants with Miracle-Gro.  We mix our tuna-fish with MiracleWhip.  We listen to ads that boast the latest “miracle” in computer software or laundry detergent or hair replacement. Society tells us that the only miracles that are real are the ones you buy in your local store. Miracles are trivial things, consumer items, commodities: buy one, buy several.  Stock your shelves.  Either miracles aren’t real, society tells us, or if they are real, they’re not very important and they don’t matter much. But this year, unlike other years, we’ve taken a deep dive into Good Friday and we know, perhaps more acutely than ever, that the first Easter did not arrive in soft pastel tones, shrink-wrapped in plastic. Jesus truly despaired and groaned and bled on the Cross.  His suffering was real; his death was real. Our faith has nothing to do with fantasy, with gazing fondly into space and ignoring the suffering or brutality of the world.  No, as Christians we look squarely into suffering and death, and we glimpse the Easter miracle when we discover that even here, right here in our grief, confusion, and fear, we are met by a divine love that weeps with us and grieves with us and embraces us and empowers us, a love that will never let us go, a love that will never die. The Gospel story of the first Easter gives us many images: a great earthquake – an angel, bright as lightning, who rolls back the stone and sits on it – an empty tomb – the discovery that Jesus is alive – and two women overcome with fear and great joy.  This is not a petty miracle, a trifling little story that makes you gape or shrug and then turn away.  This miracle is so potentially transformative that it scares the powers that be, and they try to deny it and suppress news of it. After Jesus is buried, a squad of Roman soldiers, following Pilate’s orders, seals up the tomb, and stands guard before it.  But human efforts to prevent the Resurrection are impossible. God’s life, God’s power burst forth. The guards, who are there to guarantee the finality of Christ’s death, become themselves, in Matthew’s ironic words, “like dead men” (Matthew 28:4), terrified of the new life bursting forth before their very eyes. The miracle has taken place.  Nothing can stop it.  The religious and civic authorities are shocked, and, as Matthew tells it, they rush to set up an elaborate scheme of lies to hide the news as best they can – for the Resurrection is a miracle that makes a difference.
New life
If Christ is alive, then there has been unleashed into our world a power that is greater than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy. If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering we can endure, no anguish we can bear, no loss or disappointment we can undergo that Christ himself does not suffer with us. If Christ is alive, then we are, every one of us, cherished by God, and drawn to create a new kind of society that welcome everyone and that dismantles the systems of unjust privilege and domination that have separated us from each other and from the Earth on which all life depends. If Christ is alive, then there is no need to settle for a life undergirded and overshadowed by the nagging fear of death, for whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. The first followers of Jesus were filled with a wave of Easter hope.  Nothing, not even death, could separate them from the love of God.  In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death.”1 Their prayer and witness got them into all kinds of trouble.  The early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).  Many of them apparently spent as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail.  Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society. That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and it will sustain us now.  Even now, as we walk together through the valley of the shadow of death, acknowledging our fears and grieving what – and whom – we’ve lost, we know that the Lord of life is with us.  The day will come, once this pandemic is behind us, when we can return very actively and publicly to building a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with the Earth. What would it look like if we emerged from this pandemic with a fierce new commitment to take care of each other and the whole of God’s Creation? My friends, even from inside our homes, we hear the sound that rings out as Easter dawns – not only here in Massachusetts, but across the United States and around the world. An Alleluia! is springing forth from the depths of the human spirit – in homes and hospitals, in villages and cities, in Mexico and Russia, in Germany and France, in Greece and Korea, Japan and Zimbawe. Alleluia!  Cristo ha resucitado!                                            (Spanish) Alleluia!  Xristos voskrese!  Vo istinu voskrese!                  (Russian) Alleluia!  Christ ist erstanden!                                             (German) Alleluia!  Christ est ressuscite!                                            (French) Alleluia!  Xristos aneste!  Aleethos aneste!                         (Greek) Alleluia!  Yesunimi puhall hahshatoda!                                (Korean) Alleluia!  Kristoa fkatzu seri!                                                (Japanese) Alleluia!  Kreestu amuka!  Xristu amuka zvechokwadi!       (Shona) On this holy morning we are united with God’s people everywhere – with those who are far off and those who are near, with those who live and those who have died, with our ancestors, with our descendants, and with the whole Creation. God’s love is forever. O Death, where is thy sting?  O Grave, where is thy victory? Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen, indeed!  Alleluia! ————————————————————————————————————————————– 1. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993; originally published in French as Sources, Paris: Editions Stock, 1982), p. 107.  

What are the connections between the novel coronavirus and the climate crisis?  Margaret is the first speaker on a panel sponsored by UCC Council for Climate Justice, convened on April 1, 2020, by the Rev. Brooks Berndt, PhD (Minister for Environmental Justice, UCC).  Other panelists include the Rev. Dr. Leah Schade (Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary), the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President), and Penny Hooper (Leadership Council Chair, North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light)

This op-ed, co-written by Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, was published in newspapers in Louisville, KY; Frankfort, KY; and Northampton, MA (December 18, 2019).

The picture of Greta Thunberg on the cover of Time magazine as its 2019 Person of the Year is both inspiring and sobering.

Standing on an outcropping of rocks at the ocean’s edge, she gazes toward the sea. The splashing waves at her feet are a poignant reminder that signs of the climate crisis are all around us.

The world’s oceans are rapidly losing oxygen — it’s as if they are beginning to suffocate. Many of the oceans’ vital ecosystems are at risk of collapse. And new research indicates that rising seas due to global warming could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought.  Some of the world’s great coastal cities will likely be erased, sending the number of climate refugees into the millions.

Given this dire projection, along with news about wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods and mass species extinction, the effects of climate change have reached biblical proportions. This is why Greta Thunberg is a prophet for our time.

In August 2018, at age 15, this teenager stood with her sign, “School strike for the climate,” on the steps of the Swedish Parliament. Since then, her lone voice has struck a chord that has reverberated around the world. She has inspired young people across the planet to organize climate strikes calling on adults to take action on global warming.

Greta Thunberg at a climate strike rally in March 2019. Photo credit: Klimastreik_19-03-01_0177″ by campact, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Millions of students have mobilized in protests worldwide. Her stirring speech at the United Nations was a prophet’s call to repentance for the ecological sins we have committed against this planet and those who will inherit the mess we have made.

Of course, she is also vilified by many, including the presidents of Brazil and the United States. They mock her, attack her and ridicule her. That’s what happens when prophets speak truth to power. But people are listening to her message. World leaders are paying attention. She is cutting through the hubbub of noise, distraction, and lies, and telling the truth without apology.

This is exactly the time for faith communities to step up alongside Greta and the climate generation to offer support and leadership during this climate crisis.

More and more people are asking: “What can we do?” Through collaboration and community-building, houses of worship can help their neighbors find innovative answers to that question.

Pastors, priests, imams, rabbis and spiritual leaders of the world’s religions are perfectly situated to address these issues from a theological and scriptural perspective in order to galvanize the faithful to respond. Just as churches and synagogues were the moral engine that powered the civil rights movement, so now are houses of worship needed to harness the energy of the faithful to act.

In many ways this is already happening. Organizations such as Greenfaith, Interfaith Power & Light, ecoAmerica’s Blessed Tomorrow, and the Poor People’s Campaign are reaching across religious and political divides to educate and activate people of faith.

Churches are installing solar panels. Mosques are planting community gardens. Synagogues are hosting sessions on community organizing around climate change. People of faith are protesting pipelines, willing to be arrested for their nonviolent civil disobedience.

This is a moment when the faith community must not stand on the sidelines. If you are a member of a congregation, encourage your faith leader to preach and teach about what your scriptures say about this good Earth. If you are a faith leader, talk with your colleagues about how you can spark the sacred fire that has the power to ignite a revolution of justice.

This is an issue that affects every person on our planet, especially “the least of these” who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. The climate crisis is a global, national, state and local issue, and faith leaders must not only become well-informed and well-read on this topic, they must also be bold prophets for justice.

The climate emergency offers the opportunity for new life to be breathed into community movements as people of faith join efforts to combat climate change.

As Greta has shown us — it’s time for us all to be prophets.

Sermon for the Convention Eucharist, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, held at Tower Square Hotel, Springfield, MA                                                                                                                              November 9, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” — Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1981), 281 John 10:10b-15

   A sacramental life: Rising up to take climate action

Friends, it is a blessing to be with you. Before I say another word I want to thank the many people who helped turn this windowless hotel room into a sacred space. Because of their creativity and generosity, we have four stunning new banners that represent elements of the natural world – banners that we hope you will borrow to use in your own church1 – and we have a baptismal font adorned with nature’s beauty. Thank you – and thanks to everyone who had a hand in creating this service. I especially want to thank Geoffrey Hudson, composer of “A Passion for the Planet” and the musicians and members of Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble who are here to bring this music to life.

I am particularly moved to see the image of Earth placed on our altar. As you may remember, this photograph was taken in December 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the moon. It’s called the “Blue Marble” because when the crew looked out the window, around 18,000 miles from the surface of the planet, the Earth was about the size of a marble. You could cover it with your thumb. Everything we know and love, every part of human history and experience is on that precious marble whirling in the darkness of space. That photo gave us our first glimpse of Earth as a whole, allowing us to see for the first time its unity, its fragility and vulnerability, and its preciousness. This flag has traveled with me to countless climate marches and rallies, and it touches me to bring it home to this altar, to lay it on this table where in every Eucharist we remember “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) that God loved into being, redeems in Jesus Christ, and sustains by the power of the Holy Spirit! This is a good time to uphold the Earth in prayer, for we know that the living world is in a precarious state. Last year the World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that globally the number of animals has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Humans have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. We are in the midst of what alarmed scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” Then came a major report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which showed that planetary warming is well underway and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe. Because of the burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet keeps breaking records for heat. Of course it is the poor and racial minorities and the historically marginalized that suffer first and hardest from the shocks and disruptions of climate change, although in the end, all of us will be affected. Earlier this week more than 11,000 scientists from around the world issued a report that warns of “untold suffering” if we don’t change course fast. Scientists are generally a cool-headed, understated lot, right? So it’s worth noticing when for the first time a large group of scientists calls climate change an emergency. Last year’s IPCC report told us that in order to avoid runaway climate change we must carry out a radical transformation of society, from top to bottom, at a scale and pace that is historically unprecedented: today we have maybe eleven years in which to set a new course and to cut our emissions in half from their levels in 2010. Never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast. So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes and only a short time in which to heal our ecosystems and create a more just and sustainable way of life. Well, when you hear stark news like that, it’s easy to shut down. It’s hard to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. When we feel powerless to imagine, much less to create, a better future, we tend to put our heads down and carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. I’m very interested in how we move out of fear, inertia, and despair and into the movement to tackle climate change and social inequality – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisishas just been published. So I ask you: Where do you find courage to take action, even when the forces against us are great? What are your sources of strength and resilience in a perilous time? As for me, I draw strength from the living presence of Jesus Christ within us and among us. “I came that they may have life,” Jesus says to us today, “and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That’s a mission statement: he came then and he comes now to bring life – and not any old life, but a life that is lit up with meaning and purpose, a life that is animated by a fierce love that seeks to create a beloved community in which people live in harmony with God, with each other, and with the whole of God’s Creation. Jesus, the Good Shepherd of our souls, lived close to the earth. He walked in the desert and along the shores of a lake. He felt the wind on his face and he watched the night stars. He climbed mountains to pray, and in his teaching and parables he used earthy images of vines and bread and seeds, of lilies and sheep. Jesus was steeped in the rhythms of the natural world, and maybe it’s no accident that when Mary caught her first glimpse of the Risen Christ, she mistook him for the gardener. In a time of climate crisis, we are blessed to meet the Good Shepherd in every celebration of the Eucharist. This is where we find strength for the journey and where our moral courage is renewed. Maybe we should think of Holy Communion as our superpower. God has so much to give us and to show us in this sacrament! For starters, Communion is good practice for living well on the Earth.2 As we heard in the reading from Wendell Berry, everyone lives by eating. The question is whether or not we ruthlessly grab and grasp, turning into greedy “consumers” who must constantly replenish ourselves with material things in order to reassure ourselves that we’re powerful, that we matter, and that we exist. Holy Communion is a radically counter-cultural practice that can heal unholy consumerism. We savor a morsel of bread, take a small sip of wine, and in our attentive reverence to Christ’s presence, we are filled. We share one loaf and one cup, and there is enough for everyone. In every Eucharist we discover to our amazement that in taking only what we need and in sharing what we have, our hearts our satisfied. What’s more – every Communion also reminds us how much God loves the whole Creation, not just human beings – as if we happen to be the only species that God cares about. When the celebrant lifts up the bread and wine during Holy Communion, all of Creation is lifted up. When the celebrant blesses the bread and wine, all of Creation is blessed. The consecrated bread that is placed in our hands is made of wheat, earth and sunlight, of rainwater and clouds, of farmers’ hands and human labor. When we stretch out our hands to receive the bread, we take in what is natural and we take in Christ. The bishops of New England described it like this in a Pastoral Letter3 a while back: when “we nourish ourselves at the Eucharistic table… Christ gives himself to us in the natural elements of bread and wine, and restores our connections not only with God and one another, but also with the whole web of creation.” We are making that crystal clear in our prayers today, so you will notice that in the prayer after Communion, we have added five words. We will pray, as we usually do: God of abundance, you have fed us with the bread of life and cup of salvation; you have united us with Christ and one another; and you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth, and then come five new words: “and with your whole Creation.” Why is this important? Because we come to this table so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed, so that everything in us and around us can be caught up in the redeeming love of God – not only we ourselves, and not only the bread and the wine, but also the whole of God’s Creation, every leaf of it and every speck of sand. In every Eucharist we bring the Earth to the altar. We offer the world to God. And when we leave this table, we’ve been filled with the divine love that reconciles all things on heaven and Earth and that strengthens us to join God in healing and protecting our precious, wounded world. When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, there are many actions that we can take as individuals and as communities of faith! I’m not going to list them here, because we’ve distributed a handout of suggestions and because the resolution we’ll discuss this afternoon is also full of suggestions. But I will say this: Now is the time to preach boldly about the climate crisis. Now is the time to take clear and courageous action to safeguard the web of life that God entrusted to our care. Now is the time to join the climate justice movement and to bear witness to the Christ who bursts from the tomb and who proclaims that life and not death will have the last word. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Will we be successful? Will we avert runaway climate change? I don’t know. But I do know that every choice matters. Every degree of temperature-rise matters. I’m told that “even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.” I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I 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, because you, too, are fed at this table where we meet the life-giving and liberating and reconciling presence of Jesus Christ. I’d like to end with a story about risking arrest for the first time and what it taught me about the Eucharist. Back in 2001 I was desperate to find a way to address the climate crisis, and I decided to join a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, which was gathering in Washington, D.C., to protest the Administration’s energy policy and its plan to drill for more oil in the Arctic. Here’s what happened: On the first day we learned about oil drilling and the Arctic, about climate change and fossil fuels. On the second we lobbied our members of Congress and studied the disciplines of non-violent civil disobedience. On the third, about a hundred of us marched down Independence Avenue in religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, an enormous stone structure surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. So far, everything was legal. Then came the part that wasn’t. I’ll read from an essay I wrote4 about what that was like. The worship service was coming to an end. We sang “Amazing Grace,” and then the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy. I felt us cross an invisible boundary. With the others, I stepped over a threshold I could not see. I walked out of my ordinary life. I am neither a law-breaker nor a thrill-seeker. More often than not, I follow the rules – even enforce them. I fasten my seat belt, don’t cheat on taxes, write thank you notes, and stand up when the band plays our national anthem. But here I was, intentionally and publicly breaking the law. As if some inner revolution had quietly taken place, the old “me” was no longer in charge. Whatever security I’d felt in operating within the rules was gone. That’s partly why I felt so frightened as I left the safety of the circle and moved toward the door: I hardly recognized myself. I hardly knew who I was. §§ We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard. At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray. Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone. I lift up my hands. I’m dressed for Holy Communion. I might as well hold out my arms as I do at Communion. Instead of pews filled with parishioners, I see ranks of police and a cluster of supporters. I am afraid. I’ve never been arrested before. Years ago, as a VISTA volunteer in Mayor Rizzo’s Philadelphia I heard countless stories of police brutality. It’s not that I really expect the same thing to happen to me – the punch in the gut, the assault behind closed doors. Still, my body tenses as I place myself against the cops, the Feds, the law. I close my eyes. One by one we pray aloud, words thrown into space, words hurled against stone. Is this whole thing ridiculous? I briefly open my eyes and notice a well-dressed man watching us. He strokes his tie, leans over and says something to a fellow nearby. The two of them chuckle. I have no idea what they’re talking about but I wonder if they think we look absurd. I suppose we do. Here we are with our jerry-rigged signs, our predictably earnest songs and prayers of protest, a foolhardy band straight out of the ‘60’s. Defensively, I imagine confronting that mocking man with the arsenal of our credentials. “We’re no rag-tag bunch,” I want to tell him. “We’re people with doctorates and master’s degrees – nurses and ministers, writers and accountants. Thoughtful people, educated people, professionals.” I am distracted from prayer by this indignant outburst. “Let it go,” wisdom tells me. “None of that matters — your degrees, your skills, your status in the world. The privileges of race and class mean nothing now. You’re a woman on your knees, that’s who you are — one human being pleading with God.” I turn my attention back to prayer and continue to stretch out my arms. Suddenly I realize that beneath the tension, beneath the fear and self-consciousness, something else is welling up. I am jubilant. “Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at Communion. “We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response. How did I miss it? After years of going to church, after years of celebrating Communion, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance. That worship is an act of human liberation. The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released? I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt. It is God I love, and God’s green earth. I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great. So what if our numbers are small? So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power? I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering. We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand. This is what I love. Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.” I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy. That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy. I invite you to take a moment to remember a time when you took a brave step toward fullness of life, a time when you made a decision to do the right thing, even though you knew it would be difficult or costly. Who inspires you to be bolder than you thought? With whom do you hold hands, literally or figuratively, when you step out to make a difference in the world? And if you knew you could not fail – if you were set free from fear – what would you do for the healing of our world? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. If your church in the Diocese of Western Mass. would like to borrow the banners, please contact the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very. Rev. Tom Callard (413/736-2742, ext. 1; email: tcallard (at) cccspfld.org). 2.This and the following three paragraphs are adapted from “Second Friday of Advent,” Joy of Heaven, To Earth Come Down: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), 35-36. 3.To Serve Christ in All Creation: A Pastoral Letter from the Episcopal Bishops of New England,” issued February 2003. 4. Adapted from “When Heaven Happens” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (NY: Seabury Books, 2007), 74-85.