Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost Sunday, July 18, 2021 Delivered online by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Trinity Episcopal Church, Chicopee, MA Mark 6:30-34

Healing the climate crisis

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:31)

What a blessing to be with you this morning! Thank you, Pastor Daphne, for inviting me. As you know, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in our diocese, and I travel from place to place, speaking about God’s love for our beautiful, precious planet and our call as faithful followers of Jesus to rise up together at this critical moment to heal and restore the Earth that God entrusted to our care. It is particularly sweet to join you on the day after you embarked on a cleanup project – thank you for your stories! Please know that it warms my heart and lifts my spirits to know that the good folks at Trinity Episcopal are stepping up and stepping forward, joining with countless people of faith around the world who understand that now is the time for bold action to protect the web of life, especially to address the climate crisis.

Trinity Church, Chicopee’s Creation Care Team gets to work
Two aspects of today’s Gospel passage stand out for me. One is its understanding of how profoundly we need healing. When Jesus and the apostles slip away in a boat to a deserted place by themselves, the crowds watch the boat withdraw and what do they do? They “[hurry] there on foot from all the towns and [arrive] ahead of them” (Mark 6:33). That’s how much they need Jesus! On another occasion, Jesus and the apostles set out by boat and when they come to shore, people recognize him and rush from “the whole region” (Mark 6:55) to bring him those who are sick. Wherever he goes – villages, cities, farms – people bring him their need for healing. So, let’s follow the guidance of the Gospel and bring into Jesus’ healing presence the places around the world that need healing from the effects of climate change. Let’s lift up to Jesus the American West and Southwest, which are now in the grip of an historic mega-drought – an extraordinarily persistent, unbroken drought that is draining reservoirs, withering crops, and increasing the spread of massive wildfires. Let’s bring to Jesus the Pacific Northwest, a usually cool and foggy part of the world that has been roasting in record-setting levels of heat. Let’s bring to Jesus the hundreds of people who died last weekend in heat-related deaths in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Let’s bring to Jesus the East Coast, too, where it’s been awfully wet here in New England and where a few days ago parts of the mid-Atlantic were drenched in torrential rains. On Monday, “as much as 10 inches of rain fell in less than 4 hours in southeastern Pennsylvania.” Let’s bring to Jesus the hundreds of people in Europe who died this week and those who are still missing after an unheard-of deluge of rain and flash-flooding that devastated entire communities. Extreme precipitation is linked to global warming, for warmer air holds more water and therefore dumps more water when it rains – just as a bigger bucket can hold and dump more water. Let’s bring to Jesus all the people we know, and all the people we don’t know, and all living creatures – all of us who are already living with the effects of a rapidly-warming world, driven by the relentless burning of dirty fuels like coal, gas, and oil.
Cleaning up our corner of the world: Trinity Church, Chicopee's Creation Care Team
Cleaning up our corner of the world: Trinity Church, Chicopee’s Creation Care Team
God knows we need healing. And so God sends us Jesus, a person so filled with the Spirit that everything he does is guided by God’s love; everything he says arises from the presence and power of God; and everything he touches is in some way healed. That’s the second aspect of today’s Gospel passage that stands out to me: Jesus comes among us with power to save, and he invites his followers to join him in his mission of healing. As we see in today’s story, Jesus and his apostles were kept mighty busy – indeed, “they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). Jesus urges his followers to “come away” and “rest a while,” to nourish their souls, just as we gather every Sunday for prayer and refreshment, and he also invites us into a life of focused service. At this unprecedented moment in human history, when the choices we make around climate change will largely determine whether or not we leave our children and our children’s children a livable planet, followers of Jesus are rising up with other people of faith and goodwill to mobilize a response that is commensurate to the crisis. You know that here in Massachusetts the Episcopal bishops recently declared a climate emergency. Our two dioceses have begun to work together in a more coordinated way as we discuss how we can pray, learn, act, and advocate on behalf of God’s Creation. Our diocesan Website on Creation care is loaded with ideas about ways we can make a difference. Some actions are simple, like eating less meat and moving to a plant-based diet, recycling more, driving less, protecting trees, and cutting back on our use of fossil fuels in every way we can. Other actions are bigger and bolder and address systemic change, like pushing for climate policies that keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, or fighting to stop the construction of new pipelines, such as Line 3 in northern Minnesota, which is being built to carry dirty tar sands oil from Canada and is slicing right through land and waters that are sacred to Native peoples, violating their treaty rights. God is calling us to live in balance and harmony with Earth and with each other. Can we learn to do that together? Can we support each other to make the changes we need to make in our own lives and in society as a whole at the speed and scale that scientists tell us is necessary? That’s the question that confronts every community of faith as we clarify our vocation in a time of climate crisis. I hope you will subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Creation Care Network e-news, so that we can stay in touch and give each other encouragement. Thank you for the ways you bless the Earth. Thank you for sharing in Jesus’ ministry of healing. I look forward to hearing more good news from your congregation in the days ahead.  

This article by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas was published in Anglican Theological Review (Spring, 2021, Vol. 103, 2), pp. 208–219.

I have preached countless sermons in countless settings about the urgent Gospel call to care for God’s Creation. Nevertheless, when I step into a literal or virtual pulpit to preach about the climate crisis, I still feel a flash of fear: This will be a disaster.

Preaching on any topic is inherently challenging. As Ruthanna B. Hooke explains in Transforming Preaching, there are many good reasons that newcomers and experienced preachers alike find it frightening to preach.1 Fear, she argues, is an intrinsic and even necessary aspect of preaching God’s Word: preaching can only be authentic when we truly open ourselves to the presence of the living God and publicly put our life and faith on the line.  Barbara Brown Taylor compares watching the preacher climb into the pulpit to watching a tightrope walker climb onto a platform as the drum rolls.2  Preaching of any kind requires risky self-exposure and walking in faith. Before they embark, preachers and tightrope walkers must pray: Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast (Ps. 139:9).

However, preaching about the climate crisis may evoke particular anxiety. Although climate change is called the great moral challenge of our time, many preachers avoid preaching about it – often because of fear.  Maybe we fear being ill-informed (I don’t know enough science). Maybe we fear provoking division in the congregation (Climate change is too political). Maybe we fear stressing out our listeners (Daily life is hard enough; why add to their worries?) or maybe we fear they won’t be able to handle the bad news (If I do mention climate change, I’d better tone it down and underplay the dire science).  Maybe we fear that climate preaching is not pastoral (People come to church for solace, not to get depressed).  Besides, we may tell ourselves, preaching about climate change should be someone else’s responsibility (Climate change isn’t really “my” issue). A preacher’s fears may cut close to home (I could lose pledges; I could even lose my job). Climate preaching may also require a painful reckoning with oneself that the preacher would prefer to avoid.  Such a reckoning may be spiritual and theological (How do I preach resurrection when the web of life is unraveling before our eyes?) or it may be personal and moral as we face our own complicity.  As one suburban preacher confessed to me years ago, “How can I preach about climate change when I drive an SUV?”

No wonder so many preachers delay addressing the climate crisis – most of us weren’t trained for this, we don’t want to stir up trouble, and we face an array of fears.  As a result, many of us kick the can down the road, perhaps waiting for the lectionary to provide the “perfect” text, for a guest preacher to introduce the subject, or for a special (and thankfully rare) occasion, such as Earth Sunday or St. Francis Day.

Preachers who are hanging back from speaking about the climate emergency and those who have been preaching about it for years owe a debt of gratitude to Greta Thunberg, designated by TIME magazine as its 2019 Person of the Year. Thunberg is the Swedish teenager with the round face and straight blonde hair who delivered a fierce message to the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and all the adults who failed to take action: “Our house is on fire… We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gas emissions.  Either we do that or we don’t… Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t… Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t… We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.”3

Preach it, Greta! Although Thunberg is not addressing the religious faith of her audience, her fiery words and presence convey the message of a prophetic preacher: humanity stands at a crossroads and we have a vital choice to make, a choice of life or death, blessing or curse (Dt. 30:19). Science shows that we are at the brink of catastrophe: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented.4 We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We need to make a decisive change of course toward clean, renewable sources of energy. We need to protect forests and topsoil, rivers and oceans, pollinators and the other living creatures with whom we share this planet, to say nothing of the eco-systems upon which all life depends. And we must do this quickly, equitably, and despite the opposition of entrenched political and corporate powers that are determined to keep drilling, burning, mining, extracting, plundering and profiting for as long as they can – even though business as usual is wrecking the planet. Thunberg’s moral call to action galvanized millions of people around the world and inspired the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, which is so far the largest climate demonstration in human history.

Hearing a strong sermon can dissolve fear, awaken moral responsibility, and mobilize action.  I know this from direct experience – I was preached into jail by Bishop Steven Charleston. Back in 2001, while listening to him preach resurrection at an Easter Vigil service, I heard God’s call: I realized that in order to bear witness to the Risen Christ, I needed to gather up my courage and carry out my first extended act of civil disobedience. A few weeks later I joined a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, and headed to Washington, D.C., 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. After singing “Amazing Grace,” the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy.

As I later wrote, describing the moments before our arrest:5

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 the Eucharist.  I might as well hold out my arms as I do at the Eucharist….

One by one we pray aloud, words thrown into space, words hurled against stone. Is this whole thing ridiculous?

But then came the revelation:

Suddenly I realize that behind the tension, behind 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 the Eucharist.

“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 the Eucharist, 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.

Is this what Jesus meant when he promised that the poor in spirit would receive the kingdom of heaven and that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness would be filled (Mt. 5:3, 6)?  I am hardly the first climate-justice or social-justice activist to discover that her understanding of the Gospel deepens immeasurably as she bears public (and risky) witness to her faith.  As Robert Raines (former director of Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in Bangor, PA) put it years ago, “The Gospel is just so much wind until we raise our lives against it like a sail.”

Strong sermons on climate change create the conditions for that kind of spiritual awakening: preacher and listeners alike are invited to take hold of their deepest convictions as they ask themselves: What do I truly value? What is love calling me to do? What is my moral responsibility to future generations? Am I willing to settle for a way of life that is destroying the web of life that God entrusted to our care? Am I ready to imagine a better future and to join with other people who are fighting for a just and habitable world?  These are difficult and essential questions that all of us must face, individually and together.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the city “did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Lk. 19:44). Are we willing to recognize that we, too, live in such a time?  This is a holy moment, a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning. Our calling as preachers is to step through whatever fears hold us back and to take up our pastoral and prophetic vocation to preach Gospel hope in a time of unprecedented human emergency.6

Are there any “best practices” for climate preaching?  The Episcopal Church, in conjunction with ecoAmerica and Blessed Tomorrow, has produced a helpful manual. “Let’s Talk Faith and Climate: Communication Guidance for Faith Leaders,”7 released in 2016, explains why our faith calls us to lead on climate, provides key talking points, and gives examples of “successful messaging.” The chapter, “Prophetic Preaching,” in Jim Antal’s must-read book, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change,8 is likewise worth careful study, suggesting guidelines and what he calls “theological cornerstones” for climate preaching. Another timely book is Leah D. Schade’s Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit,9 which explores how to proclaim justice for God’s Creation in the face of climate disruption.

Based on my reading and lived experience, I hold several things in mind when I preach about climate change.

Frame the climate crisis in terms of Christian theology.  In a highly partisan, divided society, simply uttering the phrase “climate change” can make an audience twitch: Uh-oh. Here comes a sermon about politics.  Our task as preachers is to re-frame the conventional narrative that climate change is only a scientific, political, or economic issue, and instead to place it front and center as a subject of urgent spiritual and moral concern for every Christian.  Every climate preacher will need to locate the bedrock of Scripture, theology, and religious experience that establishes their worldview and values.10

I often make these points:

• God loved the world into being, pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and entrusts it to our care. I sometimes reference the origin story in Genesis, though I critique the concept of “dominion” (Gen. 1:26) when it is interpreted as divine permission for humanity to dominate and abuse the world.  In my view, “dominion” does not refer to what Alcoholics Anonymous would call “self-will run riot”; rather, it means loving the world as God loves it. The second charge, to “till and keep” (Gen. 2:15) the garden, expresses more clearly our primary vocation to be a blessing on God’s Creation.

• The Earth does not belong to us, but to God (Ps. 24:1). The concept of “stewardship” reminds us that we are here to serve the Lord of life, not ourselves, and that our task is to safeguard Earth rather than to ransack and plunder. Still, the word “steward” can sound wimpy to me, as if our responsibility is limited to recycling the occasional can. Let’s find a more robust term to refer to the “children of God” for whom Creation is so eagerly longing (Rom. 8:19-22). Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”

• Jesus lived in close relationship with the natural world. In the Gospels we find him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, and spending weeks alone in the wilderness in prayer. His parables and stories are full of natural images: sheep and seeds, sparrows and lilies, water and fire, weeds, vines, and rocks. What would it be like to reclaim the kind of intimacy with the natural world that Jesus knew – to know, as he did, that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Ps. 19:1)?  In my sermons, I often try to restore a sense of reverence for God’s Creation, to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that the natural world is nothing more than inert material, an object for us to exploit.  The Earth, in fact, is a primary locus for our encounter with God. Such is the testimony of generations of Christian mystics and theologians, beginning with St. Paul (Romans 1:20). Like poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, we affirm: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.

• The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ affected and redeemed not only human beings but also the whole of Creation.11 Christ is the Word through whom all things were made (Jn. 1:3).  In him, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20; c.f. also Eph. 1:10, 2 Cor. 5:19). Creation is thus made new (Rev. 21:5).  As we relinquish a narrowly anthropocentric understanding of the Gospel, we realize that all of Creation participates in the Paschal mystery.  Our search to create a more just and habitable world and to live more gently on Earth is how we share in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work”12 of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God, to one another, and to God’s whole Creation.

• We are called to love our neighbors. Are we loving our neighbors when we drown them, starve them, and force them to uproot themselves from their homelands?  The rising seas, droughts, and extreme storms amplified by climate change are already harming innumerable neighbors, especially in the global South. Our “neighbors” likewise include future generations who depend on us to leave them a habitable world, and also the other-than-human creatures with whom we share this planet.  God forged an “everlasting covenant” not only with human beings but also with “every living creature” (Gen. 9:8-17) – they, too, are the “neighbors” we are summoned to love.

• We are called to bear witness to a love that transcends death.  In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death.  We die in Christ and with Christ.  And then we rise with Christ: from now on, our death is done with. It is behind us. We have died with Christ and are now alive in Christ – and to whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety, set free to love without grasping or possessiveness or holding back. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”13 That inner fearlessness, rooted in the love of God, empowered the early Christians to resist the unjust powers-that-be: early on they were charged with “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor (Acts 17:7).  Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).

Respect the lectionary, but don’t make it an idol.  If you knew your house was on fire, would you wait for the “perfect” moment before calling for help to douse the flames?  Not a chance. Once we know that climate change is an emergency, we will quite naturally seize every tool at hand. This Sunday’s lectionary readings could be the perfect springboard for a sermon on climate change. If we can’t make a direct connection, we can ditch the lectionary and preach about climate change in relation to the liturgical season, the Eucharist, or themes such as incarnation, justice, compassion, sin and forgiveness, and Christian witness and responsibility. I enjoy The Green Bible, which highlights in green font the biblical texts that the book’s editors consider most relevant to Earth-care.  However, it seems to me that thousands of other biblical passages could just as well have been marked in green, for I read the whole Bible as a love-song between God and God’s Creation, as a living text that calls us to bear witness to a triune God who loved the world into being, who suffers with us and for us, and who empowers us to live together in right relationship with each other and the land.

My Website, RevivingCreation.org, includes about one hundred lectionary-based sermons about climate change and Creation care. SustainablePreaching.org is an ecumenical online resource that offers lectionary-based sermons on Creation care and a tool for searching out particular Bible passages.

Share some science, but don’t worry that you need to be a scientist.  As climate preachers we need to know and share the basics: climate change is real, it’s largely caused by human activity, it’s gotten worse in recent decades, and it will have disastrous effects unless humanity changes course fast. Basic information is available from many sources, such as NASA or reputable environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council.14 For up-to-date climate news, I subscribe to the weekly newsletter of InsideClimateNews.org15 and to daily news from Climate Nexus.16

In preaching I usually keep the science message short, brisk, and sober. To summarize the big-picture effects of a changing climate, I often quote a couple of sentences by Bill McKibben: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”17 Then I cite specific examples that might especially resonate with the local congregation (in California: drought, wildfire, and mudslides; on Cape Cod: rising and acidifying seas, and threats to groundwater and fishing).18 One reason that parishioners may be relieved to hear climate change discussed in church is that increasing numbers of Americans understand that climate change is already affecting their communities.19

Find an entry point and connect the dots. What are the particular concerns of your congregation? Begin there and show how they link to climate change. The novel coronavirus, for example, teaches lessons that relate to climate change: science matters; how we treat the natural world affects our wellbeing; the sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place; we have the ability to make drastic changes quickly; all of us are vulnerable to crisis, though unequally.20  Climate change increases the likelihood of pandemics, because flooding, droughts, and weather extremes force agriculture into new areas. Converting more natural habitat into crop land accelerates the loss of biodiversity and increases the incidence of zoonotic diseases, those spread between wild animals and humans.21

Climate change also exacerbates economic and racial injustice.  Low-income communities and communities of color are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change, the ones least able to prepare or recover, and the ones least likely to have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made.22 Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recently reported on the risk of “climate apartheid,” where the rich pay to escape the increasing heat and hunger caused by the climate crisis and the rest of the world suffers.23  So-called “climate gentrification” – where wealthy people seek refuge from the effects of climate change and move into once “undesirable” neighborhoods – forces out low-income and minority residents.24 Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate justice writer who is also Black, details the ways in which Black people suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise, and she issues a clarion call, “It’s time to stop #AllLivesMattering the climate crisis.”25

Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about – it is a cause that affects everything we cherish. The Pentagon has long called climate change a “threat multiplier,” which means that it amplifies existing problems. If we care about pandemics and public health, we care about climate.  If we care about racism and human rights, we care about climate. If we care about poverty, homelessness, and hunger, we care about climate. If we care about immigration and refugees, we care about climate. (How many people worldwide will be forced to move by 2050 because of climate change? Estimates range between 25 million and one billion.26). If we care about violence against women and girls, we care about climate: climate change aggravates gender-based violence.27 If we care about preventing war, we care about climate: climate change increases the risk of conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water and arable land.28

In short, if we care about loving God and neighbor, we care about climate.  The climate does not belong to a special-interest group.  If we like to breathe, if we like to eat, if we want to leave our children a world they can live in, we care about climate. That is why it is so important to build an intersectional movement that pulls people out of their isolated silos of concern and pushes for comprehensive solutions: the groups protecting wilderness areas, farmlands, and wildlife habitat need to support and learn from the groups addressing racism, poverty, and asthma in the inner city.  As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical, Laudato Si, we don’t face two crises, one social and one environmental, but rather “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution require an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”29

Infuse your sermons with the empowering love of God. The more that people know about (and experience) the social and ecological breakdown going on worldwide, the more likely they are to feel paralyzed, panicked, or depressed. Despair holds many people in an icy grip. That is why a message of urgency needs to be accompanied by a message of empowerment and strength: God is with us.

I am deeply interested in the spiritual perspectives and practices that can sustain climate activism, even in the face of dire news about our planet’s health and the possibility that civilization will collapse.  In order to be healers and justice-makers, in order to bear witness to the Christ who bursts out of the tomb and proclaims that life and not death will have the last word, we need to be emotionally and spiritually resilient.  In this time of unprecedented challenge, where will we find the energy and hope to keep working toward solutions without giving up?  To help answer that question, my colleague Leah Schade and I collected and edited an anthology of twenty-one essays from diverse faith traditions, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.30

Whenever I preach, I try to evoke the presence of a God who loves us beyond measure, a God who heals and redeems, liberates and forgives.  I preach about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us; understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed; and, in the words of Peter Sawtell, calls us “to active resistance, not to quiet acceptance.”31  I preach about a God who knows our guilt and complicity in that destruction and who gives us power to amend our lives. I preach about a God who longs to create a Beloved Community32 that includes all beings, not just human beings. I preach about a God who releases us from the tyranny of death and who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy.

Build hope by taking action.  In almost every climate sermon, I include suggestions for faithful action33 such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, and planting trees and community gardens. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and help to propel social change.  Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. We 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. We can support 350.org, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. 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.

If the voice of one young woman – Greta Thunberg – can rivet the attention of the world, what would happen if preachers everywhere unleashed their own passion for God’s Creation? What would happen if preachers across the Episcopal Church and in every religious tradition began to speak boldly and frequently about our moral obligation to create a more just and habitable world?  Just as ecosystems have so-called tipping points – a critical point when they suddenly undergo rapid and irreversible change – so, too, human communities can experience a tipping point after which society changes swiftly in dramatic ways. Is such a thing possible in terms of rapidly decarbonizing a society?  According to a recent article in the journal Anthropocene, an analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “suggests the answer is yes. In it, an international team of researchers argues that seemingly small ‘tipping points’ can trigger large, rapid changes in societies.”34 The team identified six relatively small, positive interventions that could help bring about systemic global change quickly, especially if they were carried out simultaneously.  One of them sounds as if it were crafted with preachers in mind: “Activists and opinion leaders could emphasize the moral implications of fossil fuels – that is, the idea that burning fossil fuels in ways incompatible with the Paris climate targets is immoral. This has the potential to shift societal norms and, consequently, widespread patterns of behavior.”35

When we deliver strong climate sermons and put our trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, I wonder if we are like the boy in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-14): we put our words in Jesus’ hands and through his grace and power, maybe our offering will become the catalyst that enables a crowd to be fed. Maybe our words, like those of Ezekiel, will be infused with Spirit-power to enliven dead, dry bones and breathe life into a multitude (Ez. 37:1-14).  Maybe that homily – that word of challenge, consolation, or encouragement – will contribute to the tipping point that releases a rapid societal transformation.

What do preachers do in a time of unprecedented emergency?  Right before we preach our next sermon about climate change, we acknowledge our fear (This will be a disaster.) We entrust ourselves to God (Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast).  Then we take a breath, open our mouths, and speak.

 

* Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, PhD, serves as Missioner for Creation Care (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ) and Creation Care Advisor (Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts). An Episcopal priest, author, retreat leader, and climate activist, she has been a lead organizer of many Christian and interfaith events about care for Earth, and she leads spiritual retreats in the United States and Canada on spiritual resilience and resistance in the midst of a climate emergency. Her latest book, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (2019), co-edited with Leah Schade, is an anthology of essays from religious environmental activists on finding the spiritual wisdom for facing the difficult days ahead. Her website, RevivingCreation.org, includes sermons, blog posts, articles, and newsletters.

Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Preaching when life depends on it: climate crisis and Gospel hope,” Anglican Theological Review (Vol. 103, 2), pp. 208–219. Copyright © 2021 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. DOI: 10.1177/00033286211007431.

Link to the article on ATR:  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00033286211007431

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1. Ruthanna B. Hooke, “Why Is It Frightening to Preach?” in Transforming Preaching (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 1-21.

2. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993), 76, quoted by Hooke, Transforming Preaching, 3-4.

3. Greta Thunberg, “’Our house is on fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate,” The Guardian, January 25, 2019.

4. Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say,” Washington Post, October 7, 2018.

5. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2007), 79, 80-81.  For information and support regarding civil disobedience, I suggest Climate Disobedience Center and Clergy Climate Action.

6. I helped to draft the 2019 statement by National Religious Coalition on Creation Care, “Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency.”  As the statement makes clear, this is not only a “human” emergency but one that affects all life on Earth. In March 2021, the bishops of the Episcopal dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts declared a climate emergency.

7. “Let’s Talk Faith and Climate: Communication Guidance for Faith Leaders.”  Other Episcopal resources for climate communication and for building momentum on climate solutions in your congregation and community are available at https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ministries/creation-care/.

8. Jim Antal, “Prophetic Preaching,” Climate Church, Climate World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 121-135.

9. Leah D. Schade, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2015).

10. For a helpful theological and devotional resource, view “A Catechism of Creation:  An Episcopal Understanding.”

11. For a brilliant sermon that evokes how Creation shared in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, read Leah D. Schade’s “A Resurrection Sermon for an Earth-Kin Congregation,” which was preached outdoors and is included in Creation-Crisis Preaching, 85-89.

12. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword,” The Green Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers (HarperOne), 2008, I-14.

13. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), p. 107.

14. https://climate.nasa.gov/resources/global-warming-vs-climate-change/,
https://www.nrdc.org/stories/global-climate-change-what-you-need-know/.

15. https://insideclimatenews.org/. “A Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment.”

16. To sign up, send an email to: info@climatenexus.org.

17. Bill McKibben, Eaarth (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2010) xiii, book jacket. The title is deliberately mis-spelled in order to signal that the planet onto which you and I were born is not the same planet we inhabit today.

18. To learn about your region’s environmental concerns, contact your local chapter of Sierra Club.  To view climate risks and clean energy opportunities in each of the 50 states, visit Climate Nexus: https://climatenexus.org/climate-change-usa/.

19. Brady Dennis, “Most Americans believe the government should do more to combat climate change, poll finds,” Washington Post, June 23, 2020.

20. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Leah Schade, “6 Lessons Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Climate Change,” Earth Day Network, March 25, 2020.

21. Georgina Gustin, “Our Growing Food Demands Will Lead to More Corona-like Viruses,” InsideClimateNews, March 24, 2020. Yale Climate Connections maintains an updated, curated list of articles connecting COVID-19 and climate, https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/03/key-readings-about-climate-change-and-coronavirus/.

22. Joe McCarthy, Global Citizen,Why Climate Change and Poverty Are Inextricably Linked: Fighting one problem helps mitigate the other,” Feb. 19, 2010.

23. Damian Carrington, “‘Climate apartheid’: UN expert says human rights may not survive,” The Guardian, June 25, 2019

24. Nathalie Baptiste, “Climate Gentrification: Coming to a Community Near You,” Mother Jones, September 5, 2019.

25. Mary Annaïse Heglar, “We Don’t Have to Halt Climate Action to Fight Racism,” HuffPost, June 12, 2020. Yale Climate Connections maintains an updated, curated list of articles connecting racism and climate, https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/06/the-links-between-racism-and-climate-change/.

26. Migration and Climate Change, No. 31, IOM International Organization for Migration, 12.

27. “Climate Change Increases the Risk of Violence Against Women,” UN Climate Change News, November 25, 2019.

28. John O’Loughlin and Cullen Hendrix, “Will climate change lead to more world conflict?,” July 11, 2019, Washington Post.

29. Pope Francis, Laudato Si – Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home, 2015, par. 139.

30. Leah D. Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, eds. Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

31. Peter Sawtell, “Three Layers of Environmental Preaching.”

32. https://episcopalchurch.org/beloved-community/.

33.  In order not to burden the sermon with a laundry list of resources and options for action, I usually put a handout of suggested actions in the service leaflet.  The Episcopal Church’s Creation Care Website offers some suggestions, including the carbon tracker now used in many dioceses (https://www.sustainislandhome.org/).

34. Sarah DeWeerdt, “Here are a half dozen nudges that could bring about rapid decarbonization,” Anthropocene, January 21, 2020.

35. DeWeerdt, “Here Are a Half Dozen Nudges that Could Bring about Rapid Decarbonization.”

 

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter                          April 25, 2021 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas             St. John’s Episcopal Church, Boulder, CO Acts 4:5-12 Psalm 23 1 John 3:16-24 John 10:11-18

Earth Sunday: “I am the good shepherd”

Today is Earth Sunday, the Sunday after Earth Day, when countless people across the country renew their commitment to restore the planet that we call home.  Earth Sunday always falls in Easter season, and this year it lands on the Sunday we celebrate as Good Shepherd Sunday. Scripture gives us many different ways to imagine Jesus.  In the Gospel of John, for instance, Jesus calls himself “the bread of life” (John 6:35), “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and “the true vine” (John 15:1) – images with their own resonance and meaning – but Jesus “the good shepherd” is the image that many of us treasure most.

I, for one, am grateful that this year Earth Sunday coincides with Good Shepherd Sunday, for I need to be drawn again into Jesus’ consoling and empowering presence. Maybe some of you do, too.  As we take stock of the living world around us and consider the faltering health of our dear planet, we confess that the path that society has traveled for the last two centuries has led to an unprecedented human emergency: we are hurtling toward climate catastrophe and we are watching the web of life unravel before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished in less than 50 years. In what scientists call a “biological annihilation,” human beings have wiped out more than half the world’s creatures since 1970.  Meanwhile, the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil and the logging of forests are accelerating climate change, pushing our planet to break records of all kinds – as Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented the other day: “We’re running out of records to break.” I know I don’t have to belabor the details of what it’s like to be at ground zero of the climate crisis.  My heart goes out to all of you in Boulder who are already experiencing the effects of a fast-warming climate, from extreme weather events to droughts and wildfire. Intertwined with our ecological challenges are the social justice challenges of economic inequity and white racism.  After the trial of Derek Chauvin, convicted this week of killing George Floyd, and in light of the movement for racial justice that has been surging for months across this country, many of us are reflecting deeply on our country’s heritage of white supremacy. Racial justice is closely tied to climate justice – in fact, I’ve heard it said that we wouldn’t have climate change without white supremacy.  Where would we put our urban oilfields – where would we put our dumping grounds and trash, our biomass plants, our toxic incinerators and other polluting industries – if we weren’t willing to sacrifice Black, indigenous, and people of color communities?  In the words of Hop Hopkins, the Sierra Club’s Director of Organizational Transformation, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”1 In a world of so much injustice, violence, and uncertainty, where a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store and a beloved landscape can go up in flames, where do we turn for solace and strength?  We turn to the Good Shepherd of our souls.  How does his presence speak to you this morning? What I notice is that, as our good shepherd, Jesus holds everyone and everything together.  A shepherd is the person charged with keeping the flock intact, united, and heading in the right direction.  I find it reassuring to contemplate the image of God in Christ drawing us into something unified and whole, because right now so much seem to be splintering and breaking apart. The tapestry of life that was once intact is being torn apart as greenhouse gas emissions disrupt the planet’s atmosphere. Our human communities are likewise being torn apart by political division, economic division, racial division.
“File:’The good Shepherd’ mosaic – Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.jpg” by Petar Milošević is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
When we turn to the Good Shepherd, we touch the sacred unity within and beyond all things. We touch the Ground of our being.  We meet the One in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17) – everything within us, everything around us. Maybe you remember the puzzle2 which consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three. The challenge is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page.  Try it however many times you like, but the only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box.  Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or to accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished. That’s what it’s like to experience the Good Shepherd: in the midst of a world in which everything seems to be divided and falling apart, we sense an underlying wholeness and unity. We sense a love that embraces all things, connects all things, sustains all things. On the surface, in the realm of our five senses, we see mainly differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we meet the good shepherd who holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with God. We hear the shepherd’s voice when we take time to quiet ourselves, when we sit in solitude and silence and listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts. The good shepherd is the one who knows us through and through and who calls us each by name.  Held in the embrace of that intimate love, we don’t have to keep trying to hold ourselves together – we are free to let go, free to fall apart, free to let ourselves feel our grief, feel our anger and fear as we respond to the climate crisis and to all the challenges of our lives.  The good shepherd is there to hold what we cannot hold, there to listen, there to protect and keep company, there to help us understand how deeply we are loved – and not just we ourselves, but all people – and not just all people, but all beings, the whole of God’s creation. In the presence of the Good Shepherd, we remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. And the movement toward unity keeps getting larger. As Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16-17).  And so – beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, beneath all the ways that humans try to separate ourselves from each other and from the rest of the natural world, presuming that we can dominate and destroy with impunity – Jesus reminds us that in fact 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.  We tap into the same wave of Easter hope that filled the first followers of Jesus.  When they saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, when they met the Risen Christ in their midst and in their hearts, when they realized that life and not death would have the last word and that nothing could separate them from the love of God, their lives were filled with fresh meaning and purpose.  They realized that they belonged to a sacred mystery that was larger than themselves, to a love that would never let them go. Even though they were still mortal and frail, still vulnerable and imperfect people in a big, chaotic world, they knew that they participated in a long story of salvation to which they could contribute, every moment of their lives, by choosing compassion over indifference, kindness over cruelty, love over fear.  Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29). Today’s passage from the Book of Acts is a case in point: the witness of the first Christians got them into all kinds of trouble. Peter and the other early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and their commitment to God, and to the Good Shepherd of their souls, apparently led many of them to spend 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 carries us now, every one of us who feels impelled to join our Creator in re-weaving the web of life, in building a gentler and more just society, and in getting us into what Representative John Lewis called “good trouble” as we fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, and to dismantle white supremacy. We can do this from a heart of love. On this Earth Sunday, we give thanks for the Good Shepherd and we renew our resolve to be a blessing to the Earth that God entrusted to our care. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Hop Hopkins, “Racism Is Killing the Planet”: The ideology of white supremacy leads the way toward disposable people and a disposable natural world, June 8, 2020. 2. “Thinking outside the box,” Wikipedia (accessed April 25, 2021) The whole service may be viewed on YouTube on the channel for St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Rev. Margaret’s sermon begins at 20:18.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts Luke 24:36b-48

Earth Sunday: “You are witnesses of these things”

Friends, what a blessing to be with you! We have some firsts going on this morning.  For starters, this is the first time I’ve offered the same sermon to folks in both the Diocese of Massachusetts and the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. To those of you I haven’t yet met, my name is Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, and although my title in each diocese is different, my role is the same – to help us work together to heal and protect God’s creation, to defend the precious web of life that God entrusted to our care.

Today we’re celebrating Earth Sunday, the Sunday before Earth Day, on April 22, when people around the country re-commit themselves to restoring the planet that we call home. So, here’s another first: This is the first Earth Sunday since the bishops of our two dioceses declared a climate emergency and issued a call that we reach deep into our faith and rise up to take action.  As I see it, our two dioceses are poised to do great things together, to bear witness in fresh ways to the redeeming love and power of Christ.

I’ll say more about that in a moment, but first I want to share an Easter story.1 It’s told by Mark Macdonald, formerly the Bishop of Alaska and now the National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada. Bishop Macdonald was leading worship on Easter Sunday for a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation, which is in the American Southwest. When the time came to read the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, Bishop Macdonald stood up and began reading in Navajo: “It was early in the morning…” Almost before the words were out of his mouth, “the oldest person there, an elder who understood no English, said loudly (in Navajo), ‘Yes!’”

Photo credit: Trish Callard
The bishop thought that “it seemed a little early in the narrative for this much enthusiasm,” so he assumed he had made a mistake – maybe he had mispronounced the words in Navajo.  So, he tried again: “It was early in the morning…’” This time he heard an even louder and more enthusiastic Yes. After the service, the bishop went up to the lay pastor and asked her if he had pronounced the words correctly.  Oh, she said with surprise, of course he had.  Well, asked the bishop, then why did the older woman get so excited?  The pastor explained, “The early dawn is the most important part of the day to her.  Father Sky and Mother Earth meet at that time and produce all that is necessary for life.  It is the holiest time of the day.  Jesus would pick that good time of day to be raised.”2 Bishop Macdonald realized that while the early dawn is certainly the best time for new life, he had never thought about the possibility that “[this] observation about the physical word could be theologically and spiritually revealing, that it suggested a communion between God, humanity, and creation that is fundamental to our… existence.”  It took him a while to absorb this.  He writes: “An elder with no formal schooling had repositioned the central narrative of my life firmly within the physical world and all its forces and interactions.  It was,” he says, “an ecological reading of a story that, for me, had been trapped inside a flat virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual.’” Today, on Earth Sunday, the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world.  Like Archbishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”3 I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of “spirituality” as completely ethereal.  The God I grew up with had no body.  Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body – both our own body and the “body” of the natural world.  The natural world and its wild diversity of creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings.  Since the time of the Reformation, most of Christianity – at least in the West – has had little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, were of any real interest to God. So, what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that was never forgotten by the indigenous people of the land – to know that the Earth is holy.  Its creatures are holy.  The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God. Our Gospel story this morning is full of meanings, but surely one of them is that the Risen Christ is alive in the body, in our bodies, in the body of the Earth.  While the disciples were talking about how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36-378).  But Jesus doesn’t come as a ghost.  He doesn’t come as a memory, as an idea, or as something from “a flat, virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.”  He comes as a living body, a body made of flesh and bone that can touch and be touched, a body that can feel hunger and thirst and that wants to know, “Hey, isn’t there anything to eat around here?” Scripture tells us that the Messiah is born, lives, suffers, dies, and rises as a body. That must say something about how much God cherishes the body and wants to meet us in and through the body – through our bodily senses of sight and sound, through taste and touch and smell, in this very breath.  Scripture tells us that for forty days the disciples met the living Christ through his risen body.  And then, when he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ body withdrew from the disciples’ sight, so that now his living presence could fill all things and so that all of us can touch and see him, if our eyes are opened. What this means is that when you and I go out into nature, when we let our minds grow quiet and simply gaze at the maple tree, the snowdrops, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything or pushing anything away, we begin to perceive that a holy, living presence fills everything we see.  Wherever we gaze, the Risen Christ is gazing back at us and his presence is flowing toward us. “Peace be with you,” he is saying to us through wind and tree, through cloud and stars.  “Peace be with you.  I am here in the needles of the pine tree beside you that flutter in the breeze, and in the bark overlaid with clumps of lichen, each one a tiny galaxy.  I am here in the ocean waves that form and dissolve on the shore, in the sand under your bare feet, in the sea gull that is crying overhead. Peace be with you.  I am here, and you are part of this with me, and you are witnesses of these things.” “You are witnesses of these things.”  We witness Christ when we sense his living presence in the natural world and our deep reverence for Earth is restored.  Our hearts are opened and so, too, are the eyes of our faith as (in the words of today’s Collect) we “behold [Christ] in all his redeeming work.”  But that’s not all. A witness is not just a bystander or a spectator, a neutral observer who watches from the sidelines.  Scripture tells us that bearing witness to Christ means being an active participant, someone who testifies, who speaks out, who even risks everything4 to convey the good news that God in Christ is with us in our suffering and our joy, in our ardent longing for life, and in all our efforts to create a more just, healthy and peaceful planet. In a time of climate emergency, when ice caps and ice sheets are rapidly melting, extreme storms, droughts, and wildfires are becoming more common, and part of the Gulf Stream seems to be weakening, leading to the possibility of what one scientist calls “monstrous change” that would affect not only the Atlantic Ocean but life far and wide, we are summoned as never before to bear witness to our faith in a God who calls us to live in harmony with God and God’s creation. If you haven’t yet done so, I hope you will read the bishops’ declaration of climate emergency – as the bishops suggest – “thoroughly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.” The text is posted on both of our dioceses’ Websites.  It gives us four areas in which we can focus our efforts: we can pray, individually and together, rooting ourselves in the love of God.  We can learn, coming to understand, for instance, how tackling the climate crisis connects with tackling poverty, economic inequity, and racism.  We can act, finding ways, for instance, to radically reduce our carbon footprint, to plant and share food through Good News Gardens, and to turn our churches into “resilience hubs” that support vulnerable populations during a climate disaster. And we can advocate, pushing for the urgently needed changes in public policy that will propel a swift and just transition to clean, renewable energy.  There is so much we can do!  Next month, along with Creation Care Justice Network, I will host a four-week series of webinars to explore each of these areas – pray, learn, act, and advocate – so that members of our two dioceses can connect with each other and talk about how we can move forward together in addressing the climate crisis. I hope you’ll join us.  For this is a very good time to bear witness to our faith. Thanks to the tireless advocacy of climate activists in Massachusetts – including some of you – Governor Baker just signed a good, strong climate bill, and momentum is building for even more ambitious action.  Momentum is also building at the national level, as the Biden Administration convenes a Leaders Summit on Climate and looks ahead to the U.N.’s international climate talks this fall. What part will we followers of Jesus play in leaving a habitable world to future generations? On this Earth Sunday, please join me in renewing our resolve to bear witness to the God of love “who makes all things new (Isaiah 43:18-19; Isaiah 65:17; Rev. 21:5) and who came among us to bring us life, and life abundant (John 10:10).” ___________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, ed. by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008), 150-157. 2. Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” 151. 3. Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” 151. 4. The Greek word for “witness” is etymologically related to the word for “martyr.”   Please note:  A video of this sermon is available.  

On March 23, 2021, the bishops of the Episcopal dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts issued a declaration of climate emergency, with suggested resources and actions.

Spring is unfolding around us, and this weekend Holy Week and Passover will begin.  Christians and Jews around the world will experience again our sacred stories of liberation from the bondage of slavery and death.  We will experience again our freedom to weave Beloved Community among all beings, human and other-than-human alike.  On Easter Sunday, Christians will celebrate the promise of resurrection for humans and all creation.

What better day than today to tell the truth about climate emergency!  What better time than now to recognize that business as usual is torturing the earth, its peoples and wildlife – and to declare our commitment to change course!

The bishops’ declaration not only lays out the spiritual and theological understanding that impels Christians to care deeply about the earth and her inhabitants – it also provides specific suggestions for urgent action and collaboration.  We live out our faith not by spouting beautiful ideas but by living transformed lives.  The bishops’ declaration of climate emergency is a call to deep transformation – a call to pray, learn, act, and advocate so that all beings can thrive.

I hope you will read it and take its message to heart.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

The bishops’ declaration in English and Spanish is available here.

A pdf is also available for download.

 

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.      

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.

What is an emergency? Merriam-Webster defines emergency as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.” Does climate change count as an emergency? Not if an “emergency” is necessarily “unforeseen,” for when it comes to climate change, scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades, telling us that burning massive quantities of fossil fuels would lead to catastrophe. Of course, the fossil fuel industry (see #ExxonKnew) has spent millions of dollars trying to make the climate emergency as “unforeseen” as possible, for as long as possible, to as many people as possible. But the clock has run out. The time of reckoning is at hand. Foreseen or unforeseen, the climate crisis is upon us and it calls for immediate action.

MBJ with Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley and Rev. Dr. Jim Antal. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

In the same week that the U.K. became the first country to declare “an environment and climate emergency,” and in the same week that the Anglican Communion became, as far as I know, the first global religious body to recognize a climate emergency, National Religious Coalition for Creation gathered for its 20th annual prayer breakfast in Washington, DC. NRCCC is a group composed of members of major faith groups in America, including Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox Christians, and Jews. After opening prayers, a lively presentation by Chad Hanson (Director of the John Muir Project) on forest protection as an essential aspect of addressing climate change, and the bestowal of the 2019 Steward of God’s Creation award to two outstanding climate champions – the Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley and the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal – we moved outside to announce the release of Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Climate Emergency.

Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency clarifies two essential facts: humanity has an extremely short window of time in which to avert irreversible climate chaos, and religions around the world consider protecting God’s Creation a moral and spiritual imperative.

Perhaps it was fitting that the Religious Declaration was publicly announced in Pershing Park, a National World War I Memorial. Just as William James and Jimmy Carter spoke of “the moral equivalent of war,” so, too, are increasing numbers of citizens realizing that we need to address climate change with the same focus, fervor and self-sacrifice of a nation that is mobilized to fight a war.

The stakes are high. As stated in the opening lines of the Religious Declaration, climate change is unlike any other challenge that confronts humanity, “because it is largely irreversible ‘for 1,000 years after emissions stop’ with ‘profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies for the next ten millennia and beyond.’1 The shocking truth is that decisions we make now could, in the words of climate economist Ross Garnaut, ‘haunt humanity until the end of time.’2 Nuclear war, while also irreversible, is only a possibility. Human-induced climate change is underway now, and its impacts are greater and more extensive than scientific models predicted. We will significantly alter the future of civilization as we know it and may eventually cause its collapse if we continue down this path.”

Announcement of Religious Declaration: Anita (Ani) Fête Crews, Jim Davidson, Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, MBJ, David W. Carroll, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Michael Kelly, Rabbi Warren Stone, Richard Cizik. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

The Declaration calls for bold, concerted action: “Decades of delay on climate action have made small corrective measures and incremental approaches useless. Those who are invested in maintaining the status quo, or who put forth proposals that are clearly incompatible with what climate science demands, are condemning innocent young people – including their own children and generations to come – to a future of unimaginable suffering: the mass death of human populations and the extinction of species.”

The Declaration places the climate crisis within a moral context: “Further delay in addressing climate change is a radical evil that as people of faith we vigorously oppose.”

One of the principal writers of the document, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Professor of Philosophical Theology and Sustainability Studies, Creighton University, reflected later on this last point. He commented: “The manufacturing of doubt and the sowing of confusion about climate change by fossil-fuel-industry-funded think tanks, the deceptive climate-change reporting by ideologically-driven media outlets, the investing in fossil fuel infrastructure by banks and high-profile investors, the expansion of pipelines, oil, and gas wells are all radically evil actions that continue to this day.  The institutions that engage in these actions are enemies of humanity and the web of life.  We will oppose these institutions from our churches and synagogues, from our pulpits and lecterns, and from our social halls and gathering spaces.  We will fill the halls of power like the young people in the Sunrise Movement in their push for a Green New Deal; we will join school-aged children in the streets striking for climate action; and we will rebel with the young people in the Extinction Rebellion in the race to head off the destabilizing of the climate system within which civilization developed.”

I, too, was one of the principal authors of the Religious Declaration, and in our press release, I commented: “God sent us into the world to bless and heal, not to ravage and destroy. But as a species we are hurtling willy-nilly down a suicidal path that risks bringing down not only our own civilization but also the web of life as it has evolved for millennia. As people of faith, we stand with the Spirit of life, who calls us to build a more just society in which all people and all God’s creatures can thrive.”

The three principal authors of the Religious Declaration: MBJ, David W. Carroll, and Dr. Richard W. Miller. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

The third lead author of the Religious Declaration, inventor and tech business entrepreneur David W. Carroll, asserted: “There is no moment more critical for all-out personal and cooperative action. Today’s environmental emergency demands we implement solar and wind with power storage immediately. It is ready, and it provides unequalled economic value. Let us not fail in our duty to serve and protect Planet Earth.”

The Declaration amplifies statements that major denominations have already issued on climate change. Religious groups across the United States, including the National Council of Churches, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Central Conference of American Rabbis, National Association of Evangelicals, and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, have all called upon policymakers and elected officials to take strong action to address global climate change.

Are there risks in declaring climate change an “emergency”? I will name two. One risk is that the moment will be wasted – the proposed solutions will be weak and ineffective. A recent blog post from Council Action in the Climate Emergency (CACE) explains: “As climate emergency talking and thinking shifts further towards climate emergency action, it is imperative that ‘climate emergency’ is not co-opted to mean something ‘convenient’ or ‘pragmatic’ (i.e. weak goals and slow action). Climate emergency has to stand for safe climate principles for restoring a safe climate.” (The article, which is by Bryony Edwards, goes on to propose how to set targets for climate emergency emissions.)

A second risk in declaring a climate emergency is that political and corporate powers could thereby be given free rein to consolidate their advantages and shut out the people who suffer the most. Casey Williams, a writer in North Carolina, points out in an article for The Outline, “…Given that the American right seems to be quietly coming around to the reality of climate change (despite some high-profile acts of denial), ‘national emergency’ rhetoric and policy could easily become a conservative strategy for dealing with climate change by building ‘big, beautiful walls’ to exclude various Others from America’s relative stability. Meanwhile, the wealthy in the U.S. and around the globe will continue to erect seawalls around their coastal villas and hire private firefighters to protect their Malibu mansions. The real tragedy of treating climate change as an emergency, rather than an uneven distribution of physical and social harm, is that it would worsen the inequality that brought us to this point in the first place.”

In my view, the Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency successfully avoids both risks. It presents a menu of effective solutions. And it also lifts up the need to tackle both the ecological and the economic crises. As Pope Francis stated in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, we need to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor – neither one can be adequately addressed alone.

That is why Religious Declaration supports “the bold direction of the Green New Deal, or other similar science-based proposals, as an opportunity for this country to commit to stabilizing the climate while creating ‘unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.’ This specifically includes low-income communities, communities of color, and those that have historically been marginalized or underserved. The Green New Deal is the first resolution that addresses the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. Our nation mobilized every part of society during World War II and the Great Depression. Like the Greatest Generation, we must rise to the occasion and commit to doing what science says it takes to avoid irreversible catastrophic climate chaos and make a rapid and just transition to a clean energy economy.”

A group from NRCCC gathers before lobbying a staffer of U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican representing Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District: MBJ, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Dr. Richard W. Miller, Michael Kelly, Richard Cizik, Fred Krueger (Executive Coordinator of NRCCC), David W. Carroll, and Dr. Robert A. Jonas.

  • Other interfaith groups also support the Green New Deal. GND is not a piece of legislation, but a statement of vision and values. To sign “Faith Principles for a Green New Deal” sponsored by Interfaith Power & Light, click here. To learn more about the Green New Deal and to sign a GreenFaith statement of support, click here.

The NRCCC’s Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency has been signed by religious leaders across the country, including heads of denominations, bishops, clergy, and leaders of interfaith environmental organizations. Here are some of the religious leaders who signed the Declaration: Rev. John Dorhauer (General Minister and President, United Church of Christ); Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California); Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts); Rt. Rev. Gregory H. Rickel (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, Seattle, WA); Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld (Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire); Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts); Rt. Rev. Roy F. (Bud) Cederholm Jr. (Retired Bishop Suffragan, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts); Rev. Fletcher Harper (Executive Director, GreenFaith); Phoebe Morad (Executive Director, Lutherans Restoring Creation); Rabbi Warren Stone (Central Conference of American Rabbis), Rabbi Benjamin Weiner (Jewish Community of Amherst, MA); Rabbi Alison Adler (Temple B’nai Abraham, Beverly, MA); Rabbi Moshe Givental (West Bloomfield, MI); Rabbi Katy Z. Allen (Jewish Climate Action Network, Wayland MA); Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President); Rev. Brooks Berndt, Ph.D. (Minister for Environmental Justice, United Church of Christ); Rev. Mariama White-Hammond (Pastor, New Roots AME Church, Boston); Rev. Fred Small (Minister for Climate Justice, Arlington Street Church, Unitarian Universalist, Boston).

I will give the last word to a rabbi and a pastor. Each of them was moved to write a short response to the Religious Declaration, praying that it would reach many minds and hearts.

Rabbi Warren Stone (Central Conference of American Rabbis and Co-chair of NRCCC) wrote: “We must act boldly and with vision to stem the tides of climate change’s devastating impact on humanity and all God’s creation. May we look back on our day and age and say that we saw what was happening to the climate and we acted with courage and prescience to do what was necessary to cut our CO2 emissions and dramatically reduce the threats of climate destruction for future generations.”

The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President) wrote: “Momentum is growing as congregations from every faith tradition are shifting their focus from personal salvation to collective salvation. Along with the outspoken voices of children and youth, people of faith are declaring that we are now in a time of reckoning. To continue ‘business as usual’ as the corporate powers insist is morally bankrupt. God is calling us to re-build our economy and center our lives on sustainable, earth-restoring values and practices.”

Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency is posted at the NRCCC Website and can be read and downloaded here.


1. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, Pierre Friedlingstein, (2009) Irreversible Climate Change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (6) 1704-1709, at 1704; DOI:10.1073/pnas.0812721106; and Peter U. Clark et al, (2016). Consequences of Twenty-First-Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.Nature Climate Change. 6.10.1038/nclimate2923.

2. http://www.garnautreview.org.au/pdf/Garnaut_Chapter24.pdf (last lines of the review)
https://cosmosmagazine.com/climate/ross-garnaut-s-bright-idea.