The first time it happened, we wondered if it was a coincidence.
Shortly before 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener and I walked to a branch of Bank of America located beside a highway in Springfield. Our plan was to hand-deliver a letter to the bank manager. We wanted to explain what was going to happen: we were part of a group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders who were about to hold a multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3:00 p.m. outside the bank, urging the bank to stop funding fossil fuel projects.
Our letter explained that we would not impede sidewalk traffic or interfere with access to the bank, but that we did intend to sing, pray, and speak about the moral call to address the climate emergency. We would be urging customers to reconsider where they bank and to sign a pledge to move their money out of Bank of America if the bank continues to fund the destruction of our planet. If the fossil fuel industry can’t borrow money from large banks like Bank of America, new fossil fuel projects can’t move forward.
As we neared the bank, Rabbi Andrea commented, “I’m counting on your courage.”
Surprised, I answered, “I’m counting on your non-anxious presence.”
It’s no wonder that Jesus sent out the disciples two by two. Even if you’re sure that what you’re doing is reasonable, peaceful, and necessary, you can expect to be nervous if you’re confronting someone in power or disrupting the status quo. It strengthens the heart to have an ally at your side.
The bigger surprise was that, on a busy Friday afternoon, customers were waiting in line to enter the bank. For some reason, bank employees were examining each customer before allowing them inside and then locking the door behind them. Just as the rabbi and I finally moved up the line and reached the front door, a staff member announced that the bank was closed. No one else could enter. He didn’t look at us; he didn’t glance at the rabbi or comment on my clergy collar and stole; he simply declared to the disgruntled customers behind us that the bank had closed.
Rabbi Andrea and I were left to wonder: Was it sheer coincidence that the bank had closed just then or was it because they’d gotten wind of our prayer vigil?
We got our answer one week later. Our group was gearing up for a second multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, held this time outside a Bank of America in downtown Northampton. One of our vigil’s faith leaders, Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, dressed in clergy collar and stole, arrived early. She went inside the bank to look around.
“We’re closing,” a bank employee told her.
“Why?” asked Andrea.
“We’re closing,” came the tight-lipped reply.
By 2:00 p.m. the bank had locked its doors and posted a sign out front: Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are temporarily closed. We apologize for the inconvenience.
We went ahead with our prayer vigil, as planned. In words and song, we expressed our moral outrage that Bank of America is one of the top four banks (along with Citibank, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase) that most heavily funds the fossil fuel projects which drive the climate crisis. Bank of America has financed such controversial new projects as the Line 3 and Mountain Valley pipelines. Despite giving lip-service to the Paris Agreement (adopted in late 2015), over the next five years Bank of America provided an eye-popping $232 billion in lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry.
Some quotes from our press release make our perspective clear.
“No religious tradition says that we should destroy the planet,” said Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who leads Temple Israel in Greenfield and who spoke, prayed, and blew the shofar at the vigil. “Yet this is exactly what governments, financial institutions, and major corporations are either doing or allowing – after knowing for years that fossil fuels cause climate change. It’s flat-out wrong.”
“As Muslims we believe the Almighty Creator has appointed humans as the stewards of earth. Thus, we have a sacred obligation to preserve it, and, in that spirit, we call for responsible and just climate action,” said Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a member of the Muslim community and Executive Director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “For the love of our neighbors, families, and all vulnerable communities, we call on Bank of America to immediately cease financing practices that are harmful and destructive to the earth and to take steps to correct the harm done.”
“Now is the time for bold and urgent action on climate change,” said the Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, who gave the vigil’s closing prayer. “Last year the International Energy Agency made it crystal clear that any new coal, oil, and gas projects are incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate impacts. Bank of America must stop financing climate chaos. We need to stand and work together to bring our planet into balance and to renew God’s creation.”
Right now, the world’s eyes are on COP27, the next crucial round of U.N. climate negotiations, which will begin on November 6 in Egypt. In the lead-up to COP27, under the banner of Faiths4Climate Justice, a project of GreenFaith, people around the world of many different religions have been holding sit-ins and rallies, prayer circles and die-ins to call for bold, just action by corporate and political powers to address the climate crisis. Our two prayer vigils for climate justice were part of this growing worldwide movement of religious and spiritual communities to restore reverence for Earth and to protect humanity’s hope for a livable planet.
Watch this space: JPMorgan Chase Bank is expanding into western Massachusetts and just bought a large, vacant building on the main intersection of downtown Northampton. It plans to open for business in the first half of 2023. We plan to tell them what we’re telling Bank of America: unless they take rapid steps to stop funding fossil fuels and to promote a swift, just transition to clean, renewable energies, we will make our voices heard. We will protest banks whose policies accelerate climate chaos and desecrate the world that God entrusted to our care. We want banks to stay open, serve the community, and do the right thing for the future of our planet.
Here’s where to sign one of Third Act’s two “Banking on our Future” pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”
The faith leaders who led the prayer vigil in Northampton on October 28, 2022:
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts)
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud (member of the Muslim community; Executive Director, Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations)
Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian (ordained minister, United Church of Christ; member of Ministerial Leadership Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield)
Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Episcopal priest; Missioner for Creation Care in Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, and Creation Care Advisor in Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts)
Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener (Temple Israel, Greenfield)
Amihan Jennifer Matias (lay leader, Haydenville Congregational Church, United Church of Christ; Associate Director, Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership)
Rev. Kate Stevens (ordained minister, United Church of Christ; recently President, Interfaith Council of Franklin County)
This article by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas first appeared in the Volume 44 (2022) issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies, published by the University of Hawai‘i Press, pp. 69-83. You can download a .pdf copy of the article here.
Facing climate crisis and ecological collapse requires courage and tenderness. Courage, because it takes courage to see clearly what human beings are doing to our precious planet. It takes courage to hold a steady gaze and to witness the melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs, the withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, the flash floods and massive downpours, the record waves of heat. It takes courage not to look away but to hold a steady gaze as climate change makes sea levels rise and islands disappear, as oceans grow acidic and full of plastic, and as vast populations of our fellow creatures disappear.
Tenderness brings moments – maybe this is one of them – when we allow ourselves to feel our emotional response to what we have lost and are losing as climate change accelerates and as governments and financial institutions in thrall to the fossil fuel industry fail to take decisive action to address the crisis.
I am neither an academic nor a scholar. This paper will not report on research nor analyze sacred texts. Instead, it will reflect on some of the spiritual practices and perspectives that guide my work as an Episcopal priest dedicated to mobilizing a Spirit-filled, faithful response to climate crisis.
At this hinge point of history, practitioners of every faith tradition must ask ourselves: What are the gifts that our tradition can bring to the table as the human community – and the whole Earth community – experience the rapid unraveling of the web of life? What are we called to do? In what spiritual practices shall we root ourselves so that we can rise up with determination, courage, and compassion to take effective action? I’m very interested in what helps us to move beyond inertia, panic, and despair and to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the movement to address climate change – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. How do they maintain courage, empathy, and determination? Our anthology of essays is entitled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.1
I speak as a Christian who is deeply indebted to the wisdom of Buddhism. My late mother, Sarah Doering, was a devoted practitioner and teacher of vipassanā (insight) meditation and for seventeen years attended the three-month silent retreats at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Because of her teaching, counsel, philanthropy, and spiritual support, she is credited by IMS with playing a vital role in helping Buddhism to flourish in the West.2 My husband, Robert A. Jonas, has also had a long-standing interest in Buddhist practice. Years ago, he founded a small, contemplative Christian center for meditation and prayer, The Empty Bell,3 which has sponsored many Buddhist-Christian dialogues; he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama three times at Buddhist-Christian retreats in various parts of the world; and he is an active member of this society. I am also deeply grateful for Joanna Macy, with whom I’ve studied and whose teachings have helped me and countless others to reflect on our human predicament and find a path to healing. I bow to these important people in my life, and to everyone who is nourished by Buddhist teaching and practice.
My own experience of Buddhist meditation opened me to a deeper understanding of Christianity, the faith tradition in which I was born and raised, and which I fled after high school. Buddhist meditation not only facilitated my return to the church – it also gave me my first glimpse of the vocation that would become my life’s work. I began learning and practicing vipassanā meditation in the early 1980’s, when I was in my 30’s. I was just beginning to recover from a food addiction that had plagued me since adolescence, and just beginning to explore what it meant to pay attention to my inner and outer experience. I particularly remember a ten-day silent retreat that I attended at IMS. As the teacher instructed, I followed the drill: You sit. You walk. You sit. You walk. That’s it. You do nothing but bring awareness to the present moment.
One day I left the retreat house for a walk in the woods. I paid attention to sensations as they came, the feel of my foot on the ground, the sound of birds, the sight of birches, hemlock, and pine. I was nothing but eyes and ears, the weight of each foot, the breath in my nostrils. At one point I stopped walking, overwhelmed by the sense that the whole world was inside me. I was carrying the round blue planet inside my chest. My heart held the world. I cradled it tenderly, weeping with joy.
I did not know it then, but that vision of carrying the world in my heart would become one of the core images to which I would return in prayer in the decades ahead, a place of consolation that renewed my strength for climate activism. Years later, someone gave me a contemporary icon of Christ bending over the world, his arms embracing the planet.4 I caught my breath in recognition. Yes, that’s right. That’s just how it is.
Learning through vipassanā meditation to steady my mind and make contact with my actual experience opened me to a flow of love that I didn’t understand and couldn’t have predicted. Time and again, as I sat in meditation, welcoming everything into awareness, clinging to nothing and pushing nothing away, an unexpected tenderness would rise up from within and gather me up like a child. Baffled, I went back to Sunday services in the church I had fled long ago, sat in the shadowy back pews, and marveled at the possibility that the preacher who claimed that God is love was not just a blithering idiot but might actually be on to something. My recovery from addiction through the 12-Step program depended on daily surrender to a so-called Higher Power that was vaster and wiser than my fragmented, isolated ego-self. I began to hope – and then suspect – that this “higher” power might be the power of divine love.
I finished what I was doing and headed to seminary, eager to know more about the God who had saved my life. I began to study and practice Christian contemplative prayer and learned about the mystics who encountered God in silence. I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in June 1988, the same month that NASA climate scientist James Hanson warned Congress that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels was disrupting the global atmosphere. It was the first time I’d heard about what was then called the “greenhouse effect.” Stunned, I touched the newspaper with my fingers and breathed, feeling again the love for the world which had been so mysteriously revealed at that Buddhist retreat center. A question emerged that became the riddle of my life, a question that to this day fuels my vocation as a faith-based climate activist: If God can empower a crazy addict like me to make peace with her body, is it not possible that God can empower us crazed, addicted human beings to make peace with each other and the body of Earth?
For 25 years I served in parish ministry; on the side, I led retreats, taught seminary classes on prayer, and was a climate activist. Finally, in 2013, I went to my bishop in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and confessed that I needed to leave parish ministry: anxiety about the climate crisis was keeping me awake at night. I asked if he could create a job in the diocese to let me focus full-time on mobilizing Christians to protect the living world that God entrusted to our care. God bless him, Bishop Doug Fisher said yes, if funds for such a job could be found. Lo and behold, just then a parishioner came forward who had sold his shares of stock in oil pipelines and wanted to donate the funds to the diocese to address climate change. That became the seed money for my job – which quickly went ecumenical. I now serve both of the Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts, as well as the United Church of Christ in Southern New England, and I maintain a website, RevivingCreation.org.
Christianity is my root tradition and the one I know best, but obviously there are many ways to construct Christianity. Some versions of Christianity have inflicted, and continue to inflict, enormous harm on human beings, the land, and the other creatures with whom we share this planet. Christianity has been used to justify slavery and white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, colonialism, and a definition of “dominion” that permits and even encourages a wholesale assault on Mother Earth. Christianity has been hijacked to bless the Doctrine of Discovery and the unjust claims of Manifest Destiny. Who knows how many Black, brown, and indigenous peoples – as well as people of different faiths – have been enslaved, dispossessed, or killed in the name of Jesus? What’s more, growing up in the 1950’s, I heard nothing in my church about God’s love for or participation in the natural world. The God I grew up with had no body. God was pure spirit and, as far as I could tell, essentially disconnected from the material world. Among the myriad life-forms that God created, God apparently cared about only one, Homo sapiens – all the other creatures and elements of the natural world were, at best, scenic backdrop and bit players in the only drama that mattered to God: the human drama. Even now, as Rev. Cameron Trimble points out, the pews of conservative Christian churches are filled with people who believe – mistakenly – “that nature is available for our endless consumption, that short-term profit outweighs plenary survival, access to resources should be owned by a few rather than available to all, and in the end, technology will save us.”5
A socially just, ecologically wise, and spiritually mature Christianity must begin with an act of repentance and humility. In the face of climate emergency and species extinction, every religious tradition, beginning with Christianity, must reckon with the aspects of its heritage that no longer serve life and must critique, discard, or transform the practices and perspectives – however ancient and long-standing – that do not meet the challenge of this planetary crisis. At the same time, every religious tradition, including Christianity, must sift through its teachings, practices, and rituals to locate the gold, the elements of deep ecological wisdom that the human community so desperately needs. Every religious tradition, including Christianity, must also ask itself: How does this unprecedented moment in human history challenge us to evolve so that we truly serve the common good? Now is the time to ask and address these questions, for scientists tell us that we don’t have much time to avert a catastrophic level of suffering and to preserve a habitable world for our children, our children’s children, and all the other creatures with whom we share this planet.
The world around us is dying. How can we – teachers, students, and practitioners of spiritual wisdom in a variety of contexts – be of use?
Here’s an image to consider. There is a puzzle6 that consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three. The goal is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page or retracing the same line. 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 accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished.
That’s what religious and spiritual traditions are meant to do: to help confused, isolated, and fearful human beings to think, feel, and understand outside the box of our little ego-selves so that we can experience our connections to each other and to a sacred Reality greater than “I,” “me,” and “mine.” Imagine that we live in a world in which everything feels fragmented, divided, and falling apart, a world in which a beloved landscape can go up in flames, a flash flood can drown people in a subway, a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store, and starving birds can fall dead from the sky. Imagine a world in which people feel helpless, frightened, and alone, more tethered to their cell phones and social media than to each other, more ready to arm themselves and stock food in their basement than to reach out to help a neighbor, and perfectly willing to douse their lawns with herbicides and to eat cheap beef from a factory farm because the fate of other creatures is of no concern. Imagine isolated dots, trapped in an increasingly hot, harsh, and violent world that could well tumble into social and ecological collapse.
Imagine now that we find four lines of thought or four arrows of prayerful intention that disclose an underlying wholeness and unity. What if those isolated dots – what if all of us – discovered that we were held together in a sacred reality, that we were embraced by a love that created all things, connects all things, and sustains all things? On the surface, in the realm of our senses, we might notice only differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we would sense common ground that holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with the sacred Mystery that some of us call “God.” Now we would be living outside the box. And from this place we could begin to heal ourselves and an ailing world.
Here are four lines of thought, four arrows of prayerful intention that help me step out of the box and into a larger, wilder place where I can envision social and ecological healing and find strength to take action.
1. First arrow: We cultivate an interior relationship of love. In ways that resonate with Buddhism, one of the great promises of Christianity is that in silence and solitude, through practices of contemplative meditation, we can learn to listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts. Christians imagine Jesus in many different ways, but one of the most compelling is expressed by the 18th-century Methodist, Charles Wesley: “Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art.”7 Like filings to a magnet, we may be drawn to that love, yearning to receive, experience, and embody it more fully every day. We may be drawn to imageless forms of prayer, such as Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer, which use a sacred word or two to guide our longing to encounter the Divine, the ultimate mystery beyond words, thoughts, or feelings. We may pay attention to each breath, consciously breathing in the love of God and breathing it out into the world. One of the earliest Christians, a Desert Father named Anthony, advised, “Always breathe Christ.”8 Or we may simply wish to rest in God’s loving gaze and to pray the simplest of prayers: I gaze at God, and God gazes at me. That is how the 17th-century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence describes what he calls the practice of the presence of God. He writes, “I… concentrate on being always in [God’s] holy presence; I keep myself in [God’s] presence by simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God… to whom I often feel myself united with greater happiness and satisfaction than that of an infant nursing at his mother’s breast; also for the inexpressible sweetness which I taste and experience there, if I dared use this term, I would willingly call this state ‘the breasts of God.”9
Similarly, in words that recall the practice of mindfulness meditation, the 18th-century French Jesuit, Pierre de Caussade, speaks of what he calls “the sacrament of the present moment.” In my tradition, sacraments are special ceremonies that convey the grace and presence of God – outward forms that convey inward spiritual realities.10 De Caussade argues that every moment should be received with the reverence with which we receive a sacrament. Since every moment is filled with God’s infinite holiness, every moment should be honored.11
What I’m trying to describe is how we can move through our days with a deep inner stability, a confidence that moment to moment we are resting within a relationship of love. The accent is relational – we turn toward a holy You (capital Y) whose presence is with us wherever we go. Human beings thrive in the context of loving relationships, and whether sitting or standing, walking or waiting, we can tune our awareness to an intimate Someone (capital S) whom we may name and experience in different ways but in whose usually subtle but sometimes vivid presence we feel seen, known, and loved.
Why is this relevant to facing ecological collapse and climate change? Because when people are in the grip of collective trauma, they need practices that steady the mind, calm the nervous system, and restore a sense of inner safety and accompaniment. Because drawing from a sacred, inner wellspring is a source of solace and strength for anyone facing a difficult present and the likelihood of an even more difficult future.
What’s more, as climate change intensifies, we are increasingly likely to hear messages such as “The world would be better off without human beings” or “Human beings are a cancer on the planet.” I understand the bitterness and grief in statements like these, and I recognize that, in some ways, these messages are accurate: economic systems that depend on dirty fossil fuels, endless expansion, and relentless extraction of natural resources are indeed taking down life on Earth. But the only way forward is not to feed the voice of self-hatred, but instead to listen to the voice of love. Only love can empower us to imagine new possibilities, relinquish a killing status quo, and set out on a different path. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
2. Second arrow: We awaken to the love that is everywhere. Falling in love with Jesus or with the God we find within does not lock us into a private world of our own. On the contrary, when we follow Jesus, we follow him straight into the wide-open heart of the Father/Mother of our souls, the Creator who loves every inch of the created world and who, according to the mythic story, at the beginning of time pronounced everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Participating in the flow of divine love means that our tightly gripped sense of self must dissolve and expand. Our little ego didn’t invent this love; we didn’t create it, we can’t control it, and it’s a lot bigger than we are – or to be more accurate, bigger than who we think we are. In truth, it is the essence of who we are, what Thomas Merton would call our True Self. Even if we’d like to hoard God’s love for ourselves or our own little tribe, when we are drawn into the heart of God, we discover that everyone else is there, too. As Fr. Henri Nouwen would say,12 when I know deeply that I am the beloved – when God breaks through my layers of resistance and self-doubt and reveals that I am cherished to the core – then I discover that everyone is the beloved. Everyone is cherished by God. No one is left out.
This is a radical, out-of-the-box message in a dog-eat-dog world of frenzied competition, where people elbow each other in a zero-sum game for status, possessions, and power, and where nations and corporations too often run roughshod over the needs of the land and the needs of the poor. By contrast, a love that encompasses all people and all sentient beings calls us to live in harmony with each other and the rest of creation. Such love asserts moral values quite different from those of late-stage capitalism. I will name two: intersectional justice, and reverence for the natural world.
Intersectional justice understands that everything is connected. For instance, climate change is linked to economic and racial injustice. Although climate change is largely caused by wealthy nations and communities, its impacts are felt first and most painfully by low-income and minority communities – the very communities least likely to have contributed to the crisis, least able to adapt to it, and least likely to have a voice at the table where policy decisions are made. We risk participating in “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.13 We also risk “climate gentrification,” where wealthy people seeking refuge from the effects of climate change move into once “undesirable” neighborhoods, forcing out low-income and minority residents.14
Climate justice is so closely linked to racial justice that some people contend that we wouldn’t have climate change without white supremacy. Where would we put our urban oilfields, our dumping grounds and trash, our biomass plants, our toxic incinerators and other polluting industries, if we weren’t willing to sacrifice Black, Brown, and indigenous communities? To quote the Sierra Club’s Hop Hopkins, “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.”15
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, from national security and public health to poverty, hunger, and immigration. That is why it is so important to build an intersectional movement that pulls people out of their isolated siloes of concern and pushes for comprehensive solutions. Environmentalism used to be a movement mainly of white people defending polar bears and wilderness areas, but today’s ecological and climate justice movement realizes that people of every race and class must join together in a shared effort to live in loving relationship with each other and with the Earth upon which all life depends. In his stirring encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis makes an impassioned plea for what he calls “integral ecology”: the recognition that everything is connected and that our social and environmental crises are not two separate issues but must be addressed together.16
A second ethical value that emerges when we perceive the world as pervaded by God’s love is reverence for nature. That’s what happened to me: as I recovered from my food addiction and learned to honor my body, listen to its needs, and live within its limits, I also began to connect with the natural world. I began to see that God loved not only my body – God also loved the whole “body” of creation. My prayer began to change. It was like turning my pocket inside out: whereas once I had found God mostly in silent, inward contemplation, now God began showing up around me – in the pond, the rocks, the willow tree. If you spend an hour gazing at a willow tree, after a while it begins to disclose itself, and to disclose God. I began to understand the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
For those of us who follow Jesus, it’s worth noting that Jesus lived close to the Earth. In the Gospels we find him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, and spending weeks praying alone in the wilderness. His parables and stories are full of natural images: sheep, sparrows, seeds, lilies, water, fire, vines, and rocks. Jesus recognized the inherent sacredness not only of human beings but also of the whole created world, all of lit up with the presence of God. I wonder what it would 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).
St. Francis of Assisi followed in his footsteps, spending time in such intimate relationship with the elements and creatures of the natural world that he famously spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He knew that our identity doesn’t stop at our skin. Our boundaries are porous. My body is part of the Earth; the Earth is part of my body – a reality that Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being.” Similarly, Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks eloquently about the reverence felt by Native Americans for the living world, “a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything.”17 We live in a sacred world of interrelationship and interdependence. We belong to each other. We depend on each other.
It’s easy to romanticize and sentimentalize St. Francis, but in an increasingly degraded natural world, what would it mean to take our place as humans who experience this kind of intimate connection with wild creatures and plants and all the elements that together create a balanced and healthy eco-system? Now is the time to reclaim the ancient understanding (which was never lost by indigenous peoples or by so-called “pagans”) that the natural world is sacred, that it belongs to God and is filled with God. Now is the time to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that treats the natural world as inert material, an object 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). Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.
3. Third arrow: Wepractice sorrow, practice joy. Keeping our inner landscape alive is an essential spiritual practice when we’re tempted to shut down emotionally. Last March, when a front-page headline in big font reported that some scientists believe that a branch of the Gulf Stream is starting to weaken,18 I dropped what I was doing, lay face-down on the living room floor, and spent an hour weeping, arms outstretched. I knew that this announcement mattered. Twenty years before, at a weekend conference on climate change, I’d learned that the slowing or stopping of the Atlantic Ocean’s “conveyer belt” of currents is one of the tipping-points that could trigger far-reaching, dramatic, and very rapid changes in the Earth’s temperature, precipitation, and sea levels. Apparently, that moment had come. I needed to extend my arms over God’s good Earth. I wept with sorrow for her and for all of us.
Giving ourselves permission to experience our emotional response to a dying world is a basic practice to keep ourselves inwardly vital and alive. The Atlantic Ocean’s currents may be shutting down, but I don’t want to shut down! Falling in love with life, and with God, means consenting to be vulnerable. As C.S. Lewis points out, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” So, we tune in to our own suffering and to the suffering of other beings – the suffering caused by injustice and cruelty, by climate change and ecological devastation. Clear-cut forests and forests going up in flames. Extinct species. Insect apocalypse. Vanishing topsoil. Disappearing wetlands. Areas of the Amazon rainforest that no longer sequester carbon but actually release it. Ocean dead zones and stalling currents. Tipping points that threaten to propel us into chaos.
How do we pray with this? Our broken-hearted prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. We may need to drum, stamp, or wail. How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief? How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb?
I am thankful to Joanna Macy for encouraging us to honor our pain for the world and to realize that our pain springs from love. The symbol in Christianity for the meeting-place of pain and love is the Cross: crucifixion is the place where evil, malice, ignorance, and confusion are perpetually met by the love of God. So, one place I go in prayer when I am overwhelmed by the pain of the world is to the cross of Christ. As I experience it, the cross of Christ is planted deep within me, and at the cross I can pour out everything that is in me – anger, fear, grief, guilt – for I trust that at the cross, everything is met by the forgiving love of God.
Crucifixion is the place where God breaks through our numbness and denial. At the foot of the cross, we can finally face and bear all that we know about the pain of the world, and where God in Christ can hold and bear whatever we cannot bear ourselves. I imagine this practice being something like the practice of tonglen in Tibetan Buddhism: I breathe in the pain and, breathing out, I release it into the cross of Christ.19 I can’t bear the pain, but Christ can bear it. I can’t forgive it all, but Christ can forgive it. Whatever I need to feel and express, all of it is met with compassion. Along the way, everything transforms, as if becoming good compost. In this time of ecological crisis, Christians may need to take hold of the power of the cross as never before.
We are blessed that many faith traditions provide rituals and practices for accessing and processing grief. In my own tradition, lament is an ancient form of prayer found in the Book of Lamentations, the Psalms, the prophets, and the words and actions of Jesus. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he says in one of his great teachings, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4), and several Gospel stories portray his grief. He wept at the death of Lazarus, he wept over the city of Jerusalem, and he cried out to God on the cross, using the lament of Psalm 22. When we lament, we share our anguish with God, and we dare to feel what is breaking God’s heart.
And lament can be empowering. Jewish and Christian theologians from Abraham Heschel to Walter Brueggemann (and many more) point out that lament is the beginning of criticism of an unjust social order. The powers-that-be would prefer that we stay too busy, too distracted and numb to feel our emotional responses to what unjust systems are doing to human beings and to the planet on which all life depends. What Brueggemann calls “the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel”20 is the enemy of a society built on refusing to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. Grieving is how we begin to challenge an unjust social order, cultivate hope, and open a space for bold actions commensurate with the crisis we are in.
So, let’s dare to lament! Let’s tell the truth: our hearts are breaking, because that’s how fiercely we love this beautiful, broken world that God entrusted to our care. And let’s dare to rejoice, as well! Let’s celebrate joy, wherever we find it – in the curl of an autumn leaf; in a word of appreciation, given or received; in the sensation of bare feet on soft grass or the sound of a loon letting loose her wild call. The practice of joy balances the practice of sorrow, keeping our hearts wide open, making room for everything.
4. Fourth arrow: We take bold action for healing. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that, in order to preserve a habitable, governable world, we must transform our society and economy away from fossil fuels at a scale and speed that are historically unprecedented. Energy companies already possess a pool of fossil fuel that is five times larger than the amount of fossil fuel that would catapult the global climate into catastrophic, runaway change if that fuel were burned. We must fight to keep that carbon in the ground, where it belongs, for the only way to avoid shooting past that 1.5º or 2º degree Celsius cap that protects us from runaway climate change is to keep 80% of known reserves of coal, gas and oil in the ground, to transition quickly to renewable sources of energy like sunshine and wind, and to protects forests, which sequester carbon.
Hearing this, we may shrink back, telling ourselves: That will never happen. We’re too far gone. It’s too big for me to deal with.
There is a Bible passage, often read at weddings, which Christian mystics interpret as God speaking to the soul. It begins like this: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10). Like a tenacious lover, God summons us: “Arise.” From what must we arise? Maybe we hear: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from hopelessness: I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness: I am with you. Arise and come away: leave the cult of death. Leave the path of folly. Abandon the lie that your efforts are useless. Come with me and join the dance of life. Come be a sacred warrior, a warrior for the common good. I will help you find your place in the great struggle to protect life and to build a more just society.
“But” we may protest, feeling helpless before the horrors of the world, helpless before injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power.”
“What can I do? What can any of us do? It’s too late to make a difference!”
“I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to deal with.”
The voice of love is like that. It may be soft, difficult to hear in a noisy world, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it never goes away. The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that awakens our hearts – that holy love sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, warriors for truth, and protectors of life. I may have a thousand and one reasons to dodge love’s call, but then it comes again, that voice: Arise. I love you. I need you. I am calling from the trees, from the wind, from the very stones beneath your feet. I am calling from the orcas and the salmon, from the black bear and the mountains, from the fig trees and the vines. I am calling from the people already suffering from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from those who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world. Arise, my love, and join the effort to save our precious planet. Arise!
Roused by that holy voice, we receive fresh strength to renew the face of the Earth. And we arise, joining with indigenous leaders to protect the water and the land, joining with activists to stop new pipelines, joining with city-dwellers to renew communities crushed by poverty and racism, joining with young and old to plant new forests. We use our voices and our votes as we fight to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We support the movement to hold polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused and continue to cause. We lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that meets the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial resources, we divest from fossil fuels. If we are college graduates, we push our alma mater to divest. Maybe we join the growing numbers of resolute people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and we put our bodies on the line. Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, inclusive, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen.
I am strengthened when I remember that I and other Christians are called to bear witness to resurrection, to a love that transcends death. In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We die in Christ and we die 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. To whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety, set free to love without grasping, possessiveness, or holding back. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”21 That inner fearlessness, rooted in the love of God, empowered the early Christians to resist the unjust powers of the state: 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).
I don’t know if we will avert climate chaos. But I do know that every degree of temperature-rise matters; indeed, every tenth of a degree of temperature-rise matters. So, we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into serving life, and, whatever comes, we put our trust in the divine love that never dies. As one ancient Hebrew prophet put it: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength” (Habbakuk 3:17-19a). The same conviction is expressed in a prayer in the Episcopal burial service: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”22
I stake my life on love’s four arrows: love within, love beyond, love that willingly suffers, and love that takes action and refuses to settle for a killing status quo. These four arrows pull us out of the box of ordinary consciousness, the box of business as usual, and into a larger, more connected space: a space of healing and transformation.
1. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, ed., Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). The book includes study questions and spiritual practices.
7. Charles Wesley, “Love divine, all loves excelling,” Hymn 657, The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).
8. Anthony, quoted by Athanasius of Alexandria, in The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Olivier Clément (London: New City, 1993), 204.
9. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, translated with an intro. By John J. Delaney (Garden City, New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1977), 68, 69.
10. To be more exact, “An Outline of the Faith” in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer defines sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 857.
11. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, trans. by Kitty Muggeridge, intro. by Richard J. Foster (New York: HarperCollins, 1989).
12. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
19. In my book, Christ’s Passion, Our Passions (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2002), pp. 9-13, I describe a way of prayer I call “Grounding in the Cross,” based on Macy’s presentation of tonglen.
20. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 41.
21. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), 107.
What makes a sermon about climate change “pastoral” or “prophetic”? How should preachers address climate grief? Why should we preach about voting, and what’s the difference between partisan and political activity?
These questions and more were discussed by the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas in a climate preaching webinar on September 15, 2022, co-sponsored by the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ. This text is based on our conversation. A 30-minute video is available here. Passcode: 05@=u87H
Opening prayer (by Jim)
Good and gracious God,
We give thanks that you have called us to proclaim your Good News in a time of great challenge. Grant us your assurance that we have been given everything we need to inspire both courage and conviction in the communities you have given us to serve. May our time together in the coming hour open us to the opportunity to amplify our witness on behalf of restoring your creation. With grateful hearts we pray. Amen.
Overview (by Jim)
First, we’ll provide some context for our conversation, including brief updates on the state of God’s creation and humanity’s collective response.
Then, Margaret will share her experience and insights on how to address the climate crisis in a pastoral way, drawing on spiritual and theological foundations as we enter the Season of Creation. Margaret will also offer some guidance on the relationship between grief and activism.
Then, I’ll provide some guidance on how we can speak a prophetic word about engaging the climate crisis in a way that our congregants welcome as an opportunity. I’ll share how climate change reveals all justice issues to be intersectional, and I’ll share why we should preach on the importance of voting and the difference between being partisan and being political in our preaching. Then, we will field questions.
Context of our conversation: National and international (by Jim) I’ll begin with three examples of Good News:
First, in less than a year, Congress has committed OVER HALF A TRILLION DOLLARS to address the climate crisis and energy transition.
My second illustration comes under the heading “WE CAN DO THIS!” Thanks to the relentless efforts of scientists and engineers, by 2030, electricity from solar, wind, and water could provide all the electricity the world needs. And by 2035, renewable energy could also be the sole energy source for all the world’s heating, cooling, transportation, and industry.1 Furthermore, making this transition will pay for itself in only six years.2 Not only that, but as we make this transition, we can address economic and racial inequities – and by doing so, we will reap benefits far greater than the costs.
The headline for my final illustration is, “WE CAN ADAPT!” While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is horrific, one of Germany’s responses has been to drop its dependence on natural gas by 90%. And here in the U.S., President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to build millions of electric heat pumps that will reduce dependence on oil and gas.
Of course, the past few months have brought plenty of bad news as well:
We now know that air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels kills almost 9 million people a year.3 That’s more than malaria, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. And that doesn’t even include the lives lost due to the impact of increased global warming. A 2021 study4 reports that if global warming exceeds 1.5ºC (2.7°F), the world’s tropics could become uninhabitable. 2.5 billion people live in the tropics.
In other words, the past decade has been the hottest decade since records have been kept5– and the past decade will be the coolest decade your children and your grandchildren will ever experience.
It’s not only heat. You probably heard that one-third of Pakistan is under water and 32 million people are displaced.6 Were you aware that between mid-July and mid-August (2022), five states here in the U.S. experienced 1-in-1,000-year rain events?7 Imagine 9 months of rain in a single day. And it’s not just deluge – it’s also drought. That’s why we call it climate chaos. Europe’s drought is the worst in 500 years.8 And the American west is experiencing what some experts call a once-in-a-thousand-year drought.
Now I’ll turn things over to Margaret for some additional Good News!
Context of our conversation: Massachusetts (by Margaret) Earlier this summer, after weeks of speculation that he would veto it, our Republican governor in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker, signed into law what’s being called a landmark climate bill. Among other things, this sweeping climate legislation gives a major boost to renewables, including offshore wind. After an intensive push by climate justice advocates, it also clarifies that biomass is not a renewable energy source. That win was particularly sweet to me, because incentives for biomass are what spurred a proposal for a dirty wood-burning plant in Springfield, an environmental justice community located close to where I live. Following the lead of California, the bill also bans the sale of new internal combustion-powered vehicles by 2035 – to put it another way, all new vehicles sold in the Bay State must be EVs or hydrogen-powered by 2035. The legislation also allows 10 municipalities to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, which is a first for the state.
The bill isn’t perfect – there’s still work to be done – but we hope that it will spur the next administration to take further steps to address climate emergency.
Preaching a pastoral climate sermon (by Margaret)
I’d like to reflect on how we preach a pastoral sermon about climate change. That may sound like a contradiction since we usually think of preaching about climate change as likely to stir up trouble. Stirring up trouble – good trouble – is often just what the Holy Spirit calls the preacher to do, simply because most faith communities are not going to rise up to address the climate emergency until their preachers speak with the moral clarity and fearlessness of a prophet. So, in a moment, Jim will speak about prophetic climate preaching. But a strong climate sermon includes elements that are bothpastoral and prophetic.
So, let’s focus for a moment on what makes a climate sermon pastoral. What makes any sermon “pastoral”? It provides emotional, social, and spiritual support. A pastoral climate sermon does at least four things:
A pastoral climate sermon pushes back against helplessness
Our parishioners may not have told us, but many of them are already grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. Clinicians are increasingly speaking about “climate distress” and “climate stress.” Even if our house hasn’t been washed away by an extreme storm or rising seas – even if we haven’t had to run from wildfires or had to breathe smoky air, day after day – even if we haven’t wondered where we – or our fields, gardens, or livestock – will find the next drink because our waterways have run dry – even if we haven’t endured a searing heatwave – we probably know people who have; we know that millions of people in this country and worldwide are enduring these conditions now; and we know that future conditions will likely become even more difficult.
It can be a relief when a preacher finally makes climate change “speakable” – something we intend to discuss and learn about and lean into together. A pastoral sermon conveys the message: you are not alone. We will support each other, and we intend to find a way forward together.
Simply gathering for worship pushes back against helplessness: we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands. How do people get through tough times? We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories. We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
A pastoral climate sermon makes space for grief
The climate crisis can make us go numb. Newspaper and media reports convey a cascade of losses every day, so it’s easy to shut down and lose heart. In our sermons, we can name, and normalize, the range of feelings evoked by climate change – grief, fear, outrage, confusion, maybe guilt or shame, dread, despair… And we can suggest practices, teachings, and rituals that help us to accept, work with, and move through the feelings that are being stirred up.
To support that process, in our congregations we might create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we might hold public ceremonies of lament outdoors. Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. I remember, for instance, gathering in 2010 on the town common in Amherst after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for a public ceremony of singing, speaking, and prayer. I also remember hearing about the “Requiem for a Glacier” in 2013, when 50 musicians climbed Farnham Glacier in British Columbia to perform an oratorio.
What would it be like – how might it empower us – if we took time in worship services and in outdoor public spaces to lament species that have gone extinct, forests that have burned, or reservoirs that have run dry? Daring to lament together allows us to feel our deep longing for healing and reconciliation and to experience the God who weeps with us. Daring to lament together protects our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. And it allows our emotions to become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
Making a space for grief in a climate sermon may be as simple as saying “We hold in our hearts the many thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, who still don’t have safe drinking water after an historic rainfall and flood.” Rather than coming at your listeners with a hard-hitting list of fact after fact, which might leave people stunned, in their heads, and emotionally defended, we are modeling how to hold traumatic events with an open heart. Or, depending on the text we’re working with, our sermon can focus on how Jesus accompanies us, shares our sorrows, and offers his strength and presence and healing.
Last point: As spiritual leaders, we need to grow our capacity to be with people who are in distress. We will only be able to do that to the extent that we’ve grown in our capacity to sit with our own distress.
A pastoral climate sermon connects deeply with Christian faith
When we step into the pulpit, we don’t have to be policy wonks or expert scientists. We are theologians and communicators who want to convey God’s unbounded love for God’s people and for the whole Creation, and God’s urgent call for us to participate in God’s mission of justice, reconciliation, and healing. So, let’s surround our sermons with prayers and hymns that make it clear that our salvation story encompasses the whole Creation, not just human beings.
I’m excited to introduce a new ecumenical liturgical resource for Creation Season. Last July I worked on it with a colleague in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, the Rev. John Elliott Lein, and it’s been authorized for public use this season by at least four Episcopal dioceses (Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration).
Let me quickly sketch what you’ll find there.
A primer on Creation care theology describes the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and provides seven theological touchstones to guide your thinking and preaching about climate. It also names some of the key solutions for addressing the crisis.
It goes through the lectionary for the 5 Sundays of Creation Season, providing prayers and non-biblical readings and giving preaching suggestions on some difficult texts.
It concludes with a large collection of resources – prayers, blessings, readings, hymns – from a wide range of ancient and contemporary sources, which take us from Kenya and New Zealand to England and the Iona community – from poets and early Christian mystics to Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew – from William Wordsworth to Wendell Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer.
I hope it will be helpful for both Episcopal and UCC preachers – helpful for Episcopal liturgists, because this resource takes us far beyond the bounds of the Book of Common Prayer and invites us to imagine a God who loves and saves every inch of creation, and helpful for UCC liturgists because it is well crafted!
My favorite part: John Lein examines the prayers of the people in our prayer book. He suggests: When we pray for the suffering and the dead, why don’t we pray for the wellbeing of all creatures and mourn the extinction of other species? When we bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, why don’t we explicitly bless all living beings and ecosystems whose lives are closely linked with ours? At least for me, once you start praying in that expansive way and open your prayers beyond human concerns to the concerns of the rest of Creation, there’s no going back!
A pastoral climate sermon includes at least one thing we can do
The way to build hope is to take action. A pastoral sermon conveys a message of agency, a message of empowerment – through the grace of God, we intend to do everything we can to protect what remains and to fight for a just and habitable world.
In my talks right now, I mention Faiths 4 Climate Justice, GreenFaith’s global campaign, between Oct. 2 and Nov. 6 (the eve of the next U.N. climate talks at COP27), in which people of faith around the world will proclaim that the Earth and all people are sacred. Among other things, in prayer vigils and protests we will call for an immediate end to new fossil fuel projects, an end to deforestation, and an end to related financing.
A pastoral sermon emphasizes that everyone has an active role to play, and a preacher can help listeners to find their place in the movement.
Comment on Margaret’s presentation (by Jim)
Thanks for your excellent guidance, Margaret. I want to amplify two things you said.
First, you said we need to make space for grief. Along with that, we need to do everything possible to assure that our congregation is a safe-enough place for honest conversation about grief over the loss of the world we have to let go.
You also suggested that churches might dare to lament. I just want to add that our lamentation is part of living the truth. As children of the Creator God, faithfulness demands that we tell the truth about the desecration of creation, and as we do, a liturgical expression of that truth is lamentation.
Preaching a prophetic climate sermon (by Jim)
Just as we are called to be pastoral in our approach to preaching on the climate crisis, we must also be prophetic. In my book, Climate Church, Climate World, my chapter on prophetic preaching offers many suggestions about how, as preachers, we must free ourselves from fear so that we can respond to God’s call to engage the climate crisis as “opportunity.”
Prophetic preaching requires preparation. Amidst all the demands on our lives, we must create the space to allow ourselves to fully take in the wonder of creation. And we must have the courage to experience the grief we feel when we truly acknowledge the destruction caused by humanity’s greed and selfishness.
And as we do, we might find ourselves in the company of Esther, confronted with the realization that perhaps we were born for just such a time as this (Esther 4:14). Perhaps our generation was born to put an end to three interconnected systemic injustices:
the subjugation of other humans who are not our color;
the colonization of land, sea and air that is not our own; and
the extraction of nature’s wealth that we did not create.
In our preaching, we need to name what is creating the problem. Environmental giant Gus Speth famously identifies the cause as “selfishness and greed and pride.” Fletcher Harper is a little more specific. He points to the supply side of the problem, naming “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and other oil and gas companies [who] are systematically destroying the planet” – along with “financial giants like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, BlackRock, and Vanguard [who] are bankrolling the destruction.”
Another goal of prophetic preaching is to remind people that we are not called to stand idly by as countless examples of injustice continue to frame the status quo. In our preaching, we must help our congregation envision “a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) in which all of God’s creatures can celebrate our interdependence. And then we must invite our congregations to assess all the gifts, the abilities, the assets God has given them and commit their lives to helping our town, our state, our nation, our world, move in that direction.
Another feature of our prophetic preaching is to help our congregations understand that the climate crisis is not one crisis among many. Every congregation I’ve ever known treats its various missions and benevolences as silos. Often, there’s a particular individual in the congregation who is the champion of a particular cause. But the more you learn about the climate crisis, the clearer it becomes that every justice issue you care about – hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, immigration, disease, lack of access to clean water and education – these justice issues are intersectional – they are not separate and distinct from one another – and climate change is making every one of them worse.
The only way humanity can address these intersectional challenges is by coming together. That’s why the actions of governments are so important to anyone concerned about justice. And that’s why it’s important for clergy to encourage their congregations to name and embrace their sacred responsibility to vote. It’s an act of faithfulnessfor churches to discuss the issues on the ballot and encourage people to vote.
Voting is the means by which we elect leaders and advance laws that can and should underwrite at least the following five principles:
addressing the needs of the least of these among us;
assuring and advancing justice;
promoting the common good;
telling and adhering to truth;
and preserving and restoring the integrity of Creation.
These five principles are supported by every faith tradition I know of.
In our preaching, particularly in an election year, pastors need to help their congregations understand the distinction between being partisan and being political. To put it simply, there is no place for partisan activity in the life of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. What do I mean by partisan activity? Endorsing a candidate, supporting a political party, or fundraising for a candidate or a political party.These partisan activities have no place in the life of the church.
But examining how our community, our state, and our nation: address the needs of the least of these among us; how we assure and advance justice; how we promote the common good; how we tell and adhere to the truth; and how we preserve and restore God’s creation – the means by which all of these values are upheld are political.
Think about it. In almost every chapter of each of the four Gospels, we see Jesus urging the community to address the needs of the least of these among us. We hear Jesus passionately advocating for justice and promoting the common good.His commitment to truth is unwavering. And throughout scripture, God calls upon the faithful to preserve and restore creation.
All these activities are political because they involve how people relate to each other; how they govern their life together. In his ministry, Jesus tells the truth as he seeks to amplify love and expand justice in families, in towns and throughout the empire.
We are now in the Season of Creation, and we are also within two months of an election. Every congregation and every clergy leader now have an opportunityto identifythe values and principles that guide us as people of faith when we consider our “life together” as residents of our state or country – and as stewards of God’s creation.
I recognize that all of this may come across as utterly foolish or impossibly challenging or something else altogether. Whatever your response to what Margaret and I have shared, I hope that we can go deeper in our time of discussion, and I very much look forward to hearing what’s on your mind and in your heart.
After discussion, we closed with prayer.
Closing Prayer (by Margaret)
Source of life, heal and redeem the wounds of your creation, and visit the places and people who suffer from our indifference, neglect, and greed. Creator of earth, sea, and sky, kindle the fire of your Spirit within us that we may be bold to heal and defend the earth, and pour your blessing upon all who work for the good of the planet. In the Name and power and presence of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
(Adapted from “Honoring God in Creation,” as cited in Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration)
ThirdAct.org, the new network, founded by Bill McKibben, for people over 60 who wish to leverage their money and experience to push for democratic social change and to preserve the planet. You can sign one of two banking pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”
The joy in climate justice: How we pray, learn, act and advocate for God’s Creation
Rev. Margaret gave a 45-minute keynote presentation in June for the 2022 annual meeting of Province One Episcopal Church Women, followed by Q&A. She told the personal story behind her ministry, shared a brief PowerPoint on the ways that Christian faith informs our work to safeguard the web of life, and explained how we can pray, learn, act, and advocate for God’s Creation – with joy.
[NOTE: The preacher may wish to have available a hat, scarf, shawl, jacket, or other piece of clothing to wear when each of the two characters shows up in the sermon]
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Today’s Gospel passage is a good text for an in-between time, a time of transition in which something is coming to an end and the new has not yet come. Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples at the Last Supper and preparing them for his crucifixion. Because we read this passage in Easter-tide, we also hear it as the risen Christ preparing his disciples for the ascension, when the vivid resurrection appearances will come to an end. Jesus assures his disciples that the Holy Spirit will come in all its fullness – but it has not come yet. It is an in-between time.
Can you touch into that sense of living in an in-between time? Maybe you’re between jobs. Maybe you’re about to graduate and haven’t begun whatever comes next. Maybe you’ve broken up with someone and haven’t yet started dating again. Life is full of in-between times. I think of the interval between becoming engaged and getting married, the interval between getting pregnant and giving birth, or the interval between deciding to move to a new home and actually moving.
It is an in-between time for our planet, too, for we sense that an old way of being is coming to an end and we wonder what new way of being will arise in its place. Scientists tell us that modern industrial society, with its sudden expansion of our human capacity to extract and consume the planet’s abundance for the sake of short-term profit, is not sustainable. Over the past 250 or 300 years, human beings have been extracting goods faster than they can be replenished, and dumping waste faster than Earth can absorb it. Society is increasingly unstable, as those who are wealthy live in a luxury once reserved for kings, while the billions who are impoverished struggle for clean water and a mouthful of food. The web of life is unravelling before our eyes, and species are going extinct at a rate unprecedented since the death of the dinosaurs. The global climate with its delicate balance of gases turns out to be more fragile than we ever imagined.
I know I don’t need to go on. Many of us walk around with a more or less vivid awareness that a chapter of human history is coming to an end. Just as the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago ended one form of human society and brought a new one into being, and just as the industrial revolution 300 years ago also changed the way that society is organized, so we now find ourselves on the brink of what some thinkers call a “third revolution.”1
Modern society as we know it is coming to an end, and more and more people around the world are searching for ways to create something new – to bring forth a human presence on this planet that – in the eloquent words of the Pachamama Alliance – is “environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, [and] socially just.”2 We don’t have much time to do this and to get it right, so it is a precarious and precious time to be alive and to take part – if we so choose – in this great work of healing.
So, with great interest I turn to see what Jesus has to say at an in-between time: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Jesus’ gift at an in-between time is the gift of peace – shalom, to use the Hebrew word – but you’ll notice that it is not any old peace. It is, he tells us, his peace, the peace of Christ, something that is evidently quite different from the peace that is offered by the world. In the middle of the Eucharist we exchange that peace among ourselves, when we say, “The peace of Christ be always with you,” and we let that peace flow from one person to the next until everyone in the room is strengthened and lifted up by its power. At the end of the service we often refer to it again, when the celebrant, quoting from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, blesses us with “the peace of God, which surpasses…understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
What is the peace of God, and how is it different from the peace of the world? To answer that question, I’ve invited two guests to join me this morning at the pulpit. My first guest is Industrial Society, who would like to speak to you about the peace it has to offer and the worldview that lies behind it. Then we’ll hear from our second guest, the Holy Spirit, who will say a few words about the peace of God.
“Ladies and gentlemen – or, shall I say, consumers, for that’s who you really are – my name is Industrial Growth Society,3 and boy, do I have something great to give you: the peace of this world. The main thing you need to know about yourselves is that you are completely alone. You’re alone as individuals and alone as a species. You are limited to the envelope of your skin – that’s who you are. Your identity ends here – and your task in life is to focus on that isolated self – what it wants, what it needs, what kind of shampoo it likes best and what kind of breakfast cereal.You know, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and self-advancement is the name of the game. The only peace an isolated self is ever going to find is the kind it can grab for itself. Wielding power over everything around you – that’s the ticket to peace. Domination is the path to peace – protecting your own interests, guarding your own small self. So go ahead – drain the aquifers, clearcut the forest, over-fish the oceans – it’s all yours for the taking. Never mind if Indigenous cultures are being decimated, to say nothing of low-income and minority communities, and all our non-human relatives. So what? It’s every man for himself.Peace grows by focusing on what you like and by surrounding yourself with pleasant things. You’ll definitely feel more peaceful if you pile them up – gadgets, information, boats, planes, credentials, clothes – and then go all out to keep them safe. Don’t think about the collapse of honeybees, the massive droughts and floods, the profits being made by fossil fuel companies as they push to extract more oil and gas – ouch! That doesn’t concern you. Thinking about stuff like that just messes up your peace of mind. Put up some walls – don’t take that in. There, that’s better. It’s much more peaceful to put your head down and focus only on yourself and your family. Focus on that promotion. Impress your neighbors and pull every dandelion out of your lawn – or, better yet, spray everything with chemicals. Lose those five pounds. Clean up your email. That’s all you should think about, and then you’ll have peace – or something like it, anyway – and hey, if you still feel restless inside or start feeling lonely, you can always go shopping, have another drink, pop a few pills, stare at the TV. We’ve got plenty of entertainment for you, plenty of distractions.”
Thank you, Industrial Growth Society. Now let’s hear a few words from the Holy Spirit, who has consented to make a brief appearance before fully arriving at Pentecost, two weeks from today.
“Dear friends, you are not alone and you have never been alone. You were loved into being by God the Father-Mother of all Creation, and God so loved the world – so loved you – that God sent God’s Son to become one of you, to enter every aspect of human life and to draw you and all Creation into the heart of God.The peace that Jesus gives you springs from your connection to the flow of love that is always going on between the Father and the Son and me, the Holy Spirit. God has made a home within you, and there is nowhere you can go where God is not. The Creator and Redeemer of the world dwell within you through the power of the Holy Spirit (that’s me), and with every breath you take, God is breathing into you and flowing through you.Once you really understand that, you will see that you are much more than an isolated self. At every moment you are connected with the love of God – and not only with God, but also with every other human being and with your brother-sister beings to whom God has also given life and whom God loves, just as God loves you.So, when you feel pain for the brokenness of the world – when you weep for rapidly disappearing species or for the forests and wetlands we’ve already lost, when you feel morally outraged that narrow self-interest or short-term political or financial gain so often prevail over a larger good and a longer view – when you let your defenses drop and feel your sorrow and outrage and fear about what is happening in the world around you, you are expressing how big you are, how connected you are with the whole web of life.The peace of God is spacious enough to stand at the Cross and to open itself to the pain of the world without closing down or running away. Christ bears that pain with you and for you, and by allowing that pain into your awareness – by opening the doors of your senses and the door of your heart so that sorrow and joy can flow through – the peace and power of the risen Christ will move through you, as well.So, now the walls around you can come down. The peace of God is open to life, and it may impel you to move into the world’s most brutal and broken places to be a warrior for life, to protest what is unjust and to help midwife a better and more beautiful world. In an in-between time, you can trust in the peace that God has planted deep within you, a peace that the world cannot give and that the world can never take away.”
As I listen to these two voices, it seems to me that if we steep ourselves in the peace of Christ, we will have everything we need. We know that society needs to be transformed from top to bottom – we need to draw down our carbon emissions, to buy locally produced goods and food, to build different kinds of dwellings, to develop new, sustainable, and non-polluting sources of energy. I can think of no more beautiful way to spend our lives than to take part in what leaders like Joanna Macy and David C. Korten call the Great Turning, the epic transition from a deathly society to one that fosters life. It’s what philosopher Thomas Berry calls the Great Work: our wholehearted effort to create a more just and sustainable society. And it’s what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ, who longs to reconcile us to God, to each other, and to the whole of God’s Creation.4
We are engaged, together, in a third revolution that will require new depths of wisdom, courage, and compassion. But only a shift in consciousness can sustain us in that crucial work, a deep rooting in the ground of our being, which is God. So, today, and every day, as we celebrate the gift of being alive at this crucial moment in the planet’s history, may the peace of Christ be always with you.
See, for instance, Joanna Macy, John Seed, Lester Brown, and Dana Meadows.
The term comes from Norwegian eco-philosopher Sigmund Kwaloy and has been popularized by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society, 1998).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Foreword, The Green Bible, New Revised Standard Version (New York: HarperOne, HarperCollins, 2008), I-14.
“Earth Sunday and resurrection hope” was recorded for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, to celebrate Earth Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter (April 24, 2022).
“I wonder if we could learn to see the wounded Earth as revealing not only the harsh reality of sin, suffering, and death, but also as lit up with God’s undying love. I wonder what it would be like if, in tending to the wounded body of creation, we knew that we were also ministering to the wounds of Christ…”
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (Earth Sunday)
April 24, 2022
Written and recorded by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ
Acts 5:27-32Psalm 150Rev. 1:4-8John 20:19-31
Earth Sunday and resurrection hope
Today is Earth Sunday, the Sunday after Earth Day, when people across the country expressed their determination to fight for a healthy and habitable planet. Over the years I’ve celebrated quite a few Earth Sundays, as maybe you have, too, and I’ve noticed that Earth Sunday often lands, as it does today, on the Second Sunday of Easter.
What happens when we bring Earth Day into the light of Easter? The first thing to say is that our Easter liturgies are clear that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news not only for human beings but also for the whole of Creation – for rivers and mountains, forests and fields, hawks, whales, and bees. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, we start by lighting a fire in the darkness and by listening to someone chant these ancient words:
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King. Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen!
Too often our liturgies limit the good news of Christ to human beings, and we push to the margins all the other creatures and natural elements with whom we share this planet, as if Homo sapiens were the only species of any interest to God. But Easter and Earth Day give us a chance to remember the larger truth: according to Scripture, God loved the whole world into being, sustains all things through the Holy Spirit, and through Christ redeemed and reconciled all things in heaven and on earth “by making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:19). What’s more, our Christian faith looks ahead to the renewal of all things (Matthew 19:28), to the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), to the day when humans live in peace with God, with each other, and with the whole of God’s creation. Folks, the good news of God in Christ is not just for us – it’s for all the round Earth!
That’s one reason I like associating Earth Day with Easter: we have a chance to highlight the deep ecological meaning of faith in Christ. Cherishing and protecting the natural world is not just an “add-on,” a sideline hobby for a few Christians who call themselves “environmentalists.” In fact, protecting the Earth that God entrusted to our care is central to being Christian. It’s a faithful response to the very first task given to humans at the very beginning of Genesis – to “till and keep” the Earth (Gen. 2:15), to be stewards and caregivers. Prophets and sages throughout the Bible, culminating in Jesus himself, cajole us and urge us to participate with God in creating a beloved community in which people and the land live together in balance and harmony, in a shalom of justice, wholeness, and peace. Mystics of every faith tradition tell us that human beings are not separate from – much less “above” – the rest of the created order but are siblings of wind and water, of porcupine and tree – all of us, every living being, every element of the natural world, created and cherished by the same almighty God.
What strikes me this year, as we consider the familiar story from John’s Gospel that we always hear on the Second Sunday of Easter, is that it’s a tale of how ordinary people begin to grasp the meaning and power of resurrection. It’s a story not just about Jesus’ resurrection, but ours, as well. The story begins in a closed, tight place. The disciples are huddled inside a house with the doors locked, the text says, “for fear of the Jews.” The term “Jews” could more accurately be translated as “Judeans,” referring to a local group of religious leaders caught up in a power struggle in Jerusalem. The point is that the disciples are frightened, and we can understand why – they’ve been through trauma; their beloved friend and leader has been brutally executed; they could well be hauled before the authorities as accomplices of Jesus; and they are wrestling with guilt and shame for abandoning or denying him. That very morning, Christ rose from the dead, and although it seems they’ve heard about it – the verses right before this story report that Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she’d seen the risen Lord – apparently the news hasn’t really reached them; it hasn’t transformed them; it hasn’t changed a thing. They are still frightened, huddled, and alone. The resurrection, if it’s real, might be good news for someone else but it hasn’t had much impact on them.
I want to stop right here, for I think that’s where many of us find ourselves this year: closed down, holding back, locked up tight. The brutal war unfolding in Ukraine, the appalling revelations of corruption and self-serving in the halls of power, the crushing weight of racism and economic inequity – all these and more can overwhelm us with the stubborn power of sin and death. News of the natural world may drive us even further into despair: relentless rises in global temperatures, driven largely by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels; last month’s collapse of a massive ice shelf as an extreme heat wave blasted Antarctica with some areas reaching temperatures 70º Fahrenheit above normal; dead coral at Great Barrier Reef; wildfires and drought out West; hurricanes down South; and a sweeping new report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announcing that it’s now or never if we’re going to limit global heating to 1.5º Celsius, the uppermost limit to keep Earth reasonably protected from catastrophic climate change. What’s a person to do but duck their head, close the door, and turn on the TV, right? It’s easy to slide into “doomerism” – into the hopeless conviction that it’s too late to turn this around, it’s not my responsibility, the future is set in stone and can’t be changed – in short, death will have the last word. Of course, succumbing to this temptation pleases fossil fuel companies, since our passivity allows them to go on merrily extracting, selling, and reaping billions from their products.
But into the closed room of withdrawal and fear steps the risen Christ. Christ isn’t stopped by locked doors or locked hearts. He comes and stands among us, breathing forgiveness and peace. “Peace be with you,” he says to the disciples – indeed, he says it three times in this one short passage. “Peace be with you.” Christ’s peace is timeless, and he is offering it to each one of us right now. Can you breathe it in? Right now, as we share this time together, can we let Jesus draw near and, with our next breath, can we breathe in his presence, breathe in his love and forgiveness? As we breathe out, can we extend that compassion to the world around? Experiencing the resurrection is as intimate as breathing in and breathing out, as intimate as the subtle shift of a heart that has been closed now beginning to soften, as tender and powerful as a new sprig of grass pushing up through asphalt.
Then, as Jesus breathes peace into his frightened, guilty, and now awe-struck disciples, he shows them his wounded hands and side. When Thomas refuses to believe unless he sees and touches the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and puts his hand in Jesus’ side, Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and touch the wounds.
I wonder what the disciples see when they look at Jesus’ wounds. Surely in those wounds they see the harsh reality of violent suffering, sin, and death, but I wonder if those wounds are now radiant – if they are now lit up with love, and if light is pouring from Jesus’ wounded hands and side. In gazing at his wounds, I wonder if the disciples see that all the wounds of their lives, all the wounds of the world, have been taken up into God.
I wonder what it would be like if we could look at the wounds of creation like that. I wonder if we could learn to see the wounded Earth as revealing not only the harsh reality of sin, suffering, and death, but also as lit up with God’s undying love. I wonder what it would be like if, in tending to the wounded body of creation, we knew that we were also ministering to the wounds of Christ – so that in every act of love for creation, in every choice we made, say, to eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet, to walk rather drive, or to push for state and federal policies that promote renewable energy and keep fossil fuels in the ground, we were honoring the presence of the wounded and yet risen Christ.
For it is not only peace that Jesus gives his disciples. He gives them a commission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21), he says, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. Jesus not only loves and forgives us – he also summons us to share in the divine life of God that pours itself out in acts of justice and compassion. Like Jesus, we, too, have been sent here on a mission. We participate in the same holy work that he began.
The early Christians were really clear about that. They shared Jesus’ passion to welcome and bring into being the love and justice of God. Like him, they stood up to the empires and unjust powers of this world. The New Testament suggests that they spent as much time inside jail as outside! As we heard in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, when Peter and the apostles are asked why they refuse to cooperate with the police and local authorities, they answer, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29).
Today, Christians and people of many faiths are rising up to call for an end to new fossil fuel projects and a rapid, just transition to a sustainable future. Some of you listening to these words in Massachusetts have joined rallies to protest a new gas pipeline in Springfield, to stand against a compressor station in Weymouth, or to stop a proposed new power plant on the North Shore. Some of you have organized a team to block coal trains. Some of you are planting community gardens, pollinator gardens, and Good News Gardens. Some of you are supporting local land trusts to protect forests and farmland. Some of you are fighting to make clean energy accessible to low-income communities. Some of you have joined campaigns to push the four biggest banks who finance fossil fuels (Chase, CitiBank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America) to quit propping up the oil and gas industry. Some of you will join the Poor People’s Campaign on June 18th in a March on Washington.
We are so done with huddling in fear! Whenever the crucified and risen Christ draws near and opens the closed doors of our minds and hearts, as he does today and every day, we hope to breathe in his love, to receive his forgiveness, to honor his wounds, and to find our place in the Spirit-filled, justice-seeking movement to protect the web of life that God entrusted to our care.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
On April 24, 2022, Rev. Margaret delivered this sermon in person at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of GreenFaith’s Sacred Season for Climate Justice. A video of the sermon as recorded for the two Episcopal dioceses in MA and for Southern New England Conference, UCC, is posted on her YouTube channel and on the respective Vimeo or YouTube channels of those faith communities.
Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas recorded the following prayer for the opening session of National Faith and Climate Forum, American Climate Leadership Summit 2022 (March 31, 2022). A YouTube video of the prayer is available here.
Friends, I invite you to stand in body or spirit and to join me in a simple body prayer as we welcome the presence of the Holy in our midst.
As we gather today, the winds of war are howling around us: a war against Ukraine that is underwritten by oil and gas, and a relentless war against Earth herself as coal, gas, and oil continue to be extracted and burned. The winds of war, the casualties of war, are all around.
So, I invite us to take a moment to ground ourselves, to feel our feet on the ground. Beneath the floor is the earth. Let yourself feel the support of the good earth under your feet. Let the good earth hold you up… Imagine, for a moment, that you are a tree. Your roots extend deep into the earth. Let your roots reach deep into the soil and bend your knees a little.
As we breathe in, we lift our arms like branches, and as we breathe out, we breathe down into our roots. The Bible’s first psalm says that those who trust in God are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). So, we plant ourselves in the love of God. Our roots go down deep into the divine Presence, which runs like a river beside us or below us or within us. Even when the world is dangerous or chaotic, we draw from a divine river that is endlessly flowing, for, as another psalm tells us, “The river of God is full of water” (Psalm 65:9). Maybe your fingertips sense the flow of that river.
I invite you to take a big, deep breath. Breathing in, let your arms sweep up to the sky overhead. Breathing out, let your arms float out to the sides, like the great canopy of a tree. As we breathe in, we receive the breath of life from trees. As we breathe out, we release the breath of life to trees. We exchange the elements of life with each other. Take a moment to stand with trees and with all plants and green-growing things. Like every creature that breathes, we join a mysterious dance of giving and receiving. We live in a sacred world of reciprocity and mutuality.
Bring your arms down to your sides. Breathing in, we draw the love of God up through our body. Breathing out, we extend God’s blessing to every tree, every creature, and every person. Breathing in, we take in the love and power of God, and breathing out, we extend that blessing to every part of the web of life. Who needs that blessing right now? Send it there.
Let’s take a moment to enjoy standing still, feet on the ground, and breathing. I’ll close with a prayer.
Gracious God, in troubled times may we draw from the deep wellspring of our faith. Then may we rise like a mighty tree, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither, offering our gifts to each other and to a warring world, speaking words of peace, and joining hands to build a just and thriving planet. Amen.
A presentation by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Creation Justice Ministries on March 24, 2022. Facilitated by Avery Davis Lamb, Co-Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries, this online workshop was part of CJM’s ongoing exploration of how the church might become a hub of resilience in the midst of the spiritual and physical storms of the climate crisis. A recording of this conversation, along with CJM’s other workshops on climate resilience, is available on their YouTube channel. A PDF is available for download.
Let’s begin by taking a quick pulse.
How many of you have heard a sermon about the climate emergency and our moral obligation as Christians to tackle it? Please raise your hand.
How many of you preachers – lay or ordained – have preached a sermon about the climate emergency and our moral obligation as Christians to tackle it?
How many of you preachers intend to preach a climate sermon sometime soon, and how many of you non-preachers will give them your full support when they do?
I hope everybody’s hands went up that time!
For a while now I’ve been traveling around, preaching about climate change, and you’d be amazed how many times I’ve asked a group of parishioners whether they’ve ever heard a sermon about climate change, and no one raises a hand. So, let’s talk about preaching resilience and cultivating climate justice from the pulpit.
I want to be real. I want to acknowledge right off the bat that it can be hard to preach about climate emergency. Preaching of any kind is challenging but preaching about climate emergency is especially difficult. Why is that? What are we afraid of?1
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?).
Maybe we fear our parishioners 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; someone else should deal with it).
A preacher’s fears may cut close to home (I could lose pledges; I could even lose my job).
And climate preaching may require a painful and very personal reckoning with oneself that the preacher would prefer to avoid (How do I preach resurrection when watching the web of life unravel before my eyes fills me with despair?)
Reckoning with ourselves may also be difficult as we admit our own complicity and consumerism. Years ago, a friend of mine, a suburban priest in a wealthy parish, confessed to me, “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 until the lectionary provides the supposedly “perfect” text.
Well, I think it’s fair to say that the time for shyness about preaching on climate change has long since passed. It’s high time for us preachers to overcome our fears and step into the pulpit to preach a bold message of Gospel truth and Gospel hope, because climate change is bearing down on us fast. The winds of war are howling. We live amidst a war against Ukraine that is underwritten by oil and gas, and a relentless war against Earth herself as coal, gas, and oil continue to be extracted and burned. This week the U.N. Secretary General warned that the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is “on life-support.”2 He went on to say: “Last year alone, global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 6% to their highest levels in history. Coal emissions have surged to record highs. We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe. Our planet has already warmed by as much as 1.2 degrees, and we see the devastating consequences everywhere. … If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach.”
So, do we need to preach and practice resilience? You bet we do. Do we need to wake up and quit sleepwalking? You bet we do. For a long time, we may have been sitting on the sidelines, telling ourselves: Things aren’t that bad. The scientists are exaggerating. Or: If I don’t pay attention, it will go away. But eventually our efforts to ignore the reality of a rapidly changing climate can’t help but fall apart. One too many reports of melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs, one too many accounts of withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, one too many stories of massive downpours and flash flooding, one too many experiences of devastating wildfires and record heatwaves, and it becomes impossible to suppress awareness of the climate crisis. Our defenses crumble. And we experience what journalist Mark Hertsgaard calls the “Oh, shit” moment we all must have. Climate change is real. It’s here. It’s accelerating.
The truth is that if we keep burning fossil fuels and stick to business as usual, by the end of century, average global temperature will rise 4.2 degrees Celsius (= 7.6 degrees F). Human beings simply can’t adapt to a world that hot.
And let’s not forget that, depending on their social location – on their race and class – people experience ecological breakdown differently. As the saying goes: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.” Low-income and low-wealth communities, racial minorities, and the historically underserved are those hurt first and worst by a changing climate, those least able to adapt, and those least likely to have a seat at the table where decisions are made.
This is where preachers have an essential role to play. This is where preaching resilience, preaching justice, preaching faithfulness to the crucified and risen Christ becomes crucial. Why? Because the more that people know about the social and ecological breakdown going on worldwide – and the more they experience it directly, in their own lives – the more they may feel overwhelmed, hopeless, or depressed. That’s why a message of urgency needs to be accompanied by a message of agency, a message of empowerment and strength: God is with us, we’re not alone, and there’s a lot we can do.
Here are nine things I try to do when preaching on climate.
Push back against helplessness
That’s one of the main functions of good climate preaching: push back against helplessness. Your parishioners might not have mentioned it to you, but it’s likely that many of them are grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. A national survey recently conducted by Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reports that seven in ten Americans (70%) say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming and that one in three (35%) are “very worried” about it – numbers that have reached a record high.3 It can be a relief when a preacher finally names and addresses their fears, makes climate change “speakable,” and pushes back against the helplessness and “doomism” that suck our spirits dry. That’s why preaching about climate emergency can be deeply pastoral, an act of kindness to your congregation.
Simply gathering for worship can also push back against helplessness: we see each other’s face, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands. How do people get through tough times? We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories, we raise our spirits together. We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Enable people to face hard facts
Like all spiritual seekers, Christians are committed to the search for truth, to cutting through fantasy and self-deception. So, in my sermons I share some facts about climate science. As climate preachers we need to know 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.4 For up-to-date climate information, I subscribe to daily news from Climate Nexus.5
So – we share some science, but we don’t have to worry that we need to be a scientist. In preaching, I keep my science comments short, brisk, and sober. To summarize the big-picture effects of a changing climate, I often quote a couple of sentences by Bill McKibben from his book, Eaarth: “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.”6 Then I cite specific examples that resonate most strongly with the local congregation. In California, I mentioned drought, wildfire, and mudslides; on Cape Cod, I mentioned rising and acidifying seas, and threats to fishing and groundwater.
When so much misinformation is being spread and funded by fossil fuel corporations and by the politicians in their pockets, faith leaders need to be resolute in speaking hard truths. A religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is surely a religion that can face painful facts.
Offer a positive vision of the future
Climate science has done its job, reporting on the catastrophic effects of burning fossil fuels. But facts aren’t enough to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal and purpose and values. That’s what preachers do: we lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” How do you build resilience? By lifting up God’s vision of a Beloved Community and by inviting everyone to join God’s mission of reconciling us to God, each other, and the whole Creation. This is the mission that Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ.
Explore ethical questions and provide a moral framework
The climate crisis forces upon us existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet? How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that arise with this awareness? Are we willing to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste? What does a “good” life look like, once we know the deadly consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of an inherently unsustainable, extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?
Such questions may hover in the background or roar to the foreground. Congregations provide a context for grappling with these questions, and preachers can offer moral grounding and guidance, reminding their listeners of such old-fashioned values as compassion and generosity, self-control and selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.
Climate change has become a deeply divisive political issue – so polarizing that people may fear to mention the subject to family members, co-workers, and friends. Sermons can open a space for conversation, and congregations can follow up by providing settings for difficult conversations and active listening. If we can express compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, we can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that otherwise might not exist.
Jim Antal points out in his seminal book, Climate Church, Climate World, that “truth and reconciliation” groups could be modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after the abolition of apartheid. Antal writes: “Initiating Truth and Reconciliation Conversations could well be the most important contribution of the church to creating a world able to undergo the great transition we are now beginning. For many generations we have sought to conquer, dominate, and exploit nature. Now we must seek intergenerational and cross-species atonement. It seems to me that if the church, the synagogue, and the mosque are to offer meaningful hope in the years ahead, they must host such personal and communal, transparent and sacred conversations.”7
Provide opportunities for emotional response
The climate crisis can make us go numb. Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that died in less than two months? What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct? It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death. How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it? How do we move beyond despair?
Preachers can offer practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change. We can create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we can hold public ceremonies outdoors. Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. Some were held after environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; others were held before significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C., and the U.N. climate talks in Paris. Preachers and congregations can create public spaces for expressing grief, naming hopes, and touching our deep longing for healing and reconciliation. We can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. Our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
Build hope by taking action
How do we maintain hope? That’s a question many contributors address in the anthology I co-edited with Leah Schade, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. One author, Tim DeChristopher, is a Unitarian Universalist who spent two years in federal prison after disrupting an oil and gas auction in Utah. When someone asks him, “What gives you hope?” Tim replies, “How can anything ‘give’ me hope?” He writes: “Hope is inseparable from our own actions. [Hope] isn’t given; it’s grown. Waiting to act on climate change until we have hope is like waiting to pick up a shovel until we build callouses on our hands. The hope never arrives until we get to work.”8
In my climate sermons I include suggestions for action, such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, protecting forests, and planting trees. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and they help to propel social change. Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. As environmental justice activist, Mary Annaise Heglar, puts it: “I don’t care if you recycle. Stop obsessing over your environmental ‘sins.’ Fight the oil and gas industry instead.”9
So, in my sermons I encourage parishioners not only to live more lightly on Earth but also to use their voices and votes to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to push banks to stop financing fossil fuel projects. 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, and the needs of workers in the fossil fuel industries as we transition to a clean energy economy. 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, ThirdAct.org (a new climate action group led by Bill McKibben for people over 60), Sunrise Movement (a climate action group led by people under 30), Extinction Rebellion, and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. We can put our bodies on the line and risk arrest in non-violent resistance to fossil fuels. By inspiring significant action, preachers can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of apathy and inaction.
Deepen reverence for nature
Our society treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, and preachers can call us to reclaim the sacredness of Earth. After all, nature is a place where humans have always encountered God – so say generations of mystics and theologians, including Moses, Jesus, and St. Paul (Romans 1:20). As poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.
So, in addition to preaching reverence for God’s creation, maybe we can plant a community garden in the vacant lot behind our church. Maybe we can support land trusts to preserve farms, woods, and open space; maybe we can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; maybe we can sponsor retreats, hikes, and worship services that explore the wonders of Creation. Step by step we can begin to reclaim what traditional indigenous societies have never forgotten: the land itself is sacred. Discovering this for ourselves will affect our behavior: we only fight to save what we love.
Which brings me to my final aim in preaching:
Cultivate love. That really should be Point #1! Whenever I preach, I try to evoke the presence of a God who loves us beyond measure, a God who heals and redeems, who liberates and forgives. I preach about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us. I preach about a God who understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed; a God, in the words of Peter Sawtell, who calls us “to active resistance, not to quiet acceptance.”10 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 Community that includes all beings, not just human beings. I preach about a God who sets us free from the fear of death and who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
When we deliver a strong climate sermon and we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re like the boy in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-14): we put our words in Jesus’ hands. Through his grace and power, maybe our small offering will become a catalyst that enables a crowd to be fed. Maybe our words, like those of Ezekiel, will be infused with Spirit-power to enliven that valley of dead, dry bones and breathe life into a multitude (Ez. 37:1-14). Maybe that homily – that word of challenge or encouragement – will contribute to a social tipping point that releases rapid societal transformation.
Holy Week, Easter, and Earth Day are all approaching, and this year we have a special opportunity to amplify the power of our witness: we can register our climate sermons and prayer vigils with GreenFaith’s global initiative, Sacred Season for Climate Justice. All five of the world’s major religions celebrate a holy day or season between now and early May, and faith communities around the world will hold special events and services that proclaim one urgent message: climate justice now! So, when you preach a climate justice/climate resilience sermon sometime this month, as I hope you will, please be sure to register your service with Sacred Season for Climate Justice.11
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is 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 U.S.A. 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) is a co-edited anthology of essays by religious environmental activists. She has been arrested in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to protest expanded use of fossil fuels. She serves as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass. and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, and as Creation Care Advisor for the Episcopal Diocese of Mass. Her Website, RevivingCreation.org, includes blog posts, sermons, videos, and articles.
1. This section is drawn from “Preaching When Life Depends on It: Climate Crisis and Gospel Hope,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Anglican Theological Review (Spring, 2021, Vol. 103, 2), 208–219, https://revivingcreation.org/preaching-when-life-depends-on-it-climate-crisis-and-gospel-hope/
5. To sign up, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. 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.
7. Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 77.
8. Tim DeChristopher, “Working Up Hope,” in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, ed. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 148.