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.
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.
On a tumultuous spring afternoon of downpours alternating with blue skies, several hundred people gathered today in front of the Federal Courthouse Building in Springfield, Massachusetts, to protest a proposed new gas pipeline. The utility company Eversource wants to build a new “natural” gas pipeline through the city’s residential neighborhoods, including through many environmental justice communities.
Local opposition to this toxic pipeline has been fierce. Arguments against the pipeline include its negative impact on public health, its risk of sparking fires and explosions, its high cost to ratepayers, and its acceleration of climate change just when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has declared a “code red” for humanity. Does it make sense to increase Springfield’s long-term dependence on “natural” gas when Massachusetts’ Climate Roadmap Bill mandates a transition away from fossil fuels? The two groups that organized the rally – the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and the Longmeadow Pipeline Awareness Group – contend that Springfield will reach a state of energy resilience and reliability only when our energy network is diversified and localized with renewable energy.
I gladly accepted an invitation to speak at the rally. Awaiting my turn, I listened with pleasure to community leaders, politicians, activists, elders, and young people, who spoke with ardor, humor, and outrage about their opposition to the pipeline. I also kept a wary eye on the sky. Just before the rally, a rainstorm and a sharp gust of wind had practically run off with the tent that sheltered the sound system. After an interlude of sunshine that allowed the rally to carry on, dark clouds were now forming in the northwest, accompanied by grumbles of thunder. The wind was picking up. Time was evidently running out – our window of opportunity was quickly closing. I watched a policeman stride through the crowd to have a word with the organizers. Just as my turn came to speak and I stepped to the microphone, a clap of thunder rang out overhead. Rain began to fall. “The rally is over!” an organizer called out. “Everyone must leave!”
Home I went, without delivering my remarks. Here is what I wanted to say in person to the crowd.
Friends, what a blessing to be with you! Our gathering today includes people of many faiths. Among us are Buddhists, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, and members of other traditions, as well.
The sacred texts and teachings of the world’s religions speak with one voice about our responsibility to live in harmony with each other and with the land upon which all life depends. Whatever our faith tradition, we know that destroying Earth is against our religion. Polluting the air is against our religion. Making life difficult for our neighbors, especially those who have been marginalized and underserved, is against our religion. Wrecking our children’s future is against our religion.
So, people of faith and good will are standing together to cry out for climate justice. Our fight right here in Springfield to stop a dirty pipeline is one small but significant part of a worldwide movement. Our event today is part of Greenfaith’s Sacred Season for Climate Justice, for this year, from the end of March through early May, people of faith around the world are using their holy days and holy seasons – Ramadan, Passover, Holy Week, Easter, and more – as a time to affirm that fighting for a just and healthy future is central to our spiritual identity and spiritual vocation. We’ve heard the latest IPCC report. We know that the time is “now or never” if the world is going to avert climate disaster.
In my Christian tradition, tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the day we remember Jesus’ non-violent entry into Jerusalem to confront the unjust powers that be. Jesus’ message that we love one another meant that he stood against systems of domination that hurt the poor and poison the land and crush the spirit.
With him, and with prophets and sages of every tradition, we proclaim that we don’t need one more toxic pipeline. Let it be known: the Earth is sacred, and we won’t stand idly by and let it be destroyed.
* The rally to stop the Springfield-Longmeadow Eversource pipeline was co-sponsored by 57 local and statewide organizations, including these Episcopal and UCC faith communities: All Saints Episcopal Church (Worcester), Christ Church Cathedral (Springfield), Environmental Justice Team (First Church, Longmeadow), Grace Church (Southern Berkshires), Grace Episcopal Church (Amherst), St. John’s Episcopal Church (Northampton), St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (East Longmeadow), and Social Justice Commission (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts). Thank you, all!
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.
Today I spoke at a rally on the front steps of Northampton’s City Hall. Pulled together in less than 48 hours, this public witness drew almost 30 people eager to express support for five young climate activists in the Sunrise Movement who, as part of their campaign “Nothing to Lose,” began a hunger strike today in front of the White House. The five Sunrisers intend not to eat until Democrats pass climate policy that matches the urgency and scale of the climate emergency. People who support their demands for bold climate legislation were invited to carry out a 24-hour fast.
This is a crucial week in the fight to include strong climate policy initiatives in the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, including the Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) and the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP). Fifty Republicans and the corporate Democrats most captive to the fossil fuel industry – Senators Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) – are pushing to gut the most significant climate legislation this country has ever tried to pass. Not incidentally, coal mining, oil and gas, and gas pipeline companies gave more to Manchin during the current election cycle than to any other member of Congress. Unless the U.S. passes meaningful climate legislation shortly, its leadership and credibility at the upcoming U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, COP26, will be substantially weakened.
I invite readers to phone the White House (888/724-8946) and urge President Biden to stop fossil fuel projects, including Line 3. I also invite my clergy colleagues to preach about the climate crisis. This new 20-minute podcast, “The Urgent Need to Preach on Climate,” delivered by my friend and colleague Jim Antal and released by Yale Divinity School, should encourage you.
Below are my remarks from today’s rally.
My name is Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. I’m an Episcopal priest who works for the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and for the United Church of Christ in Southern New England to help build a faith-filled, justice-seeking movement to stop climate change and create a better future.
I am fasting today, as some of you are, too. Fasting or not, all of us are standing with the five resolute young people in the Sunrise Movement who today launched a hunger strike in front of the White House to demand climate action from our government commensurate with the crisis we are in.
So, let’s think about fasting. Fasting is a spiritual practice in just about every religion. Moses fasted. Elijah fasted. Mohammed fasted. The Buddha fasted. Jesus fasted.
The ancient practice of fasting has spiritual and moral power and has played a part in many non-violent struggles for social change.
Why do we fast today?
We fast to break through the habits and routines of daily life and to say that something matters more than business as usual. Business as usual must stop.
We fast to break through the paralysis of disengagement and despair.
We fast to purify ourselves, to open our hearts and steady our minds, so that we can ground ourselves in the love that wants to be the center of our lives.
We fast to express repentance and remorse for whatever ways we have participated in, colluded with, and benefited from a system that is killing life.
And we fast to protest – to express in and through our bodies our deep grief and our moral outrage that corporate and political powers are driving this country – and this planet – to the brink of climate catastrophe.
We fast to proclaim that another world is possible. We can move beyond fossil fuels. We can create a society that lives more gently and more justly on God’s good Earth.
To our friends in the Sunrise Movement, we say: we stand with you. We stand with climate activists everywhere who hunger for justice.
We stand with everyone who is hungry, especially those whose stomachs are empty because of poverty, injustice, or a changing climate, where drought or heat have withered your crops or where extreme storms and rising seas have destroyed your homes.
We join our hunger to yours. And we join our hunger to the hunger of every living being, human and more-than-human, that hungers for life and a healthy, habitable planet.
Our hunger pangs invite us to hunger for what really matters.
Today we re-commit ourselves to the struggle to fight for a society that invests in our families, our communities, and our future.
Let’s get it done! Let’s Build Back Better. Thank you.
This article by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas was published in Anglican Theological Review (Spring, 2021, Vol. 103, 2), pp. 208–219.
I have preached countless sermons in countless settings about the urgent Gospel call to care for God’s Creation. Nevertheless, when I step into a literal or virtual pulpit to preach about the climate crisis, I still feel a flash of fear: This will be a disaster.
Preaching on any topic is inherently challenging. As Ruthanna B. Hooke explains in Transforming Preaching, there are many good reasons that newcomers and experienced preachers alike find it frightening to preach.1 Fear, she argues, is an intrinsic and even necessary aspect of preaching God’s Word: preaching can only be authentic when we truly open ourselves to the presence of the living God and publicly put our life and faith on the line. Barbara Brown Taylor compares watching the preacher climb into the pulpit to watching a tightrope walker climb onto a platform as the drum rolls.2 Preaching of any kind requires risky self-exposure and walking in faith. Before they embark, preachers and tightrope walkers must pray: Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast (Ps. 139:9).
However, preaching about the climate crisis may evoke particular anxiety. Although climate change is called the great moral challenge of our time, many preachers avoid preaching about it – often because of fear. Maybe we fear being ill-informed (I don’t know enough science). Maybe we fear provoking division in the congregation (Climate change is too political). Maybe we fear stressing out our listeners (Daily life is hard enough; why add to their worries?) or maybe we fear they won’t be able to handle the bad news (If I do mention climate change, I’d better tone it down and underplay the dire science). Maybe we fear that climate preaching is not pastoral (People come to church for solace, not to get depressed). Besides, we may tell ourselves, preaching about climate change should be someone else’s responsibility (Climate change isn’t really “my” issue). A preacher’s fears may cut close to home (I could lose pledges; I could even lose my job). Climate preaching may also require a painful reckoning with oneself that the preacher would prefer to avoid. Such a reckoning may be spiritual and theological (How do I preach resurrection when the web of life is unraveling before our eyes?) or it may be personal and moral as we face our own complicity. As one suburban preacher confessed to me years ago, “How can I preach about climate change when I drive an SUV?”
No wonder so many preachers delay addressing the climate crisis – most of us weren’t trained for this, we don’t want to stir up trouble, and we face an array of fears. As a result, many of us kick the can down the road, perhaps waiting for the lectionary to provide the “perfect” text, for a guest preacher to introduce the subject, or for a special (and thankfully rare) occasion, such as Earth Sunday or St. Francis Day.
Preachers who are hanging back from speaking about the climate emergency and those who have been preaching about it for years owe a debt of gratitude to Greta Thunberg, designated by TIME magazine as its 2019 Person of the Year. Thunberg is the Swedish teenager with the round face and straight blonde hair who delivered a fierce message to the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and all the adults who failed to take action: “Our house is on fire… We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. Either we do that or we don’t… Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t… Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t… We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.”3
Preach it, Greta! Although Thunberg is not addressing the religious faith of her audience, her fiery words and presence convey the message of a prophetic preacher: humanity stands at a crossroads and we have a vital choice to make, a choice of life or death, blessing or curse (Dt. 30:19). Science shows that we are at the brink of catastrophe: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented.4 We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We need to make a decisive change of course toward clean, renewable sources of energy. We need to protect forests and topsoil, rivers and oceans, pollinators and the other living creatures with whom we share this planet, to say nothing of the eco-systems upon which all life depends. And we must do this quickly, equitably, and despite the opposition of entrenched political and corporate powers that are determined to keep drilling, burning, mining, extracting, plundering and profiting for as long as they can – even though business as usual is wrecking the planet. Thunberg’s moral call to action galvanized millions of people around the world and inspired the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, which is so far the largest climate demonstration in human history.
Hearing a strong sermon can dissolve fear, awaken moral responsibility, and mobilize action. I know this from direct experience – I was preached into jail by Bishop Steven Charleston. Back in 2001, while listening to him preach resurrection at an Easter Vigil service, I heard God’s call: I realized that in order to bear witness to the Risen Christ, I needed to gather up my courage and carry out my first extended act of civil disobedience. A few weeks later I joined a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, and headed to Washington, D.C., to protest the Administration’s intention to drill for more oil in the Arctic.
Here’s what happened: about a hundred of us from different faith traditions marched down Independence Avenue in our diverse religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, which was surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. After singing “Amazing Grace,” the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy.
As I later wrote, describing the moments before our arrest:5
We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard. At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray. Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone. I lift up my hands. I’m dressed for the Eucharist. I might as well hold out my arms as I do at the Eucharist….
One by one we pray aloud, words thrown into space, words hurled against stone. Is this whole thing ridiculous? …
But then came the revelation:
Suddenly I realize that behind the tension, behind the fear and self-consciousness, something else is welling up. I am jubilant.
“Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at the Eucharist.
“We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response.
How did I miss it? After years of going to church, after years of celebrating the Eucharist, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance. That worship is an act of human liberation. The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released?
I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt. It is God I love, and God’s green earth. I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great.
So what if our numbers are small? So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power? I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering. We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand. This is what I love. Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.”
I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy. That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy.
Is this what Jesus meant when he promised that the poor in spirit would receive the kingdom of heaven and that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness would be filled (Mt. 5:3, 6)? I am hardly the first climate-justice or social-justice activist to discover that her understanding of the Gospel deepens immeasurably as she bears public (and risky) witness to her faith. As Robert Raines (former director of Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in Bangor, PA) put it years ago, “The Gospel is just so much wind until we raise our lives against it like a sail.”
Strong sermons on climate change create the conditions for that kind of spiritual awakening: preacher and listeners alike are invited to take hold of their deepest convictions as they ask themselves: What do I truly value? What is love calling me to do? What is my moral responsibility to future generations? Am I willing to settle for a way of life that is destroying the web of life that God entrusted to our care? Am I ready to imagine a better future and to join with other people who are fighting for a just and habitable world? These are difficult and essential questions that all of us must face, individually and together. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the city “did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Lk. 19:44). Are we willing to recognize that we, too, live in such a time? This is a holy moment, a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning. Our calling as preachers is to step through whatever fears hold us back and to take up our pastoral and prophetic vocation to preach Gospel hope in a time of unprecedented human emergency.6
Are there any “best practices” for climate preaching? The Episcopal Church, in conjunction with ecoAmerica and Blessed Tomorrow, has produced a helpful manual. “Let’s Talk Faith and Climate: Communication Guidance for Faith Leaders,”7 released in 2016, explains why our faith calls us to lead on climate, provides key talking points, and gives examples of “successful messaging.” The chapter, “Prophetic Preaching,” in Jim Antal’s must-read book, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change,8 is likewise worth careful study, suggesting guidelines and what he calls “theological cornerstones” for climate preaching. Another timely book is Leah D. Schade’s Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit,9 which explores how to proclaim justice for God’s Creation in the face of climate disruption.
Based on my reading and lived experience, I hold several things in mind when I preach about climate change.
• Frame the climate crisis in terms of Christian theology. In a highly partisan, divided society, simply uttering the phrase “climate change” can make an audience twitch: Uh-oh. Here comes a sermon about politics. Our task as preachers is to re-frame the conventional narrative that climate change is only a scientific, political, or economic issue, and instead to place it front and center as a subject of urgent spiritual and moral concern for every Christian. Every climate preacher will need to locate the bedrock of Scripture, theology, and religious experience that establishes their worldview and values.10
I often make these points:
• God loved the world into being, pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and entrusts it to our care. I sometimes reference the origin story in Genesis, though I critique the concept of “dominion” (Gen. 1:26) when it is interpreted as divine permission for humanity to dominate and abuse the world. In my view, “dominion” does not refer to what Alcoholics Anonymous would call “self-will run riot”; rather, it means loving the world as God loves it. The second charge, to “till and keep” (Gen. 2:15) the garden, expresses more clearly our primary vocation to be a blessing on God’s Creation.
• The Earth does not belong to us, but to God (Ps. 24:1). The concept of “stewardship” reminds us that we are here to serve the Lord of life, not ourselves, and that our task is to safeguard Earth rather than to ransack and plunder. Still, the word “steward” can sound wimpy to me, as if our responsibility is limited to recycling the occasional can. Let’s find a more robust term to refer to the “children of God” for whom Creation is so eagerly longing (Rom. 8:19-22). Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”
• Jesus lived in close relationship with the natural world. In the Gospels we find him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, and spending weeks alone in the wilderness in prayer. His parables and stories are full of natural images: sheep and seeds, sparrows and lilies, water and fire, weeds, vines, and rocks. What would it be like to reclaim the kind of intimacy with the natural world that Jesus knew – to know, as he did, that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Ps. 19:1)? In my sermons, I often try to restore a sense of reverence for God’s Creation, to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that the natural world is nothing more than inert material, an object for us to exploit. The Earth, in fact, is a primary locus for our encounter with God. Such is the testimony of generations of Christian mystics and theologians, beginning with St. Paul (Romans 1:20). Like poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, we affirm: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.
• The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ affected and redeemed not only human beings but also the whole of Creation.11 Christ is the Word through whom all things were made (Jn. 1:3). In him, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20; c.f. also Eph. 1:10, 2 Cor. 5:19). Creation is thus made new (Rev. 21:5). As we relinquish a narrowly anthropocentric understanding of the Gospel, we realize that all of Creation participates in the Paschal mystery. Our search to create a more just and habitable world and to live more gently on Earth is how we share in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work”12 of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God, to one another, and to God’s whole Creation.
• We are called to love our neighbors. Are we loving our neighbors when we drown them, starve them, and force them to uproot themselves from their homelands? The rising seas, droughts, and extreme storms amplified by climate change are already harming innumerable neighbors, especially in the global South. Our “neighbors” likewise include future generations who depend on us to leave them a habitable world, and also the other-than-human creatures with whom we share this planet. God forged an “everlasting covenant” not only with human beings but also with “every living creature” (Gen. 9:8-17) – they, too, are the “neighbors” we are summoned to love.
• We are called to bear witness to a love that transcends death. In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We die in Christ and with Christ. And then we rise with Christ: from now on, our death is done with. It is behind us. We have died with Christ and are now alive in Christ – and to whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety, set free to love without grasping or possessiveness or holding back. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”13 That inner fearlessness, rooted in the love of God, empowered the early Christians to resist the unjust powers-that-be: early on they were charged with “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor (Acts 17:7). Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).
• Respect the lectionary, but don’t make it an idol. If you knew your house was on fire, would you wait for the “perfect” moment before calling for help to douse the flames? Not a chance. Once we know that climate change is an emergency, we will quite naturally seize every tool at hand. This Sunday’s lectionary readings could be the perfect springboard for a sermon on climate change. If we can’t make a direct connection, we can ditch the lectionary and preach about climate change in relation to the liturgical season, the Eucharist, or themes such as incarnation, justice, compassion, sin and forgiveness, and Christian witness and responsibility. I enjoy The Green Bible, which highlights in green font the biblical texts that the book’s editors consider most relevant to Earth-care. However, it seems to me that thousands of other biblical passages could just as well have been marked in green, for I read the whole Bible as a love-song between God and God’s Creation, as a living text that calls us to bear witness to a triune God who loved the world into being, who suffers with us and for us, and who empowers us to live together in right relationship with each other and the land.
My Website, RevivingCreation.org, includes about one hundred lectionary-based sermons about climate change and Creation care. SustainablePreaching.org is an ecumenical online resource that offers lectionary-based sermons on Creation care and a tool for searching out particular Bible passages.
• Share some science, but don’t worry that you need to be a scientist. As climate preachers we need to know and share the basics: climate change is real, it’s largely caused by human activity, it’s gotten worse in recent decades, and it will have disastrous effects unless humanity changes course fast. Basic information is available from many sources, such as NASA or reputable environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council.14 For up-to-date climate news, I subscribe to the weekly newsletter of InsideClimateNews.org15 and to daily news from Climate Nexus.16
In preaching I usually keep the science message short, brisk, and sober. To summarize the big-picture effects of a changing climate, I often quote a couple of sentences by Bill McKibben: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”17 Then I cite specific examples that might especially resonate with the local congregation (in California: drought, wildfire, and mudslides; on Cape Cod: rising and acidifying seas, and threats to groundwater and fishing).18 One reason that parishioners may be relieved to hear climate change discussed in church is that increasing numbers of Americans understand that climate change is already affecting their communities.19
• Find an entry point and connect the dots. What are the particular concerns of your congregation? Begin there and show how they link to climate change. The novel coronavirus, for example, teaches lessons that relate to climate change: science matters; how we treat the natural world affects our wellbeing; the sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place; we have the ability to make drastic changes quickly; all of us are vulnerable to crisis, though unequally.20 Climate change increases the likelihood of pandemics, because flooding, droughts, and weather extremes force agriculture into new areas. Converting more natural habitat into crop land accelerates the loss of biodiversity and increases the incidence of zoonotic diseases, those spread between wild animals and humans.21
Climate change also exacerbates economic and racial injustice. Low-income communities and communities of color are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change, the ones least able to prepare or recover, and the ones least likely to have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made.22 Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recently reported on the risk of “climate apartheid,” where the rich pay to escape the increasing heat and hunger caused by the climate crisis and the rest of the world suffers.23 So-called “climate gentrification” – where wealthy people seek refuge from the effects of climate change and move into once “undesirable” neighborhoods – forces out low-income and minority residents.24 Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate justice writer who is also Black, details the ways in which Black people suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise, and she issues a clarion call, “It’s time to stop #AllLivesMattering the climate crisis.”25
Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about – it is a cause that affects everything we cherish. The Pentagon has long called climate change a “threat multiplier,” which means that it amplifies existing problems. If we care about pandemics and public health, we care about climate. If we care about racism and human rights, we care about climate. If we care about poverty, homelessness, and hunger, we care about climate. If we care about immigration and refugees, we care about climate. (How many people worldwide will be forced to move by 2050 because of climate change? Estimates range between 25 million and one billion.26). If we care about violence against women and girls, we care about climate: climate change aggravates gender-based violence.27 If we care about preventing war, we care about climate: climate change increases the risk of conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water and arable land.28
In short, if we care about loving God and neighbor, we care about climate. The climate does not belong to a special-interest group. If we like to breathe, if we like to eat, if we want to leave our children a world they can live in, we care about climate. That is why it is so important to build an intersectional movement that pulls people out of their isolated silos of concern and pushes for comprehensive solutions: the groups protecting wilderness areas, farmlands, and wildlife habitat need to support and learn from the groups addressing racism, poverty, and asthma in the inner city. As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical, Laudato Si, we don’t face two crises, one social and one environmental, but rather “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution require an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”29
• Infuse your sermons with the empowering love of God. The more that people know about (and experience) the social and ecological breakdown going on worldwide, the more likely they are to feel paralyzed, panicked, or depressed. Despair holds many people in an icy grip. That is why a message of urgency needs to be accompanied by a message of empowerment and strength: God is with us.
I am deeply interested in the spiritual perspectives and practices that can sustain climate activism, even in the face of dire news about our planet’s health and the possibility that civilization will collapse. In order to be healers and justice-makers, in order to bear witness to the Christ who bursts out of the tomb and proclaims that life and not death will have the last word, we need to be emotionally and spiritually resilient. In this time of unprecedented challenge, where will we find the energy and hope to keep working toward solutions without giving up? To help answer that question, my colleague Leah Schade and I collected and edited an anthology of twenty-one essays from diverse faith traditions, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.30
Whenever I preach, I try to evoke the presence of a God who loves us beyond measure, a God who heals and redeems, liberates and forgives. I preach about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us; understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed; and, in the words of Peter Sawtell, calls us “to active resistance, not to quiet acceptance.”31 I preach about a God who knows our guilt and complicity in that destruction and who gives us power to amend our lives. I preach about a God who longs to create a Beloved Community32 that includes all beings, not just human beings. I preach about a God who releases us from the tyranny of death and who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy.
• Build hope by taking action. In almost every climate sermon, I include suggestions for faithful action33 such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, and planting trees and community gardens. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and help to propel social change. Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. We need to use our voices and our votes and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to hold Big Polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused (and continue to cause). We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. We can support 350.org, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. Maybe we can join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line.
If the voice of one young woman – Greta Thunberg – can rivet the attention of the world, what would happen if preachers everywhere unleashed their own passion for God’s Creation? What would happen if preachers across the Episcopal Church and in every religious tradition began to speak boldly and frequently about our moral obligation to create a more just and habitable world? Just as ecosystems have so-called tipping points – a critical point when they suddenly undergo rapid and irreversible change – so, too, human communities can experience a tipping point after which society changes swiftly in dramatic ways. Is such a thing possible in terms of rapidly decarbonizing a society? According to a recent article in the journal Anthropocene, an analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “suggests the answer is yes. In it, an international team of researchers argues that seemingly small ‘tipping points’ can trigger large, rapid changes in societies.”34 The team identified six relatively small, positive interventions that could help bring about systemic global change quickly, especially if they were carried out simultaneously. One of them sounds as if it were crafted with preachers in mind: “Activists and opinion leaders could emphasize the moral implications of fossil fuels – that is, the idea that burning fossil fuels in ways incompatible with the Paris climate targets is immoral. This has the potential to shift societal norms and, consequently, widespread patterns of behavior.”35
When we deliver strong climate sermons and put our trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, I wonder if we are like the boy in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-14): we put our words in Jesus’ hands and through his grace and power, maybe our offering will become the catalyst that enables a crowd to be fed. Maybe our words, like those of Ezekiel, will be infused with Spirit-power to enliven dead, dry bones and breathe life into a multitude (Ez. 37:1-14). Maybe that homily – that word of challenge, consolation, or encouragement – will contribute to the tipping point that releases a rapid societal transformation.
What do preachers do in a time of unprecedented emergency? Right before we preach our next sermon about climate change, we acknowledge our fear (This will be a disaster.) We entrust ourselves to God (Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast). Then we take a breath, open our mouths, and speak.
* Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, PhD, serves as Missioner for Creation Care (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ) and Creation Care Advisor (Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts). An Episcopal priest, author, retreat leader, and climate activist, she has been a lead organizer of many Christian and interfaith events about care for Earth, and she leads spiritual retreats in the United States and Canada on spiritual resilience and resistance in the midst of a climate emergency. Her latest book, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (2019), co-edited with Leah Schade, is an anthology of essays from religious environmental activists on finding the spiritual wisdom for facing the difficult days ahead. Her website, RevivingCreation.org, includes sermons, blog posts, articles, and newsletters.
5. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2007), 79, 80-81. For information and support regarding civil disobedience, I suggest Climate Disobedience Center and Clergy Climate Action.
11. For a brilliant sermon that evokes how Creation shared in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, read Leah D. Schade’s “A Resurrection Sermon for an Earth-Kin Congregation,” which was preached outdoors and is included in Creation-Crisis Preaching, 85-89.
12. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword,” The Green Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers (HarperOne), 2008, I-14.
13. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), p. 107.
15. https://insideclimatenews.org/. “A Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment.”
16. To sign up, send an email to: email@example.com.
17. Bill McKibben, Eaarth (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2010) xiii, book jacket. The title is deliberately mis-spelled in order to signal that the planet onto which you and I were born is not the same planet we inhabit today.
18. To learn about your region’s environmental concerns, contact your local chapter of Sierra Club. To view climate risks and clean energy opportunities in each of the 50 states, visit Climate Nexus: https://climatenexus.org/climate-change-usa/.
33. In order not to burden the sermon with a laundry list of resources and options for action, I usually put a handout of suggested actions in the service leaflet. The Episcopal Church’s Creation Care Website offers some suggestions, including the carbon tracker now used in many dioceses (https://www.sustainislandhome.org/).
Today is Earth Sunday, the Sunday after Earth Day, when countless people across the country renew their commitment to restore the planet that we call home. Earth Sunday always falls in Easter season, and this year it lands on the Sunday we celebrate as Good Shepherd Sunday. Scripture gives us many different ways to imagine Jesus. In the Gospel of John, for instance, Jesus calls himself “the bread of life” (John 6:35), “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and “the true vine” (John 15:1) – images with their own resonance and meaning – but Jesus “the good shepherd” is the image that many of us treasure most.
I, for one, am grateful that this year Earth Sunday coincides with Good Shepherd Sunday, for I need to be drawn again into Jesus’ consoling and empowering presence. Maybe some of you do, too. As we take stock of the living world around us and consider the faltering health of our dear planet, we confess that the path that society has traveled for the last two centuries has led to an unprecedented human emergency: we are hurtling toward climate catastrophe and we are watching the web of life unravel before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished in less than 50 years. In what scientists call a “biological annihilation,” human beings have wiped out more than half the world’s creatures since 1970. Meanwhile, the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil and the logging of forests are accelerating climate change, pushing our planet to break records of all kinds – as Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented the other day: “We’re running out of records to break.”
I know I don’t have to belabor the details of what it’s like to be at ground zero of the climate crisis. My heart goes out to all of you in Boulder who are already experiencing the effects of a fast-warming climate, from extreme weather events to droughts and wildfire.
Intertwined with our ecological challenges are the social justice challenges of economic inequity and white racism. After the trial of Derek Chauvin, convicted this week of killing George Floyd, and in light of the movement for racial justice that has been surging for months across this country, many of us are reflecting deeply on our country’s heritage of white supremacy. Racial justice is closely tied to climate justice – in fact, I’ve heard it said that we wouldn’t have climate change without white supremacy. Where would we put our urban oilfields – where would we put our dumping grounds and trash, our biomass plants, our toxic incinerators and other polluting industries – if we weren’t willing to sacrifice Black, indigenous, and people of color communities? In the words of Hop Hopkins, the Sierra Club’s Director of Organizational Transformation, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”1
In a world of so much injustice, violence, and uncertainty, where a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store and a beloved landscape can go up in flames, where do we turn for solace and strength? We turn to the Good Shepherd of our souls. How does his presence speak to you this morning?
What I notice is that, as our good shepherd, Jesus holds everyone and everything together. A shepherd is the person charged with keeping the flock intact, united, and heading in the right direction. I find it reassuring to contemplate the image of God in Christ drawing us into something unified and whole, because right now so much seem to be splintering and breaking apart. The tapestry of life that was once intact is being torn apart as greenhouse gas emissions disrupt the planet’s atmosphere. Our human communities are likewise being torn apart by political division, economic division, racial division.
When we turn to the Good Shepherd, we touch the sacred unity within and beyond all things. We touch the Ground of our being. We meet the One in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17) – everything within us, everything around us.
Maybe you remember the puzzle2 which consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three. The challenge is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page. Try it however many times you like, but the only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box. Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or to accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished.
That’s what it’s like to experience the Good Shepherd: in the midst of a world in which everything seems to be divided and falling apart, we sense an underlying wholeness and unity. We sense a love that embraces all things, connects all things, sustains all things. On the surface, in the realm of our five senses, we see mainly differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we meet the good shepherd who holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with God.
We hear the shepherd’s voice when we take time to quiet ourselves, when we sit in solitude and silence and listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts. The good shepherd is the one who knows us through and through and who calls us each by name. Held in the embrace of that intimate love, we don’t have to keep trying to hold ourselves together – we are free to let go, free to fall apart, free to let ourselves feel our grief, feel our anger and fear as we respond to the climate crisis and to all the challenges of our lives. The good shepherd is there to hold what we cannot hold, there to listen, there to protect and keep company, there to help us understand how deeply we are loved – and not just we ourselves, but all people – and not just all people, but all beings, the whole of God’s creation.
In the presence of the Good Shepherd, we remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. And the movement toward unity keeps getting larger. As Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16-17). And so – beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, beneath all the ways that humans try to separate ourselves from each other and from the rest of the natural world, presuming that we can dominate and destroy with impunity – Jesus reminds us that in fact we belong to one living, sacred whole.
Every time we tap into the deep-down truth of our essential belovedness, we discover fresh energy for life. We tap into the same wave of Easter hope that filled the first followers of Jesus. When they saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, when they met the Risen Christ in their midst and in their hearts, when they realized that life and not death would have the last word and that nothing could separate them from the love of God, their lives were filled with fresh meaning and purpose. They realized that they belonged to a sacred mystery that was larger than themselves, to a love that would never let them go. Even though they were still mortal and frail, still vulnerable and imperfect people in a big, chaotic world, they knew that they participated in a long story of salvation to which they could contribute, every moment of their lives, by choosing compassion over indifference, kindness over cruelty, love over fear. Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).
Today’s passage from the Book of Acts is a case in point: the witness of the first Christians got them into all kinds of trouble. Peter and the other early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and their commitment to God, and to the Good Shepherd of their souls, apparently led many of them to spend as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail. Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society.
That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and carries us now, every one of us who feels impelled to join our Creator in re-weaving the web of life, in building a gentler and more just society, and in getting us into what Representative John Lewis called “good trouble” as we fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, and to dismantle white supremacy. We can do this from a heart of love. On this Earth Sunday, we give thanks for the Good Shepherd and we renew our resolve to be a blessing to the Earth that God entrusted to our care.
1. Hop Hopkins, “Racism Is Killing the Planet”: The ideology of white supremacy leads the way toward disposable people and a disposable natural world, June 8, 2020.
2. “Thinking outside the box,” Wikipedia (accessed April 25, 2021)
The whole service may be viewed on YouTube on the channel for St. John’s Episcopal Church. Rev. Margaret’s sermon begins at 20:18.
June 30, 2020
This is the third in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY.Hosea 4:1-3
Faith for the Earth: What is breaking our hearts?
We spoke yesterday about God inviting us to listen deeply, especially to voices that have long been silenced or ignored – to the voices of the poor, the voices of black and brown and indigenous peoples, and to the voices rising from the living Earth itself – for if we listen with the ear of the heart, surely we can hear, as the prophet Hosea puts it in today’s reading, that the land itself is mourning, “and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.”
How do we pray with all this? How do we pray with the things that are breaking our hearts – the dying coral and acidifying oceans, the animals that are leaving us, and the web of life that is unraveling before our lives? Scientists say that unless we change our way of living fast, entire eco-systems could begin to collapse, starting in the next ten years. What do we do with this information? Do we shrug it off (I can’t deal with that! That’s someone else’s problem!)? Do we shut down inside, go numb and slip into despair? It’s difficult to face the predicament in which we find ourselves, and our culture gives us endless opportunities to turn away and distract ourselves with mindless consumption and entertainment. Still, I don’t think any of us have found that shopping or snacking or swilling alcohol can ease the anguish we feel inside.
In my view, one essential remedy is prayer. Bold action is urgent and necessary, but action alone won’t give us the strength or wisdom to sustain the hard struggles ahead. And if Hosea got it right – if what’s ultimately wrong with the world is that there is “no knowledge of God in the land,” if he’s right that the ultimate source of our troubles is spiritual disconnection – then surely part of the remedy is prayer. For, as Hosea says, when there is “no knowledge of God,” then “swearing, lying, and murder” break out among human beings – “bloodshed follows bloodshed” – and the land mourns, and wild creatures languish and perish. Hosea understands that a broken relationship with God leads to a broken relationship with each other and with the Earth. If we abandon the love and justice of God and get locked into patterns of abusing each other and abusing the land, the remedy is repentance and amendment of life. The remedy is to dismantle the systems that exploit people and the planet. The remedy is to restore our connection to God, to our souls, to each other, and to the Earth upon which all life depends.
So I’m all in with Hosea. The climate crisis is not just a scientific or political or economic crisis – it’s also a spiritual crisis, one that summons us to do everything we can to restore within ourselves – and to encourage in our communities – a lively, vital relationship with our divine Source who brings courage where there is despair, love where there is hate, and inspiration when a path forward is hard to see. In these challenging times, we need spiritual resilience. We need to connect with the divine lover of our souls. We need to root ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power so that we can rise up to take effective action.
Last year, a book I co-edited with a friend of mine, Leah Schade, was published. It’s an anthology of essays by 21 colleagues in the faith-and-climate movement who speak about the spiritual practices and perspectives that sustain us as we work to create a more just and sustainable future. The book is titled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and I’d like to read a short excerpt from my chapter, for it’s all about prayer.1In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief? How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb? …It’s important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. Just as important, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency. Prayerful lament and protest can be an act of resistance, a way of shaking off the dominant consumer culture, which prefers that we stay too busy, dazed, and distracted to feel a thing.My prayer takes many forms. Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty. They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees. Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.2Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines. Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose. I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species. I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests. I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part. I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation.I feel God’s presence when I pray like that. I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me. Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love.
What kinds of prayer restore your connection with God? These days many people across the country are praying in the streets, propelled by love and a fierce need for public mourning and public lament.3 Some people are praying alone in their rooms and in silence, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, listening to their breath as they breathe God in and breathe God out. Some people find that music helps them pray, and I commend a new piece called “A Passion for the Planet,” a climate oratorio composed by Geoffrey Hudson, which, broadcast free on the internet, in less than one hour carries the listener through the wide range of feelings evoked by the climate crisis. That can be another way to pray.
I encourage all of us to pray, to find ways, as Hosea might put it, to restore knowledge of God in the land. Prayer is what leads us, alone and together, into an unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death. Trusting in that love, guided by that love, we will know what is ours to do and, God willing, may be led to take actions commensurate with the emergency we are in.
1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Love Every Leaf,” Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis(Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 175-76.
2. “We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018.
3. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Accepting Death is Not an Option, Anymore,” a sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, June 14, 2020
June 29, 2020
This is the second in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY.1 Samuel 3:1-10
Faith for the Earth: Are we listening?
Our text this morning is the well-known story of the call of Samuel. Samuel will go on to become one of the great prophets of Israel – a prophet not in the sense of being a fortune-teller who claims to predict the future, but rather a prophet in the sense of being someone so deeply rooted in the love and justice of God that he or she views the world with moral clarity, speaks out against an unjust status quo, and holds up God’s vision of what could be and should be.
I chose this passage because in a sense all of us are called today to become prophets: all of us are called to root ourselves in the love and justice of God, to face and confront the ways in which we and our society have gone astray, and to find ways to proclaim and to bring forth God’s dream of a world in which all people and living beings can thrive. That’s what a prophet does, and God knows we need prophetic voices today in this time of social and ecological emergency.
Scientists are telling us that we are at the brink of catastrophe: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We need to make a decisive change of course toward clean, renewable sources of energy. We need to protect forests and topsoil, rivers and oceans, pollinators and the other living creatures with whom we share this planet, to say nothing of the eco-systems upon which all life depends. And we must do this quickly and notwithstanding the opposition of political and corporate powers that are determined to keep drilling, burning, mining, and extracting for as long as they can – to keep plundering and profiting, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet.
The task before us is daunting, and it brings us to our knees. This is a holy moment, a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning. Will we as a society choose life or will we continue on the path of business as usual, a path that leads to death? At this crossroads, at this moment that is pregnant with both danger and possibility, we must call upon the power of God. For, surely, we need a power beyond ourselves to help us in this grave hour of need. We need a source of holy strength and guidance to give us wisdom and courage and stamina to find a way forward. Yes, we need good policies, we need good legislation and God knows we need good leaders, but we also need to tune our hearts and minds to the divine presence so that we can learn what to do and find the strength to do it.
Today and in each of my homilies this week I’d like to reflect with you on some of the spiritual perspectives and practices which, in this perilous time, can keep us grounded in God’s presence.
So, let’s say a word about listening. That’s where the call of the prophet Samuel begins: with listening. Samuel grew up in a time when God seemed remote and uncommunicative. As the passage says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1). Yet the story tells us that Samuel’s ears are open, and one night, as he is lying down in the temple, he hears God call him by name – and not just once, but three times. After Eli, the priest whom Samuel is serving, explains that it is God who is addressing him, Samuel responds, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”
One of the core characteristics of a prophet is the willingness to listen. Are we listening? To what and to whom are we listening? What is the quality of our listening? It’s easy to listen with half an ear, to look as if we’re paying attention when someone speaks, while actually we’re busy composing our reply. It’s also easy to plant ourselves at the center of what we’re hearing, so that we only listen for confirmation of what we already believe and only for what might be useful to us – never mind the rest. And if I hear something that makes me uncomfortable or that I don’t want to hear, I’m outta here. If the speaker belongs to a different political party, I’m outta here. If the speaker is of a different color or religion, I’m outta here. So many opportunities to close our ears! I’m tuning you out!
I was interested to note that when the lockdown began, many people reported a change in what they heard. City-dwellers were startled by the quiet as traffic abated and as fewer airplanes passed overhead. People heard birdsong, they heard sirens, and in New York City they heard the banging of pots and pans every night as people celebrated healthcare workers. The sounds changed, and people noticed. They listened.
And after George Floyd died and howls of pain and shouts of anger rose up from Black communities, and the cry rose up again that Black Lives Matter, millions of people listened. Millions of white people listened. Surely, we had heard that cry of pain many times before – it’s a cry that has been lifted up for generations, for hundreds of years, in the face of racism – but we white people have hardly listened. Because of what Richard Rohr calls “the unspoken privilege of being white,” we have generally turned away. But not this time – this time, at least for now, it seems that many white people have actually begun to listen – not only to the words, but also to the pain and longing behind the words. When you listen with respect, when you listen with an open heart, when you listen with empathy and an intention to understand – then you are moved to respond. Listening leads to action, and across this country we’re now seeing an unprecedented, multiracial, multigenerational, multisector upsurge against racism. I pray that such listening and responding will deepen and continue in the years ahead.
And how about the Earth? Are we listening to her cries? Just as there is the unspoken privilege of being white, I think there is also the unspoken privilege of being human – a privilege that we like to think exempts us from having to listen to what Scripture calls the “groaning” of “the whole creation” (Romans 8:22). What would it be like to step outdoors and to listen with full attention? What would we hear? The sound of wind, a dog’s bark, a car passing, birds?
With the ear of the heart, would we notice the silence of all the birds that have gone missing? Three billion birds have disappeared in the last 50 years.
With the ear of the heart, might we hear the sound of heavy machinery and chainsaws as tropical forests are felled for beef cattle and palm oil? Might we hear the noise that fills the oceans as energy companies deploy seismic air guns to map the ocean floor for oil and gas? The din in the oceans caused by commerce and offshore drilling is deafening and even outright killing countless sea creatures, large and small. Can we hear it?
With the ear of the heart, might we hear the boom and crack of glaciers as chunks of ice fall into the sea, or the whoosh of rushing water as rivers of ice slide off the Greenland Ice sheet? Last year, Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in a single day. Can we hear it? Are we listening?
A few years ago, I heard a man from Greenland speak. He’s a shaman, a traditional healer and storyteller whose name I can’t pronounce: Angaangaq Angakkorsuak. He tells the story of journeying to the United Nations some years ago to warn the gathered assembly that the Big Ice is melting. He came home pleased – he had done it! He had addressed the world’s leaders and shared this urgent news! His friends replied, “But did they hear you? Did they hear you?”
Are we listening? A prophet listens deeply to what Pope Francis and liberation theologians call “the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor.” I invite us to take as a mantra the words of Samuel and to repeat the phrase inwardly as we go through our day: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
We are listening. We are listening.