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

Healing the climate crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearing a strong sermon can dissolve fear, awaken moral responsibility, and mobilize action.  I know this from direct experience – I was preached into jail by Bishop Steven Charleston. Back in 2001, while listening to him preach resurrection at an Easter Vigil service, I heard God’s call: I realized that in order to bear witness to the Risen Christ, I needed to gather up my courage and carry out my first extended act of civil disobedience. A few weeks later I joined a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, and headed to Washington, D.C., to protest the Administration’s intention to drill for more oil in the Arctic.

Here’s what happened: about a hundred of us from different faith traditions marched down Independence Avenue in our diverse religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, which was surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. After singing “Amazing Grace,” the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy.

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

We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard.  At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray.  Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone.  I lift up my hands. I’m dressed for the Eucharist.  I might as well hold out my arms as I do at the Eucharist….

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

But then came the revelation:

Suddenly I realize that behind the tension, behind the fear and self-consciousness, something else is welling up.  I am jubilant.

“Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at the Eucharist.

“We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response.

How did I miss it?  After years of going to church, after years of celebrating the Eucharist, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance.  That worship is an act of human liberation.  The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world.  Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released?

I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt.  It is God I love, and God’s green earth.  I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great.

So what if our numbers are small?  So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power?  I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering.  We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand.  This is what I love.  Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.”

I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy.  That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy.

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

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

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

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

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

I often make these points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Build hope by taking action.  In almost every climate sermon, I include suggestions for faithful action33 such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, and planting trees and community gardens. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and help to propel social change.  Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. We need to use our voices and our votes and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to hold Big Polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused (and continue to cause). We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. We can support 350.org, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. Maybe we can join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Earth Sunday: “I am the good shepherd”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

A pdf is also available for download.

 

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

                                   I put my trust in you

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

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

The trips overlapped, and I couldn’t take both. I decided to head to Montreal, since I wanted to urge world leaders to address global warming before it was too late. So, for several days in Advent I met with representatives of the World Council of Churches; I listened to speeches, wrote editorials, and marched with seven thousand people through the city streets.  It was the most vigorous celebration of Advent I’d ever experienced, for the signs and banners sounded the urgent themes of the season: Now is the time to wake from sleep.  Now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our lives, to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. That exuberant march was one of the gifts I received that Advent, a glimpse of the growing worldwide movement that draws upon humanity’s deepest reserves of hope.  The other gift came as a surprise, when I was alone in my hotel.  By then I was steeped in the stark reality of climate change.  I had studied the aerial photographs of Mount Kilimanjaro without snow; listened to climate reports from the Arctic to Argentina; heard survivors of Katrina describe the vulnerability of the poor.  As for my government, it seemed unable to take the issue seriously. After a restless night, I woke up gasping with sorrow and anger, needing badly to pray.  I pulled a chair to the window and let my anguish spill out before God – grief for what is irreparably lost, rage at the inertia that kills with such abandon.  I felt helpless.  Dear Lord, what can I do?  What can anyone do?  Then I heard something. I put my trust in you.
“ANGELICO, Fra Annunciation, 1437-46” by carulmare is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Startled, I opened my eyes and looked around.  Who said that?  I often say those words to God, but now the message seemed addressed to me.  Its meaning was: Fear not.  Keep going.  I am with you. How bizarre.  Was there some mistake?  I had a choice: to accept or reject that assurance, to believe it or blow it off.  What I heard came as a complete surprise, just as God’s message to Mary was surely a surprise: you will conceive by the Holy Spirit; your son will be the savior of the world. Absurd!  Yet God’s hope for the future hung on Mary’s willingness to consent.  Maybe it hangs on our willingness, too.  Who knows how many messages God delivers daily to the countless faithful of every religion, and of none?  Trust the good, wherever you find it.  Trust the truth.  Trust love.  Trust yourself.  Let my life be born in you.  Who knows what power will be released in us when we dare to believe those unseen encounters that offer a word of love? Here on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we know that climate change is intensifying, causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms.  We know that we endured a historic hurricane season in the Atlantic this year, with an unprecedented number of named storms and with Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota crashing one after another into Nicaragua and Honduras.  We know that record concentrations of greenhouse gasses are filling the atmosphere and that 2020 is on track to be the hottest year on record. We know that we also face a host of other challenges, including protecting our democracy, establishing racial and economic justice, and solving the pandemic. But we know this, too: There is a love that wants to be born within us and among us, a love that knows no bounds. Right here, in the midst of our lives exactly as they are, Christ longs to be born again, perhaps at a deeper level than ever before. Christ yearns to make a home in you, in me, and in us all.  The birth of that divine love is what will give us the strength and courage to meet whatever comes with creativity and clarity and kindness. Still, when love draws near, we may feel an urge to hold back. We may hesitate, wondering: “What will happen if I give myself fully to that love?  What will I do?  Who will I become?”  We may say to ourselves, “Really, I do want God to come into my life, but let’s not get carried away!  I’m kind of used to being who I am. There’s something to be said for staying in control.  It’s risky to let go.  I’m not sure.  Let me get back to you.” Can you feel the pull between attraction and fear, between trust and hesitation?  Like every love song, the love song between God and the soul is about longing and resistance, about desire and holding back.  If we could put words to it, the conversation might go something like this.  Here is a poem (“Covenant”) by Margaret Halaska, a Franciscan nun:                             The Father                 knocks at my door    seeking a home for his son:             Rent is cheap, I say.  I don’t want to rent, I want to buy, says God.             I’m not sure I want to sell, but you might come in to look around. I think I will, says God.             I might let you have a room or two.  I like it, says God.  I’ll take the two. You might decide to give me more some day.             I can wait, says God.             I’d like to give you more, but it’s a bit difficult.  I need some space for me. I know, says God, but I’ll wait.  I like what I see.             Hmm, maybe I can let you have another room.             I really don’t need that much.  Thanks, says God.  I’ll take it.  I like what I see.             I’d like to give you the whole house             but I’m not sure — Think on it, says God.  I wouldn’t put you out. Your house would be mine and my son would live in it. You’d have more space than you’d ever had before.              I don’t understand at all. I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that.              You’ll have to discover it for yourself. That can only happen if you let him have the whole house.             A bit risky, I say. Yes, says God, but try me.              I’m not sure –              I’ll let you know. I can wait, says God.  I like what I see. You’ll notice that God does not force or compel, because that is not the language of love.  God simply waits and longs and asks to draw close.  When we dare to say Yes, Christ is born again. Two thousand years ago God entered human history and became one ­of us, one with us. God came then, and God comes now, because God longs to join us on our journey, in our daily life and relationships, in our pain and worry and hope. In these turbulent times, when so much hangs in the balance, will we consent to God’s birth within us?  Like Mary, will we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”? I invite you to close your eyes and to join me in praying to the Holy Spirit: “Come.  Come into my life, just as it is, and help me find my way to You.  Help me step through my fear, my anxiety, my worry, my need to be in control.  Help me find You in my ordinary, everyday living.  I trust You more than I trust myself, and I thank you for your trust in me.” Amen. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________
  1. For a longer version of this story, see Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down: Meditations for Advent and Christmas (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), 54-60.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A)   October 11, 2020 by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (for SustainablePreaching.org) Matthew 22:1-14

Invited to love’s banquet

Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast has been interpreted in all sorts of ways, some of them helpful – some, not so much.  Over the years, commentators have interpreted the parable as an angry rebuke of the religious authorities who rejected Jesus; as an allegory to justify the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers in the year 70 C.E.; and as an account of why early Christian communities opened their doors to Gentiles as well as Jews.  At their worst, interpretations of the parable smack of conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism; at their best – well, let’s give it a shot.  What meaning can this parable have for us today?  In particular, can it give us any spiritual guidance in these turbulent times?

Let’s take it from the top.  Once upon a time there was a king – a wise, all-powerful king who decided to hold a wedding banquet for his son.  He got everything ready and prepared a feast of the finest foods.  He sent out invitations to his chosen guests, saying “Everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:4).  But the guests refused to come.  Twice they were asked, and twice they turned him down.  They “made light” of the invitation, the story tells us, and some “went away, one to his farm, another to his business” (Matthew 22:5), while the rest attacked and killed the messengers.
Late summer goldenrod and bee
When we read this through the lens of spiritual experience, what might this part of the story mean?  What comes to my mind are all the times that I refuse those invitations to the feast.  Too often I act like one of those guests who is handed a beautiful, hand-engraved wedding invitation: I cross my arms and say, “Nope; not interested.”  Has this ever happened to you?  Maybe you’re sitting indoors, and you’ve been inside all day, getting some work done, and you look up and notice that the sun is now low in the sky, casting a marvelous golden light across the purple underbelly of the clouds, and some part of you stares and says Oh! And you want to get up and gaze out the window for a while – or even step outside.  But you don’t. Or maybe there’s a man with a loose gray coat and an unshaven face who is standing on the sidewalk where you just parked your car, and as you put a quarter in the meter, he mumbles a request: could you give him money to buy a cup of coffee?  You look across the street and sure enough, there’s a coffee shop right there; even if you don’t want to give the man cash, you could perfectly well walk across the street and get him a cup of coffee.  But you don’t. Or maybe you feel stressed and distracted, or maybe sad and discouraged, and you sense a deep tug to prayer.  You know that new life will blossom in you only if you get yourself to sit down and pay attention to what is going on inside, only if you let yourself rest for a while in God’s embrace.  But do you let yourself pause to take in that nourishment?  You don’t.  You’ve got other things to do – good things, important things.  That inner tug can wait.  If you ignore it long enough, maybe it will go away. Invitations to love’s banquet can take many forms, and they come not just once, but every day, and many times a day – maybe as an invitation to gaze at the beauty of the world, or as an invitation to be generous, or as an invitation to pause for a while to give the lover of our souls our full and undivided attention in prayer.  Yet how easy it is to say No!  I have a million excuses – I’m too busy, too focused on my own agenda, too scattered or overloaded to relinquish my worried, busy mind, to let my awareness open, and to drop down to my heart. That’s a loss, because deep at the center of our being is an unquenchable thirst for union with the divine.  Deep in our guts, our bones, our very DNA, is an irrepressible yearning to move toward the Source of life, the All, the Ultimate, the Holy One.  Call it what you will – human beings the world over, whatever their religion, share a desire for what one writer calls “the union on this earth and in this body of the human with the divine.  This is the true spiritual marriage, the consummation of love that in one way or another is the aim of every ritual and every practice in every religion.”1 It’s no wonder that the Bible so often uses wedding imagery as a way to express the complete and intimate union of God and God’s people, or of God and the individual soul.  Sometimes the Bible depicts the bridegroom as God; sometimes the bridegroom is Christ.  Sometimes, as in this parable, we are invited to be guests at the wedding, and sometimes we ourselves are the bridegroom or we ourselves are the bride. Love poets and mystics know all about the ecstasy of spiritual marriage.  Take, for instance, St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrated last week.  Francis gazed deeply into the natural world as if into a mirror, and he saw reflected back to him the outpouring love of God.  For him, God was not an entity “out there” – God was within him and around him; God infused and sustained and shone out from all things.  Here is a little poem adapted from St. Francis:2 Such love does the sky now pour, that whenever I stand in a field,   I have to wring out the light when I get home. The human longing for union with God is universal, but how quickly we repress it, ignore it, or push it away!  Who knows why?  Maybe we don’t want to feel our need and vulnerability; maybe we’re afraid to relinquish control; maybe we’re convinced we’re not good enough and we can’t possibly be loved that much.  But if we keep pushing God away, if we keep shutting ourselves off from the invitation to love and to be loved, then before long we will start to experience God as the enemy, and that’s the next part of the parable: some guests mock the messengers and blow them off, and other guests seize, mistreat, and kill them.  The text tells us that “the king was enraged” (Matthew 22:7).  He sends in his troops, destroys the murderers, and burns their city down.
Autumn glory
As a spiritual story, this parable is quite accurate and exact: when we turn ourselves into the enemy of God, eventually we begin to experience God as an enemy.  God has not changed, but we have – we have pushed God away and have deliberately alienated ourselves from the divine.  Before any spiritual union can possibly take place, maybe that stubborn, resisting part of the self needs to be brought low and to fall away.  All of us who at some point have made a mess of our lives, who have made terrible mistakes and headed too far down a willful, self-centered, and defiant path, know what that’s like.  Sometimes the ego must be crucified before the soul can be born. Yet the invitation to love never ceases.  In fact, it keeps getting wider, deeper, more expansive and more inclusive.  There is no guest list now.  The king’s love reaches out to everyone.  The wedding is ready, he says; the feast is about to be served and the food is hot.  He sends messengers into the streets to invite everyone to come, both good and bad, and they stream into the wedding hall until it is filled at last. If you read this as a story of the interior life, it seems that only now – after our pride and defiance have been humbled and brought low – only now can we understand that every part of ourselves is being invited to the feast, that everything in us that we have cast away, abandoned, and rejected is being invited into the presence of God to be welcomed and healed and made whole.  Our whole selves are invited to the feast, and everybody else is invited with us.  There is no need now to shrug hopelessly and to say that we have to settle for being alienated from each other, that we have keep living driven, restless, distracted lives, that we have to make peace with poverty, with racial injustice and economic injustice, that we have to condone destroying the earth and that we have to tolerate an endless succession of wars. Now we know the truth: we have been invited to feast at the table of divine life.  We have been invited into the very heart of God, and in the strength of that divine presence we are sent out into the world to bear witness to God’s justice and mercy and love. The parable ends with the startling little story of the guest who comes to the feast with no wedding robe and is summarily bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness (Matthew 22:11-14).  Maybe this is a reminder to stay humble: God loves us completely and invites everyone to the feast, but we have our own work to do: to clothe ourselves day by day with the intention to love.  As St. Paul put it in Colossians, our job is to “[strip] off the old self with its practices and [to clothe ourselves] with the new self…” The passage continues: “As God’s chosen ones… clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and…forgive each other… Above all, clothe yourselves with love” (Colossians 3:9-10, 12-14).  In short, we wear the right clothes to the wedding feast of life when we clothe ourselves with love. We are living through a time of extraordinary stress, a time in which each of us must clarify who we are and what we value.  So, here is what I want to tell you.  When love’s holy invitation comes, I want to say yes.  When love calls me to marvel at the sunset, to stop and gape at the beauty of the world, I want to say yes.  When love calls me to walk across the street to bring someone a cup of hot coffee and to add some honey to it, and some milk, as well, because that’s the way he says he likes it, I want to say yes.  When the divine call comes to sit down in prayer and to give the lover of my soul my full and undivided attention, I want to say yes.  As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “When Death Comes,”3 When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.  I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. I want to say yes to life, yes to God, yes to the One in whose invisible, irresistible Presence we step fully into life, daring to connect deeply with ourselves and each other, refusing to be spectators, refusing to hold back, stepping out to create a world – and to fight for a world – in which everyone has a chance to experience how deeply God loves them. The banquet table is prepared, Jesus says to us. Will we come to the feast? I will give the last word to Rumi, a Sufi poet who ends one of his poems like this:4 On a day when the wind is perfect, the sail just needs to open and the love starts.    Today is such a day.     _______________________________________________________________ The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ.  Her Website is RevivingCreation.org. 1. Roger Housden, For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics, (New York City: Hay House, Inc., 2009), xiii. 2. St. Francis of Assisi, “Wring Out My Clothes,” in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky (New York, Penguin Compass, 2002), 48. 3. Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 10. 4. Jalaludin Rumi, “On a Day When the Wind is Perfect,” in Love Poems from God, 80.
July 3, 2020 This is the last in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. Song of Solomon 2:10-13

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

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

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

Faith for the Earth: What are we longing for?

What do you long for most?

   What is most precious to you? What do you want more than anything else?  To some Christians these may be surprising questions, since many of us associate our faith with self-denial rather than desire. But when two disciples of John the Baptist are curious about Jesus and start to follow him, Jesus doesn’t turn around and deliver a lecture or a teaching; he doesn’t give advice or moral counsel.  Instead, he asks a question – an essential and revealing question: What are you looking for?  What do you seek?  What do you really want? This is a piercing question, especially for all of us who live in an addictive society that is quick to tell us what we want.  You’ve probably noticed that if we don’t know what we truly want, our desires are likely to get hijacked by what the culture around us tells us to want.  I remember driving one day and seeing an advertisement on the back of a truck up ahead.  I could just make out the headline, which declared in big letters, “What you are looking for.”  I took the bait. I said to myself: Alright, what do you think I’m looking for?  I drove a little faster and pulled up behind the truck, and there it was: a picture of a woman lounging comfortably with a cigarette between her lips.  A cigarette was what I must be looking for.  And, if not a cigarette, how about a car or the latest gadget or the newest fashion or the up-to-the-minute app?  Whatever you’re looking for, we’ve got it.  We’ll sell it to you. The purpose of advertising is not just to sell a particular product but to create a climate of craving, so that we devote our best energies to buying and selling, to the endless process of acquiring, discarding, updating, and accumulating.  Of course, there are material things that we need to survive and thrive, but we live in a throwaway culture that is based on the perpetual expansion of markets, the boundless consumption of resources, and the relentless burning of fossil fuels. No wonder Earth is groaning beneath the burden of human wants – while human need grows exponentially. What are we longing for?  What do we seek?  What do we really want? These questions require honest self-examination. You could say that they come with a shovel, because when we’re fired up by questions like these, we carry out an archaeology of our motives and desires and dig down deep to discover the bedrock of what we truly want.  What truly will make us happy?  What truly will fulfill our restless cravings and set our hearts at rest?  After we have sorted through our lesser wants, what we may discover is that deep down what we want is to be fully alive.  Deep down we want to love and to be loved, to know and to be known, and to draw close to the holy Source of love.  Deep down we want our lives to be about something much larger than ourselves and our endless, insatiable striving and self-promotion. We want our lives to have a creative purpose and meaning, and we want to be a blessing to other people. Knowing and claiming our heart’s desire is like having a compass in our pocket.  It is like having the North Star overhead, to guide our way.  When we know our heart’s desire, in every moment we have a dependable indicator that helps point the way to wise action and loving speech.  Moment to moment, in everything we do, in every situation we encounter, we can ask ourselves: How do I meet this situation in a way that taps my creativity and resonates with my deepest desire and highest purpose?  What can I say in this moment, what can I do in this moment that will let that deep intention be more fully expressed?  The more completely our lives align with what we value most, the more inner peace and stability we will feel, no matter what our outer circumstances may be. I assure you, when you are lit with creativity, curiosity, compassion and love, you will light up other people’s lives! As I speak these words, we are hurtling toward a future in which all of us will live on a harsher, hotter, and more turbulent planet than the one into which we were born. As Bill McKibben succinctly puts it, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen… We’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet.”1  Already we are experiencing massive droughts and floods, extreme storms and wildfires, and millions of people are already on the move, looking for a safer place to raise their families. A warming climate is the perfect breeding ground for the spread of tropical diseases and pandemics.  And because climate change is a so-called “threat multiplier,” we can expect an increasing push toward conflict and war as regions and nations struggle over scarce resources. How do we prepare for adversity?  Here’s one answer: We find out what we really value, what we really long for, and what kind of world we want to create.  We find our moral compass, our own North Star, and we set our course accordingly.  We join hands with other people who want to cast their lot with love and justice and compassion. One of the people we interviewed for our book, Rooted and Rising, was Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.  He’s the President and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus, which is a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that engages young people and communities of color in the political process and that has registered tens of thousands of young voters to the polls.  Rev Yearwood is giving his life to the struggle for racial, economic, and environmental justice.  Like so many other people, he is dedicated to a possibility that can seem impossibly out of reach. I asked him where he turns for strength when he feels discouraged or overwhelmed, and here is part of his reply.  He said: “You have to believe in something outside yourself.  You have to find your anchor.  For me, it’s God and Christianity, but you’ve got to find your own anchor.  If you don’t, you will be blown away.  You can’t do activism without an anchor.  You can’t do activism without faith or some form of belief – maybe a belief in the future, or in children.  It’s great if you have a faith tradition, because there are pieces there that you can hold on to, such as a sacred text, poetry, music – all kinds of things that can inspire you.  But you need to have something.”2 He went on to say, “I’m anchored.  I’m anchored in my tradition as a person of color, knowing that the people before me had to fight so hard to overcome slavery, to overcome the injustice of Jim Crow, to overcome acts of voter suppression.  I’m in a tradition of waking up with those who have already fought.  And then, as a person of faith and a minister, I link to this tradition of faith so that whatever I do, my steps are ordered.  I know that God is leading me on the right path of fighting for other people, not just for myself.  I’m fighting for God’s children and for God’s planet.  That allows me to continue and sometimes to do remarkable things with other people….”3 Those are the words of someone who has found his heart’s desire – someone who knows that in this time of multiple emergencies, we need healers and justice-seekers, people who will stand up and cast their lot with life and do justly, now. And love mercy, now. And walk humbly, now. If God were to whisper in your ear, “This is why I sent you here.  This is what I sent you to do,” what would God say next?  Find out. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010), xiii and book jacket. 2. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., “Interview,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham. MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 99. 3. Ibid.  
July 1, 2020 This is the fourth 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. Matthew 3:13-17

Faith for the Earth: Who do we think we are?

In a time that is so precarious and uncertain, I think it’s worthwhile to go back to basics and to claim the deep wisdom of our different faith traditions. Who do we think we are?  That’s the question I’d like to reflect on this morning.  Every religious tradition has its own ways of answering that question, its own ceremonies and celebrations to help its members remember what it means to be a human being.  For Christians, the ceremony of baptism has a crucial role to play in revealing our human identity and vocation.

The passage we just heard is one of the essential, not-to-be-missed stories of Christian faith, a story that is told or referred to in all four Gospels, and it’s the very first story about Jesus in the very earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan was clearly a decisive experience, a pivotal event that revealed who he was and launched his public ministry. When Jesus was baptized, he accepted the identity that had been his since before time began: He was, and had always been, the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one could take that love away. Following Jesus, Christians of every denomination consider baptism a basic practice of our tradition, although not all of us take a plunge into a river or another body of water – many of us get only a small splash at a font inside a church. Still, however the ceremony is carried out, we believe that what happened to Jesus in his baptism can happen to us in ours, if we desire to be awakened to the divine within.  From that moment and for the rest of our lives, we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable, unshakable relationship of love. Do you ever wonder who you are, who you really are, deep down?  Today’s Gospel story gives the answer. Without doing a thing to earn it or deserve it, you are the son, you are the daughter, you are the beloved of God – you are the one with whom God is well pleased.  Of course, every day we can have doubts about ourselves and wonder whether we’re good enough, smart enough – beautiful, handsome, or successful enough.  But we have a deeper identity that we can claim.  Those who follow the Abrahamic traditions believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, which means that deep within our everyday self, we have an eternal Self that is always embraced by our loving God.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, wherever the Spirit sends you, the divine life is flowing through you, as close as your breath, as close as your heartbeat.  You and I belong to the eternal Divine forever, and love is our essential nature. I don’t know about you, but I find it deeply consoling to hold on to this truth right now, when so many of us feel stressed, scattered, anxious or depressed. We live in a turbulent time, and the world is rapidly changing.  Sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, and it’s easy to feel unmoored, ungrounded, and afraid. What a perfect moment to remind ourselves of our eternal Self (capital S) and to touch in again to the deep truth that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, and that at this very moment nothing can separate us from the love of God (Roman 8:35-39). Here’s the thing: the love that is awakened within us through baptism or other rituals, the love that flows through us with our every breath – that love extends not only to us or to people like us, but also to the whole human family – in fact, it extends to the whole Creation.  Scripture tells us so – we see this message and promise in Genesis and the psalms, in the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul.1 God’s love is boundless and sustains all things. We don’t have to be mystics to “get” this, for we glimpse that truth in our own experience.  Anyone who has ever been amazed by the beauty of the world – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf, or gazing at a mountain, or looking at the stars at night knows what it’s like to feel a wave of wonder, humility, gratefulness and awe. We meet God when we open our eyes and hearts to the natural world.  When we spend time outside, God invites us to slow down, look carefully, and greet our other-than-human kin.  We belong to each other; we were created by the same divine Source of love. I think that Jesus knew this, for he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospel stories we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain.  In today’s story, he’s immersed in a river!  Jesus’ parables and stories are full of nature, full of seeds and sheep, lilies and sparrows, vines and rocks, storms and sunsets.  It seems to me that Jesus recognized the inherent sacredness of the created world.  He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God.  Jesus knew what the psalms proclaim – the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it (Psalm 24).  He knew what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
“St. Francis, The Canticle of Creation,” by Nancy Earle, smic (https://www.windseeds.com/ )
We’ve been keeping company this week with an image of St. Francis of Assisi that was painted by artist Nancy Earle. St. Francis is often called the patron saint of ecology, and I’m told that his go-to prayer was to sit in silence, exploring the question, “Who are you, God, and who am I?”  Pray that prayer for a while and see what happens!  Maybe we’ll discover that our identity doesn’t stop with our skin!  It turns out that our boundaries are porous and permeable and include much more than our individual selves. In this image, Francis is so aware of the give-and-take between himself and other creatures, so aware of his inter-relationship with everything else, so aware of what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” that his very body includes moon and wind, water and fire, wolf and turtle and whale.  Francis experienced all of God’s Creation as kin – hence he could say Brother Sun and Sister Moon. It is easy to romanticize or 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 wolf and wind and whale?  Christians plunged (or dipped) in the waters of baptism learn that we are part of a living, sacred whole. Other faith traditions, especially indigenous religions, have their own ways to remind humans beings that we belong to land and sea and sky, to other animals, and to the Spirit that created us all.  What would it feel like to inhabit the world in this way?  To quote Douglas E. Christie, what would it feel like “to relinquish the habitual tendency to stand against the world, to see the world as somehow existing outside of or beyond oneself, and instead allow oneself to become immersed in the world, suffused with its life and spirit?”2 Would we live more gently? Would we treat each other more kindly – not because we want to be “nice people” but because we know in our bones that those other people – whatever their race or religion or political affiliation or class – are truly our siblings and part of our family?  Would we think twice before cutting down a tree? And, because we have fallen in love with life and with the God who loved this world into being, would we be appalled by governments and multinational corporations that seem intent on desecrating every last inch of Creation, pillaging every last natural resource, destroying every last habitat, and abandoning every last regulation, rule, and treaty that protect clean air and water and the stability of our global climate?  Impelled by our faith in the living God and by our loving solidarity with all of life, would we pray and protest, resist and organize? Who do we think we are?  As I see it, we humans are on a long journey back to understanding that we are more than isolated individuals, more than consumers or dog-eat-dog competitors: we are intimately and deep-down connected with God, with each other, and with Earth.  In a time when Earth’s life-systems are failing, our task is to find our way back to union with God and God’s Creation; to reclaim the ancient Judeo-Christian understanding that the natural world is sacred, that it “belongs to” God and is filled with God; and to renew our partnership with our human kin and the other beings with whom we are blessed to share this planet. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. See, for instance, Gen. 1:31; Gen. 9:8-10, 15; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 24:1; John 3:16; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 1:10, 4:9-10; Col. 1:19-20. 2. Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 232.  
June 30, 2020 This is the third in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. Hosea 4:1-3

Faith for the Earth: What is breaking our hearts?

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

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