Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2023
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Sts. James and Andrew, Greenfield
Walking our way to climate hope: Earth Sunday
May the grace of God enfold us, the love of Christ uphold us, and the Spirit of truth set us free. Amen.
Friends, what a blessing to be with you as we celebrate Earth Sunday. Thank you for inviting me to join you and thank you to everyone who contributed to creating this special service. As you know, I serve our diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, and I travel around preaching, speaking, and leading retreats about our vocation as followers of Jesus to protect and heal God’s Creation. If you’d like to know more about what I’m up to, I hope you’ll visit my website, RevivingCreation.org.
I’m especially happy to be here because of your efforts to heal the living world entrusted to our care. Let’s give a shoutout to your Green Team for the monthly Environmental Sunday Series and to your Youth Group. I shouldn’t have been surprised a few days ago when I received a newsletter from the Anglican Communion Environmental Network – a newsletter, by the way, that goes out to Anglicans all around the world – and noticed that it included a story of this church hosting a panel of teenagers advocating for bold, collective action to address climate change. As your rector commented when I shared this news: Whoa! Thank you for the ways you bear witness to the Lord of life.
We have a wonderful Gospel text to consider this morning, the third Sunday of Easter. It’s a story that’s familiar to most of us: two confused and grief-stricken disciples walk the road to Emmaus and unexpectedly encounter the risen Christ. I can’t imagine a better story to work with on Earth Sunday, for it expresses in a nutshell how those of us engaged in the battle to save life as it has evolved on Earth can draw strength and sustenance from the wellsprings of our faith. That’s the gift that Christianity can bring to a frightened, troubled world: the gift of spiritual teachings and practices that empower us to move from passive despair to active hope, from confusion to clarity. So, let’s join the disciples on their walk and see if we can find our place in the story.
It’s late in the afternoon of the day of the resurrection. We don’t know exactly who the two disciples are, but since they share a home, it’s likely that they are husband and wife. One of them is named Cleopas, and if this is the Clopas referred to in John’s Gospel (John 19:25), then his wife, Mary, was among the group of women who stayed with Jesus at the cross. As the two of them head down the dusty road, late in the afternoon of the first Easter, they are struggling to speak about Jesus’ crucifixion. Surely, they are traumatized: they’ve just witnessed an act of unspeakable brutality and violence inflicted on someone they dearly loved. Not only that – the cruelty and suffering they’ve witnessed has triggered a crisis of meaning: what can they trust, what can they believe in, what kind of future is possible now that the one whom they hoped would save them has been killed? To make matters even more bewildering, they’ve heard a rumor of hope – reports that Jesus has risen from the dead. None of this makes sense. They’ve got things to talk about.
We’ve got things to talk about, too. What would you bring to a conversation about the crucifixion of Mother Earth? Maybe you’d confess your heartache about dying coral, melting glaciers, and thawing tundra, or your anxiety about sea-level rise, massive droughts, and severe weather. Maybe you’d speak about your grief for the species that are vanishing and for those that are struggling to hold on, as their habitat is swallowed up by palm oil plantations and cattle ranches, by freeways and malls. Maybe you’d express outrage that so many corporate and political powers are determined to perpetuate and even expand the extraction of coal, gas, and oil, despite the fact that burning fossil fuels is causing a dramatic rise in global temperatures, and every living system of the world is affected and in decline. We are living at a decisive moment in history, for climate science has made it clear that we won’t be able to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world unless we change course fast.
We need to talk, just as Cleopas and his unnamed companion needed to talk. We may not think that other people are frightened or concerned, but in fact they are. A recent survey1 of 10,000 children and young people in ten countries around the world found that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change; more than half reported each of the following emotions – sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty; almost half of these young people said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning; and fully three-quarters said that they think the future is frightening.
Is this a good time to talk, to name our fears and share our concerns? You bet it is. Talking about climate change with friends, family, and co-workers – and with our elected leaders – is an essential step to building momentum for change. When we end what’s been called “climate silence” and start talking with each other, start walking the road of life together and speaking about our deepest fears and naming our possibly very faint traces of hope, today’s Gospel story assures us that even though we may know nothing about it, Jesus is walking beside us.
That’s what the two sad disciples discovered, to their great surprise. It seems they traveled miles with an apparent stranger and talked with him at length without recognizing that the one they longed for was walking right beside them. It’s a poignant scene, for how often we, too, get lost in our sorrows and fears and have no idea that the risen Christ is walking with us. Maybe it’s a frustrating scene, too, for Jesus sounds impatient when he bursts out, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe!” I think it’s a funny scene, too, for the person whom the disciples are lecturing about recent events in Jerusalem is the very person who knows more about those events and their meaning than anyone else on Earth. As Frederick Buechner once put it, “Blessed are they who get the joke.”
Our Gospel story invites us to acknowledge and name our climate grief and anxiety and to give thanks for the assurance that God’s love is walking with us, sustaining us, and mysteriously present with us, even though, like the two disciples, for a while we may know nothing about it. That’s the deep truth of Christian faith, a truth that I pray the whole world will come to see and know in this perilous time, for God’s abiding love alone can guide us forward and help us forge a new path, a new, more excellent way of walking on the Earth.
What happens next in today’s story? When the disciples fail to recognize Jesus, he patiently interprets all of Scripture to them until they begin to perceive and understand. Jesus is gentle and deeply respectful: he doesn’t force himself upon the two disciples as they approach the village, but instead he walks ahead, as if he were going on. He waits for the two disciples to invite him to stay with them, and only then does he enter their home. And it’s there, around the table, when he takes bread, blesses, and breaks it, that their eyes are opened, and they recognize who he is.
Our story not only conveys the deep truth of Christ’s abiding presence with us – it also provides two practices for experiencing the risen Christ: reading and reflecting on Scripture, and the blessing and breaking of bread.
When it comes to Scripture, the eyes of our faith are being opened to perceive the deep ecological wisdom in the Bible. Like many of us, I grew up believing that the Bible cared only about human beings and God, as if for some reason only one species, Homo sapiens, was worthy of God’s attention. It turns out that this interpretation of the Bible is far too small, for in fact, from the first words of Genesis, when God created all that is and pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:30) to the last pages of the Book of Revelation, which speak of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), the sweep of our salvation history embraces the whole creation. The New Testament tells us that Christ lived, died, and rose not only to heal the human soul and the human community, but also to heal the Earth community, to reconcile all things on earth and in heaven, “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it, the “supreme work”2 of Jesus Christ is to reconcile us to God, to one another, and to God’s whole creation.
This means that caring about the health of the Earth, and the fate of the Earth, isn’t some extra, new-fangled add-on to Christian faith, one more “issue” to add to our many other concerns. No, protecting, healing, and loving the Earth is core to Christian faith, and once our eyes are opened to it, we find this message running throughout the Bible.
We meet the living Christ in the pages of Scripture, and we also meet the living Christ in the natural world. You know what that’s like – the joy and wonder that may come upon us when we lift our eyes to gaze at the Holyoke Range, when we look down and see the fern unfolding its tiny green fist, when we listen to the call of cardinals, and when we feel the wind or the rain on our face. The crucified and risen Christ is giving himself to us in and as the living world around us. As Martin Luther once said, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” The living Christ meets us again and again in the book of the Bible and, also, in the book of Nature.
And Christ meets us here as we share the bread and wine of Holy Communion. When the celebrant at the altar lifts up the bread and wine, all of Creation is lifted up. When the celebrant blesses the bread and wine, all of Creation is blessed. The bread that is placed in our hands is made of wheat, earth, and sun, of rainwater and clouds, of farmers’ hands and human labor. Christ dwells in the bread and wine, and God gives God’s self to us, once again, through the natural world. When we stretch out our hands to receive the bread, we take in what is natural and we take in Christ.3
You and I have practices to sustain us in the days ahead, practices that strengthen our resilience and resolve to take bold climate action and to join in healing God’s Creation. As with the two disciples, the risen Christ will meet us in our honest conversation and lament, in our reflection on Scripture, and in our breaking of the bread. When our eyes are opened, we, too, will understand that the risen Christ was with us all along. And then, as in today’s story, he will likely vanish from our sight. Why? Maybe because he has other places to go, other people to strengthen and inspire. Or maybe because his living presence is now fully within us, so that we can embody his love in fresh and creative ways.
The two disciples of our story have had a long, traumatic day and have walked many a mile, but now, with their hearts burning within them, they find the energy to leap up and travel the seven miles back to Jerusalem to bring their joyful news to their community. At the beginning of today’s story, hope is only a rumor. By the end, the disciples themselves embody hope: they will give their lives to the possibility that God’s love will be fully expressed in the world. Rather than quietly accepting a killing status quo, they will join God’s mission to reconcile and heal, and they will bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy.
On this Earth Sunday, we celebrate the risen Christ who is in our midst, calling us to be healers and justice-seekers. How is God calling you to step forward?
1. Caroline Hickman et al, “Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey,” The Lancet, December 2021, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00278-3/fulltext#
2. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword,” The Green Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers (HarperOne), 2008, I-14.
3. This paragraph is adapted from Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (Forward Movement, 2012,2013), 35.
Rev. Margaret gave this opening presentation for “Preaching for God’s World,” a webinar on April 20, 2023, hosted by Church of England Environment Programme, which featured an international panel of speakers. A recording of the webinar will soon be available.
Why do we need to preach on creation care? Two reasons: Jesus commands it, and the world needs it. Let’s take these one by one.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus commands, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). The good news of God in Christ is to be proclaimed in word and deed to the whole creation – not only to human beings, but to all our fellow creatures and indeed to the whole web of life. From the first words of Genesis, when God created all that is and pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:30) to the last pages of the Book of Revelation, which speak of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), the sweep of our salvation history embraces the whole creation. What do we preach? We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23). And Christ’s life, death, and resurrection touches every corner of the world. As St. Paul tells us, in Christ “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). Christ came to reconcile all things – which means that when we preach, we hold in mind God’s desire to restore our connections to each other and to the land, God’s longing to heal our estrangement both from our fellow humans and from the rest of the natural world. When we preach, we hold in mind God’s heartbreak when we trample our brother-sister beings and when we contaminate the soil, water, and air upon which all life depends. With the psalmist, we proclaim, The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it (Psalm 24:1), and thus we preach to restore reverence for God’s creation and to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that considers the natural world nothing more than inert material, just an object for us to exploit.
Not to preach about the climate crisis, not to preach about environmental degradation, not to preach about our calling to repair and restore the world that God entrusted to our care is to preach a Gospel that is far too small. It’s high time to quit preaching a narrowly anthropocentric Gospel and to remember that in the very first book of the Bible, God forged an “everlasting covenant” not only with human beings but also with “every living creature” (Gen. 9:8-17). Preaching about Earth care is central to proclaiming Christian faith. As the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, the “supreme work”1 of Jesus Christ is to reconcile us to God, to one another, and to God’s whole creation.
That’s reason #1. The second reason to preach about creation care is that the world needs it. The world needs our preaching for pastoral reasons. Amid the accelerating trauma and losses caused by climate change, including droughts, floods, wildfires, and heat, our congregations need to hear about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us and who understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed. This is a pastoral issue!
The world needs our preaching for prophetic reasons, too. Scientists tell us that we live at a decisive moment in human history: 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. So, we need sermons about our moral obligation to create a more just and habitable world. We need sermons about a God who gives high-consuming people the power to amend our lives, and sermons about a God who stands with those hurt first and hardest by a changing climate, which are usually low-income, low-wealth communities and communities of color. We need sermons about a God who calls us not to the quiet acceptance of a killing status quo but rather to active resistance, a God who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy. The early Christians were so fired up by the love that transcends death and so willing to transform their society that they were accused of turning the world “upside down” (Act. 17:6), of acting “contrary to the decrees of the emperor” (Act. 17:7), and of obeying God rather than any human authority (Act. 5:29).
So, let’s hear some big, bold sermons that push back against climate “doomism” and hopelessness and that mobilize action for systemic change. Let’s take up our pastoral and prophetic vocation to preach Gospel hope in a time of human and planetary emergency.
Jesus calls us to preach good news to the whole creation, and the world needs that message as never before. Let’s do it. Let’s preach the whole Gospel, the whole good news.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword,” The Green Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers (HarperOne), 2008, I-14.
The first time it happened, we wondered if it was a coincidence.
Shortly before 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener and I walked to a branch of Bank of America located beside a highway in Springfield. Our plan was to hand-deliver a letter to the bank manager. We wanted to explain what was going to happen: we were part of a group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders who were about to hold a multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3:00 p.m. outside the bank, urging the bank to stop funding fossil fuel projects.
Our letter explained that we would not impede sidewalk traffic or interfere with access to the bank, but that we did intend to sing, pray, and speak about the moral call to address the climate emergency. We would be urging customers to reconsider where they bank and to sign a pledge to move their money out of Bank of America if the bank continues to fund the destruction of our planet. If the fossil fuel industry can’t borrow money from large banks like Bank of America, new fossil fuel projects can’t move forward.
As we neared the bank, Rabbi Andrea commented, “I’m counting on your courage.”
Surprised, I answered, “I’m counting on your non-anxious presence.”
It’s no wonder that Jesus sent out the disciples two by two. Even if you’re sure that what you’re doing is reasonable, peaceful, and necessary, you can expect to be nervous if you’re confronting someone in power or disrupting the status quo. It strengthens the heart to have an ally at your side.
The bigger surprise was that, on a busy Friday afternoon, customers were waiting in line to enter the bank. For some reason, bank employees were examining each customer before allowing them inside and then locking the door behind them. Just as the rabbi and I finally moved up the line and reached the front door, a staff member announced that the bank was closed. No one else could enter. He didn’t look at us; he didn’t glance at the rabbi or comment on my clergy collar and stole; he simply declared to the disgruntled customers behind us that the bank had closed.
Rabbi Andrea and I were left to wonder: Was it sheer coincidence that the bank had closed just then or was it because they’d gotten wind of our prayer vigil?
We got our answer one week later. Our group was gearing up for a second multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, held this time outside a Bank of America in downtown Northampton. One of our vigil’s faith leaders, Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, dressed in clergy collar and stole, arrived early. She went inside the bank to look around.
“We’re closing,” a bank employee told her.
“Why?” asked Andrea.
“We’re closing,” came the tight-lipped reply.
By 2:00 p.m. the bank had locked its doors and posted a sign out front: Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are temporarily closed. We apologize for the inconvenience.
We went ahead with our prayer vigil, as planned. In words and song, we expressed our moral outrage that Bank of America is one of the top four banks (along with Citibank, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase) that most heavily funds the fossil fuel projects which drive the climate crisis. Bank of America has financed such controversial new projects as the Line 3 and Mountain Valley pipelines. Despite giving lip-service to the Paris Agreement (adopted in late 2015), over the next five years Bank of America provided an eye-popping $232 billion in lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry.
Some quotes from our press release make our perspective clear.
“No religious tradition says that we should destroy the planet,” said Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who leads Temple Israel in Greenfield and who spoke, prayed, and blew the shofar at the vigil. “Yet this is exactly what governments, financial institutions, and major corporations are either doing or allowing – after knowing for years that fossil fuels cause climate change. It’s flat-out wrong.”
“As Muslims we believe the Almighty Creator has appointed humans as the stewards of earth. Thus, we have a sacred obligation to preserve it, and, in that spirit, we call for responsible and just climate action,” said Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a member of the Muslim community and Executive Director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “For the love of our neighbors, families, and all vulnerable communities, we call on Bank of America to immediately cease financing practices that are harmful and destructive to the earth and to take steps to correct the harm done.”
“Now is the time for bold and urgent action on climate change,” said the Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, who gave the vigil’s closing prayer. “Last year the International Energy Agency made it crystal clear that any new coal, oil, and gas projects are incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate impacts. Bank of America must stop financing climate chaos. We need to stand and work together to bring our planet into balance and to renew God’s creation.”
Right now, the world’s eyes are on COP27, the next crucial round of U.N. climate negotiations, which will begin on November 6 in Egypt. In the lead-up to COP27, under the banner of Faiths4Climate Justice, a project of GreenFaith, people around the world of many different religions have been holding sit-ins and rallies, prayer circles and die-ins to call for bold, just action by corporate and political powers to address the climate crisis. Our two prayer vigils for climate justice were part of this growing worldwide movement of religious and spiritual communities to restore reverence for Earth and to protect humanity’s hope for a livable planet.
Watch this space: JPMorgan Chase Bank is expanding into western Massachusetts and just bought a large, vacant building on the main intersection of downtown Northampton. It plans to open for business in the first half of 2023. We plan to tell them what we’re telling Bank of America: unless they take rapid steps to stop funding fossil fuels and to promote a swift, just transition to clean, renewable energies, we will make our voices heard. We will protest banks whose policies accelerate climate chaos and desecrate the world that God entrusted to our care. We want banks to stay open, serve the community, and do the right thing for the future of our planet.
Here’s where to sign one of Third Act’s two “Banking on our Future” pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”
The faith leaders who led the prayer vigil in Northampton on October 28, 2022:
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts)
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud (member of the Muslim community; Executive Director, Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations)
Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian (ordained minister, United Church of Christ; member of Ministerial Leadership Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield)
Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Episcopal priest; Missioner for Creation Care in Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, and Creation Care Advisor in Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts)
Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener (Temple Israel, Greenfield)
Amihan Jennifer Matias (lay leader, Haydenville Congregational Church, United Church of Christ; Associate Director, Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership)
Rev. Kate Stevens (ordained minister, United Church of Christ; recently President, Interfaith Council of Franklin County)
This article by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas first appeared in the Volume 44 (2022) issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies, published by the University of Hawai‘i Press, pp. 69-83. You can download a .pdf copy of the article here.
Facing climate crisis and ecological collapse requires courage and tenderness. Courage, because it takes courage to see clearly what human beings are doing to our precious planet. It takes courage to hold a steady gaze and to witness the melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs, the withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, the flash floods and massive downpours, the record waves of heat. It takes courage not to look away but to hold a steady gaze as climate change makes sea levels rise and islands disappear, as oceans grow acidic and full of plastic, and as vast populations of our fellow creatures disappear.
Tenderness brings moments – maybe this is one of them – when we allow ourselves to feel our emotional response to what we have lost and are losing as climate change accelerates and as governments and financial institutions in thrall to the fossil fuel industry fail to take decisive action to address the crisis.
I am neither an academic nor a scholar. This paper will not report on research nor analyze sacred texts. Instead, it will reflect on some of the spiritual practices and perspectives that guide my work as an Episcopal priest dedicated to mobilizing a Spirit-filled, faithful response to climate crisis.
At this hinge point of history, practitioners of every faith tradition must ask ourselves: What are the gifts that our tradition can bring to the table as the human community – and the whole Earth community – experience the rapid unraveling of the web of life? What are we called to do? In what spiritual practices shall we root ourselves so that we can rise up with determination, courage, and compassion to take effective action? I’m very interested in what helps us to move beyond inertia, panic, and despair and to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the movement to address climate change – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. How do they maintain courage, empathy, and determination? Our anthology of essays is entitled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.1
I speak as a Christian who is deeply indebted to the wisdom of Buddhism. My late mother, Sarah Doering, was a devoted practitioner and teacher of vipassanā (insight) meditation and for seventeen years attended the three-month silent retreats at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Because of her teaching, counsel, philanthropy, and spiritual support, she is credited by IMS with playing a vital role in helping Buddhism to flourish in the West.2 My husband, Robert A. Jonas, has also had a long-standing interest in Buddhist practice. Years ago, he founded a small, contemplative Christian center for meditation and prayer, The Empty Bell,3 which has sponsored many Buddhist-Christian dialogues; he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama three times at Buddhist-Christian retreats in various parts of the world; and he is an active member of this society. I am also deeply grateful for Joanna Macy, with whom I’ve studied and whose teachings have helped me and countless others to reflect on our human predicament and find a path to healing. I bow to these important people in my life, and to everyone who is nourished by Buddhist teaching and practice.
My own experience of Buddhist meditation opened me to a deeper understanding of Christianity, the faith tradition in which I was born and raised, and which I fled after high school. Buddhist meditation not only facilitated my return to the church – it also gave me my first glimpse of the vocation that would become my life’s work. I began learning and practicing vipassanā meditation in the early 1980’s, when I was in my 30’s. I was just beginning to recover from a food addiction that had plagued me since adolescence, and just beginning to explore what it meant to pay attention to my inner and outer experience. I particularly remember a ten-day silent retreat that I attended at IMS. As the teacher instructed, I followed the drill: You sit. You walk. You sit. You walk. That’s it. You do nothing but bring awareness to the present moment.
One day I left the retreat house for a walk in the woods. I paid attention to sensations as they came, the feel of my foot on the ground, the sound of birds, the sight of birches, hemlock, and pine. I was nothing but eyes and ears, the weight of each foot, the breath in my nostrils. At one point I stopped walking, overwhelmed by the sense that the whole world was inside me. I was carrying the round blue planet inside my chest. My heart held the world. I cradled it tenderly, weeping with joy.
I did not know it then, but that vision of carrying the world in my heart would become one of the core images to which I would return in prayer in the decades ahead, a place of consolation that renewed my strength for climate activism. Years later, someone gave me a contemporary icon of Christ bending over the world, his arms embracing the planet.4 I caught my breath in recognition. Yes, that’s right. That’s just how it is.
Learning through vipassanā meditation to steady my mind and make contact with my actual experience opened me to a flow of love that I didn’t understand and couldn’t have predicted. Time and again, as I sat in meditation, welcoming everything into awareness, clinging to nothing and pushing nothing away, an unexpected tenderness would rise up from within and gather me up like a child. Baffled, I went back to Sunday services in the church I had fled long ago, sat in the shadowy back pews, and marveled at the possibility that the preacher who claimed that God is love was not just a blithering idiot but might actually be on to something. My recovery from addiction through the 12-Step program depended on daily surrender to a so-called Higher Power that was vaster and wiser than my fragmented, isolated ego-self. I began to hope – and then suspect – that this “higher” power might be the power of divine love.
I finished what I was doing and headed to seminary, eager to know more about the God who had saved my life. I began to study and practice Christian contemplative prayer and learned about the mystics who encountered God in silence. I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in June 1988, the same month that NASA climate scientist James Hanson warned Congress that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels was disrupting the global atmosphere. It was the first time I’d heard about what was then called the “greenhouse effect.” Stunned, I touched the newspaper with my fingers and breathed, feeling again the love for the world which had been so mysteriously revealed at that Buddhist retreat center. A question emerged that became the riddle of my life, a question that to this day fuels my vocation as a faith-based climate activist: If God can empower a crazy addict like me to make peace with her body, is it not possible that God can empower us crazed, addicted human beings to make peace with each other and the body of Earth?
For 25 years I served in parish ministry; on the side, I led retreats, taught seminary classes on prayer, and was a climate activist. Finally, in 2013, I went to my bishop in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and confessed that I needed to leave parish ministry: anxiety about the climate crisis was keeping me awake at night. I asked if he could create a job in the diocese to let me focus full-time on mobilizing Christians to protect the living world that God entrusted to our care. God bless him, Bishop Doug Fisher said yes, if funds for such a job could be found. Lo and behold, just then a parishioner came forward who had sold his shares of stock in oil pipelines and wanted to donate the funds to the diocese to address climate change. That became the seed money for my job – which quickly went ecumenical. I now serve both of the Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts, as well as the United Church of Christ in Southern New England, and I maintain a website, RevivingCreation.org.
Christianity is my root tradition and the one I know best, but obviously there are many ways to construct Christianity. Some versions of Christianity have inflicted, and continue to inflict, enormous harm on human beings, the land, and the other creatures with whom we share this planet. Christianity has been used to justify slavery and white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, colonialism, and a definition of “dominion” that permits and even encourages a wholesale assault on Mother Earth. Christianity has been hijacked to bless the Doctrine of Discovery and the unjust claims of Manifest Destiny. Who knows how many Black, brown, and indigenous peoples – as well as people of different faiths – have been enslaved, dispossessed, or killed in the name of Jesus? What’s more, growing up in the 1950’s, I heard nothing in my church about God’s love for or participation in the natural world. The God I grew up with had no body. God was pure spirit and, as far as I could tell, essentially disconnected from the material world. Among the myriad life-forms that God created, God apparently cared about only one, Homo sapiens – all the other creatures and elements of the natural world were, at best, scenic backdrop and bit players in the only drama that mattered to God: the human drama. Even now, as Rev. Cameron Trimble points out, the pews of conservative Christian churches are filled with people who believe – mistakenly – “that nature is available for our endless consumption, that short-term profit outweighs plenary survival, access to resources should be owned by a few rather than available to all, and in the end, technology will save us.”5
A socially just, ecologically wise, and spiritually mature Christianity must begin with an act of repentance and humility. In the face of climate emergency and species extinction, every religious tradition, beginning with Christianity, must reckon with the aspects of its heritage that no longer serve life and must critique, discard, or transform the practices and perspectives – however ancient and long-standing – that do not meet the challenge of this planetary crisis. At the same time, every religious tradition, including Christianity, must sift through its teachings, practices, and rituals to locate the gold, the elements of deep ecological wisdom that the human community so desperately needs. Every religious tradition, including Christianity, must also ask itself: How does this unprecedented moment in human history challenge us to evolve so that we truly serve the common good? Now is the time to ask and address these questions, for scientists tell us that we don’t have much time to avert a catastrophic level of suffering and to preserve a habitable world for our children, our children’s children, and all the other creatures with whom we share this planet.
The world around us is dying. How can we – teachers, students, and practitioners of spiritual wisdom in a variety of contexts – be of use?
Here’s an image to consider. There is a puzzle6 that consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three. The goal is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page or retracing the same line. The only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box. Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished.
That’s what religious and spiritual traditions are meant to do: to help confused, isolated, and fearful human beings to think, feel, and understand outside the box of our little ego-selves so that we can experience our connections to each other and to a sacred Reality greater than “I,” “me,” and “mine.” Imagine that we live in a world in which everything feels fragmented, divided, and falling apart, a world in which a beloved landscape can go up in flames, a flash flood can drown people in a subway, a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store, and starving birds can fall dead from the sky. Imagine a world in which people feel helpless, frightened, and alone, more tethered to their cell phones and social media than to each other, more ready to arm themselves and stock food in their basement than to reach out to help a neighbor, and perfectly willing to douse their lawns with herbicides and to eat cheap beef from a factory farm because the fate of other creatures is of no concern. Imagine isolated dots, trapped in an increasingly hot, harsh, and violent world that could well tumble into social and ecological collapse.
Imagine now that we find four lines of thought or four arrows of prayerful intention that disclose an underlying wholeness and unity. What if those isolated dots – what if all of us – discovered that we were held together in a sacred reality, that we were embraced by a love that created all things, connects all things, and sustains all things? On the surface, in the realm of our senses, we might notice only differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we would sense common ground that holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with the sacred Mystery that some of us call “God.” Now we would be living outside the box. And from this place we could begin to heal ourselves and an ailing world.
Here are four lines of thought, four arrows of prayerful intention that help me step out of the box and into a larger, wilder place where I can envision social and ecological healing and find strength to take action.
1. First arrow: We cultivate an interior relationship of love. In ways that resonate with Buddhism, one of the great promises of Christianity is that in silence and solitude, through practices of contemplative meditation, we can learn to listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts. Christians imagine Jesus in many different ways, but one of the most compelling is expressed by the 18th-century Methodist, Charles Wesley: “Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art.”7 Like filings to a magnet, we may be drawn to that love, yearning to receive, experience, and embody it more fully every day. We may be drawn to imageless forms of prayer, such as Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer, which use a sacred word or two to guide our longing to encounter the Divine, the ultimate mystery beyond words, thoughts, or feelings. We may pay attention to each breath, consciously breathing in the love of God and breathing it out into the world. One of the earliest Christians, a Desert Father named Anthony, advised, “Always breathe Christ.”8 Or we may simply wish to rest in God’s loving gaze and to pray the simplest of prayers: I gaze at God, and God gazes at me. That is how the 17th-century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence describes what he calls the practice of the presence of God. He writes, “I… concentrate on being always in [God’s] holy presence; I keep myself in [God’s] presence by simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God… to whom I often feel myself united with greater happiness and satisfaction than that of an infant nursing at his mother’s breast; also for the inexpressible sweetness which I taste and experience there, if I dared use this term, I would willingly call this state ‘the breasts of God.”9
Similarly, in words that recall the practice of mindfulness meditation, the 18th-century French Jesuit, Pierre de Caussade, speaks of what he calls “the sacrament of the present moment.” In my tradition, sacraments are special ceremonies that convey the grace and presence of God – outward forms that convey inward spiritual realities.10 De Caussade argues that every moment should be received with the reverence with which we receive a sacrament. Since every moment is filled with God’s infinite holiness, every moment should be honored.11
What I’m trying to describe is how we can move through our days with a deep inner stability, a confidence that moment to moment we are resting within a relationship of love. The accent is relational – we turn toward a holy You (capital Y) whose presence is with us wherever we go. Human beings thrive in the context of loving relationships, and whether sitting or standing, walking or waiting, we can tune our awareness to an intimate Someone (capital S) whom we may name and experience in different ways but in whose usually subtle but sometimes vivid presence we feel seen, known, and loved.
Why is this relevant to facing ecological collapse and climate change? Because when people are in the grip of collective trauma, they need practices that steady the mind, calm the nervous system, and restore a sense of inner safety and accompaniment. Because drawing from a sacred, inner wellspring is a source of solace and strength for anyone facing a difficult present and the likelihood of an even more difficult future.
What’s more, as climate change intensifies, we are increasingly likely to hear messages such as “The world would be better off without human beings” or “Human beings are a cancer on the planet.” I understand the bitterness and grief in statements like these, and I recognize that, in some ways, these messages are accurate: economic systems that depend on dirty fossil fuels, endless expansion, and relentless extraction of natural resources are indeed taking down life on Earth. But the only way forward is not to feed the voice of self-hatred, but instead to listen to the voice of love. Only love can empower us to imagine new possibilities, relinquish a killing status quo, and set out on a different path. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
2. Second arrow: We awaken to the love that is everywhere. Falling in love with Jesus or with the God we find within does not lock us into a private world of our own. On the contrary, when we follow Jesus, we follow him straight into the wide-open heart of the Father/Mother of our souls, the Creator who loves every inch of the created world and who, according to the mythic story, at the beginning of time pronounced everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Participating in the flow of divine love means that our tightly gripped sense of self must dissolve and expand. Our little ego didn’t invent this love; we didn’t create it, we can’t control it, and it’s a lot bigger than we are – or to be more accurate, bigger than who we think we are. In truth, it is the essence of who we are, what Thomas Merton would call our True Self. Even if we’d like to hoard God’s love for ourselves or our own little tribe, when we are drawn into the heart of God, we discover that everyone else is there, too. As Fr. Henri Nouwen would say,12 when I know deeply that I am the beloved – when God breaks through my layers of resistance and self-doubt and reveals that I am cherished to the core – then I discover that everyone is the beloved. Everyone is cherished by God. No one is left out.
This is a radical, out-of-the-box message in a dog-eat-dog world of frenzied competition, where people elbow each other in a zero-sum game for status, possessions, and power, and where nations and corporations too often run roughshod over the needs of the land and the needs of the poor. By contrast, a love that encompasses all people and all sentient beings calls us to live in harmony with each other and the rest of creation. Such love asserts moral values quite different from those of late-stage capitalism. I will name two: intersectional justice, and reverence for the natural world.
Intersectional justice understands that everything is connected. For instance, climate change is linked to economic and racial injustice. Although climate change is largely caused by wealthy nations and communities, its impacts are felt first and most painfully by low-income and minority communities – the very communities least likely to have contributed to the crisis, least able to adapt to it, and least likely to have a voice at the table where policy decisions are made. We risk participating in “climate apartheid,” where the rich pay to escape the increasing heat and hunger caused by the climate crisis and the rest of the world suffers.13 We also risk “climate gentrification,” where wealthy people seeking refuge from the effects of climate change move into once “undesirable” neighborhoods, forcing out low-income and minority residents.14
Climate justice is so closely linked to racial justice that some people contend that we wouldn’t have climate change without white supremacy. Where would we put our urban oilfields, our dumping grounds and trash, our biomass plants, our toxic incinerators and other polluting industries, if we weren’t willing to sacrifice Black, Brown, and indigenous communities? To quote the Sierra Club’s Hop Hopkins, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”15
Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about – it is a cause that affects everything we cherish. The Pentagon has long called climate change a “threat multiplier,” which means that it amplifies existing problems, from national security and public health to poverty, hunger, and immigration. That is why it is so important to build an intersectional movement that pulls people out of their isolated siloes of concern and pushes for comprehensive solutions. Environmentalism used to be a movement mainly of white people defending polar bears and wilderness areas, but today’s ecological and climate justice movement realizes that people of every race and class must join together in a shared effort to live in loving relationship with each other and with the Earth upon which all life depends. In his stirring encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis makes an impassioned plea for what he calls “integral ecology”: the recognition that everything is connected and that our social and environmental crises are not two separate issues but must be addressed together.16
A second ethical value that emerges when we perceive the world as pervaded by God’s love is reverence for nature. That’s what happened to me: as I recovered from my food addiction and learned to honor my body, listen to its needs, and live within its limits, I also began to connect with the natural world. I began to see that God loved not only my body – God also loved the whole “body” of creation. My prayer began to change. It was like turning my pocket inside out: whereas once I had found God mostly in silent, inward contemplation, now God began showing up around me – in the pond, the rocks, the willow tree. If you spend an hour gazing at a willow tree, after a while it begins to disclose itself, and to disclose God. I began to understand the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
For those of us who follow Jesus, it’s worth noting that Jesus lived close to the Earth. In the Gospels we find him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, and spending weeks praying alone in the wilderness. His parables and stories are full of natural images: sheep, sparrows, seeds, lilies, water, fire, vines, and rocks. Jesus recognized the inherent sacredness not only of human beings but also of the whole created world, all of lit up with the presence of God. I wonder what it would be like to reclaim the kind of intimacy with the natural world that Jesus knew – to know, as he did, that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).
St. Francis of Assisi followed in his footsteps, spending time in such intimate relationship with the elements and creatures of the natural world that he famously spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He knew that our identity doesn’t stop at our skin. Our boundaries are porous. My body is part of the Earth; the Earth is part of my body – a reality that Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being.” Similarly, Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks eloquently about the reverence felt by Native Americans for the living world, “a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything.”17 We live in a sacred world of interrelationship and interdependence. We belong to each other. We depend on each other.
It’s easy to romanticize and sentimentalize St. Francis, but in an increasingly degraded natural world, what would it mean to take our place as humans who experience this kind of intimate connection with wild creatures and plants and all the elements that together create a balanced and healthy eco-system? Now is the time to reclaim the ancient understanding (which was never lost by indigenous peoples or by so-called “pagans”) that the natural world is sacred, that it belongs to God and is filled with God. Now is the time to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that treats the natural world as inert material, an object to exploit. The Earth, in fact, is a primary locus for our encounter with God. Such is the testimony of generations of Christian mystics and theologians, beginning with St. Paul (Romans 1:20). Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.
3. Third arrow: Wepractice sorrow, practice joy. Keeping our inner landscape alive is an essential spiritual practice when we’re tempted to shut down emotionally. Last March, when a front-page headline in big font reported that some scientists believe that a branch of the Gulf Stream is starting to weaken,18 I dropped what I was doing, lay face-down on the living room floor, and spent an hour weeping, arms outstretched. I knew that this announcement mattered. Twenty years before, at a weekend conference on climate change, I’d learned that the slowing or stopping of the Atlantic Ocean’s “conveyer belt” of currents is one of the tipping-points that could trigger far-reaching, dramatic, and very rapid changes in the Earth’s temperature, precipitation, and sea levels. Apparently, that moment had come. I needed to extend my arms over God’s good Earth. I wept with sorrow for her and for all of us.
Giving ourselves permission to experience our emotional response to a dying world is a basic practice to keep ourselves inwardly vital and alive. The Atlantic Ocean’s currents may be shutting down, but I don’t want to shut down! Falling in love with life, and with God, means consenting to be vulnerable. As C.S. Lewis points out, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” So, we tune in to our own suffering and to the suffering of other beings – the suffering caused by injustice and cruelty, by climate change and ecological devastation. Clear-cut forests and forests going up in flames. Extinct species. Insect apocalypse. Vanishing topsoil. Disappearing wetlands. Areas of the Amazon rainforest that no longer sequester carbon but actually release it. Ocean dead zones and stalling currents. Tipping points that threaten to propel us into chaos.
How do we pray with this? Our broken-hearted prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. We may need to drum, stamp, or wail. How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief? How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb?
I am thankful to Joanna Macy for encouraging us to honor our pain for the world and to realize that our pain springs from love. The symbol in Christianity for the meeting-place of pain and love is the Cross: crucifixion is the place where evil, malice, ignorance, and confusion are perpetually met by the love of God. So, one place I go in prayer when I am overwhelmed by the pain of the world is to the cross of Christ. As I experience it, the cross of Christ is planted deep within me, and at the cross I can pour out everything that is in me – anger, fear, grief, guilt – for I trust that at the cross, everything is met by the forgiving love of God.
Crucifixion is the place where God breaks through our numbness and denial. At the foot of the cross, we can finally face and bear all that we know about the pain of the world, and where God in Christ can hold and bear whatever we cannot bear ourselves. I imagine this practice being something like the practice of tonglen in Tibetan Buddhism: I breathe in the pain and, breathing out, I release it into the cross of Christ.19 I can’t bear the pain, but Christ can bear it. I can’t forgive it all, but Christ can forgive it. Whatever I need to feel and express, all of it is met with compassion. Along the way, everything transforms, as if becoming good compost. In this time of ecological crisis, Christians may need to take hold of the power of the cross as never before.
We are blessed that many faith traditions provide rituals and practices for accessing and processing grief. In my own tradition, lament is an ancient form of prayer found in the Book of Lamentations, the Psalms, the prophets, and the words and actions of Jesus. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he says in one of his great teachings, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4), and several Gospel stories portray his grief. He wept at the death of Lazarus, he wept over the city of Jerusalem, and he cried out to God on the cross, using the lament of Psalm 22. When we lament, we share our anguish with God, and we dare to feel what is breaking God’s heart.
And lament can be empowering. Jewish and Christian theologians from Abraham Heschel to Walter Brueggemann (and many more) point out that lament is the beginning of criticism of an unjust social order. The powers-that-be would prefer that we stay too busy, too distracted and numb to feel our emotional responses to what unjust systems are doing to human beings and to the planet on which all life depends. What Brueggemann calls “the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel”20 is the enemy of a society built on refusing to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. Grieving is how we begin to challenge an unjust social order, cultivate hope, and open a space for bold actions commensurate with the crisis we are in.
So, let’s dare to lament! Let’s tell the truth: our hearts are breaking, because that’s how fiercely we love this beautiful, broken world that God entrusted to our care. And let’s dare to rejoice, as well! Let’s celebrate joy, wherever we find it – in the curl of an autumn leaf; in a word of appreciation, given or received; in the sensation of bare feet on soft grass or the sound of a loon letting loose her wild call. The practice of joy balances the practice of sorrow, keeping our hearts wide open, making room for everything.
4. Fourth arrow: We take bold action for healing. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that, in order to preserve a habitable, governable world, we must transform our society and economy away from fossil fuels at a scale and speed that are historically unprecedented. Energy companies already possess a pool of fossil fuel that is five times larger than the amount of fossil fuel that would catapult the global climate into catastrophic, runaway change if that fuel were burned. We must fight to keep that carbon in the ground, where it belongs, for the only way to avoid shooting past that 1.5º or 2º degree Celsius cap that protects us from runaway climate change is to keep 80% of known reserves of coal, gas and oil in the ground, to transition quickly to renewable sources of energy like sunshine and wind, and to protects forests, which sequester carbon.
Hearing this, we may shrink back, telling ourselves: That will never happen. We’re too far gone. It’s too big for me to deal with.
There is a Bible passage, often read at weddings, which Christian mystics interpret as God speaking to the soul. It begins like this: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10). Like a tenacious lover, God summons us: “Arise.” From what must we arise? Maybe we hear: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from hopelessness: I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness: I am with you. Arise and come away: leave the cult of death. Leave the path of folly. Abandon the lie that your efforts are useless. Come with me and join the dance of life. Come be a sacred warrior, a warrior for the common good. I will help you find your place in the great struggle to protect life and to build a more just society.
“But” we may protest, feeling helpless before the horrors of the world, helpless before injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power.”
“What can I do? What can any of us do? It’s too late to make a difference!”
“I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to deal with.”
The voice of love is like that. It may be soft, difficult to hear in a noisy world, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it never goes away. The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that awakens our hearts – that holy love sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, warriors for truth, and protectors of life. I may have a thousand and one reasons to dodge love’s call, but then it comes again, that voice: Arise. I love you. I need you. I am calling from the trees, from the wind, from the very stones beneath your feet. I am calling from the orcas and the salmon, from the black bear and the mountains, from the fig trees and the vines. I am calling from the people already suffering from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from those who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world. Arise, my love, and join the effort to save our precious planet. Arise!
Roused by that holy voice, we receive fresh strength to renew the face of the Earth. And we arise, joining with indigenous leaders to protect the water and the land, joining with activists to stop new pipelines, joining with city-dwellers to renew communities crushed by poverty and racism, joining with young and old to plant new forests. We use our voices and our votes as we fight to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We support the movement to hold polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused and continue to cause. We lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that meets the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial resources, we divest from fossil fuels. If we are college graduates, we push our alma mater to divest. Maybe we join the growing numbers of resolute people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and we put our bodies on the line. Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, inclusive, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen.
I am strengthened when I remember that I and other Christians are called to bear witness to resurrection, to a love that transcends death. In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We die in Christ and we die with Christ. And then we rise with Christ: from now on, our death is done with. It is behind us. We have died with Christ and are now alive in Christ. To whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety, set free to love without grasping, possessiveness, or holding back. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”21 That inner fearlessness, rooted in the love of God, empowered the early Christians to resist the unjust powers of the state: early on they were charged with “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor (Acts 17:7). Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).
I don’t know if we will avert climate chaos. But I do know that every degree of temperature-rise matters; indeed, every tenth of a degree of temperature-rise matters. So, we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into serving life, and, whatever comes, we put our trust in the divine love that never dies. As one ancient Hebrew prophet put it: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength” (Habbakuk 3:17-19a). The same conviction is expressed in a prayer in the Episcopal burial service: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”22
I stake my life on love’s four arrows: love within, love beyond, love that willingly suffers, and love that takes action and refuses to settle for a killing status quo. These four arrows pull us out of the box of ordinary consciousness, the box of business as usual, and into a larger, more connected space: a space of healing and transformation.
1. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, ed., Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). The book includes study questions and spiritual practices.
7. Charles Wesley, “Love divine, all loves excelling,” Hymn 657, The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).
8. Anthony, quoted by Athanasius of Alexandria, in The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Olivier Clément (London: New City, 1993), 204.
9. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, translated with an intro. By John J. Delaney (Garden City, New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1977), 68, 69.
10. To be more exact, “An Outline of the Faith” in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer defines sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 857.
11. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, trans. by Kitty Muggeridge, intro. by Richard J. Foster (New York: HarperCollins, 1989).
12. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
19. In my book, Christ’s Passion, Our Passions (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2002), pp. 9-13, I describe a way of prayer I call “Grounding in the Cross,” based on Macy’s presentation of tonglen.
20. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 41.
21. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), 107.
What makes a sermon about climate change “pastoral” or “prophetic”? How should preachers address climate grief? Why should we preach about voting, and what’s the difference between partisan and political activity?
These questions and more were discussed by the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas in a climate preaching webinar on September 15, 2022, co-sponsored by the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ. This text is based on our conversation. A 30-minute video is available here. Passcode: 05@=u87H
Opening prayer (by Jim)
Good and gracious God,
We give thanks that you have called us to proclaim your Good News in a time of great challenge. Grant us your assurance that we have been given everything we need to inspire both courage and conviction in the communities you have given us to serve. May our time together in the coming hour open us to the opportunity to amplify our witness on behalf of restoring your creation. With grateful hearts we pray. Amen.
Overview (by Jim)
First, we’ll provide some context for our conversation, including brief updates on the state of God’s creation and humanity’s collective response.
Then, Margaret will share her experience and insights on how to address the climate crisis in a pastoral way, drawing on spiritual and theological foundations as we enter the Season of Creation. Margaret will also offer some guidance on the relationship between grief and activism.
Then, I’ll provide some guidance on how we can speak a prophetic word about engaging the climate crisis in a way that our congregants welcome as an opportunity. I’ll share how climate change reveals all justice issues to be intersectional, and I’ll share why we should preach on the importance of voting and the difference between being partisan and being political in our preaching. Then, we will field questions.
Context of our conversation: National and international (by Jim) I’ll begin with three examples of Good News:
First, in less than a year, Congress has committed OVER HALF A TRILLION DOLLARS to address the climate crisis and energy transition.
My second illustration comes under the heading “WE CAN DO THIS!” Thanks to the relentless efforts of scientists and engineers, by 2030, electricity from solar, wind, and water could provide all the electricity the world needs. And by 2035, renewable energy could also be the sole energy source for all the world’s heating, cooling, transportation, and industry.1 Furthermore, making this transition will pay for itself in only six years.2 Not only that, but as we make this transition, we can address economic and racial inequities – and by doing so, we will reap benefits far greater than the costs.
The headline for my final illustration is, “WE CAN ADAPT!” While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is horrific, one of Germany’s responses has been to drop its dependence on natural gas by 90%. And here in the U.S., President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to build millions of electric heat pumps that will reduce dependence on oil and gas.
Of course, the past few months have brought plenty of bad news as well:
We now know that air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels kills almost 9 million people a year.3 That’s more than malaria, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. And that doesn’t even include the lives lost due to the impact of increased global warming. A 2021 study4 reports that if global warming exceeds 1.5ºC (2.7°F), the world’s tropics could become uninhabitable. 2.5 billion people live in the tropics.
In other words, the past decade has been the hottest decade since records have been kept5– and the past decade will be the coolest decade your children and your grandchildren will ever experience.
It’s not only heat. You probably heard that one-third of Pakistan is under water and 32 million people are displaced.6 Were you aware that between mid-July and mid-August (2022), five states here in the U.S. experienced 1-in-1,000-year rain events?7 Imagine 9 months of rain in a single day. And it’s not just deluge – it’s also drought. That’s why we call it climate chaos. Europe’s drought is the worst in 500 years.8 And the American west is experiencing what some experts call a once-in-a-thousand-year drought.
Now I’ll turn things over to Margaret for some additional Good News!
Context of our conversation: Massachusetts (by Margaret) Earlier this summer, after weeks of speculation that he would veto it, our Republican governor in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker, signed into law what’s being called a landmark climate bill. Among other things, this sweeping climate legislation gives a major boost to renewables, including offshore wind. After an intensive push by climate justice advocates, it also clarifies that biomass is not a renewable energy source. That win was particularly sweet to me, because incentives for biomass are what spurred a proposal for a dirty wood-burning plant in Springfield, an environmental justice community located close to where I live. Following the lead of California, the bill also bans the sale of new internal combustion-powered vehicles by 2035 – to put it another way, all new vehicles sold in the Bay State must be EVs or hydrogen-powered by 2035. The legislation also allows 10 municipalities to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, which is a first for the state.
The bill isn’t perfect – there’s still work to be done – but we hope that it will spur the next administration to take further steps to address climate emergency.
Preaching a pastoral climate sermon (by Margaret)
I’d like to reflect on how we preach a pastoral sermon about climate change. That may sound like a contradiction since we usually think of preaching about climate change as likely to stir up trouble. Stirring up trouble – good trouble – is often just what the Holy Spirit calls the preacher to do, simply because most faith communities are not going to rise up to address the climate emergency until their preachers speak with the moral clarity and fearlessness of a prophet. So, in a moment, Jim will speak about prophetic climate preaching. But a strong climate sermon includes elements that are bothpastoral and prophetic.
So, let’s focus for a moment on what makes a climate sermon pastoral. What makes any sermon “pastoral”? It provides emotional, social, and spiritual support. A pastoral climate sermon does at least four things:
A pastoral climate sermon pushes back against helplessness
Our parishioners may not have told us, but many of them are already grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. Clinicians are increasingly speaking about “climate distress” and “climate stress.” Even if our house hasn’t been washed away by an extreme storm or rising seas – even if we haven’t had to run from wildfires or had to breathe smoky air, day after day – even if we haven’t wondered where we – or our fields, gardens, or livestock – will find the next drink because our waterways have run dry – even if we haven’t endured a searing heatwave – we probably know people who have; we know that millions of people in this country and worldwide are enduring these conditions now; and we know that future conditions will likely become even more difficult.
It can be a relief when a preacher finally makes climate change “speakable” – something we intend to discuss and learn about and lean into together. A pastoral sermon conveys the message: you are not alone. We will support each other, and we intend to find a way forward together.
Simply gathering for worship pushes back against helplessness: we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands. How do people get through tough times? We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories. We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
A pastoral climate sermon makes space for grief
The climate crisis can make us go numb. Newspaper and media reports convey a cascade of losses every day, so it’s easy to shut down and lose heart. In our sermons, we can name, and normalize, the range of feelings evoked by climate change – grief, fear, outrage, confusion, maybe guilt or shame, dread, despair… And we can suggest practices, teachings, and rituals that help us to accept, work with, and move through the feelings that are being stirred up.
To support that process, in our congregations we might create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we might hold public ceremonies of lament outdoors. Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. I remember, for instance, gathering in 2010 on the town common in Amherst after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for a public ceremony of singing, speaking, and prayer. I also remember hearing about the “Requiem for a Glacier” in 2013, when 50 musicians climbed Farnham Glacier in British Columbia to perform an oratorio.
What would it be like – how might it empower us – if we took time in worship services and in outdoor public spaces to lament species that have gone extinct, forests that have burned, or reservoirs that have run dry? Daring to lament together allows us to feel our deep longing for healing and reconciliation and to experience the God who weeps with us. Daring to lament together protects our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. And it allows our emotions to become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
Making a space for grief in a climate sermon may be as simple as saying “We hold in our hearts the many thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, who still don’t have safe drinking water after an historic rainfall and flood.” Rather than coming at your listeners with a hard-hitting list of fact after fact, which might leave people stunned, in their heads, and emotionally defended, we are modeling how to hold traumatic events with an open heart. Or, depending on the text we’re working with, our sermon can focus on how Jesus accompanies us, shares our sorrows, and offers his strength and presence and healing.
Last point: As spiritual leaders, we need to grow our capacity to be with people who are in distress. We will only be able to do that to the extent that we’ve grown in our capacity to sit with our own distress.
A pastoral climate sermon connects deeply with Christian faith
When we step into the pulpit, we don’t have to be policy wonks or expert scientists. We are theologians and communicators who want to convey God’s unbounded love for God’s people and for the whole Creation, and God’s urgent call for us to participate in God’s mission of justice, reconciliation, and healing. So, let’s surround our sermons with prayers and hymns that make it clear that our salvation story encompasses the whole Creation, not just human beings.
I’m excited to introduce a new ecumenical liturgical resource for Creation Season. Last July I worked on it with a colleague in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, the Rev. John Elliott Lein, and it’s been authorized for public use this season by at least four Episcopal dioceses (Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration).
Let me quickly sketch what you’ll find there.
A primer on Creation care theology describes the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and provides seven theological touchstones to guide your thinking and preaching about climate. It also names some of the key solutions for addressing the crisis.
It goes through the lectionary for the 5 Sundays of Creation Season, providing prayers and non-biblical readings and giving preaching suggestions on some difficult texts.
It concludes with a large collection of resources – prayers, blessings, readings, hymns – from a wide range of ancient and contemporary sources, which take us from Kenya and New Zealand to England and the Iona community – from poets and early Christian mystics to Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew – from William Wordsworth to Wendell Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer.
I hope it will be helpful for both Episcopal and UCC preachers – helpful for Episcopal liturgists, because this resource takes us far beyond the bounds of the Book of Common Prayer and invites us to imagine a God who loves and saves every inch of creation, and helpful for UCC liturgists because it is well crafted!
My favorite part: John Lein examines the prayers of the people in our prayer book. He suggests: When we pray for the suffering and the dead, why don’t we pray for the wellbeing of all creatures and mourn the extinction of other species? When we bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, why don’t we explicitly bless all living beings and ecosystems whose lives are closely linked with ours? At least for me, once you start praying in that expansive way and open your prayers beyond human concerns to the concerns of the rest of Creation, there’s no going back!
A pastoral climate sermon includes at least one thing we can do
The way to build hope is to take action. A pastoral sermon conveys a message of agency, a message of empowerment – through the grace of God, we intend to do everything we can to protect what remains and to fight for a just and habitable world.
In my talks right now, I mention Faiths 4 Climate Justice, GreenFaith’s global campaign, between Oct. 2 and Nov. 6 (the eve of the next U.N. climate talks at COP27), in which people of faith around the world will proclaim that the Earth and all people are sacred. Among other things, in prayer vigils and protests we will call for an immediate end to new fossil fuel projects, an end to deforestation, and an end to related financing.
A pastoral sermon emphasizes that everyone has an active role to play, and a preacher can help listeners to find their place in the movement.
Comment on Margaret’s presentation (by Jim)
Thanks for your excellent guidance, Margaret. I want to amplify two things you said.
First, you said we need to make space for grief. Along with that, we need to do everything possible to assure that our congregation is a safe-enough place for honest conversation about grief over the loss of the world we have to let go.
You also suggested that churches might dare to lament. I just want to add that our lamentation is part of living the truth. As children of the Creator God, faithfulness demands that we tell the truth about the desecration of creation, and as we do, a liturgical expression of that truth is lamentation.
Preaching a prophetic climate sermon (by Jim)
Just as we are called to be pastoral in our approach to preaching on the climate crisis, we must also be prophetic. In my book, Climate Church, Climate World, my chapter on prophetic preaching offers many suggestions about how, as preachers, we must free ourselves from fear so that we can respond to God’s call to engage the climate crisis as “opportunity.”
Prophetic preaching requires preparation. Amidst all the demands on our lives, we must create the space to allow ourselves to fully take in the wonder of creation. And we must have the courage to experience the grief we feel when we truly acknowledge the destruction caused by humanity’s greed and selfishness.
And as we do, we might find ourselves in the company of Esther, confronted with the realization that perhaps we were born for just such a time as this (Esther 4:14). Perhaps our generation was born to put an end to three interconnected systemic injustices:
the subjugation of other humans who are not our color;
the colonization of land, sea and air that is not our own; and
the extraction of nature’s wealth that we did not create.
In our preaching, we need to name what is creating the problem. Environmental giant Gus Speth famously identifies the cause as “selfishness and greed and pride.” Fletcher Harper is a little more specific. He points to the supply side of the problem, naming “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and other oil and gas companies [who] are systematically destroying the planet” – along with “financial giants like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, BlackRock, and Vanguard [who] are bankrolling the destruction.”
Another goal of prophetic preaching is to remind people that we are not called to stand idly by as countless examples of injustice continue to frame the status quo. In our preaching, we must help our congregation envision “a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) in which all of God’s creatures can celebrate our interdependence. And then we must invite our congregations to assess all the gifts, the abilities, the assets God has given them and commit their lives to helping our town, our state, our nation, our world, move in that direction.
Another feature of our prophetic preaching is to help our congregations understand that the climate crisis is not one crisis among many. Every congregation I’ve ever known treats its various missions and benevolences as silos. Often, there’s a particular individual in the congregation who is the champion of a particular cause. But the more you learn about the climate crisis, the clearer it becomes that every justice issue you care about – hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, immigration, disease, lack of access to clean water and education – these justice issues are intersectional – they are not separate and distinct from one another – and climate change is making every one of them worse.
The only way humanity can address these intersectional challenges is by coming together. That’s why the actions of governments are so important to anyone concerned about justice. And that’s why it’s important for clergy to encourage their congregations to name and embrace their sacred responsibility to vote. It’s an act of faithfulnessfor churches to discuss the issues on the ballot and encourage people to vote.
Voting is the means by which we elect leaders and advance laws that can and should underwrite at least the following five principles:
addressing the needs of the least of these among us;
assuring and advancing justice;
promoting the common good;
telling and adhering to truth;
and preserving and restoring the integrity of Creation.
These five principles are supported by every faith tradition I know of.
In our preaching, particularly in an election year, pastors need to help their congregations understand the distinction between being partisan and being political. To put it simply, there is no place for partisan activity in the life of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. What do I mean by partisan activity? Endorsing a candidate, supporting a political party, or fundraising for a candidate or a political party.These partisan activities have no place in the life of the church.
But examining how our community, our state, and our nation: address the needs of the least of these among us; how we assure and advance justice; how we promote the common good; how we tell and adhere to the truth; and how we preserve and restore God’s creation – the means by which all of these values are upheld are political.
Think about it. In almost every chapter of each of the four Gospels, we see Jesus urging the community to address the needs of the least of these among us. We hear Jesus passionately advocating for justice and promoting the common good.His commitment to truth is unwavering. And throughout scripture, God calls upon the faithful to preserve and restore creation.
All these activities are political because they involve how people relate to each other; how they govern their life together. In his ministry, Jesus tells the truth as he seeks to amplify love and expand justice in families, in towns and throughout the empire.
We are now in the Season of Creation, and we are also within two months of an election. Every congregation and every clergy leader now have an opportunityto identifythe values and principles that guide us as people of faith when we consider our “life together” as residents of our state or country – and as stewards of God’s creation.
I recognize that all of this may come across as utterly foolish or impossibly challenging or something else altogether. Whatever your response to what Margaret and I have shared, I hope that we can go deeper in our time of discussion, and I very much look forward to hearing what’s on your mind and in your heart.
After discussion, we closed with prayer.
Closing Prayer (by Margaret)
Source of life, heal and redeem the wounds of your creation, and visit the places and people who suffer from our indifference, neglect, and greed. Creator of earth, sea, and sky, kindle the fire of your Spirit within us that we may be bold to heal and defend the earth, and pour your blessing upon all who work for the good of the planet. In the Name and power and presence of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
(Adapted from “Honoring God in Creation,” as cited in Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration)
ThirdAct.org, the new network, founded by Bill McKibben, for people over 60 who wish to leverage their money and experience to push for democratic social change and to preserve the planet. You can sign one of two banking pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”
From September 1 through October 4, Christians around the world celebrate Season of Creation. Creation Season is the perfect time to renew our reverence for Earth and the other creatures with whom we share this planet; to lament the ways that human activities assail the web of life; and to restore our faith, love, and hope as we renew our efforts to create a more just, habitable world.
I’m thrilled to announce a new liturgical resource for this year’s Season of Creation. Created by the Rev. John Elliott Lein (a fellow priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts) and I, this hefty new ecumenical collection of prayers, readings, hymns, and sermon notes has been authorized for public use by the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts, the Diocese of Vermont, and the Diocese of Maine. The beautiful image on the booklet’s front cover, “Earth Icon,” was created by Edith Adams Allison and inspired by Andrei Rublev’s icon, “The Trinity.”
Please share this material widely! If you’re an Episcopalian in another diocese, please consider asking your own bishop to authorize this resource for public worship. We want everyone to know the good news that God’s love and salvation extend to every corner of the Earth.
AND THAT’S NOT ALL!
Our friends in the Diocese of Southern Ohio have just rolled out “Good News to All Creation,” a set of devotionals designed to help vestries begin their meetings with a brief time of reflection and prayer. It is now available for download. Developed by the Diocese of Southern Ohio’s Creation Care and Environmental Task Force in partnership with the Center for Deep Green Faith (in Sewanee, TN), the devotionals begin in September with the Season of Creation and follow the liturgical seasons from Advent through Easter.
Whether you are an individual seeking to deepen your understanding of eco-theology, a vestry member hoping to connect your vestry’s work with protecting life on Earth, or a worship leader eager to plan services that reflect God’s care for the whole of Creation, I hope you’ll enjoy digging into both of these new resources. For other worship resources, check out SeasonOfCreation.org.
The joy in climate justice: How we pray, learn, act and advocate for God’s Creation
Rev. Margaret gave a 45-minute keynote presentation in June for the 2022 annual meeting of Province One Episcopal Church Women, followed by Q&A. She told the personal story behind her ministry, shared a brief PowerPoint on the ways that Christian faith informs our work to safeguard the web of life, and explained how we can pray, learn, act, and advocate for God’s Creation – with joy.
One week before World Ocean Day (June 8), a delegation of faith leaders convened by Creation Justice Ministries met with Dr. Rick Spinrad, Administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to urge the strongest possible protections for Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary. Located east of Boston and renowned among whale watchers, Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary is New England’s only national marine sanctuary. NOAA recently released a draft management plan to update the objectives and activities within Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary and has sought public comment.
This is an excellent time to take stock of the health of our oceans. Choking in plastic, ransacked for its resources, throbbing with noise, relentlessly warming, and growing increasingly acidic, the oceans are under heavy assault from human activities. Decisions made today about the management of Stellwagen Bank will make a critical difference to the sanctuary’s health for years to come.
Creation Justice Ministries – which represents the Creation care and environmental justice policies of 38 major Christian denominations and communions across the U.S. – is playing a leading role in conveying a Christian perspective on the management of our oceans, including Stellwagen Bank. In its public comment to NOAA, Creation Justice Ministries recognized the degraded state of the sanctuary’s habitat and wildlife and highlighted not only the legal but above all the moral authority of NOAA to protect the health and flourishing of Stellwagen Bank. CJM followed up on this public statement by arranging for several faith leaders to speak with Administrator Spinrad about the spiritual and moral values that should guide his decision-making.
At our meeting on June 1, I offered the following prayer and reflection:
Dr. Spinrad, we come to you as Christians who believe that God entrusted the world to human care. I invite us to take a moment to pray.
Gracious God, you love the world you created in all its wild, beautiful, and ever-evolving diversity. We know, as the Psalmist says, that “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). Amid so many assaults to the web of life, help us to cherish what the Psalmist calls “the great and wide sea with its living things too many to number, / creatures both small and great” (Psalm 104:26). Help us, we pray, to protect the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary as a precious, unique, and fragile part of the “great and wide sea” that ultimately belongs to you, our loving God. Amen.
I want to say a word about “sanctuary.” What is a sanctuary? It’s a consecrated place, a place set apart for worship, a place that is holy and deserves to be treated with reverence and respect. This marine sanctuary not only protects diverse and endangered species, offering refuge and shelter – it also protects the human spirit. It’s a sanctuary for our souls: a place to experience the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works, a place to encounter the Divine. Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary isn’t only scientifically and economically important – it also has spiritual and religious value. Let’s safeguard this precious corner of God’s creation and honor our responsibility to God, future generations, and our more-than-human kin. Let’s put the sacred back into “sanctuary.”
Dr. Spinrad and his team listened thoughtfully to all the speakers, and he expressed hope that NOAA and faith-based communities could support each other in the urgent work of protecting oceans. I look forward to discovering how science and faith can work together to induce human beings to live more gently on God’s good Earth.
As people of faith, we join with the psalmist in praising God – “Come, let us sing to the LORD; let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1) – and in affirming that “The sea is [God’s], for [God] made it” (Psalm 95:5). What would it look like to “manage” the oceans, and ocean sanctuaries, in a way that honors them as a sacred gift from God?
[NOTE: The preacher may wish to have available a hat, scarf, shawl, jacket, or other piece of clothing to wear when each of the two characters shows up in the sermon]
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Today’s Gospel passage is a good text for an in-between time, a time of transition in which something is coming to an end and the new has not yet come. Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples at the Last Supper and preparing them for his crucifixion. Because we read this passage in Easter-tide, we also hear it as the risen Christ preparing his disciples for the ascension, when the vivid resurrection appearances will come to an end. Jesus assures his disciples that the Holy Spirit will come in all its fullness – but it has not come yet. It is an in-between time.
Can you touch into that sense of living in an in-between time? Maybe you’re between jobs. Maybe you’re about to graduate and haven’t begun whatever comes next. Maybe you’ve broken up with someone and haven’t yet started dating again. Life is full of in-between times. I think of the interval between becoming engaged and getting married, the interval between getting pregnant and giving birth, or the interval between deciding to move to a new home and actually moving.
It is an in-between time for our planet, too, for we sense that an old way of being is coming to an end and we wonder what new way of being will arise in its place. Scientists tell us that modern industrial society, with its sudden expansion of our human capacity to extract and consume the planet’s abundance for the sake of short-term profit, is not sustainable. Over the past 250 or 300 years, human beings have been extracting goods faster than they can be replenished, and dumping waste faster than Earth can absorb it. Society is increasingly unstable, as those who are wealthy live in a luxury once reserved for kings, while the billions who are impoverished struggle for clean water and a mouthful of food. The web of life is unravelling before our eyes, and species are going extinct at a rate unprecedented since the death of the dinosaurs. The global climate with its delicate balance of gases turns out to be more fragile than we ever imagined.
I know I don’t need to go on. Many of us walk around with a more or less vivid awareness that a chapter of human history is coming to an end. Just as the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago ended one form of human society and brought a new one into being, and just as the industrial revolution 300 years ago also changed the way that society is organized, so we now find ourselves on the brink of what some thinkers call a “third revolution.”1
Modern society as we know it is coming to an end, and more and more people around the world are searching for ways to create something new – to bring forth a human presence on this planet that – in the eloquent words of the Pachamama Alliance – is “environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, [and] socially just.”2 We don’t have much time to do this and to get it right, so it is a precarious and precious time to be alive and to take part – if we so choose – in this great work of healing.
So, with great interest I turn to see what Jesus has to say at an in-between time: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Jesus’ gift at an in-between time is the gift of peace – shalom, to use the Hebrew word – but you’ll notice that it is not any old peace. It is, he tells us, his peace, the peace of Christ, something that is evidently quite different from the peace that is offered by the world. In the middle of the Eucharist we exchange that peace among ourselves, when we say, “The peace of Christ be always with you,” and we let that peace flow from one person to the next until everyone in the room is strengthened and lifted up by its power. At the end of the service we often refer to it again, when the celebrant, quoting from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, blesses us with “the peace of God, which surpasses…understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
What is the peace of God, and how is it different from the peace of the world? To answer that question, I’ve invited two guests to join me this morning at the pulpit. My first guest is Industrial Society, who would like to speak to you about the peace it has to offer and the worldview that lies behind it. Then we’ll hear from our second guest, the Holy Spirit, who will say a few words about the peace of God.
“Ladies and gentlemen – or, shall I say, consumers, for that’s who you really are – my name is Industrial Growth Society,3 and boy, do I have something great to give you: the peace of this world. The main thing you need to know about yourselves is that you are completely alone. You’re alone as individuals and alone as a species. You are limited to the envelope of your skin – that’s who you are. Your identity ends here – and your task in life is to focus on that isolated self – what it wants, what it needs, what kind of shampoo it likes best and what kind of breakfast cereal.You know, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and self-advancement is the name of the game. The only peace an isolated self is ever going to find is the kind it can grab for itself. Wielding power over everything around you – that’s the ticket to peace. Domination is the path to peace – protecting your own interests, guarding your own small self. So go ahead – drain the aquifers, clearcut the forest, over-fish the oceans – it’s all yours for the taking. Never mind if Indigenous cultures are being decimated, to say nothing of low-income and minority communities, and all our non-human relatives. So what? It’s every man for himself.Peace grows by focusing on what you like and by surrounding yourself with pleasant things. You’ll definitely feel more peaceful if you pile them up – gadgets, information, boats, planes, credentials, clothes – and then go all out to keep them safe. Don’t think about the collapse of honeybees, the massive droughts and floods, the profits being made by fossil fuel companies as they push to extract more oil and gas – ouch! That doesn’t concern you. Thinking about stuff like that just messes up your peace of mind. Put up some walls – don’t take that in. There, that’s better. It’s much more peaceful to put your head down and focus only on yourself and your family. Focus on that promotion. Impress your neighbors and pull every dandelion out of your lawn – or, better yet, spray everything with chemicals. Lose those five pounds. Clean up your email. That’s all you should think about, and then you’ll have peace – or something like it, anyway – and hey, if you still feel restless inside or start feeling lonely, you can always go shopping, have another drink, pop a few pills, stare at the TV. We’ve got plenty of entertainment for you, plenty of distractions.”
Thank you, Industrial Growth Society. Now let’s hear a few words from the Holy Spirit, who has consented to make a brief appearance before fully arriving at Pentecost, two weeks from today.
“Dear friends, you are not alone and you have never been alone. You were loved into being by God the Father-Mother of all Creation, and God so loved the world – so loved you – that God sent God’s Son to become one of you, to enter every aspect of human life and to draw you and all Creation into the heart of God.The peace that Jesus gives you springs from your connection to the flow of love that is always going on between the Father and the Son and me, the Holy Spirit. God has made a home within you, and there is nowhere you can go where God is not. The Creator and Redeemer of the world dwell within you through the power of the Holy Spirit (that’s me), and with every breath you take, God is breathing into you and flowing through you.Once you really understand that, you will see that you are much more than an isolated self. At every moment you are connected with the love of God – and not only with God, but also with every other human being and with your brother-sister beings to whom God has also given life and whom God loves, just as God loves you.So, when you feel pain for the brokenness of the world – when you weep for rapidly disappearing species or for the forests and wetlands we’ve already lost, when you feel morally outraged that narrow self-interest or short-term political or financial gain so often prevail over a larger good and a longer view – when you let your defenses drop and feel your sorrow and outrage and fear about what is happening in the world around you, you are expressing how big you are, how connected you are with the whole web of life.The peace of God is spacious enough to stand at the Cross and to open itself to the pain of the world without closing down or running away. Christ bears that pain with you and for you, and by allowing that pain into your awareness – by opening the doors of your senses and the door of your heart so that sorrow and joy can flow through – the peace and power of the risen Christ will move through you, as well.So, now the walls around you can come down. The peace of God is open to life, and it may impel you to move into the world’s most brutal and broken places to be a warrior for life, to protest what is unjust and to help midwife a better and more beautiful world. In an in-between time, you can trust in the peace that God has planted deep within you, a peace that the world cannot give and that the world can never take away.”
As I listen to these two voices, it seems to me that if we steep ourselves in the peace of Christ, we will have everything we need. We know that society needs to be transformed from top to bottom – we need to draw down our carbon emissions, to buy locally produced goods and food, to build different kinds of dwellings, to develop new, sustainable, and non-polluting sources of energy. I can think of no more beautiful way to spend our lives than to take part in what leaders like Joanna Macy and David C. Korten call the Great Turning, the epic transition from a deathly society to one that fosters life. It’s what philosopher Thomas Berry calls the Great Work: our wholehearted effort to create a more just and sustainable society. And it’s what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ, who longs to reconcile us to God, to each other, and to the whole of God’s Creation.4
We are engaged, together, in a third revolution that will require new depths of wisdom, courage, and compassion. But only a shift in consciousness can sustain us in that crucial work, a deep rooting in the ground of our being, which is God. So, today, and every day, as we celebrate the gift of being alive at this crucial moment in the planet’s history, may the peace of Christ be always with you.
See, for instance, Joanna Macy, John Seed, Lester Brown, and Dana Meadows.
The term comes from Norwegian eco-philosopher Sigmund Kwaloy and has been popularized by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society, 1998).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Foreword, The Green Bible, New Revised Standard Version (New York: HarperOne, HarperCollins, 2008), I-14.