July 1, 2020 This is the fourth in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. Matthew 3:13-17

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

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

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

Faith for the Earth: What is breaking our hearts?

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

How do we pray with all this?  How do we pray with the things that are breaking our hearts – the dying coral and acidifying oceans, the animals that are leaving us, and the web of life that is unraveling before our lives?  Scientists say that unless we change our way of living fast, entire eco-systems could begin to collapse, starting in the next ten years.  What do we do with this information?  Do we shrug it off (I can’t deal with that!  That’s someone else’s problem!)? Do we shut down inside, go numb and slip into despair?  It’s difficult to face the predicament in which we find ourselves, and our culture gives us endless opportunities to turn away and distract ourselves with mindless consumption and entertainment.  Still, I don’t think any of us have found that shopping or snacking or swilling alcohol can ease the anguish we feel inside. In my view, one essential remedy is prayer. Bold action is urgent and necessary, but action alone won’t give us the strength or wisdom to sustain the hard struggles ahead. And if Hosea got it right – if what’s ultimately wrong with the world is that there is “no knowledge of God in the land,” if he’s right that the ultimate source of our troubles is spiritual disconnection – then surely part of the remedy is prayer.  For, as Hosea says, when there is “no knowledge of God,” then “swearing, lying, and murder” break out among human beings – “bloodshed follows bloodshed” – and the land mourns, and wild creatures languish and perish. Hosea understands that a broken relationship with God leads to a broken relationship with each other and with the Earth. If we abandon the love and justice of God and get locked into patterns of abusing each other and abusing the land, the remedy is repentance and amendment of life.  The remedy is to dismantle the systems that exploit people and the planet.  The remedy is to restore our connection to God, to our souls, to each other, and to the Earth upon which all life depends.
Oak tree
So I’m all in with Hosea.  The climate crisis is not just a scientific or political or economic crisis – it’s also a spiritual crisis, one that summons us to do everything we can to restore within ourselves – and to encourage in our communities – a lively, vital relationship with our divine Source who brings courage where there is despair, love where there is hate, and inspiration when a path forward is hard to see.  In these challenging times, we need spiritual resilience. We need to connect with the divine lover of our souls. We need to root ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power so that we can rise up to take effective action. Last year, a book I co-edited with a friend of mine, Leah Schade, was published.  It’s an anthology of essays by 21 colleagues in the faith-and-climate movement who speak about the spiritual practices and perspectives that sustain us as we work to create a more just and sustainable future. The book is titled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and I’d like to read a short excerpt from my chapter, for it’s all about prayer.1 In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal.  How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief? How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves?  How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb? …It’s important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive.  Just as important, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.  Prayerful lament and protest can be an act of resistance, a way of shaking off the dominant consumer culture, which prefers that we stay too busy, dazed, and distracted to feel a thing. My prayer takes many forms.  Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty.  They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees.  Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.2 Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors.  I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines.  Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose.  I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species.  I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale.  I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests.  I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part.  I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation. I feel God’s presence when I pray like that.  I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me.  Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love. What kinds of prayer restore your connection with God?  These days many people across the country are praying in the streets, propelled by love and a fierce need for public mourning and public lament.3  Some people are praying alone in their rooms and in silence, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, listening to their breath as they breathe God in and breathe God out.  Some people find that music helps them pray, and I commend a new piece called “A Passion for the Planet,” a climate oratorio composed by Geoffrey Hudson, which, broadcast free on the internet, in less than one hour carries the listener through the wide range of feelings evoked by the climate crisis.  That can be another way to pray. I encourage all of us to pray, to find ways, as Hosea might put it, to restore knowledge of God in the land.  Prayer is what leads us, alone and together, into an unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death. Trusting in that love, guided by that love, we will know what is ours to do and, God willing, may be led to take actions commensurate with the emergency we are in. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Love Every Leaf, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 175-76. 2.We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018. 3. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Accepting Death is Not an Option, Anymore,” a sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, June 14, 2020    
June 29, 2020 This is the second in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Faith for the Earth: Are we listening?

Our text this morning is the well-known story of the call of Samuel. Samuel will go on to become one of the great prophets of Israel – a prophet not in the sense of being a fortune-teller who claims to predict the future, but rather a prophet in the sense of being someone so deeply rooted in the love and justice of God that he or she views the world with moral clarity, speaks out against an unjust status quo, and holds up God’s vision of what could be and should be. I chose this passage because in a sense all of us are called today to become prophets: all of us are called to root ourselves in the love and justice of God, to face and confront the ways in which we and our society have gone astray, and to find ways to proclaim and to bring forth God’s dream of a world in which all people and living beings can thrive. That’s what a prophet does, and God knows we need prophetic voices today in this time of social and ecological emergency.

Scientists are telling us that we are at the brink of catastrophe: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We need to make a decisive change of course toward clean, renewable sources of energy. We need to protect forests and topsoil, rivers and oceans, pollinators and the other living creatures with whom we share this planet, to say nothing of the eco-systems upon which all life depends. And we must do this quickly and notwithstanding the opposition of political and corporate powers that are determined to keep drilling, burning, mining, and extracting for as long as they can – to keep plundering and profiting, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet.
Licensed to Robert A. Jonas by DollarPhotoClub
The task before us is daunting, and it brings us to our knees. This is a holy moment, a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning. Will we as a society choose life or will we continue on the path of business as usual, a path that leads to death? At this crossroads, at this moment that is pregnant with both danger and possibility, we must call upon the power of God. For, surely, we need a power beyond ourselves to help us in this grave hour of need. We need a source of holy strength and guidance to give us wisdom and courage and stamina to find a way forward. Yes, we need good policies, we need good legislation and God knows we need good leaders, but we also need to tune our hearts and minds to the divine presence so that we can learn what to do and find the strength to do it. Today and in each of my homilies this week I’d like to reflect with you on some of the spiritual perspectives and practices which, in this perilous time, can keep us grounded in God’s presence. So, let’s say a word about listening. That’s where the call of the prophet Samuel begins: with listening. Samuel grew up in a time when God seemed remote and uncommunicative. As the passage says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1). Yet the story tells us that Samuel’s ears are open, and one night, as he is lying down in the temple, he hears God call him by name – and not just once, but three times. After Eli, the priest whom Samuel is serving, explains that it is God who is addressing him, Samuel responds, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” One of the core characteristics of a prophet is the willingness to listen. Are we listening? To what and to whom are we listening? What is the quality of our listening? It’s easy to listen with half an ear, to look as if we’re paying attention when someone speaks, while actually we’re busy composing our reply. It’s also easy to plant ourselves at the center of what we’re hearing, so that we only listen for confirmation of what we already believe and only for what might be useful to us – never mind the rest. And if I hear something that makes me uncomfortable or that I don’t want to hear, I’m outta here. If the speaker belongs to a different political party, I’m outta here. If the speaker is of a different color or religion, I’m outta here. So many opportunities to close our ears! I’m tuning you out! I was interested to note that when the lockdown began, many people reported a change in what they heard. City-dwellers were startled by the quiet as traffic abated and as fewer airplanes passed overhead. People heard birdsong, they heard sirens, and in New York City they heard the banging of pots and pans every night as people celebrated healthcare workers. The sounds changed, and people noticed. They listened. And after George Floyd died and howls of pain and shouts of anger rose up from Black communities, and the cry rose up again that Black Lives Matter, millions of people listened. Millions of white people listened. Surely, we had heard that cry of pain many times before – it’s a cry that has been lifted up for generations, for hundreds of years, in the face of racism – but we white people have hardly listened. Because of what Richard Rohr calls “the unspoken privilege of being white,” we have generally turned away. But not this time – this time, at least for now, it seems that many white people have actually begun to listen – not only to the words, but also to the pain and longing behind the words. When you listen with respect, when you listen with an open heart, when you listen with empathy and an intention to understand – then you are moved to respond. Listening leads to action, and across this country we’re now seeing an unprecedented, multiracial, multigenerational, multisector upsurge against racism. I pray that such listening and responding will deepen and continue in the years ahead. And how about the Earth? Are we listening to her cries? Just as there is the unspoken privilege of being white, I think there is also the unspoken privilege of being human – a privilege that we like to think exempts us from having to listen to what Scripture calls the “groaning” of “the whole creation” (Romans 8:22). What would it be like to step outdoors and to listen with full attention? What would we hear? The sound of wind, a dog’s bark, a car passing, birds? With the ear of the heart, would we notice the silence of all the birds that have gone missing? Three billion birds have disappeared in the last 50 years. With the ear of the heart, might we hear the sound of heavy machinery and chainsaws as tropical forests are felled for beef cattle and palm oil? Might we hear the noise that fills the oceans as energy companies deploy seismic air guns to map the ocean floor for oil and gas? The din in the oceans caused by commerce and offshore drilling is deafening and even outright killing countless sea creatures, large and small. Can we hear it? With the ear of the heart, might we hear the boom and crack of glaciers as chunks of ice fall into the sea, or the whoosh of rushing water as rivers of ice slide off the Greenland Ice sheet? Last year, Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in a single day. Can we hear it? Are we listening? A few years ago, I heard a man from Greenland speak. He’s a shaman, a traditional healer and storyteller whose name I can’t pronounce: Angaangaq Angakkorsuak. He tells the story of journeying to the United Nations some years ago to warn the gathered assembly that the Big Ice is melting. He came home pleased – he had done it! He had addressed the world’s leaders and shared this urgent news! His friends replied, “But did they hear you? Did they hear you?” Are we listening? A prophet listens deeply to what Pope Francis and liberation theologians call “the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor.” I invite us to take as a mantra the words of Samuel and to repeat the phrase inwardly as we go through our day: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” We are listening. We are listening.  
June 28, 2020 This is the first in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY. John 15:9-13

Faith for the Earth: Love and fear in a time of emergency

I chose this morning’s Gospel text because I want to speak about love and fear in a time of emergency.  For Christians it’s a familiar passage from the section of John’s Gospel that we call Jesus’ farewell address. The scene is the Last Supper, and Jesus is beginning to say goodbye.  He knows that his life will be cut short and that the next day he will die. In this perilous moment he does what most likely we would do if we knew that our lives were on the line and that at any moment we could die: he tries to express what matters most. So, he gives a long riff on love: “As [God] the Father has loved me,” he says, “so I have loved you; abide in my love… Love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

That call to love is at the heart of every religious tradition – which brings to mind a poem by Michael Leunig:1 There are only two feelings.  Love and fear. There are only two languages.  Love and fear. There are only two activities.  Love and fear. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear. So, let’s talk about fear.  Fear is everywhere these days. We know how visceral the feeling of fear can be.  We feel it in the tight clutch in our stomach and in our racing pulse and rapid, shallow breaths.  Fear can freeze us in our tracks, so that we are paralyzed in helpless inertia and feel powerless to take action. And fear can push us to lash out violently and fight.  Fear can also make us vulnerable to authoritarian leaders. On the one hand, they may tell us not to be frightened about the coronavirus or about police brutality or racial injustice or economic injustice or climate change. “Don’t worry,” they tell us. “We’ve got it handled. There is no problem here. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” On the other hand, the powers-that-be may try to stoke our fears, telling us that we’ll be safe if we turn against each other and build walls that keep each other out and keep each other down.  Fear can goad us to try to oppress and dominate other people, and fear is what drives the politics of “divide and rule.” But fear can be precious, too, a vital signal that alerts us to genuine danger. Regarding the health of planet Earth, there is good reason to be afraid.  Scientists are reporting with increasing alarm that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse.  Just imagine: the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by the destruction of habitat. Human activity has wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970.  With dismay, scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation,” and one expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” It’s not just great numbers of animals that are disappearing because of human activity; entire species are being wiped out at accelerating speed. We’re in the midst of a mass extinction event, and research just published by the National Academy of Sciences shows that we are racing faster and closer toward the point of ecological collapse than scientists previously thought, with maybe ten years left to take action. Meanwhile the planet just keeps getting hotter and hotter as we burn fossil fuels. The level of greenhouse gases in the air hit a record high last month and Earth just passed its warmest May on record. Siberia is experiencing a prolonged heatwave that climate scientists call “undoubtedly alarming.” Just this week, one little town in Siberia recorded a temperature of 100º degrees Fahrenheit. The people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are almost always people in poor and low-wealth communities, often indigenous people and people of color, so the struggle to tackle climate change is a struggle for justice, too. But in the end, unless we change course fast, none of us will be able to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world.  The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have just a short span of time – now, maybe ten years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming. So, are we afraid?  You bet we’re afraid, and if we’re not, we ought to be.  Fear is the appropriate response to a frightening reality, and fear can propel us to take urgently needed and long-delayed action. So, I thank God for prophets like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager and climate activist who launched the school strikes for climate that galvanized the world community and inspired millions of people across more than 150 countries to take to the streets last year. When Greta addressed the World Economic Forum, she said, “I don’t want you to be hopeful.  I want you to panic.  I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire.  Because it is.” I thank God for the climate justice movement, the human rights movement, the indigenous rights movement, for the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, for the Poor People’s Campaign, and for the thousands upon thousands of people across this country who have been pouring into the streets day after day to say that they are sick and tired of institutional racism and sick and tired of being afraid.  Thank God for all the people who are willing to face their fear, to empathize with other people’s fear, and to stand together.  Thank God for all the people who refuse to turn away from each other or to turn against each other, but who decide instead to turn toward each other, to join forces and join hands in ways that truly the world has never seen before. Jesus says to us today: “Abide in my love.  Love one another as I have loved you.” Our fear may be strong, but we can place our fear, and all the intense feelings being stirred up in this time of uncertainty, within something bigger. We can experience our fear within the embrace of love.  Jesus reminds us that we are infused and surrounded by a divine love that holds us together, that lives in our hearts, and that will never let us go. God loves us and God’s whole Creation with a love that nothing can destroy. As we breathe that divine love in and as we share it with each other, our moral courage and strength are renewed.  We may still be afraid, but we don’t have to settle for a life that is overcome by fear.  As the Persian poet Hafiz once put it, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house.  I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”2 Will our efforts be successful?  Will we avert runaway climate change?  I don’t know.  But I do know that every choice matters.  Every degree of temperature-rise matters. “Even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.” And love matters.  Love matters most of all.
Religious Witness for the Earth holds worship service in front of Dept. of Energy, Washington, DC, in May, 2001
I will end with a story about love and fear.3  Back in 2001 I gathered up my courage and decided to carry out my first extended act of civil disobedience. I joined a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, and headed to Washington, DC, to protest the Administration’s intention to drill for more oil in the Arctic. Here’s what happened: about a hundred of us from different faith traditions marched down Independence Avenue in our diverse religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, which was surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. So far, so good: everything was legal.  Then came the part that wasn’t. At the end of the worship service, we sang “Amazing Grace,” and the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy. I felt us cross an invisible boundary.  With the others, I stepped over a threshold I could not see.  I walked out of my ordinary life. I’m not a lawbreaker or a thrill seeker, and I usually follow the rules, but here I was, intentionally and publicly breaking the law.  As if some inner revolution had quietly taken place, the old “me” was no longer in charge.  Whatever security I’d felt in operating within the rules was gone.  That’s partly why I felt so frightened as I left the safety of the circle and moved toward the door: I hardly recognized myself.  I hardly knew who I was. We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard.  At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray.  Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone.  I lift up my hands.  I’m dressed for Holy Communion.  I might as well hold out my arms as I do at Communion. Instead of pews filled with parishioners, I see ranks of police and a cluster of supporters.  I am afraid.  I’ve never been arrested before.  Years ago, as a VISTA volunteer in Mayor Rizzo’s Philadelphia, I heard countless stories of police brutality.  It’s not that I really expect the same thing to happen to me – the punch in the gut, the assault behind closed doors.  Still, my body tenses as I place myself against the cops, the Feds, the law.
Religious Witness for the Earth: civil disobedience at the doors of the Dept. of Energy, Washington, DC, in May 2001
I close my eyes.  One by one we pray aloud… Suddenly I realize that behind the tension, behind the fear…, something else is welling up.  I am jubilant. “Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at Communion. “We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response. How did I miss it?  After years of going to church, after years of celebrating Communion, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance.  That worship is an act of human liberation.  The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world.  Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released? I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt.  It is God I love, and God’s green earth.  I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great. So what if our numbers are small?  So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power?  I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering.  We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand.  This is what I love.  Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.” I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy.  That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy. Love and fear.  Love and fear.  I invite you to take a moment for reflection. When it comes to the climate crisis, under what circumstances might you be willing to risk arrest and to carry out an act of nonviolent civil disobedience?  Of course, civil disobedience is not the only path of resistance. We are communities with many personalities and gifts. But if you knew you could not fail – if you were set free from fear – what would you do for the healing of our world? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer (NY: HarperCollins, 1991). 2. Hafiz, quoted by Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2002), 83. 3. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 78-81.  
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter May 10, 2020 Delivered (pre-recorded) by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for St. Anne’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, Lincoln, MA Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 Acts 7: 55-60 1 Peter 2:2-10 John 13:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled”: Searching for steadiness in a precarious time

Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – are from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.”  It is the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus is saying goodbye, telling his disciples that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. Jesus says to his friends: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).

The passage goes on from there, but my attention was grabbed by the very first sentence. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  How do we make sense of those words – how do those words resonate within us – in a time of such enormous uncertainty, loss, and fear?  Here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic.  Our lives have suddenly turned upside down and we are acutely aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. People we know and love may be sick or may have died. Businesses have closed, the economy is teetering, and not far behind, coming on fast, we know that an even larger crisis is bearing down upon us, the climate and ecological crisis. Week by week the news from climate science seems to get more dire: this year is on track to be the warmest on record, and the risk of climate breakdown is much greater than we thought. This week, scientists reported that 50 years from now as many as one-third of the world’s people will be living in areas too hot to inhabit. I can only begin to imagine the poverty and famine and the numbers of desperate migrants on the move.  Meanwhile, another new study shows that unchecked climate change could collapse entire eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years. This precious blue-green planet is reeling – and we reel with it as we face the threat of social and ecological collapse. Yet Jesus tells us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  What can this mean when we live in such a troubling time?  Is he counseling avoidance and denial? Is he urging us to go numb – to repress and push away our anger, grief, and fear?  I can’t imagine that to be the case, for the Jesus I meet in the Gospels and in prayer – and who is with us right now – is a man of deep feelings, a man who was not afraid to enjoy a good laugh and relish a good party, a man who sometimes got angry, who wept when his friend Lazarus died and who wept over the city that would not listen to him.  The Jesus I love is a man who was open to the full range of human emotion and who experiences our sorrows and joys.
Ashfield, MA
Last week I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling as if I were covered by a great blanket of sadness, as if the sorrow of the whole world were weighing me down. Nearby the sorrow was fear: fear of death, fear that everything is unraveling, fear that life on Earth, including human society, is coming apart. So, what did I do?  I prayed.  I turned to Jesus and prayed for mercy, guidance and help. It wasn’t just my own sorrow and fear that I brought to him: I felt as if I were bringing with me all the world’s sorrow and fear and placing it in his loving arms: Here, Lord, over to you. Share it with me.  Help me bear what I cannot bear alone. As I lay there in the dark, praying the world’s anguish, sorrow, and fear, it seemed to me that I was not alone: I was praying with, and for, all my brother-sister beings – for the dying coral and the seas choked with plastic, for the forests going up in smoke and for the children who look to us with their innocent, wondering eyes, hoping against hope that good, and not ill, will be done to them.  And it seemed to me that Jesus was with me and with all of us, sharing our pain, and I felt as if I were touching into the peace that passes understanding and into the love that will never die. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When Jesus said this, he wasn’t denying the reality of suffering and death.  He wasn’t repressing his emotions or dodging painful facts: he knew full well that he was on the brink of being arrested, tortured, and killed. Yet he was able to say to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  How?  Because he was rooted in the love of God.  Because he knew that nothing could separate him – or us – from that love.  Because he knew that through the power of his Spirit, we would be drawn, as he was drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed. That is the great promise of today’s Gospel passage: at the deepest level of our being we belong to God; we abide in God and God abides in us. This precarious time of coronavirus and climate crisis is also a holy time: a time when all of us are invited to deepen our spiritual lives and to grow up to our full stature in Christ. So, I want to suggest three practices as we shelter in place, three practices that I hope will attune us to the presence and power of Jesus as we try to chart a path to a more just and sustainable future. First, I hope we will take regular time to pray in silence. Solitude and silence can create a wonderful context for prayer. As Meister Eckhart, the great mystic, once said, “There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence.” As we sit alone in silence, we listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, although we are usually too busy or too distracted to hear it.  We pay attention to our breathing, receiving each breath as the gift that it is, a gift from a loving God who breathes God’s Spirit into us and whose Spirit we offer back to God as we breathe out.  And if – in the quiet – strong feelings arise, we welcome them and let them move through us, whatever they are – sorrow, fear, anger or joy – knowing that in our vulnerability we find strength and that the God of love is always with us.  This kind of quiet, solitary prayer is where we can gradually develop a trusting and very personal relationship with Jesus, as we disclose what is on our hearts. Second, I hope we will take regular time to go outside and connect with the natural world.  The love of God extends not only to us, not only to human beings – it extends to the whole created world and to its weird and wild diversity of living creatures.  Our planet’s living systems are in peril, so it is good – actually, it is essential – to reclaim our God-given connection with the Earth, to move, as Thomas Berry would say, from a spirituality of alienation from Earth to a spirituality of intimacy.  So, go outside and encounter the God who shines out in the blooming magnolias and azaleas, in the breeze on our faces, in the cry of the blue jay, in the touch of bark or stone against our hand and in the sprouts coming up in our garden.  Whatever we’re worried about – be it climate change, coronavirus, or anything else – spending at least 20 minutes a day in a peaceful place can help restore our soul.
Azaleas in May
Third, I hope we will make time to educate ourselves about the climate crisis and to take every step we can toward effective climate action. When the pandemic has passed and the lockdown is over, we simply can’t go back to business as usual, for business as usual is killing the planet.  As a society we have to change course.  Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable.  Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable.  Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable.  We are living beyond our ecological means. The good news is that when it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change.  So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.  I hope that many of you will join 350Mass for a Better Future, our local grassroots climate action group, whose MetroWest node includes Lincoln. There are other groups that we can be grateful for, too, and find ways to support, such as Poor People’s Campaign, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Environmental Voter Project.  Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen. I pray that we followers of Jesus will take our place in that movement, maybe even be out in front sometimes, singing and praying, maybe risking arrest, as we give glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). In a time of pandemic and climate crisis, the risen Christ is among us and within us.  Do not let your hearts be troubled.      
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter April 19, 2020 Delivered (pre-recorded) by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Washington National Cathedral, DC, for the live-streamed Earth Day Holy Eucharist Acts 2:14a-22-32 Psalm 16 1 Peter 1:3-9 John 20:19-31

“Do not doubt but believe”: The promise of eco-resurrection

I am speaking to you from western Massachusetts. It is good to be with you.  I hope that wherever you are sheltering in place in this difficult time, you have access to a corner of God’s Creation, whether it be a garden or a stretch of woods, a tree on a city sidewalk or a patch of blue sky outside your window. In times of anxiety and stress, many of us instinctively want to head outside to make contact with the natural world, for it is here that God so often brings us comfort and solace, here where we renew our relationship with the web of life that God entrusted to our care.

Our Easter readings, prayers, and hymns suggest that Christ’s death and resurrection are good news not only for human beings but also for the whole Creation – for river and mountain, whale and sparrow, forest and field. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, one of the first things we do is listen to an ancient chant: Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.   
“St. Francis, The Canticle of Creation,” by Nancy Earle, smic (https://www.windseeds.com/ )
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth!  Christ is risen! Easter is good news for all the round earth. This week people the world over will be marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Some of you may remember how, back on April 22, 1970, fully 10% of the American people – Republicans and Democrats alike, rich and poor, city-dwellers and rural folks, young students and old people like me – took to the streets, and to parks and auditoriums coast to coast, pushing for strong action to protect the health and integrity of the natural world. By the end of that year, we could celebrate the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air Act.  The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were passed just two and three years later. When Americans come together to do what needs to be done, we can do great things. Fifty years on, during an excruciating time of global pandemic, human beings around the world are freshly aware of the truth conveyed in that first Earth Day and in every Earth Day since: truly, we belong to one connected family. We share a single planet. We drink from the same water.  We breathe the same air.  We face the same dangers. All of us depend for our lives and livelihood on what our prayer book calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.” Today, on this Second Sunday of Easter, we hear a familiar story from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. Three days after the crucifixion, on the evening of the first Easter, the risen Jesus enters the locked room, appears to the disciples, and says “Peace be with you.” The disciple named Thomas isn’t there, and he’s unwilling to believe that Jesus is alive unless he sees and touches Jesus for himself. When Jesus appears to the disciples a week later, Thomas is with them this time. Again, Jesus says: “Peace be with you,” and then he turns to Thomas, and, without another word, as if Jesus knows that Thomas will only understand through direct experience, he invites Thomas to touch his wounded hands and side. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side,” he tells Thomas. “Do not doubt but believe.”  That’s when Thomas finds his faith and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Do not doubt but believe.  Those are powerful words to hear just now. In a time of social distancing, we can’t reach out our hands to touch someone else’s wounds, but we do know in a visceral, direct, and – yes – hands-on way many things we didn’t know just a month or two ago. Two months ago, who would have believed that a disturbed relationship with the natural world, including the loss of habitat and biodiversity, could create conditions for lethal new viruses and diseases like Covid-19 to spill over into human communities? Who would have believed that how we treat the natural world could so radically affect our wellbeing?  Who would have believed that business as usual could so suddenly be disrupted?  Who would have believed that, if we were sufficiently motivated, we could change our everyday behaviors so rapidly and completely? Do not doubt but believe.  Of course, some people did know these things before the coronavirus hit, but now all of us know them together.  Now we know for sure how much science matters, how much we need access to the best science available – public health depends on it. And it’s the same with climate science: some of us have doubted that climate change is real, and urgent, and largely caused by human activity.  And that’s not surprising, because some special interest groups have worked very hard and spent millions of dollars in a deliberate campaign of disinformation to keep the American public confused. The same folks who once spread doubt about the risk of smoking tobacco are throwing their weight behind some of the current efforts to make us doubt the reality of climate change.1 Some groups are even trying to spread doubt about the validity of science itself, doubt about the value of scientific research and scientific fact.
Freesia. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
But the truth is that the scientific controversy is over. The science is settled.  People sick with Covid-19 have a fever and the whole planet is running a fever, too. Climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that we have a very short window of time in which to address global warming adequately.  Just last week a new study showed that unchecked climate change could collapse whole eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten yearsThe natural world is at far greater risk from climate breakdown than was previously thought.Two months ago we might have shrugged off that report, telling ourselves: “Well, that can’t be true; things never change that fast; everything is bound to stay the same for the foreseeable future.” Now we know better. So when I hear Jesus say to Doubting Thomas, “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” I hear Jesus inviting Thomas – and inviting us – to face the truth of crucifixion. We might wish away the reality of the violence and the wounds. We might wish very ardently that none of this wounding of our dear planet was happening, that we weren’t seeing dying coral and melting icecaps, rising seas and growing numbers of refugees.  Yet it is happening, and just as on Good Friday the disciples couldn’t pretend that Christ’s wounds on the cross weren’t real, so we, too, can’t pretend that the wounds to God’s Creation aren’t real. But that’s not all.  When Jesus says to Doubting Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” he is also saying: Face the truth of resurrection. Christ is risen. And if Christ is alive, then there has been unleashed into our world a power that is greater than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy.
Bluebirds & finch. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering, no anguish we can endure that Christ himself does not suffer with us. If Christ is alive, then we are, every one of us, cherished to the core, and we can create a new kind of society that welcomes everyone and that dismantles the systems of unjust privilege and domination that have separated us from each other and from the Earth. This, my friends, is the source of our spiritual and moral power.  For the good news of Jesus Christ is that even in a time of coronavirus and climate crisis, right here in our grief and fear, we are met by a divine love that weeps with us and grieves with us and embraces us and empowers us, a love that will never let us go, a love that will never die. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says to his disciples, and then he breathes the Holy Spirit into them – the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. He is sending them out to bear witness to the resurrection, to the wild, holy, and completely unexpected fact that through the grace and power of God, life – and not death – will have the last word. Through the power of the Risen Christ, we, too, are sent out to be healers of the Earth, sent out to take our place in the great work of healing the wounds of Creation, sent out to restore the web of life upon which we, and all creatures, depend. For as long as we have breath, Christ will be breathing his Spirit into us. We can be more than chaplains at the deathbed of a dying order; we can be midwives to the new and beautiful world that is longing to be born. Let’s pause for a moment and take a good, deep breath; let’s take in the Holy Spirit that Jesus is breathing into us. There is so much healing we can do, so much power to reconcile that God has given us, so much life that we can help to bring forth as we join God’s sacred mission to renew the Earth. Do not doubt but believe. _________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; see also Ross Gelbspan, The Heat is On; and Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2007 report on ExxonMobil. NOTE: A video of the whole Earth Day Eucharist service at Washington National Cathedral may be viewed here.  The sermon begins at 39:55. The sermon alone may be viewed here.
Sermon for Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day, April 12, 2020 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (via online platform) for First Congregational Church, Williamstown, MA Matthew 28:1-10

Arise to new life: Easter for Earth and for all

What a blessing to be with you!  I’ve been looking forward to seeing your faces and joining in worship with you on this Easter morning.  I was invited to preach because I’m your conference’s Missioner for Creation Care. I know that many of you are deeply concerned about addressing climate change and protecting the web of life that God entrusted to our care.  As you know, we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and surely the pandemic we are now enduring has made it clear that we belong to one connected family on Earth. We share a single planet, drink from the same water, breathe the same air, and face the same dangers.

The coronavirus is communicating very swiftly and without words the same message that climate scientists have been trying urgently to convey for many years: science matters; how we treat the natural world affects our well-being; the sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place; and if we are sufficiently motivated, we have the capacity to make drastic changes very quickly and to suspend business as usual. That’s a good thing, because business as usual is wrecking the planet.  We simply can’t keep burning fossil fuels or keep destroying biodiversity and wild habitats and expect to survive. But what I want to speak about today is our inner lives. How is it with your soul?  How are you doing?  These weeks have been so hard, so full of uncertainty, loss, and fear. Our lives have been turned upside down, and as individuals and a global community, we are deeply aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. In the old days – that is, before the pandemic – we Christians could skip Holy Week and Good Friday, if we wanted to, and just show up at church on Easter morning. When we skip Holy Week and Good Friday, it’s easy to imagine that Easter is a stand-alone miracle, just a feel-good event that gives us a chance to dress up, get together with family and friends, maybe hold an Easter egg hunt and enjoy a nice meal. Well, I confess that right now that sounds pretty good. But here’s the thing: this year, maybe more than any other, we’re being asked to experience the full meaning and power of the Easter miracle.  Because this year we can’t skip Good Friday.  It’s not a choice this time: we are undergoing a collective trauma and we can’t pretend, even for a day, that suffering and death aren’t real. To have any meaning – much less the power to transform lives – the miracle of Easter must speak to our actual condition. Thanks be to God, Easter is not like the miracles we’re most familiar with, the kind that are nice and small and safe.  The “miracles” that our society generally accepts are the ones that make life pleasant and don’t give anyone any trouble.  We water our plants with Miracle-Gro.  We mix our tuna-fish with MiracleWhip.  We listen to ads that boast the latest “miracle” in computer software or laundry detergent or hair replacement. Society tells us that the only miracles that are real are the ones you buy in your local store. Miracles are trivial things, consumer items, commodities: buy one, buy several.  Stock your shelves.  Either miracles aren’t real, society tells us, or if they are real, they’re not very important and they don’t matter much. But this year, unlike other years, we’ve taken a deep dive into Good Friday and we know, perhaps more acutely than ever, that the first Easter did not arrive in soft pastel tones, shrink-wrapped in plastic. Jesus truly despaired and groaned and bled on the Cross.  His suffering was real; his death was real. Our faith has nothing to do with fantasy, with gazing fondly into space and ignoring the suffering or brutality of the world.  No, as Christians we look squarely into suffering and death, and we glimpse the Easter miracle when we discover that even here, right here in our grief, confusion, and fear, we are met by a divine love that weeps with us and grieves with us and embraces us and empowers us, a love that will never let us go, a love that will never die. The Gospel story of the first Easter gives us many images: a great earthquake – an angel, bright as lightning, who rolls back the stone and sits on it – an empty tomb – the discovery that Jesus is alive – and two women overcome with fear and great joy.  This is not a petty miracle, a trifling little story that makes you gape or shrug and then turn away.  This miracle is so potentially transformative that it scares the powers that be, and they try to deny it and suppress news of it. After Jesus is buried, a squad of Roman soldiers, following Pilate’s orders, seals up the tomb, and stands guard before it.  But human efforts to prevent the Resurrection are impossible. God’s life, God’s power burst forth. The guards, who are there to guarantee the finality of Christ’s death, become themselves, in Matthew’s ironic words, “like dead men” (Matthew 28:4), terrified of the new life bursting forth before their very eyes. The miracle has taken place.  Nothing can stop it.  The religious and civic authorities are shocked, and, as Matthew tells it, they rush to set up an elaborate scheme of lies to hide the news as best they can – for the Resurrection is a miracle that makes a difference.
New life
If Christ is alive, then there has been unleashed into our world a power that is greater than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy. If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering we can endure, no anguish we can bear, no loss or disappointment we can undergo that Christ himself does not suffer with us. If Christ is alive, then we are, every one of us, cherished by God, and drawn to create a new kind of society that welcome everyone and that dismantles the systems of unjust privilege and domination that have separated us from each other and from the Earth on which all life depends. If Christ is alive, then there is no need to settle for a life undergirded and overshadowed by the nagging fear of death, for whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. The first followers of Jesus were filled with a wave of Easter hope.  Nothing, not even death, could separate them from the love of God.  In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death.”1 Their prayer and witness got them into all kinds of trouble.  The early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).  Many of them apparently spent as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail.  Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society. That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and it will sustain us now.  Even now, as we walk together through the valley of the shadow of death, acknowledging our fears and grieving what – and whom – we’ve lost, we know that the Lord of life is with us.  The day will come, once this pandemic is behind us, when we can return very actively and publicly to building a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with the Earth. What would it look like if we emerged from this pandemic with a fierce new commitment to take care of each other and the whole of God’s Creation? My friends, even from inside our homes, we hear the sound that rings out as Easter dawns – not only here in Massachusetts, but across the United States and around the world. An Alleluia! is springing forth from the depths of the human spirit – in homes and hospitals, in villages and cities, in Mexico and Russia, in Germany and France, in Greece and Korea, Japan and Zimbawe. Alleluia!  Cristo ha resucitado!                                            (Spanish) Alleluia!  Xristos voskrese!  Vo istinu voskrese!                  (Russian) Alleluia!  Christ ist erstanden!                                             (German) Alleluia!  Christ est ressuscite!                                            (French) Alleluia!  Xristos aneste!  Aleethos aneste!                         (Greek) Alleluia!  Yesunimi puhall hahshatoda!                                (Korean) Alleluia!  Kristoa fkatzu seri!                                                (Japanese) Alleluia!  Kreestu amuka!  Xristu amuka zvechokwadi!       (Shona) On this holy morning we are united with God’s people everywhere – with those who are far off and those who are near, with those who live and those who have died, with our ancestors, with our descendants, and with the whole Creation. God’s love is forever. O Death, where is thy sting?  O Grave, where is thy victory? Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen, indeed!  Alleluia! ————————————————————————————————————————————– 1. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993; originally published in French as Sources, Paris: Editions Stock, 1982), p. 107.  

What are the connections between the novel coronavirus and the climate crisis?  Margaret is the first speaker on a panel sponsored by UCC Council for Climate Justice, convened on April 1, 2020, by the Rev. Brooks Berndt, PhD (Minister for Environmental Justice, UCC).  Other panelists include the Rev. Dr. Leah Schade (Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary), the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President), and Penny Hooper (Leadership Council Chair, North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light)

Earth Day 2020 comes at a tumultuous time. COVID-19 has upended our lives. The number of infections keeps soaring world-wide and entire countries are sheltering in place.

Out of caution, many are keeping physical distance from each other. But out of compassion, many are helping any way they can — staying connected by phone or internet with those who are lonely; sewing masks for desperate health care workers; making donations to groups that help migrants and the homeless; pushing for policies that protect the lowest-earning members of society.

If there was ever a time in which humanity should finally recognize that we belong to one connected family on Earth, this should be it. We share a single planet, drink from the same water and breathe the same air.

Monarch in Ginkgo tree, Ashfield, MA. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

So, whether hunkered down at home or hospital, or working on the front lines, we are all doing our part to face a common enemy together. When COVID-19 is finally behind us, instead of returning to normal life, we must hold on to these lessons in the fight against climate change.

Below are 6 lessons the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about our response to climate change.

  1. Science matters

We can save lives by funding, accessing and understanding the best science available. The science on climate change has been clear for decades, but we’ve failed in communicating the danger to the public, leading to slow action and widespread denial of the facts.

  1. How we treat the natural world affects our well-being.

The loss of habitat and biodiversity creates conditions for lethal new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 to spill into human communities. And if we continue to destroy our lands, we also deplete our resources and damage our agricultural systems.

  1. The sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place.

Quick and drastic action can flatten the curve for coronavirus and free up healthcare resources, lowering death rates. Similarly, drastic action on climate change could reduce food and water shortages, natural disasters and sea level rise, protecting countless individuals and communities.

  1. We have the ability to make drastic changes very quickly. 

When sufficiently motivated, we can suspend business as usual to help each other. All over the world, healthy people are changing their lifestyles to protect the more vulnerable people in their communities. Similar dedication for climate change could transform our energy consumption immediately. All of us can make a difference and play an important role in the solution.

  1. All of us are vulnerable to crisis, though unequally.

Fledgling robin. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

Those with underlying social, economic or physical vulnerabilities will suffer most. A society burdened with social and economic inequality is more likely to fall apart in a crisis. We must also recognize that industries and people who profit from an unjust status quo will try to interrupt the social transformation that a crisis requires.

  1. Holding on to a vision of a just, peaceful and sustainable Earth will give us strength for the future.

Earth Day 2020 will be remembered as a time when humanity was reeling from a pandemic. But we pray that this year will also be remembered as a time when we all were suddenly forced to stop what we were doing, pay attention to one another and take action.

Business as usual — digging up fossil fuels, cutting down forests and sacrificing the planet’s health for profit, convenience and consumption — is driving catastrophic climate change. It’s time to abandon this destructive system and find sustainable ways to inhabit our planet.

What would it look like if we emerged from this pandemic with a fierce new commitment to take care of each other? What would it look like to absorb the lessons of pandemic and to fight for a world in which everyone can thrive?

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, as fear and illness sweep the globe, we listen for voices that speak of wisdom, generosity, courage and hope. And as always, we find solace in the natural world. In the suddenly quiet streets and skies, we can hear birds sing.

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This essay was co-written by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Leah D. Schade, co-editors of the book Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), an anthology of essays from religious environmental activists on finding the spiritual wisdom for facing the difficult days ahead.  This essay was published by Earth Day Network on March 25, 2020.

 

 

 

The following sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day is adapted from a sermon I delivered in 2011. It is posted at SustainablePreaching.org (January 5, 2020).

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84: 1-8 
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19
Matthew 2: 1-12

                                                Journeying with the wise men

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. – Psalm 84:4

When I think of the three kings, what leaps first to mind are the crèches I unpack every year a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the piano in the living room I put the tall, earthenware figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby, of the shepherds and sheep, and — yes — of the three kings and their camels. On the mantelpiece goes a miniature nativity set in which each teeny-tiny figure is made of clay, delicately painted, and no more than one inch high. On the coffee table I put the plastic figures and the cheap wooden stable that children can play with to their heart’s content without making their grandmother worry that something will break. No crèche is complete without its three kings, and when the Twelve Days of Christmas are over, back go the kings and camels into their boxes, where they spend the rest of the year stored in the basement.

Reflecting on today’s Gospel, I got to thinking: what would happen if the wise men walked out of those crèches and into our lives? What would happen if these figures — so easy to trivialize as nothing more than decorative props for a mid-winter festival that we pack away when the festival is done — what if the wise men actually came to life for us? What if their journey informed and deepened our own spiritual search, and propelled it forward? So I began to read the story for its spiritual significance, wondering if it might be read as a sacred, archetypal story about how we grow in intimacy with God.

Four parts of the story stand out to me.

First, of course, is the star, that mysterious, shining presence that startles the wise men and launches their search. Ancient tradition held that an unusual star could appear in the skies to mark the birth of someone special, such as a king. That is how the wise men interpret what they see: something out of the ordinary is taking place, something truly significant is afoot, and out the door they go, leaving their ordinary lives behind as they follow the light wherever it leads.

Let’s pause to note that even though every painting, movie, and Christmas card that depicts the journey of the wise men shows a dazzling star above their heads, we don’t actually know from the biblical story whether anyone but the wise men can see that star. King Herod, the chief priests and scribes don’t seem to know anything about the star until the wise men arrive in Jerusalem and tell them about its rising. So the star may be visible to the eye or it may be perceptible only to one’s inward sight; it may be seen or it may be unseen. Either way, it signals the birth of something new in the world. It heralds a presence and power just now being born. The wise men are wise because they spot the star and set everything aside to follow where it leads.

Maybe every spiritual journey begins with a star. At some point we get a sense — perhaps a very vague one — that there is something more to life than the ordinary round of tasks and responsibilities, something above, beyond, or maybe within material reality that can give a larger meaning and purpose to our days, something that is beautiful and shining and that lights up the world. So we set out on a quest to follow that star and to see where it leads. We may name the quest in different ways — maybe we call it a search for meaning or wholeness, a search for happiness or peace. Maybe we seek to know that we are loved, or to draw closer to the divine Source of love. Maybe, as some Greeks say to Philip in the Gospel of John, we express our desire in a simple, straightforward way: “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). However we name that desire, deep down we want to know God. And so, like the wise men, we set out, and what beckons us forward is a star, a subtle, shining presence that keeps company with us, and that we follow as best we can.

For most of us, most of the time, following the leadings of God is not like having a GPS in the car, delivering clear-cut instructions: “Turn left in .2 miles; take the freeway; turn right in 4.3 miles.” Like it or not, the star of Bethlehem is more elusive than that, so we have to develop a stance of careful listening and open inquiry, and a practice of prayer that makes us more sensitive to the glimmers of the holy. It takes practice to stay attentive to the star, for, as Boris Pasternak once wrote, “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.”

The star is the first thing that catches my attention in this story.  The second is Jerusalem. Where does the star lead the wise men? Straight to Jerusalem, straight into the center of political and economic power, where King Herod the Great, a client king appointed by Rome, rules with the same ferocity that Stalin wielded over his own country in the 1930’s. We might wish that following a spiritual path were only an individual and interior enterprise — that following the star meant nothing more than developing a personal practice of prayer or going away on periodic retreats. There are plenty of contemporary books and speakers out there that define spirituality in a very individualistic way as being mindful of your own mind and cultivating your own soul — and of course that is definitely part of the journey. But right from the beginning, from the very moment that Christ is born, it’s clear that following his star also means coming to grips with the social and political realities of one’s time. Being “spiritual,” for Christians, is not just an interior, individual project of “saving your soul” — it also has a civic dimension, a political dimension, and as the wise men faithfully follow the star, they are drawn straight into the darkness and turmoil of the world, where systemic power can be used to dominate and terrify. Without intending it or knowing it, the wise men even contribute to Herod’s program of terror, for Herod takes the information that they give him and uses it to order the slaughter of all the children under the age of two who live in Bethlehem.

Following the star evidently means being willing to become conscious of the darkness of the world, and even to perceive how we ourselves are implicated in that darkness. The taxes I pay help subsidize fossil fuels; the clothes I wear and the electronic devices I use may have a vast but hidden social and environmental cost.  If I drive a gas-powered car, with every turn of the ignition key, I add to global warming. Until I recognize how I am caught up in and contribute to the contradictions and injustices of our political and economic system, I am not following the star and accompanying the wise men into Jerusalem.

And let’s notice, too, that King Herod trembles at news of the star — in fact, its rising frightens him. The powers that be are terrified when God in Christ draws near, for God’s love is always a threat to those powers; it opposes everything in us and around us that is selfish, greedy, and motivated by the wish to dominate, control, and possess. As I read it, the wise men needed to get to know those powers, both within themselves and in the world around them, if they were going to find and follow Christ.

So they entered Jerusalem and faced the darkness. Then, keeping their eyes on the star, they kept going, “until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9b-10).

This is the third part of the story: the encounter with Christ. What a beautiful line that is — “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” The long, long journey with all its uncertainties and privations, its cold nights and its restless, ardent searching, has reached its fulfillment. The star has stopped, and the wise men can be at peace at last, they have arrived at last, they have found what they were looking for, at last! They enter the house, they see Mary and the child, and they fall to their knees in a gesture of deep reverence and humility.

Do we know what that’s like? Of course we do. We glimpse such moments whenever time seems to stop, when, for instance, our minds grow very quiet in prayer, we surrender our thoughts, and we seem to be filling with light. Or maybe it happens when we gaze at something that captures our complete attention — maybe a stretch of mountains or the sea, or when we take a long, loving look into a child’s sleeping face, or when we are completely absorbed in a piece of music. In moments like these, it can feel as if we are gazing through the object on which we gaze, and seeing into the heart of life itself. Love is pouring through us and into us, and all we can do is throw up our hands, fall inwardly to our knees, and offer as a gift everything that is in us, just as the wise men open their treasure chests and offer everything that is in them. Worship is what happens when we come into the presence of what is really real. When we come to the altar rail at the Eucharist, whether we choose to stand or whether we kneel as the wise men did, like them we stretch out our hands to offer everything that is in us, and like them we receive — we take in — the living presence of Christ.

Finally, the fourth part of the story is its closing line: “… having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). In other words, the wise men refused to cooperate with Herod. They deceived him. They resisted him. The wise men have been called the first conscientious objectors in the name of Christ. They are the first in a long line of witnesses to Christ who from generation to generation have carried out acts of non-violent civil disobedience in Jesus’ name. The journey of the wise men is our journey, too, for, as Gregory the Great reportedly remarked in a homily back in the 7th century: “Having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

So, as we set out together into a new year, I hope that you will join me in keeping the wise men at our side, rather than packing them away somewhere in a box.

Like them, we can attune ourselves to the guiding of the star and renew our commitment to prayer and inward listening.

Like them, we can enter Jerusalem and all the dark places of our world and soul, following where God leads, and trusting that God’s light will shine in the darkness.

Like them, we can make our way to Christ, and kneel in gratitude.

And like them, we, too, can rise to our feet with a new-fired passion to be agents of justice and healing, and a renewed desire to give ourselves to God, for “happy are the people whose strength is in [God, and] whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.”