Earth Sunday Sermon

Earth Sunday and resurrection hopewas recorded for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, to celebrate Earth Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter (April 24, 2022).

“I wonder if we could learn to see the wounded Earth as revealing not only the harsh reality of sin, suffering, and death, but also as lit up with God’s undying love. I wonder what it would be like if, in tending to the wounded body of creation, we knew that we were also ministering to the wounds of Christ…”

Sermon text is here.

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (Earth Sunday) April 24, 2022 Written and recorded by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ Acts 5:27-32 Psalm 150 Rev. 1:4-8 John 20:19-31

Earth Sunday and resurrection hope

Today is Earth Sunday, the Sunday after Earth Day, when people across the country expressed their determination to fight for a healthy and habitable planet.  Over the years I’ve celebrated quite a few Earth Sundays, as maybe you have, too, and I’ve noticed that Earth Sunday often lands, as it does today, on the Second Sunday of Easter.

What happens when we bring Earth Day into the light of Easter? The first thing to say is that our Easter liturgies are clear that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news not only for human beings but also for the whole of Creation – for rivers and mountains, forests and fields, hawks, whales, and bees. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, we start by lighting a fire in the darkness and by listening to someone chant these ancient words: Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.    Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen! Too often our liturgies limit the good news of Christ to human beings, and we push to the margins all the other creatures and natural elements with whom we share this planet, as if Homo sapiens were the only species of any interest to God. But Easter and Earth Day give us a chance to remember the larger truth: according to Scripture, God loved the whole world into being, sustains all things through the Holy Spirit, and through Christ redeemed and reconciled all things in heaven and on earth “by making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:19).  What’s more, our Christian faith looks ahead to the renewal of all things (Matthew 19:28), to the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), to the day when humans live in peace with God, with each other, and with the whole of God’s creation.  Folks, the good news of God in Christ is not just for us – it’s for all the round Earth! That’s one reason I like associating Earth Day with Easter: we have a chance to highlight the deep ecological meaning of faith in Christ.  Cherishing and protecting the natural world is not just an “add-on,” a sideline hobby for a few Christians who call themselves “environmentalists.”  In fact, protecting the Earth that God entrusted to our care is central to being Christian.  It’s a faithful response to the very first task given to humans at the very beginning of Genesis – to “till and keep” the Earth (Gen. 2:15), to be stewards and caregivers. Prophets and sages throughout the Bible, culminating in Jesus himself, cajole us and urge us to participate with God in creating a beloved community in which people and the land live together in balance and harmony, in a shalom of justice, wholeness, and peace.  Mystics of every faith tradition tell us that human beings are not separate from – much less “above” – the rest of the created order but are siblings of wind and water, of porcupine and tree – all of us, every living being, every element of the natural world, created and cherished by the same almighty God. What strikes me this year, as we consider the familiar story from John’s Gospel that we always hear on the Second Sunday of Easter, is that it’s a tale of how ordinary people begin to grasp the meaning and power of resurrection. It’s a story not just about Jesus’ resurrection, but ours, as well. The story begins in a closed, tight place. The disciples are huddled inside a house with the doors locked, the text says, “for fear of the Jews.” The term “Jews” could more accurately be translated as “Judeans,” referring to a local group of religious leaders caught up in a power struggle in Jerusalem.  The point is that the disciples are frightened, and we can understand why – they’ve been through trauma; their beloved friend and leader has been brutally executed; they could well be hauled before the authorities as accomplices of Jesus; and they are wrestling with guilt and shame for abandoning or denying him. That very morning, Christ rose from the dead, and although it seems they’ve heard about it – the verses right before this story report that Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she’d seen the risen Lord – apparently the news hasn’t really reached them; it hasn’t transformed them; it hasn’t changed a thing. They are still frightened, huddled, and alone. The resurrection, if it’s real, might be good news for someone else but it hasn’t had much impact on them. I want to stop right here, for I think that’s where many of us find ourselves this year: closed down, holding back, locked up tight.  The brutal war unfolding in Ukraine, the appalling revelations of corruption and self-serving in the halls of power, the crushing weight of racism and economic inequity – all these and more can overwhelm us with the stubborn power of sin and death. News of the natural world may drive us even further into despair: relentless rises in global temperatures, driven largely by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels; last month’s collapse of a massive ice shelf as an extreme heat wave blasted Antarctica with some areas reaching temperatures 70º Fahrenheit above normal; dead coral at Great Barrier Reef; wildfires and drought out West; hurricanes down South; and a sweeping new report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announcing that it’s now or never if we’re going to limit global heating to 1.5º Celsius, the uppermost limit to keep Earth reasonably protected from catastrophic climate change.  What’s a person to do but duck their head, close the door, and turn on the TV, right?  It’s easy to slide into “doomerism” – into the hopeless conviction that it’s too late to turn this around, it’s not my responsibility, the future is set in stone and can’t be changed – in short, death will have the last word. Of course, succumbing to this temptation pleases fossil fuel companies, since our passivity allows them to go on merrily extracting, selling, and reaping billions from their products. But into the closed room of withdrawal and fear steps the risen Christ.  Christ isn’t stopped by locked doors or locked hearts. He comes and stands among us, breathing forgiveness and peace. “Peace be with you,” he says to the disciples – indeed, he says it three times in this one short passage.  “Peace be with you.”  Christ’s peace is timeless, and he is offering it to each one of us right now.  Can you breathe it in?  Right now, as we share this time together, can we let Jesus draw near and, with our next breath, can we breathe in his presence, breathe in his love and forgiveness? As we breathe out, can we extend that compassion to the world around?  Experiencing the resurrection is as intimate as breathing in and breathing out, as intimate as the subtle shift of a heart that has been closed now beginning to soften, as tender and powerful as a new sprig of grass pushing up through asphalt. Then, as Jesus breathes peace into his frightened, guilty, and now awe-struck disciples, he shows them his wounded hands and side. When Thomas refuses to believe unless he sees and touches the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and puts his hand in Jesus’ side, Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and touch the wounds. I wonder what the disciples see when they look at Jesus’ wounds.  Surely in those wounds they see the harsh reality of violent suffering, sin, and death, but I wonder if those wounds are now radiant – if they are now lit up with love, and if light is pouring from Jesus’ wounded hands and side. In gazing at his wounds, I wonder if the disciples see that all the wounds of their lives, all the wounds of the world, have been taken up into God. I wonder what it would be like if we could look at the wounds of creation like that.  I wonder if we could learn to see the wounded Earth as revealing not only the harsh reality of sin, suffering, and death, but also as lit up with God’s undying love. I wonder what it would be like if, in tending to the wounded body of creation, we knew that we were also ministering to the wounds of Christ – so that in every act of love for creation, in every choice we made, say, to eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet, to walk rather drive, or to push for state and federal policies that promote renewable energy and keep fossil fuels in the ground, we were honoring the presence of the wounded and yet risen Christ. For it is not only peace that Jesus gives his disciples. He gives them a commission.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21), he says, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation.  Jesus not only loves and forgives us – he also summons us to share in the divine life of God that pours itself out in acts of justice and compassion. Like Jesus, we, too, have been sent here on a mission. We participate in the same holy work that he began. The early Christians were really clear about that. They shared Jesus’ passion to welcome and bring into being the love and justice of God.  Like him, they stood up to the empires and unjust powers of this world. The New Testament suggests that they spent as much time inside jail as outside! As we heard in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, when Peter and the apostles are asked why they refuse to cooperate with the police and local authorities, they answer, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). Today, Christians and people of many faiths are rising up to call for an end to new fossil fuel projects and a rapid, just transition to a sustainable future. Some of you listening to these words in Massachusetts have joined rallies to protest a new gas pipeline in Springfield, to stand against a compressor station in Weymouth, or to stop a proposed new power plant on the North Shore. Some of you have organized a team to block coal trains. Some of you are planting community gardens, pollinator gardens, and Good News Gardens. Some of you are supporting local land trusts to protect forests and farmland. Some of you are fighting to make clean energy accessible to low-income communities. Some of you have joined campaigns to push the four biggest banks who finance fossil fuels (Chase, CitiBank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America) to quit propping up the oil and gas industry. Some of you will join the Poor People’s Campaign on June 18th in a March on Washington. We are so done with huddling in fear! Whenever the crucified and risen Christ draws near and opens the closed doors of our minds and hearts, as he does today and every day, we hope to breathe in his love, to receive his forgiveness, to honor his wounds, and to find our place in the Spirit-filled, justice-seeking movement to protect the web of life that God entrusted to our care. Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen, indeed!  Alleluia! _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ On April 24, 2022, Rev. Margaret delivered this sermon in person at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of GreenFaith’s Sacred Season for Climate Justice.  A video of the sermon as recorded for the two Episcopal dioceses in MA and for Southern New England Conference, UCC, is posted on her YouTube channel and on the respective Vimeo or YouTube channels of those faith communities.    

A presentation by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Creation Justice Ministries on March 24, 2022. Facilitated by Avery Davis Lamb, Co-Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries, this online workshop was part of CJM’s ongoing exploration of how the church might become a hub of resilience in the midst of the spiritual and physical storms of the climate crisis. A recording of this conversation, along with CJM’s other workshops on climate resilience, is available on their YouTube channelA PDF is available for download.

Let’s begin by taking a quick pulse.

 

    • How many of you have heard a sermon about the climate emergency and our moral obligation as Christians to tackle it? Please raise your hand.
    • How many of you preachers – lay or ordained – have preached a sermon about the climate emergency and our moral obligation as Christians to tackle it?
    • How many of you preachers intend to preach a climate sermon sometime soon, and how many of you non-preachers will give them your full support when they do?

I hope everybody’s hands went up that time!

For a while now I’ve been traveling around, preaching about climate change, and you’d be amazed how many times I’ve asked a group of parishioners whether they’ve ever heard a sermon about climate change, and no one raises a hand. So, let’s talk about preaching resilience and cultivating climate justice from the pulpit.

I want to be real. I want to acknowledge right off the bat that it can be hard to preach about climate emergency. Preaching of any kind is challenging but preaching about climate emergency is especially difficult. Why is that? What are we afraid of?1

Maybe we fear being ill-informed (I don’t know enough science).

Maybe we fear provoking division in the congregation (Climate change is too political).

Maybe we fear stressing out our listeners (Daily life is hard enough; why add to their worries?).

Maybe we fear our parishioners won’t be able to handle the bad news (If I do mention climate change, I’d better tone it down and underplay the dire science).

Maybe we fear that climate preaching is not pastoral (People come to church for solace, not to get depressed).

Besides, we may tell ourselves, preaching about climate change should be someone else’s responsibility (Climate change isn’t really “my” issue; someone else should deal with it).

A preacher’s fears may cut close to home (I could lose pledges; I could even lose my job).

And climate preaching may require a painful and very personal reckoning with oneself that the preacher would prefer to avoid (How do I preach resurrection when watching the web of life unravel before my eyes fills me with despair?)

Reckoning with ourselves may also be difficult as we admit our own complicity and consumerism. Years ago, a friend of mine, a suburban priest in a wealthy parish, confessed to me, “How can I preach about climate change when I drive an SUV?”

No wonder so many preachers delay addressing the climate crisis – most of us weren’t trained for this, we don’t want to stir up trouble, and we face an array of fears. As a result, many of us kick the can down the road, perhaps waiting until the lectionary provides the supposedly “perfect” text.

Well, I think it’s fair to say that the time for shyness about preaching on climate change has long since passed. It’s high time for us preachers to overcome our fears and step into the pulpit to preach a bold message of Gospel truth and Gospel hope, because climate change is bearing down on us fast. The winds of war are howling.  We live amidst a war against Ukraine that is underwritten by oil and gas, and a relentless war against Earth herself as coal, gas, and oil continue to be extracted and burned.  This week the U.N. Secretary General warned that the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is “on life-support.”2  He went on to say: “Last year alone, global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 6% to their highest levels in history. Coal emissions have surged to record highs. We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe. Our planet has already warmed by as much as 1.2 degrees, and we see the devastating consequences everywhere. … If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach.”

So, do we need to preach and practice resilience? You bet we do. Do we need to wake up and quit sleepwalking? You bet we do. For a long time, we may have been sitting on the sidelines, telling ourselves: Things aren’t that bad. The scientists are exaggerating. Or: If I don’t pay attention, it will go away. But eventually our efforts to ignore the reality of a rapidly changing climate can’t help but fall apart. One too many reports of melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs, one too many accounts of withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, one too many stories of massive downpours and flash flooding, one too many experiences of devastating wildfires and record heatwaves, and it becomes impossible to suppress awareness of the climate crisis. Our defenses crumble. And we experience what journalist Mark Hertsgaard calls the “Oh, shit” moment we all must have. Climate change is real. It’s here. It’s accelerating.

The truth is that if we keep burning fossil fuels and stick to business as usual, by the end of century, average global temperature will rise 4.2 degrees Celsius (= 7.6 degrees F). Human beings simply can’t adapt to a world that hot.

And let’s not forget that, depending on their social location – on their race and class – people experience ecological breakdown differently. As the saying goes: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.” Low-income and low-wealth communities, racial minorities, and the historically underserved are those hurt first and worst by a changing climate, those least able to adapt, and those least likely to have a seat at the table where decisions are made.

Oh, shit.

This is where preachers have an essential role to play.  This is where preaching resilience, preaching justice, preaching faithfulness to the crucified and risen Christ becomes crucial.  Why?  Because the more that people know about the social and ecological breakdown going on worldwide – and the more they experience it directly, in their own lives – the more they may feel overwhelmed, hopeless, or depressed.  That’s why a message of urgency needs to be accompanied by a message of agency, a message of empowerment and strength: God is with us, we’re not alone, and there’s a lot we can do.

Here are nine things I try to do when preaching on climate.

  1. Push back against helplessness

That’s one of the main functions of good climate preaching: push back against helplessness. Your parishioners might not have mentioned it to you, but it’s likely that many of them are grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. A national survey recently conducted by Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reports that seven in ten Americans (70%) say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming and that one in three (35%) are “very worried” about it – numbers that have reached a record high.3  It can be a relief when a preacher finally names and addresses their fears, makes climate change “speakable,” and pushes back against the helplessness and “doomism” that suck our spirits dry. That’s why preaching about climate emergency can be deeply pastoral, an act of kindness to your congregation.

Simply gathering for worship can also push back against helplessness: we see each other’s face, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands.  How do people get through tough times?  We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories, we raise our spirits together.  We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world.  Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

  1. Enable people to face hard facts

Like all spiritual seekers, Christians are committed to the search for truth, to cutting through fantasy and self-deception. So, in my sermons I share some facts about climate science. As climate preachers we need to know the basics: climate change is real, it’s largely caused by human activity, it’s gotten worse in recent decades, and it will have disastrous effects unless humanity changes course fast. Basic information is available from many sources, such as NASA or reputable environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council.4 For up-to-date climate information, I subscribe to daily news from Climate Nexus.5

So – we share some science, but we don’t have to worry that we need to be a scientist. In preaching, I keep my science comments short, brisk, and sober. To summarize the big-picture effects of a changing climate, I often quote a couple of sentences by Bill McKibben from his book, Eaarth: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”6 Then I cite specific examples that resonate most strongly with the local congregation. In California, I mentioned drought, wildfire, and mudslides; on Cape Cod, I mentioned rising and acidifying seas, and threats to fishing and groundwater.

When so much misinformation is being spread and funded by fossil fuel corporations and by the politicians in their pockets, faith leaders need to be resolute in speaking hard truths. A religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is surely a religion that can face painful facts.

 

 

  1. Offer a positive vision of the future

Climate science has done its job, reporting on the catastrophic effects of burning fossil fuels. But facts aren’t enough to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal and purpose and values. That’s what preachers do: we lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” How do you build resilience? By lifting up God’s vision of a Beloved Community and by inviting everyone to join God’s mission of reconciling us to God, each other, and the whole Creation.  This is the mission that Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ.

  1. Explore ethical questions and provide a moral framework

The climate crisis forces upon us existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life.  What is our moral responsibility to future generations?  What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet?  How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that arise with this awareness?  Are we willing to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste?  What does a “good” life look like, once we know the deadly consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of an inherently unsustainable, extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?

Such questions may hover in the background or roar to the foreground. Congregations provide a context for grappling with these questions, and preachers can offer moral grounding and guidance, reminding their listeners of such old-fashioned values as compassion and generosity, self-control and selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.

  1. Encourage reconciliation

Climate change has become a deeply divisive political issue – so polarizing that people may fear to mention the subject to family members, co-workers, and friends. Sermons can open a space for conversation, and congregations can follow up by providing settings for difficult conversations and active listening.  If we can express compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, we can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that otherwise might not exist.

Jim Antal points out in his seminal book, Climate Church, Climate World, that “truth and reconciliation” groups could be modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after the abolition of apartheid.  Antal writes: “Initiating Truth and Reconciliation Conversations could well be the most important contribution of the church to creating a world able to undergo the great transition we are now beginning.  For many generations we have sought to conquer, dominate, and exploit nature.  Now we must seek intergenerational and cross-species atonement. It seems to me that if the church, the synagogue, and the mosque are to offer meaningful hope in the years ahead, they must host such personal and communal, transparent and sacred conversations.”7

  1. Provide opportunities for emotional response

The climate crisis can make us go numb.  Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that died in less than two months?  What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct?  It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death.  How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it?  How do we move beyond despair?

Preachers can offer practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change.  We can create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we can hold public ceremonies outdoors.  Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change.  Some were held after environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; others were held before significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C., and the U.N. climate talks in Paris.  Preachers and congregations can create public spaces for expressing grief, naming hopes, and touching our deep longing for healing and reconciliation.  We can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. Our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.

  1. Build hope by taking action

How do we maintain hope?  That’s a question many contributors address in the anthology I co-edited with Leah Schade, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. One author, Tim DeChristopher, is a Unitarian Universalist who spent two years in federal prison after disrupting an oil and gas auction in Utah. When someone asks him, “What gives you hope?” Tim replies, “How can anything ‘give’ me hope?” He writes: “Hope is inseparable from our own actions.  [Hope] isn’t given; it’s grown. Waiting to act on climate change until we have hope is like waiting to pick up a shovel until we build callouses on our hands.  The hope never arrives until we get to work.”8

In my climate sermons I include suggestions for action, such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, protecting forests, and planting trees. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and they help to propel social change.  Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. As environmental justice activist, Mary Annaise Heglar, puts it: “I don’t care if you recycle. Stop obsessing over your environmental ‘sins.’ Fight the oil and gas industry instead.”9

So, in my sermons I encourage parishioners not only to live more lightly on Earth but also to use their voices and votes to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to push banks to stop financing fossil fuel projects.  We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color, and the needs of workers in the fossil fuel industries as we transition to a clean energy economy. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. We can support 350.org, ThirdAct.org (a new climate action group led by Bill McKibben for people over 60), Sunrise Movement (a climate action group led by people under 30), Extinction Rebellion, and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. We can put our bodies on the line and risk arrest in non-violent resistance to fossil fuels. By inspiring significant action, preachers can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of apathy and inaction.

  1. Deepen reverence for nature

Our society treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, and preachers can call us to reclaim the sacredness of Earth. After all, nature is a place where humans have always encountered God – so say generations of mystics and theologians, including Moses, Jesus, and St. Paul (Romans 1:20). As poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.

So, in addition to preaching reverence for God’s creation, maybe we can plant a community garden in the vacant lot behind our church.  Maybe we can support land trusts to preserve farms, woods, and open space; maybe we can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; maybe we can sponsor retreats, hikes, and worship services that explore the wonders of Creation. Step by step we can begin to reclaim what traditional indigenous societies have never forgotten: the land itself is sacred. Discovering this for ourselves will affect our behavior: we only fight to save what we love.

Which brings me to my final aim in preaching:

  1. Encourage love

Cultivate love. That really should be Point #1! Whenever I preach, I try to evoke the presence of a God who loves us beyond measure, a God who heals and redeems, who liberates and forgives. I preach about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us. I preach about a God who understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed; a God, in the words of Peter Sawtell, who calls us “to active resistance, not to quiet acceptance.”10 I preach about a God who knows our guilt and complicity in that destruction and who gives us power to amend our lives. I preach about a God who longs to create a Beloved Community that includes all beings, not just human beings. I preach about a God who sets us free from the fear of death and who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.

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

Holy Week, Easter, and Earth Day are all approaching, and this year we have a special opportunity to amplify the power of our witness: we can register our climate sermons and prayer vigils with GreenFaith’s global initiative, Sacred Season for Climate Justice. All five of the world’s major religions celebrate a holy day or season between now and early May, and faith communities around the world will hold special events and services that proclaim one urgent message: climate justice now!  So, when you preach a climate justice/climate resilience sermon sometime this month, as I hope you will, please be sure to register your service with Sacred Season for Climate Justice.11

Thank you, friends.

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The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest, author, retreat leader, and climate activist.  She has been a lead organizer of many Christian and interfaith events about care for Earth, and she leads spiritual retreats in the U.S.A. and Canada on spiritual resilience and resistance in the midst of a climate emergency. Her latest book, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (2019) is a co-edited anthology of essays by religious environmental activists. She has been arrested in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to protest expanded use of fossil fuels.  She serves as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass. and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, and as Creation Care Advisor for the Episcopal Diocese of Mass. Her Website, RevivingCreation.org, includes blog posts, sermons, videos, and articles.

Selected resources for climate-crisis preaching are available on her website, as are about 100 of her lectionary-based sermons on climate change.

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1. This section is drawn from “Preaching When Life Depends on It: Climate Crisis and Gospel Hope,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Anglican Theological Review (Spring, 2021, Vol. 103, 2), 208–219, https://revivingcreation.org/preaching-when-life-depends-on-it-climate-crisis-and-gospel-hope/

2. https://www.democracynow.org/2022/3/22/headlines/un_secretary_general_says_paris_climate_agreement_goal_is_on_life_support

3. Leiserowitz A. et al, Climate Change in the American Mind, September 2021. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, November 18, 2021.

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

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

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

7. Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 77.

8. Tim DeChristopher, “Working Up Hope,” in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, ed. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 148.

9. Mary Annaise Heglar, “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle. Stop obsessing over your environmental ‘sins.’ Fight the oil and gas industry instead.” (Vox, June 4, 2019)

10. Peter Sawtell, “Three Layers of Environmental Preaching,” http://www.eco-justice.org/3layers.asp/. (If the link doesn’t work, you can search for the article directly.)

11. Creation Justice Ministries has also produced an Earth Day resource for 2022, “Weathering the Storm: Faithful Climate Resilience,” a timely and applicable resource for all of 2022.

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

Earth Sunday: “I am the good shepherd”

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

I, for one, am grateful that this year Earth Sunday coincides with Good Shepherd Sunday, for I need to be drawn again into Jesus’ consoling and empowering presence. Maybe some of you do, too.  As we take stock of the living world around us and consider the faltering health of our dear planet, we confess that the path that society has traveled for the last two centuries has led to an unprecedented human emergency: we are hurtling toward climate catastrophe and we are watching the web of life unravel before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished in less than 50 years. In what scientists call a “biological annihilation,” human beings have wiped out more than half the world’s creatures since 1970.  Meanwhile, the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil and the logging of forests are accelerating climate change, pushing our planet to break records of all kinds – as Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented the other day: “We’re running out of records to break.” I know I don’t have to belabor the details of what it’s like to be at ground zero of the climate crisis.  My heart goes out to all of you in Boulder who are already experiencing the effects of a fast-warming climate, from extreme weather events to droughts and wildfire. Intertwined with our ecological challenges are the social justice challenges of economic inequity and white racism.  After the trial of Derek Chauvin, convicted this week of killing George Floyd, and in light of the movement for racial justice that has been surging for months across this country, many of us are reflecting deeply on our country’s heritage of white supremacy. Racial justice is closely tied to climate justice – in fact, I’ve heard it said that we wouldn’t have climate change without white supremacy.  Where would we put our urban oilfields – where would we put our dumping grounds and trash, our biomass plants, our toxic incinerators and other polluting industries – if we weren’t willing to sacrifice Black, indigenous, and people of color communities?  In the words of Hop Hopkins, the Sierra Club’s Director of Organizational Transformation, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”1 In a world of so much injustice, violence, and uncertainty, where a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store and a beloved landscape can go up in flames, where do we turn for solace and strength?  We turn to the Good Shepherd of our souls.  How does his presence speak to you this morning? What I notice is that, as our good shepherd, Jesus holds everyone and everything together.  A shepherd is the person charged with keeping the flock intact, united, and heading in the right direction.  I find it reassuring to contemplate the image of God in Christ drawing us into something unified and whole, because right now so much seem to be splintering and breaking apart. The tapestry of life that was once intact is being torn apart as greenhouse gas emissions disrupt the planet’s atmosphere. Our human communities are likewise being torn apart by political division, economic division, racial division.
“File:’The good Shepherd’ mosaic – Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.jpg” by Petar Milošević is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
When we turn to the Good Shepherd, we touch the sacred unity within and beyond all things. We touch the Ground of our being.  We meet the One in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17) – everything within us, everything around us. Maybe you remember the puzzle2 which consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three. The challenge is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page.  Try it however many times you like, but the only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box.  Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or to accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished. That’s what it’s like to experience the Good Shepherd: in the midst of a world in which everything seems to be divided and falling apart, we sense an underlying wholeness and unity. We sense a love that embraces all things, connects all things, sustains all things. On the surface, in the realm of our five senses, we see mainly differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we meet the good shepherd who holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with God. We hear the shepherd’s voice when we take time to quiet ourselves, when we sit in solitude and silence and listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts. The good shepherd is the one who knows us through and through and who calls us each by name.  Held in the embrace of that intimate love, we don’t have to keep trying to hold ourselves together – we are free to let go, free to fall apart, free to let ourselves feel our grief, feel our anger and fear as we respond to the climate crisis and to all the challenges of our lives.  The good shepherd is there to hold what we cannot hold, there to listen, there to protect and keep company, there to help us understand how deeply we are loved – and not just we ourselves, but all people – and not just all people, but all beings, the whole of God’s creation. In the presence of the Good Shepherd, we remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. And the movement toward unity keeps getting larger. As Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16-17).  And so – beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, beneath all the ways that humans try to separate ourselves from each other and from the rest of the natural world, presuming that we can dominate and destroy with impunity – Jesus reminds us that in fact we belong to one living, sacred whole. Every time we tap into the deep-down truth of our essential belovedness, we discover fresh energy for life.  We tap into the same wave of Easter hope that filled the first followers of Jesus.  When they saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, when they met the Risen Christ in their midst and in their hearts, when they realized that life and not death would have the last word and that nothing could separate them from the love of God, their lives were filled with fresh meaning and purpose.  They realized that they belonged to a sacred mystery that was larger than themselves, to a love that would never let them go. Even though they were still mortal and frail, still vulnerable and imperfect people in a big, chaotic world, they knew that they participated in a long story of salvation to which they could contribute, every moment of their lives, by choosing compassion over indifference, kindness over cruelty, love over fear.  Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29). Today’s passage from the Book of Acts is a case in point: the witness of the first Christians got them into all kinds of trouble. Peter and the other early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and their commitment to God, and to the Good Shepherd of their souls, apparently led many of them to spend as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail.  Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society. That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and carries us now, every one of us who feels impelled to join our Creator in re-weaving the web of life, in building a gentler and more just society, and in getting us into what Representative John Lewis called “good trouble” as we fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, and to dismantle white supremacy. We can do this from a heart of love. On this Earth Sunday, we give thanks for the Good Shepherd and we renew our resolve to be a blessing to the Earth that God entrusted to our care. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Hop Hopkins, “Racism Is Killing the Planet”: The ideology of white supremacy leads the way toward disposable people and a disposable natural world, June 8, 2020. 2. “Thinking outside the box,” Wikipedia (accessed April 25, 2021) The whole service may be viewed on YouTube on the channel for St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Rev. Margaret’s sermon begins at 20:18.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts Luke 24:36b-48

Earth Sunday: “You are witnesses of these things”

Friends, what a blessing to be with you! We have some firsts going on this morning.  For starters, this is the first time I’ve offered the same sermon to folks in both the Diocese of Massachusetts and the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. To those of you I haven’t yet met, my name is Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, and although my title in each diocese is different, my role is the same – to help us work together to heal and protect God’s creation, to defend the precious web of life that God entrusted to our care.

Today we’re celebrating Earth Sunday, the Sunday before Earth Day, on April 22, when people around the country re-commit themselves to restoring the planet that we call home. So, here’s another first: This is the first Earth Sunday since the bishops of our two dioceses declared a climate emergency and issued a call that we reach deep into our faith and rise up to take action.  As I see it, our two dioceses are poised to do great things together, to bear witness in fresh ways to the redeeming love and power of Christ.

I’ll say more about that in a moment, but first I want to share an Easter story.1 It’s told by Mark Macdonald, formerly the Bishop of Alaska and now the National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada. Bishop Macdonald was leading worship on Easter Sunday for a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation, which is in the American Southwest. When the time came to read the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, Bishop Macdonald stood up and began reading in Navajo: “It was early in the morning…” Almost before the words were out of his mouth, “the oldest person there, an elder who understood no English, said loudly (in Navajo), ‘Yes!’”

Photo credit: Trish Callard
The bishop thought that “it seemed a little early in the narrative for this much enthusiasm,” so he assumed he had made a mistake – maybe he had mispronounced the words in Navajo.  So, he tried again: “It was early in the morning…’” This time he heard an even louder and more enthusiastic Yes. After the service, the bishop went up to the lay pastor and asked her if he had pronounced the words correctly.  Oh, she said with surprise, of course he had.  Well, asked the bishop, then why did the older woman get so excited?  The pastor explained, “The early dawn is the most important part of the day to her.  Father Sky and Mother Earth meet at that time and produce all that is necessary for life.  It is the holiest time of the day.  Jesus would pick that good time of day to be raised.”2 Bishop Macdonald realized that while the early dawn is certainly the best time for new life, he had never thought about the possibility that “[this] observation about the physical word could be theologically and spiritually revealing, that it suggested a communion between God, humanity, and creation that is fundamental to our… existence.”  It took him a while to absorb this.  He writes: “An elder with no formal schooling had repositioned the central narrative of my life firmly within the physical world and all its forces and interactions.  It was,” he says, “an ecological reading of a story that, for me, had been trapped inside a flat virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual.’” Today, on Earth Sunday, the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world.  Like Archbishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”3 I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of “spirituality” as completely ethereal.  The God I grew up with had no body.  Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body – both our own body and the “body” of the natural world.  The natural world and its wild diversity of creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings.  Since the time of the Reformation, most of Christianity – at least in the West – has had little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, were of any real interest to God. So, what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that was never forgotten by the indigenous people of the land – to know that the Earth is holy.  Its creatures are holy.  The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God. Our Gospel story this morning is full of meanings, but surely one of them is that the Risen Christ is alive in the body, in our bodies, in the body of the Earth.  While the disciples were talking about how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36-378).  But Jesus doesn’t come as a ghost.  He doesn’t come as a memory, as an idea, or as something from “a flat, virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.”  He comes as a living body, a body made of flesh and bone that can touch and be touched, a body that can feel hunger and thirst and that wants to know, “Hey, isn’t there anything to eat around here?” Scripture tells us that the Messiah is born, lives, suffers, dies, and rises as a body. That must say something about how much God cherishes the body and wants to meet us in and through the body – through our bodily senses of sight and sound, through taste and touch and smell, in this very breath.  Scripture tells us that for forty days the disciples met the living Christ through his risen body.  And then, when he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ body withdrew from the disciples’ sight, so that now his living presence could fill all things and so that all of us can touch and see him, if our eyes are opened. What this means is that when you and I go out into nature, when we let our minds grow quiet and simply gaze at the maple tree, the snowdrops, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything or pushing anything away, we begin to perceive that a holy, living presence fills everything we see.  Wherever we gaze, the Risen Christ is gazing back at us and his presence is flowing toward us. “Peace be with you,” he is saying to us through wind and tree, through cloud and stars.  “Peace be with you.  I am here in the needles of the pine tree beside you that flutter in the breeze, and in the bark overlaid with clumps of lichen, each one a tiny galaxy.  I am here in the ocean waves that form and dissolve on the shore, in the sand under your bare feet, in the sea gull that is crying overhead. Peace be with you.  I am here, and you are part of this with me, and you are witnesses of these things.” “You are witnesses of these things.”  We witness Christ when we sense his living presence in the natural world and our deep reverence for Earth is restored.  Our hearts are opened and so, too, are the eyes of our faith as (in the words of today’s Collect) we “behold [Christ] in all his redeeming work.”  But that’s not all. A witness is not just a bystander or a spectator, a neutral observer who watches from the sidelines.  Scripture tells us that bearing witness to Christ means being an active participant, someone who testifies, who speaks out, who even risks everything4 to convey the good news that God in Christ is with us in our suffering and our joy, in our ardent longing for life, and in all our efforts to create a more just, healthy and peaceful planet. In a time of climate emergency, when ice caps and ice sheets are rapidly melting, extreme storms, droughts, and wildfires are becoming more common, and part of the Gulf Stream seems to be weakening, leading to the possibility of what one scientist calls “monstrous change” that would affect not only the Atlantic Ocean but life far and wide, we are summoned as never before to bear witness to our faith in a God who calls us to live in harmony with God and God’s creation. If you haven’t yet done so, I hope you will read the bishops’ declaration of climate emergency – as the bishops suggest – “thoroughly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.” The text is posted on both of our dioceses’ Websites.  It gives us four areas in which we can focus our efforts: we can pray, individually and together, rooting ourselves in the love of God.  We can learn, coming to understand, for instance, how tackling the climate crisis connects with tackling poverty, economic inequity, and racism.  We can act, finding ways, for instance, to radically reduce our carbon footprint, to plant and share food through Good News Gardens, and to turn our churches into “resilience hubs” that support vulnerable populations during a climate disaster. And we can advocate, pushing for the urgently needed changes in public policy that will propel a swift and just transition to clean, renewable energy.  There is so much we can do!  Next month, along with Creation Care Justice Network, I will host a four-week series of webinars to explore each of these areas – pray, learn, act, and advocate – so that members of our two dioceses can connect with each other and talk about how we can move forward together in addressing the climate crisis. I hope you’ll join us.  For this is a very good time to bear witness to our faith. Thanks to the tireless advocacy of climate activists in Massachusetts – including some of you – Governor Baker just signed a good, strong climate bill, and momentum is building for even more ambitious action.  Momentum is also building at the national level, as the Biden Administration convenes a Leaders Summit on Climate and looks ahead to the U.N.’s international climate talks this fall. What part will we followers of Jesus play in leaving a habitable world to future generations? On this Earth Sunday, please join me in renewing our resolve to bear witness to the God of love “who makes all things new (Isaiah 43:18-19; Isaiah 65:17; Rev. 21:5) and who came among us to bring us life, and life abundant (John 10:10).” ___________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, ed. by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008), 150-157. 2. Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” 151. 3. Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” 151. 4. The Greek word for “witness” is etymologically related to the word for “martyr.”   Please note:  A video of this sermon is available.  
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.  

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.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

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.

 

 

 

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter/Earth Day Sunday, April 23, 2017 Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Christ the King-Epiphany, Wilbraham, MA Psalm 16 Acts 2:14a, 22-32 1 Peter 1:3-9 John 20:19-31

Reach out your hand

“[Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” (John 20:27)

I feel a special kinship with this congregation, because you are pioneers in building ecumenical relations: you’ve gathered Lutheran and Episcopal communities into one shared community of worship. I can relate to that, for I serve two denominations in one job. As Missioner for Creation Care, I serve both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. So let’s hear it for Christians coming together to praise the one God and to follow Jesus, wherever he leads!

Today is Earth Sunday, the day after Earth Day, the day when people across the country celebrate the blue-green planet that we call home. Today is also the Second Sunday of Easter, and, as we always do at this time of year, we hear a marvelous and mysterious story from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus shows himself to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day and then returns a week later to convince the disciple we call Doubting Thomas that yes, the Risen Christ is real. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas, showing him the wounds. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And then Thomas finds his faith, saying, “My Lord and my God.” What happens when we consider Earth Day in the light of Easter? The first thing to say is that our Easter liturgies make it abundantly clear that Christ’s death and resurrection is good news not just to human beings but also to the whole of Creation – to rivers and mountains, forests and fields, whales and sparrows and sheep. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, we start by lighting a fire in the darkness and by listening to someone chant these ancient words: Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.    Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen! Today’s Gospel story invites us to explore the good news of Christ’s resurrection by taking stock of our doubts. Doubting Thomas stands for all of us who wrestle with doubt – doubt about what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and doubt about the reality of the resurrection. Doubt is a perfect theme for Earth Day, too, for when it comes to climate change – the issue at the top of everybody’s list on Earth Day – we hear a lot about doubt. Is climate change real? Is it serious? Is human activity responsible for most of it? Some folks outright deny the reality of climate change; others are on the fence and don’t know what to believe, assuming that scientists have not reached a consensus on the reality and causes of global warming. Fossil fuel groups are working very hard and spending millions of dollars to keep the American public doubtful and confused. The same folks who once spread doubt about the risk of smoking tobacco are now throwing their weight behind efforts to mislead the public about 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. Next they will be questioning the validity of gravity! It’s no wonder that Marches for Science filled the streets on Earth Day yesterday in more than 600 cities on six continents! Now, I don’t know you, but I’m going to assume that all of us here understand the value of science and the scientific process. I also assume that most of us are not climate skeptics; most of us do not deny outright the conclusions of science. But when it comes to climate change, most of us probably do engage in a kind of everyday doubt and denial. Thinking about climate change can make us feel anxious or overwhelmed, so it’s tempting to change the subject and focus on more manageable things. It’s hard to face facts squarely. It’s hard to absorb the fact that the science is settled and that the debate about climate change is over. 97% of climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that climate change is already upon us. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than our species has ever experienced before. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is affected and in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing and releasing methane – a serious greenhouse gas. Storms are becoming more intense. Droughts are spreading in some areas, extensive floods in others. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Scientists recently reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died. The climate emergency is not just a quote-unquote “environmental” problem. It’s not just about polar bears and coral. It’s about people in Southern Africa, where rains have failed, crops are withering, and starving families are “reduced to eating cactus and even rocks or ashes.” It’s about Pacific islanders whose homelands are already flooding from rising seas. It’s about impoverished people here and abroad who are hit first and hardest by a changing climate, who have the fewest resources to adapt to it, and who are the least responsible for causing it.
“The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” Caravaggio, 1601-1602, Sanssouci, Potsdam, Neues Palais
So when I hear Jesus say to Doubting Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” I hear Jesus inviting Thomas – and 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 were happening, that we weren’t seeing dying coral and melting icecaps, rising seas and increasing numbers of refugees. But 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. Yet because of Christ’s crucifixion, we know that God is with us in our suffering and in the planet’s suffering. And because of Christ’s resurrection, we also know that death does not have to be the end of the story. “When it was evening of Easter day, the first day of the week,” Jesus comes and stands among his disciples and says, “‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19). Can you feel the impact of that moment? The Risen Christ comes to his guilty, worried, frightened friends and says “Peace be with you.” He gives them peace. Forgiveness. Acceptance. However much they’ve abandoned and denied him, he loves them and is with them still. In fact, in this one short passage Jesus says “Peace be with you” three times, as if the disciples need to hear that message again and again – partly in order to undo Peter’s three-fold denial, but also so that all of them – and all of us – will experience that forgiveness deep in our bones. Maybe that moment marks the beginning of our own resurrected life: the moment we hear and take in how much God loves us and how completely we are forgiven, no matter what we have done. Humans are dismantling the web of life that God gave us as a free gift to love and to steward – and yet, somehow, somehow, we are forgiven. From that place of being forgiven, we can change course and begin to live in a dramatically different way. So it is not only peace that Jesus gives to his disciples. He also sends them on a mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he says, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. Jesus not only shares in our suffering, he not only loves and forgives us – he also sends us out to bear witness to the resurrection, to the wild, holy, and completely unexpected fact that through the grace and power of God, life – not death – will have the last word. Through the power of the Risen Christ, we 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. What can we do? We can educate ourselves about the climate crisis. We can recycle more, drive less, and quit using bottled water. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation, turn down the heat, and turn out lights when we leave the room. I hope you’ll consider forming a Green Team or Creation Care Committee in this church, so that you can support each other in the urgent effort to live more lightly on God’s good Earth. As individuals and congregations we can and should do everything we can, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with others and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Thanks be to God, people of all faiths are rising up the world over to proclaim the sacredness of God’s Creation and to express our refusal to stand idly by and let the web of life be destroyed! Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has groups (“nodes”) across the state. When you sign up for the weekly newsletter, you’ll be hooked into a vibrant local effort. I’m also part of a new group, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together Christians, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, and people of all religious traditions to push for legislation in Massachusetts that supports climate justice. Together we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to everyone, including low-income and marginalized communities. I’ve put sign-ups at the back of the church for 350Mass for a Better Future and for MAICCA. Meanwhile a big climate march will be held next Saturday, April 29, in our nation’s capital. On the same day as this historic march in Washington, D.C., sister marches will spring up all over the country, including nearby cities like Springfield, Greenfield, and Boston. I hope you’ll grab a church banner and take your place in a local climate march, or that you will join me and other folks from the Diocese in heading down to Washington. If you go to PeoplesClimate.org, you can get all the details. I give thanks that Christians of every denomination, and people of every faith tradition, are drawing together to proclaim with one voice that the Earth is sacred and that we intend to work together – boldly, lovingly, and without delay – to protect it from further harm. I am grateful for Doubting Thomas, for he gives voice to our doubt – doubt that we can prevent catastrophic climate change, doubt that we can make a difference, doubt that resurrection is even possible. But just as Jesus invited Thomas to move past his doubts, so, too, Jesus invites us to receive the power of his forgiveness and the gift of his energizing Spirit. Today at the Eucharist we will stretch out our hands to receive the body and blood of Christ, just as Thomas stretched out his hands to touch Christ’s wounded hands and side. There is so much healing that we can do, so much power-to-reconcile that God has given to us, so much life that we can help to bring forth. “Reach out your hand,” I hear Jesus saying to us today. “Do not doubt but believe. Step through your doubt and receive the Holy Spirit who shows you the path of life and who gives you strength to heal our precious, ailing planet Earth.
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. &nbsp
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 27, 2014 (Earth Day/Creation Sunday). Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, St. Francis Episcopal Church, Holden, MA Acts 2:14a, 22-32        1 Peter 1:3-9 Psalm 16                     John 20:19-31

Do not doubt but believe

Every year on the Sunday after Easter we listen to the marvelous and mysterious story from John’s Gospel that we just heard. Jesus shows himself to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day and then returns a week later to convince the disciple we call Doubting Thomas that yes, the Risen Christ is real.

“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas, showing him the wounds. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And then Thomas finds his faith, saying, “My Lord and my God.” As I’m sure some of you noticed, two days after Easter Sunday we celebrated Earth Day, which means that this year Easter Week and Earth Week almost completely overlapped. As your new Missioner for Creation Care in this diocese, I’d like to reflect on Earth Day in light of our Easter joy. And what great timing for me, because I get to do this in a community named after St. Francis, a Christian who discerned God’s Presence in non-human creatures and in nature herself, and who experienced that connection so deeply that he called the sun his brother, and the moon his sister in Christ. Our Easter proclamation and our Easter hymns and prayers make it abundantly clear that Christ’s death and resurrection are good news not just to human beings but also to the whole and every part of Creation – to 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 someone chant these ancient words:
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen! Today’s Gospel story invites us to explore the good news of Christ’s resurrection by taking stock of our doubts and then letting them go. Doubting Thomas stands for all of us who wrestle with doubt – doubt about what Jesus accomplished on the cross and doubt about the reality of the resurrection. Doubt is a perfect theme for Earth Day, too, for when it comes to climate change, which is at the top of everybody’s list of concerns on Earth Day, we hear a lot about the doubters, don’t we? A Gallup poll released on Earth Day shows that one in four Americans is “solidly skeptical” of global warming and refuses to believe that human-caused climate change is real. Other members of the public are on the fence and don’t know what to believe, assuming that the jury is still out and that scientists have yet to reach a consensus on the reality and causes of climate change. I’m sure there are many reasons that some people still doubt that human-caused climate change is happening. If you’re a gardener or a farmer, you know how much you love the piece of ground that is in your care, and how precious and beautiful the natural world is. If you’ve gardened in one place for a while, you may have started to notice the subtle changes taking place as the years go by: how a particular flower now blooms two weeks earlier than it used to, or how migratory birds now arrive at a different time. In some respects climate change is very local, but many busy, rootless, urban folks don’t have that kind of intimate relationship with a specific ecosystem.1 Today, most people worldwide live in cities, and many of us who live in modern, post-industrial countries work indoors and travel to work inside a vehicle. Many of us spend a lot our work time and leisure time relating to a computer screen or a TV screen. The natural world can seem very far away, and we may be completely unaware of what’s taking place right in our own backyards. What’s more, a good many special interest groups are working hard and spending millions of dollars in a deliberate campaign of disinformation to make the American public stay confused. The same folks who spread doubt some years ago about the risk of smoking tobacco are throwing their weight behind some of the current efforts to mislead the public about the reality of climate change.2 But the truth is that the scientific controversy is over. The science is settled. 97% of climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that climate change is not a future threat – in fact, it is not a threat at all. It is our reality. Burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil is releasing gases into the atmosphere that are forming a blanket around the Earth and making the climate hotter and more unstable. Of course there has always been some natural variability in the planet’s average temperature, but ever since the Industrial Revolution we’ve been forcing the climate to change in a way that human beings have never experienced before. Around the world we’re seeing the result in extreme fluctuations of weather: droughts and floods, record heat waves and unusual bouts of cold weather. No wonder global warming is sometimes dubbed “global weirding.” The environmentalist Bill McKibben puts it succinctly: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”3 So when I hear Jesus say to Doubting Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” I hear Jesus inviting Thomas – and 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 were happening, that we weren’t seeing dying coral and melting ice-caps, rising seas and rising numbers of refugees. But 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. Yet because of Jesus’ crucifixion, we know that God is with us in our suffering and in the planet’s suffering. We know, and God knows, that all Creation is groaning (Romans 8:22). And because of Easter we also know that death does not have to be the end of the story. “When it was evening of Easter day, the first day of the week,” Jesus comes and stands among his disciples and says, “‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19). Can you feel the impact of that moment? The Risen Christ comes to his guilty, worried, frightened friends and says “Peace be with you.” It is peace that he gives them. Forgiveness. Acceptance. However much they’ve abandoned and denied him, he loves them still. In fact, in this one short passage Jesus says “Peace be with you” three times, as if the disciples need to hear that message again and again – partly in order to undo Peter’s three-fold denial, but also so that all of them and all of us will experience that forgiveness deep in our bones. Maybe that moment marks the beginning of our own resurrected life: when we hear and take in how much God loves us and how completely we are forgiven, no matter what we have done. We humans are hurting this Creation, which God has given us as a free gift to love and to steward – and yet, we are forgiven. And from this place of being forgiven, we can now act to right the wrong and can live in a different way. So it is not only peace that Jesus gives to his disciples. He also sends them on a mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he says, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. Jesus not only shares in our suffering, he not only loves and forgives us – he also sends us out to bear witness to the resurrection, to the wild, holy, and completely unexpected fact that through the grace and power of God, life – not death – will have the last word. Through the power of the Risen Christ, we 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. What can we do? We can recycle more, drive less, and quit using bottled water. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and turn down the heat. As individuals we can and should do everything we can, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with other people and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We need to push our political leaders to get this country and other countries on track to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, the uppermost level that many scientists say is safe for life as we know it to continue on this planet. What is the level today? 400 — and climbing. So we have work to do. I invite you to imagine a church, imagine a diocese, in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet. We are facing the greatest challenge that human beings have ever faced, and we refuse to get bogged down by doubt, denial, or despair. I am delighted to hear that you are forming a green team or a Creation Care task force – or whatever you want to call it – in this parish, and that you will start exploring what you can accomplish together. I hope that anyone interested in building a network of people in the diocese committed to Creation care will give me their name, so that we can work together and support each other. I am grateful for Doubting Thomas, for he gives voice to our doubt – doubt that we can prevent catastrophic climate change, doubt that we can make a difference, doubt that resurrection is even possible. But just as Jesus invited Thomas to move past his doubts, so, too, Jesus invites us to receive the gift of his forgiveness and the power of his energizing Spirit. Today at the Eucharist we will stretch out our hands to receive the body and blood of Christ, just as Thomas stretched out his hands to touch Christ’s wounded hands and side. There is so much healing that we can do, so much power-to-reconcile that God has given to us, so much life that we can help to bring forth. Do not doubt but believe.
1. Naomi Klein has written an excellent essay about why so many Americans are not responding to the climate crisis: “The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External,” posted online on April 21, 2014; appeared in May 12, 2014 edition of The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/article/179460/change-within-obstacles-we-face-are-not-just-external 2. 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 (http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/); see also Ross Gelbspan, The Heat is On (http://www.heatisonline.org/); and Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2007 report on ExxonMobil http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/fight-misinformation/exxonmobil-report-smoke.html 3. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket (http://www.billmckibben.com/)