Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at West Parish Church (UCC), Andover, MA Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Prodigal Son and the Great Turning

Our text this morning, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, is from the Gospel of Luke. It’s one of the best-known and best-loved parables that Jesus ever told. People often call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but that title isn’t quite accurate, since the parable is really about two sons and their loving father. Still, it is the prodigal son, the younger one, that I’d like to focus on this morning, because as we think about our relationship with the natural world, both as individuals and collectively, as a species, it may be just the story that we need to hear.

The story begins: “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11). For reasons we don’t know, the younger son decides to go it alone. He’s outta there, itching to leave, ready to hit the road and do things his own way. He asks his father to give him his portion of his inheritance in advance – quite a presumptuous and irregular thing to do in that culture – and off he goes, money in hand, to what the story calls “a distant country” (Luke 15:13). There, he squanders it all in “dissolute living.” After spending every last dime, he is caught up in “a severe famine” that has spread across the country, and he begins “to be in need” (Luke 15:14). What can he do? He hires himself out in a job considered shameful in Jewish culture: he feeds pigs, which are unclean animals according to Jewish law. Humiliated and close to starving, he wishes desperately that he could eat the very pods or corncobs that the pigs eat. This part of the story ends with the awful words that ring like a death sentence: “No one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16).
Portion of painting by Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son.
Let’s push the pause button and stop for a moment. I can identify with this first part of the story and maybe you can, too. I know what it’s like – as maybe you do, too – to choose the go-it-alone path, the I-don’t-need-God path, the rebellious path that the Twelve-Step program calls “self-will run riot.” I’ve been there, done that, and maybe you have, too. When we choose that path, we leave our home in God – that place within ourselves where we feel seen and known and loved. Renouncing love, forsaking God and neighbor, we grab whatever we can for ourselves and we do whatever we darn well please – never mind the consequences to ourselves or anybody else. There are many ways we can wind up in a distant country far from home, knowing that we’ve betrayed our better selves. Somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn or made a terrible choice, and now here we are, as frightened as the prodigal son beside the pigs, feeling alone and helpless, full of self-reproach. Lent is a good season for reflecting on how as individuals each of us has abandoned or rejected the God of love and squandered our inheritance. As it says in a poignant prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer, we know what’s it’s like to “have wandered far in a land that is waste.”1 But it’s not only we as individuals who can wander far in a land that is waste – whole societies can do that, too. The path that most of humanity has traveled for the past two hundred years has brought us to a situation in which the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by developing huge swaths of land and destroying habitat. Human beings have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970.  We are on the brink or in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event and alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” And there’s more bad news: related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet is breaking records for heat, month after month. The New York Times reports that: “The five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…[that] 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.”  The oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise. Land ice is melting. Sea ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. Extreme storms are growing more intense – just think of the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, after a devastating cyclone produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days. In a perfect illustration of the fundamental injustice of climate change, which hurts poorest communities first and hardest, nearly 3 million people have been affected across this region of Africa, which is one of the poorest in the world. Closer to home, our hearts go out to the ranchers and farmers suffering under torrential rains and record flooding in Nevada and other parts of the American Midwest, with scientists predicting an “unprecedented” flood season in the weeks ahead. Day by day we hear new stories about the painful, even terrifying effects of a rapidly changing climate. And the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming. Like the prodigal son, have we wandered far in a land that is waste? You bet we have. So how sweet it is to reach the story’s next line, its turning point: “When he came to himself…” (Luke 15:17). The young man comes to himself, he turns, and he starts to travel home. That’s such a great line: “He came to himself.” It’s as if he woke up, he broke through the spell, he remembered who he was: created in love, created for love – love for himself and his neighbor, love for the natural world, and love for God. When we come to ourselves, when we are truly ourselves, we begin the journey home to God. Our basic nature, our truest nature, is found as we turn and head toward God, our divine Father and Mother, the lover of our souls and the source of all life. What would it look like if humanity “came to ourselves”? Maybe it would look something like this: one individual after another saying, “Hey, wait a second. We don’t have to live like this. We don’t have to settle for a death-dealing, materialistic society that willy-nilly gobbles up all the land and trees and creatures of this world, extracts and burns dirty fossil fuels, pours toxic pollutants into the water and air, and stuffs the landfill with plastics and waste. We don’t have to settle for a suicidal course that steals a habitable world from our children. Through the grace of God we can make changes in our own lives, so that we live more gently and lovingly on the Earth, and we can resist and protest the powers-that-be that are determined to make huge profits by treating people and planet alike as completely disposable, extracting every last drop of oil and gas and every last ounce of coal, and cutting down every last tree.” We can say to ourselves, “I’m going to turn my own life around and make the changes I can make, and I’m also going to stand with all the people of the world who want what I want – a society marked by generosity, not greed; by justice, not prejudice and inequity; by love, and not indifference and hate.” Like the prodigal son, we can say to ourselves “I will get up and go to my father” (Luke 15:18) and begin the journey home. If you’d like to discuss the specific things we can do as we make that journey, and talk about everything from electric cars to the Green New Deal, I hope you’ll meet with me after the service. You know, the journey we’re undertaking will not be an easy one, for the challenges ahead of us are great and the corporate and political powers arrayed against us are strong. The IPCCC tells us that in order to avert climate chaos and the possible collapse of civilization, humanity has to change course at a scale and speed that is unprecedented in human history. So, yeah, as we rise up to fight for a better world, sometimes we’ll find ourselves wrestling with feelings of helplessness, grief, and even despair. I’m so interested in what gives us strength and energy to keep going that I just finished co-editing a book of essays with my friend Leah Schade, which will be published this fall. It’s entitled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and it’s a collection of essays by 21 faith-based climate activists, reflecting on the spiritual practices that sustain us. I can think of no more beautiful way to spend ones life than to take part in what leaders like Joanna Macy and David C. Korten call the Great Turning, the epic transition from a deathly society to one that fosters life. It’s what philosopher Thomas Berry calls the “Great Work”: our wholehearted effort to create a more just and sustainable society. And it’s what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ, who longs to reconcile us to God and to each other and to the whole of God’s Creation.2 You know, God loves it when we come home. God gets happy when we who are lost are willing to be found. That’s what Jesus shows us in the next part of the parable: the father, who has evidently been waiting eagerly for his son’s return, catches sight of him while he is “still far off” and, “filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20), runs out to greet him and catches him up in his arms in an exuberant embrace. The story of the prodigal son is a grand story about reunion, about being lost and being found, about forgiveness and reconciliation. May it be our story, too, as we come home to ourselves and turn our lives toward loving God and all our neighbors, including our brother-sister beings and the Earth upon which all life depends.
1. The Book of Common Prayer (The Seabury Press, 1979), 450. 2. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Foreword, The Green Bible, New Revised Standard Version (New York: HarperOne, HarperCollins, 2008), I-14
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2016. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace-St. Paul’s Church, Tucson, AZ. Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Psalm 27 Philippians 3:17-41 Luke 13:31-35

Fasting from carbon

I am blessed to be with you this morning. My husband and I now come to Grace-St. Paul’s whenever we visit Tucson, and I am grateful to be with you again. This is a special place: I feel the Holy Spirit here. Thank you, Steve, for inviting me back to this pulpit.

To say just a word about myself: after 25 years of parish ministry, I now serve as Missioner for Creation Care in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. My dream is to help create a wave of religious activism to protect the web of life that God entrusted to our care. So I travel around, preaching and teaching and leading retreats about God’s love for this precious planet and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human, and the need to take action to express our faith. My particular concern is the climate crisis, so you can probably imagine my delight when I learned a few weeks ago that the couple who funded the first two years of my ministry raised the money by selling off their oil stocks. This is happy news to someone who believes, as I do, that divesting from fossil fuels is an expression of our moral values and will help propel a shift to clean energy. So here we are in the second Sunday in Lent, a season for renewing our lives in response to the love of God. Thanks to the passage from Genesis, today we have Abram standing at our side, an old man who, along with his wife, was landless, childless, without an heir. The door to his future was completely closed, shut tight, locked, and throw away the key. Nothing good lay ahead. Then God spoke to Abram in a vision and made a promise, the kind of promise that God made to a whole line of prophets, one after another: the door to the future was open. Through the grace of God, Abram’s life would bear fruit; he would bring forth life; he would convey blessings that would reach far into the future, blessings as countless as the stars. And Abram responded with faith. He trusted in God’s promise. He stepped out into an unknown and open future, trusting that God would guide him and that God would make him a vehicle or channel for new life. Today is a good day to stand with our faithful brother Abram and to reaffirm our trust in God’s promise that even when the future looks bleak or chaotic, even when we see no way forward, God is with us. God will open a path where there was no path, provide a way where there was no way, and pour divine hope into our hearts when our own hope is gone. Heaven knows there are reasons to fear for the future. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. 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 atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than our species has ever experienced before. So far that extra CO2 has forced the average global temperature to rise about one degree. That may not sound like much, but what’s so worrisome to scientists is that this process is happening so fast. Already oceans are heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains intensifying in others. We’re on the edge, or in the midst, of what some experts call the sixth major extinction event on this planet. 2015 was the hottest year on record, shattering the record set just the year before. We know that the situation is urgent. We know we have only a short time in which to avert a level of climate disruption that would render the world ungovernable and possibly uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children and our children’s children. The World Bank – hardly a leftist organization – recently warned that unless we quickly rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – in the next 15 years. Just imagine for a moment the human suffering and social upheaval that this would engender worldwide. We know we can do better than that. And as people of faith we refuse to stand idly by and to let business as usual destroy human communities and destroy life as it has evolved on the planet. As Pope Francis so beautifully explained in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si – in a message that was picked up and amplified by Anglican, Jewish, Muslim, and many other religious voices the world over – we bear a moral and spiritual responsibility to respond boldly to the climate crisis. Lent invites us to come back into balance, to align our lives with our deepest intention, and to make the changes we need to make in order for God’s love to be manifest more fully in our lives. Today, in the presence and power of God, and with Abram at our side, we dare to ask some big questions: Through the grace of God, how can my life bring forth new life? How can I contribute to a better future? How can I live so that my life becomes a blessing to those who come after me? As Ella Fitzgerald once put it, “It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.” You know, there are many ways to be healers in the world, many ways to help our neighbors. But regarding climate change, here come three suggestions. One: sign up online for the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast. During Lent, we seek to restore the limits that give life. Let’s you and I learn how to fast from carbon. Let’s you and I learn together how to make choices that cut back dramatically on our use of fossil fuels. This is an honorable, and I would argue, a necessary, Lenten practice. When you sign up for the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, you receive a daily email with inspirational reflection and a specific action step to reduce your personal consumption of dirty energy. Right now the fast is being carried out by thousands of Christians who care for God’s Creation. Two: write a postcard to your members of Congress. After the service, stop at the table for Citizens Climate Lobby and pick up some postcards. You might think that writing a letter or postcard to your member of Congress is a waste of time, but it’s not: your representatives probably have no idea that you care about climate change and that you’re tracking what they’re doing. And Citizens Climate Lobby is pushing for a way to price carbon that will get us off fossil fuels, create new jobs, and accelerate a transition to a new economy based on clean, renewable sources of energy, like sun and wind. Last summer I joined scores of other faith leaders to lobby on behalf of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, D.C. We didn’t push for carbon pricing because we were Democrats, or because we were Republicans, or because we were socialists or members of the Green Party. It wasn’t politics that propelled us to support carbon pricing. It was faith: faith in a God who utterly loves us and all Creation, faith in a God who envisions a healthy, just, and sustainable society, faith in a God who wants our lives to be a blessing to the vulnerable poor and to those who come after us. Three: go to the Website, sign up to receive emails, and build the global climate movement. is the grassroots non-profit that is helping to create a wave of global resistance to keep coal, gas, and oil in the ground, where they belong. This coming May, actions will be held in places all over the world to “shut down the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects and support the most ambitious climate solutions.” Already the movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground is gaining momentum. People are blockading oil trains and protesting the construction of new pipelines; thousands of so-called “kayaktivists” took to the water in Seattle to block an oil-drilling rig; and two men in a lobster boat near Cape Cod disrupted the delivery of 40,000 tons of coal. Just this week, beloved writer Terry Tempest Williams took part in an auction in Salt Lake City that was selling off leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands. As a climate protester, she bought up land rights on a parcel near Arches National Park in Utah in an effort to prevent any drilling. Later she commented, “It has deeply shaken my core as an American citizen to watch these beautiful, powerful public lands that are all of ours, and our inheritance, being sold for $2 an acre, $3 an acre… I’m both heartsick and heartbroken and outraged.” Yes, it can be heartbreaking to take part in the struggle to stabilize the climate and to heal our relationship with the Earth. But the pain we feel is an expression of love, and love is what sustains us, and guides us, and will see us through. So I invite you to take up my three suggestions: to join the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast; to sign postcards to your legislators on behalf of Citizens Climate Lobby; and to join and the global climate movement. As people of faith, we’re here for the long haul. We’re not going away. We’re going to keep fighting for a future that runs on clean energy like sun and wind. We’re going to keep fighting for a society and an economy that leave no one out. As Pope Francis reminded us, the cry of the Earth is intimately connected with the cry of the poor. We hear that cry. We share that cry. And we intend to answer it, by divestment and direct action, by voting and lobbying, by making personal changes in our lifestyle and, perhaps, by engaging in peaceful civil disobedience. A new world is on the horizon, and we hope to act like midwives, helping that new world to be born. We hope to act like Abram, trusting in God’s promise of new life. And we hope to act like Jesus, who when Herod threatened to kill him, refused to be intimidated or deterred. Despite all the forces arrayed against him, Jesus continued to heal and to set free. He refused to be stopped. “Today,” he said, “tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way” (Luke 31:33 ). And so it is for us. We, too, must be on our way — on Jesus’s way — today, tomorrow, and the next day. Who knows what God in Christ will be able to do through us, now and in the days ahead?