In April 2023, Rev. Margaret gave the opening presentation for a webinar hosted by Church of England Environment Programme. The webinar, “Preaching for God’s World,” featured an international panel of speakers. Her presentation, “Why do we need to preach on Creation care?” is posted on the Church of England’s YouTube channel and at the top of this webpage: Environment in prayer, worship and teaching | The Church of England. The entire webinar is here: Preaching for God’s World Including the environment in your preaching – YouTube.
Rev. Margaret gave this opening presentation for “Preaching for God’s World,” a webinar on April 20, 2023, hosted by Church of England Environment Programme, which featured an international panel of speakers. Her presentation is posted on YouTube.
Why do we need to preach on creation care? Two reasons: Jesus commands it, and the world needs it. Let’s take these one by one.
At the end of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus commands, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). The good news of God in Christ is to be proclaimed in word and deed to the whole creation – not only to human beings, but to all our fellow creatures and indeed to the whole web of life. From the first words of Genesis, when God created all that is and pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:30) to the last pages of the Book of Revelation, which speak of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), the sweep of our salvation history embraces the whole creation. What do we preach? We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23). And Christ’s life, death, and resurrection touches every corner of the world. As St. Paul tells us, in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). Christ came to reconcile all things – which means that when we preach, we hold in mind God’s desire to restore our connections to each other and to the land, God’s longing to heal our estrangement both from our fellow humans and from the rest of the natural world. When we preach, we hold in mind God’s heartbreak when we trample our brother-sister beings and when we contaminate the soil, water, and air upon which all life depends. With the psalmist, we proclaim, The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it (Psalm 24:1), and thus we preach to restore reverence for God’s creation and to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that considers the natural world nothing more than inert material, just an object for us to exploit.
Not to preach about the climate crisis, not to preach about environmental degradation, not to preach about our calling to repair and restore the world that God entrusted to our care is to preach a Gospel that is far too small. It’s high time to quit preaching a narrowly anthropocentric Gospel and to remember that in the very first book of the Bible, God forged an “everlasting covenant” not only with human beings but also with “every living creature” (Gen. 9:8-17). Preaching about Earth care is central to proclaiming Christian faith. As the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, the “supreme work”1 of Jesus Christ is to reconcile us to God, to one another, and to God’s whole creation.
That’s reason #1. The second reason to preach about creation care is that the world needs it. The world needs our preaching for pastoral reasons. Amid the accelerating trauma and losses caused by climate change, including droughts, floods, wildfires, and heat, our congregations need to hear about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us and who understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed. This is a pastoral issue!
The world needs our preaching for prophetic reasons, too. Scientists tell us that we live at a decisive moment in human history: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented. So, we need sermons about our moral obligation to create a more just and habitable world. We need sermons about a God who gives high-consuming people the power to amend our lives, and sermons about a God who stands with those hurt first and hardest by a changing climate, which are usually low-income, low-wealth communities and communities of color. We need sermons about a God who calls us not to the quiet acceptance of a killing status quo but rather to active resistance, a God who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy. The early Christians were so fired up by the love that transcends death and so willing to transform their society that they were accused of turning the world “upside down” (Act. 17:6), of acting “contrary to the decrees of the emperor” (Act. 17:7), and of obeying God rather than any human authority (Act. 5:29).
So, let’s hear some big, bold sermons that push back against climate “doomism” and hopelessness and that mobilize action for systemic change. Let’s take up our pastoral and prophetic vocation to preach Gospel hope in a time of human and planetary emergency.
Jesus calls us to preach good news to the whole creation, and the world needs that message as never before. Let’s do it. Let’s preach the whole Gospel, the whole good news.
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword,” The Green Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers (HarperOne), 2008, I-14.
ecoAmerica, Let’s Talk Climate: Season of Creation
Rev. Margaret was interviewed by Rev. Carol Devine, Director of Blessed Tomorrow, in a conversation about Season of Creation. In 2000, St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Adelaide, South Australia, celebrated the first Season of Creation. Since then, churches around the world have joined in celebrating Creation and deepening their commitment to climate solutions in the fall of each year. Rev. Margaret discussed the history and significance of this time-period, the many resources available, and how clergy and lay leaders can get involved.
What makes a sermon about climate change “pastoral” or “prophetic”? How should preachers address climate grief? Why should we preach about voting, and what’s the difference between partisan and political activity?
These questions and more were discussed by the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas in a climate preaching webinar on September 15, 2022, co-sponsored by the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ. This text is based on our conversation. A 30-minute video is available here. Passcode: 05@=u87H
Opening prayer (by Jim)
Good and gracious God,
We give thanks that you have called us to proclaim your Good News in a time of great challenge. Grant us your assurance that we have been given everything we need to inspire both courage and conviction in the communities you have given us to serve. May our time together in the coming hour open us to the opportunity to amplify our witness on behalf of restoring your creation. With grateful hearts we pray. Amen.
Overview (by Jim)
First, we’ll provide some context for our conversation, including brief updates on the state of God’s creation and humanity’s collective response.
Then, Margaret will share her experience and insights on how to address the climate crisis in a pastoral way, drawing on spiritual and theological foundations as we enter the Season of Creation. Margaret will also offer some guidance on the relationship between grief and activism.
Then, I’ll provide some guidance on how we can speak a prophetic word about engaging the climate crisis in a way that our congregants welcome as an opportunity. I’ll share how climate change reveals all justice issues to be intersectional, and I’ll share why we should preach on the importance of voting and the difference between being partisan and being political in our preaching. Then, we will field questions.
Context of our conversation: National and international (by Jim)
I’ll begin with three examples of Good News:
- First, in less than a year, Congress has committed OVER HALF A TRILLION DOLLARS to address the climate crisis and energy transition.
- My second illustration comes under the heading “WE CAN DO THIS!” Thanks to the relentless efforts of scientists and engineers, by 2030, electricity from solar, wind, and water could provide all the electricity the world needs. And by 2035, renewable energy could also be the sole energy source for all the world’s heating, cooling, transportation, and industry.1 Furthermore, making this transition will pay for itself in only six years.2 Not only that, but as we make this transition, we can address economic and racial inequities – and by doing so, we will reap benefits far greater than the costs.
- The headline for my final illustration is, “WE CAN ADAPT!” While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is horrific, one of Germany’s responses has been to drop its dependence on natural gas by 90%. And here in the U.S., President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to build millions of electric heat pumps that will reduce dependence on oil and gas.
Of course, the past few months have brought plenty of bad news as well:
- We now know that air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels kills almost 9 million people a year.3 That’s more than malaria, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. And that doesn’t even include the lives lost due to the impact of increased global warming. A 2021 study4 reports that if global warming exceeds 1.5ºC (2.7°F), the world’s tropics could become uninhabitable. 2.5 billion people live in the tropics.
- In other words, the past decade has been the hottest decade since records have been kept5– and the past decade will be the coolest decade your children and your grandchildren will ever experience.
- It’s not only heat. You probably heard that one-third of Pakistan is under water and 32 million people are displaced.6 Were you aware that between mid-July and mid-August (2022), five states here in the U.S. experienced 1-in-1,000-year rain events?7 Imagine 9 months of rain in a single day. And it’s not just deluge – it’s also drought. That’s why we call it climate chaos. Europe’s drought is the worst in 500 years.8 And the American west is experiencing what some experts call a once-in-a-thousand-year drought.
Now I’ll turn things over to Margaret for some additional Good News!
Context of our conversation: Massachusetts (by Margaret)
Earlier this summer, after weeks of speculation that he would veto it, our Republican governor in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker, signed into law what’s being called a landmark climate bill. Among other things, this sweeping climate legislation gives a major boost to renewables, including offshore wind. After an intensive push by climate justice advocates, it also clarifies that biomass is not a renewable energy source. That win was particularly sweet to me, because incentives for biomass are what spurred a proposal for a dirty wood-burning plant in Springfield, an environmental justice community located close to where I live. Following the lead of California, the bill also bans the sale of new internal combustion-powered vehicles by 2035 – to put it another way, all new vehicles sold in the Bay State must be EVs or hydrogen-powered by 2035. The legislation also allows 10 municipalities to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, which is a first for the state.
The bill isn’t perfect – there’s still work to be done – but we hope that it will spur the next administration to take further steps to address climate emergency.
Preaching a pastoral climate sermon (by Margaret)
I’d like to reflect on how we preach a pastoral sermon about climate change. That may sound like a contradiction since we usually think of preaching about climate change as likely to stir up trouble. Stirring up trouble – good trouble – is often just what the Holy Spirit calls the preacher to do, simply because most faith communities are not going to rise up to address the climate emergency until their preachers speak with the moral clarity and fearlessness of a prophet. So, in a moment, Jim will speak about prophetic climate preaching. But a strong climate sermon includes elements that are both pastoral and prophetic.
So, let’s focus for a moment on what makes a climate sermon pastoral. What makes any sermon “pastoral”? It provides emotional, social, and spiritual support. A pastoral climate sermon does at least four things:
- A pastoral climate sermon pushes back against helplessness
Our parishioners may not have told us, but many of them are already grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. Clinicians are increasingly speaking about “climate distress” and “climate stress.” Even if our house hasn’t been washed away by an extreme storm or rising seas – even if we haven’t had to run from wildfires or had to breathe smoky air, day after day – even if we haven’t wondered where we – or our fields, gardens, or livestock – will find the next drink because our waterways have run dry – even if we haven’t endured a searing heatwave – we probably know people who have; we know that millions of people in this country and worldwide are enduring these conditions now; and we know that future conditions will likely become even more difficult.
It can be a relief when a preacher finally makes climate change “speakable” – something we intend to discuss and learn about and lean into together. A pastoral sermon conveys the message: you are not alone. We will support each other, and we intend to find a way forward together.
Simply gathering for worship pushes back against helplessness: we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands. How do people get through tough times? We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories. We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
- A pastoral climate sermon makes space for grief
The climate crisis can make us go numb. Newspaper and media reports convey a cascade of losses every day, so it’s easy to shut down and lose heart. In our sermons, we can name, and normalize, the range of feelings evoked by climate change – grief, fear, outrage, confusion, maybe guilt or shame, dread, despair… And we can suggest practices, teachings, and rituals that help us to accept, work with, and move through the feelings that are being stirred up.
To support that process, in our congregations we might create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we might hold public ceremonies of lament outdoors. Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. I remember, for instance, gathering in 2010 on the town common in Amherst after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for a public ceremony of singing, speaking, and prayer. I also remember hearing about the “Requiem for a Glacier” in 2013, when 50 musicians climbed Farnham Glacier in British Columbia to perform an oratorio.
What would it be like – how might it empower us – if we took time in worship services and in outdoor public spaces to lament species that have gone extinct, forests that have burned, or reservoirs that have run dry? Daring to lament together allows us to feel our deep longing for healing and reconciliation and to experience the God who weeps with us. Daring to lament together protects our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. And it allows our emotions to become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
Making a space for grief in a climate sermon may be as simple as saying “We hold in our hearts the many thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, who still don’t have safe drinking water after an historic rainfall and flood.” Rather than coming at your listeners with a hard-hitting list of fact after fact, which might leave people stunned, in their heads, and emotionally defended, we are modeling how to hold traumatic events with an open heart. Or, depending on the text we’re working with, our sermon can focus on how Jesus accompanies us, shares our sorrows, and offers his strength and presence and healing.
Last point: As spiritual leaders, we need to grow our capacity to be with people who are in distress. We will only be able to do that to the extent that we’ve grown in our capacity to sit with our own distress.
- A pastoral climate sermon connects deeply with Christian faith
When we step into the pulpit, we don’t have to be policy wonks or expert scientists. We are theologians and communicators who want to convey God’s unbounded love for God’s people and for the whole Creation, and God’s urgent call for us to participate in God’s mission of justice, reconciliation, and healing. So, let’s surround our sermons with prayers and hymns that make it clear that our salvation story encompasses the whole Creation, not just human beings.
I’m excited to introduce a new ecumenical liturgical resource for Creation Season. Last July I worked on it with a colleague in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, the Rev. John Elliott Lein, and it’s been authorized for public use this season by at least four Episcopal dioceses (Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration).
Let me quickly sketch what you’ll find there.
- A primer on Creation care theology describes the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and provides seven theological touchstones to guide your thinking and preaching about climate. It also names some of the key solutions for addressing the crisis.
- It goes through the lectionary for the 5 Sundays of Creation Season, providing prayers and non-biblical readings and giving preaching suggestions on some difficult texts.
- It concludes with a large collection of resources – prayers, blessings, readings, hymns – from a wide range of ancient and contemporary sources, which take us from Kenya and New Zealand to England and the Iona community – from poets and early Christian mystics to Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew – from William Wordsworth to Wendell Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer.
I hope it will be helpful for both Episcopal and UCC preachers – helpful for Episcopal liturgists, because this resource takes us far beyond the bounds of the Book of Common Prayer and invites us to imagine a God who loves and saves every inch of creation, and helpful for UCC liturgists because it is well crafted!
My favorite part: John Lein examines the prayers of the people in our prayer book. He suggests: When we pray for the suffering and the dead, why don’t we pray for the wellbeing of all creatures and mourn the extinction of other species? When we bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, why don’t we explicitly bless all living beings and ecosystems whose lives are closely linked with ours? At least for me, once you start praying in that expansive way and open your prayers beyond human concerns to the concerns of the rest of Creation, there’s no going back!
- A pastoral climate sermon includes at least one thing we can do
The way to build hope is to take action. A pastoral sermon conveys a message of agency, a message of empowerment – through the grace of God, we intend to do everything we can to protect what remains and to fight for a just and habitable world.
In my talks right now, I mention Faiths 4 Climate Justice, GreenFaith’s global campaign, between Oct. 2 and Nov. 6 (the eve of the next U.N. climate talks at COP27), in which people of faith around the world will proclaim that the Earth and all people are sacred. Among other things, in prayer vigils and protests we will call for an immediate end to new fossil fuel projects, an end to deforestation, and an end to related financing.
A pastoral sermon emphasizes that everyone has an active role to play, and a preacher can help listeners to find their place in the movement.
Comment on Margaret’s presentation (by Jim)
Thanks for your excellent guidance, Margaret. I want to amplify two things you said.
First, you said we need to make space for grief. Along with that, we need to do everything possible to assure that our congregation is a safe-enough place for honest conversation about grief over the loss of the world we have to let go.
You also suggested that churches might dare to lament. I just want to add that our lamentation is part of living the truth. As children of the Creator God, faithfulness demands that we tell the truth about the desecration of creation, and as we do, a liturgical expression of that truth is lamentation.
Preaching a prophetic climate sermon (by Jim)
Just as we are called to be pastoral in our approach to preaching on the climate crisis, we must also be prophetic. In my book, Climate Church, Climate World, my chapter on prophetic preaching offers many suggestions about how, as preachers, we must free ourselves from fear so that we can respond to God’s call to engage the climate crisis as “opportunity.”
Prophetic preaching requires preparation. Amidst all the demands on our lives, we must create the space to allow ourselves to fully take in the wonder of creation. And we must have the courage to experience the grief we feel when we truly acknowledge the destruction caused by humanity’s greed and selfishness.
And as we do, we might find ourselves in the company of Esther, confronted with the realization that perhaps we were born for just such a time as this (Esther 4:14). Perhaps our generation was born to put an end to three interconnected systemic injustices:
- the subjugation of other humans who are not our color;
- the colonization of land, sea and air that is not our own; and
- the extraction of nature’s wealth that we did not create.
If that is truly our calling, then our preaching must go beyond urging people to be good stewards of the earth, as the Rev. Fletcher Harper, Episcopal priest and founder of Greenfaith, points out in his excellent article in Sojourners magazine (September 2021).
In our preaching, we need to name what is creating the problem. Environmental giant Gus Speth famously identifies the cause as “selfishness and greed and pride.” Fletcher Harper is a little more specific. He points to the supply side of the problem, naming “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and other oil and gas companies [who] are systematically destroying the planet” – along with “financial giants like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, BlackRock, and Vanguard [who] are bankrolling the destruction.”
Another goal of prophetic preaching is to remind people that we are not called to stand idly by as countless examples of injustice continue to frame the status quo. In our preaching, we must help our congregation envision “a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) in which all of God’s creatures can celebrate our interdependence. And then we must invite our congregations to assess all the gifts, the abilities, the assets God has given them and commit their lives to helping our town, our state, our nation, our world, move in that direction.
Another feature of our prophetic preaching is to help our congregations understand that the climate crisis is not one crisis among many. Every congregation I’ve ever known treats its various missions and benevolences as silos. Often, there’s a particular individual in the congregation who is the champion of a particular cause. But the more you learn about the climate crisis, the clearer it becomes that every justice issue you care about – hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, immigration, disease, lack of access to clean water and education – these justice issues are intersectional – they are not separate and distinct from one another – and climate change is making every one of them worse.
The only way humanity can address these intersectional challenges is by coming together. That’s why the actions of governments are so important to anyone concerned about justice. And that’s why it’s important for clergy to encourage their congregations to name and embrace their sacred responsibility to vote. It’s an act of faithfulness for churches to discuss the issues on the ballot and encourage people to vote.
Voting is the means by which we elect leaders and advance laws that can and should underwrite at least the following five principles:
- addressing the needs of the least of these among us;
- assuring and advancing justice;
- promoting the common good;
- telling and adhering to truth;
- and preserving and restoring the integrity of Creation.
These five principles are supported by every faith tradition I know of.
In our preaching, particularly in an election year, pastors need to help their congregations understand the distinction between being partisan and being political. To put it simply, there is no place for partisan activity in the life of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. What do I mean by partisan activity? Endorsing a candidate, supporting a political party, or fundraising for a candidate or a political party. These partisan activities have no place in the life of the church.
But examining how our community, our state, and our nation: address the needs of the least of these among us; how we assure and advance justice; how we promote the common good; how we tell and adhere to the truth; and how we preserve and restore God’s creation – the means by which all of these values are upheld are political.
Think about it. In almost every chapter of each of the four Gospels, we see Jesus urging the community to address the needs of the least of these among us. We hear Jesus passionately advocating for justice and promoting the common good. His commitment to truth is unwavering. And throughout scripture, God calls upon the faithful to preserve and restore creation.
All these activities are political because they involve how people relate to each other; how they govern their life together. In his ministry, Jesus tells the truth as he seeks to amplify love and expand justice in families, in towns and throughout the empire.
We are now in the Season of Creation, and we are also within two months of an election. Every congregation and every clergy leader now have an opportunity to identify the values and principles that guide us as people of faith when we consider our “life together” as residents of our state or country – and as stewards of God’s creation.
I recognize that all of this may come across as utterly foolish or impossibly challenging or something else altogether. Whatever your response to what Margaret and I have shared, I hope that we can go deeper in our time of discussion, and I very much look forward to hearing what’s on your mind and in your heart.
After discussion, we closed with prayer.
Closing Prayer (by Margaret)
Source of life, heal and redeem the wounds of your creation, and visit the places and people who suffer from our indifference, neglect, and greed. Creator of earth, sea, and sky, kindle the fire of your Spirit within us that we may be bold to heal and defend the earth, and pour your blessing upon all who work for the good of the planet. In the Name and power and presence of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
(Adapted from “Honoring God in Creation,” as cited in Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration)
Links to resources:
Margaret’s monthly newsletter, Creation Care Network e-news
Jim’s website: https://www.jimantal.com/
To join Creation Care Justice Network (for Episcopalians across MA) and to subscribe to the monthly newsletter, Green Justice News, click here
“Faiths 4 Climate Justice,” Oct. 2 – Nov. 6, 2022
ThirdAct.org, the new network, founded by Bill McKibben, for people over 60 who wish to leverage their money and experience to push for democratic social change and to preserve the planet. You can sign one of two banking pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”
Hannah Malcolm, “How to Rage: Climate Grief and the Church” (January 31, 2021)
Fletcher Harper, “Stop preaching about ‘being good stewards of the Earth,” Sojourners, Sept. 16, 2021
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (daily Advent/Christmas meditations reflecting on the meaning of the Incarnation in relation to the natural world)
1. Joint Declaration of the Global 100% RE Strategy Group, https://global100restrategygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Joint-Declaration-of-the-Global-100-RE-Strategy-Group-210208.pdf
2. Mark Hutchins, “Study finds 100% renewables would pay off within six years,” PV Magazine, August 9, 2022, https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2022/08/09/study-finds-100-renewables-would-pay-off-within-6-years/
3. Scott Tong, “Fossil fuel pollution is killing 8.7 million people a year, study says,” Marketplace, Feb. 9, 2021, https://www.marketplace.org/2021/02/09/fossil-fuel-pollution-killing-8-7-million-people-year-study-says/
4.Yi Zhang et al., “Projections of tropical heat stress constrained by atmospheric dynamics,” Nature Geoscience, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-021-00695-3
5. Raymond Zhong, “2021 Was Earth’s Fifth-Hottest Year, Scientists Say,” The New York Times, January 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/10/climate/2021-hottest-year.html
6. Smriti Mallapaty,“Pakistan’s floods have displaced 32 million people – here’s how researchers are helping,” Nature, September 9, 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-02879-2
7. From mid-July to mid-August 2022: St. Louis, July 25-26; Eastern Kentucky, July 28; Southern Illinois, August 2; Death Valley, August 5; and Dallas-Fort Worth, August 21-22
8. Jon Henley, “Hunger stones, wrecks and bones: Europe’s drought brings past to surface,” The Guardian, August 19, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/19/hunger-stones-wrecks-and-bones-europe-drought-brings-past-to-surface
From September 1 through October 4, Christians around the world celebrate Season of Creation. Creation Season is the perfect time to renew our reverence for Earth and the other creatures with whom we share this planet; to lament the ways that human activities assail the web of life; and to restore our faith, love, and hope as we renew our efforts to create a more just, habitable world.
I’m thrilled to announce a new liturgical resource for this year’s Season of Creation. Created by the Rev. John Elliott Lein (a fellow priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts) and I, this hefty new ecumenical collection of prayers, readings, hymns, and sermon notes has been authorized for public use by the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts, the Diocese of Vermont, and the Diocese of Maine. The beautiful image on the booklet’s front cover, “Earth Icon,” was created by Edith Adams Allison and inspired by Andrei Rublev’s icon, “The Trinity.”
Please share this material widely! If you’re an Episcopalian in another diocese, please consider asking your own bishop to authorize this resource for public worship. We want everyone to know the good news that God’s love and salvation extend to every corner of the Earth.
AND THAT’S NOT ALL!
Our friends in the Diocese of Southern Ohio have just rolled out “Good News to All Creation,” a set of devotionals designed to help vestries begin their meetings with a brief time of reflection and prayer. It is now available for download. Developed by the Diocese of Southern Ohio’s Creation Care and Environmental Task Force in partnership with the Center for Deep Green Faith (in Sewanee, TN), the devotionals begin in September with the Season of Creation and follow the liturgical seasons from Advent through Easter.
Whether you are an individual seeking to deepen your understanding of eco-theology, a vestry member hoping to connect your vestry’s work with protecting life on Earth, or a worship leader eager to plan services that reflect God’s care for the whole of Creation, I hope you’ll enjoy digging into both of these new resources. For other worship resources, check out SeasonOfCreation.org.
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 channel. A 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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
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.
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/
3. Leiserowitz A. et al, Climate Change in the American Mind, September 2021. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, November 18, 2021.
5. To sign up, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.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.
Looking for guidance as you prepare pastoral and prophetic sermons about the climate crisis? Here is a short list of resources for preachers that was assembled in September 2021 by the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President) and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Missioner for Creation Care [Episcopal Diocese of Western MA & Southern New England Conference, UCC] and Creation Care Advisor [Episcopal Diocese of MA]). We may update the list from time to time. If you have additions or corrections, please email email@example.com. To download a pdf, click here.
Climate preaching resources from Jim & Margaret:
Jim’s website, JimAntal.com, posts news & thought about the interfaith climate movement, upcoming events, information about his book, and ways to take action. His website includes a 3-page pdf of climate crisis resources for congregations and clergy that is packed with information and contains links to many UCC resources, resolutions, newsletter, etc.
Margaret’s website, RevivingCreation.org, includes about one hundred lectionary-based sermons about climate change and Creation care, plus blog posts, articles, upcoming events, videos, and books. Sign up for her monthly newsletter, Creation Care Network here.
Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), especially the chapter, “Prophetic Preaching,” 121-135. The book includes study questions and can be used for group study as well as individual reflection. Visit Jim’s Website to see what people like Bishop Desmond Tutu, Prof. Walter Brueggemann and Bill McKibben have to say about it.
Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, ed. Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). This anthology of 21 essays on courage and spiritual resilience from a range of faith traditions includes stories and insights useful for climate preaching, plus study questions and spiritual practices. It can be used for group study as well as individual reflection. For a 30% off discount, buy it from the publisher and use the code RLFANDF30.
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Climate Change, Addiction, and Spiritual Liberation,” Religions (September 2021). Drawing from her long-term recovery from addiction and her decades of ministry as a climate activist, the author reflects on how understanding the dynamics of addiction and recovery can inform our efforts to protect the web of life and bear witness to the liberating God of love. Topics include, among others, climate grief, denial, and “Is climate change my fault?”
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Preaching When Life Depends on It: Climate Crisis and Gospel Hope,” Anglican Theological Review (Vol. 103, 2), pp. 208–219. The author reflects on the power of sermons to awaken moral courage and considers six ideas for preachers: how to frame the climate emergency in terms of Christian theology; how to approach the lectionary; how to be adequately informed about climate science; how to connect climate change with other issues, such as coronavirus and racial and economic justice; why and how to infuse sermons with the empowering love of God; and individual and collective actions to encourage.
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Preaching Resilience: Cultivating Climate Justice from the Pulpit.” In this presentation for Creation Justice Ministries on March 24, 2022, the author discusses nine things she tries to do when preaching about climate emergency, from pushing back against helplessness and providing opportunities for emotional response to offering a moral framework and building hope by taking action. A recording of this conversation, along with CJM’s other workshops on climate resilience, is available on their YouTube channel.
Other climate preaching resources:
Fletcher Harper, “Stop preaching about ‘being good stewards of the Earth,” Sojourners, Sept. 16, 2021
Peter Sawtell, “Three Layers of Environmental Preaching” (If clicking the link doesn’t work, use a search engine to find the article). Peter Sawtell’s archive of weekly emails to his 6,000 subscribers is a treasure trove of resources and reflection for clergy and congregations: http://www.eco-justice.org/E-list.asp
“Let’s Talk Faith and Climate: Communication Guidance for Faith Leaders,” produced by EcoAmerica and Blessed Tomorrow, explains why our faith calls us to lead on climate, provides key talking points, and gives examples of “successful messaging.”
PreachingforGodsWorld: This ecumenical website features weekly, lectionary-based climate justice and creation justice preaching notes based on the New Revised Common Lectionary. You can sign up for weekly notes delivered to your email inbox.
Leah Schade, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015)
EcoPreacher 1-2-3: In an effort to encourage clergy to preach and teach on Christian ecology at least once a month, The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and the Rev. Dr. Leah Schade have partnered to develop a new free resource called EcoPreacher 1-2-3. Drawing from Eco Bible, a Jewish ecological commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, Dr. Schade provides sermon preparation for preaching about caring for God’s Creation that is short, accessible, and based on a solid biblical foundation. EcoPreacher 1-2-3 offers a brief “eco-exegesis” for interpreting a Hebrew text from the Revised Common Lectionary for the coming Sunday, followed by one “eco idea” for the basis of the sermon, two “eco questions” to go deeper, and three “eco actions” to choose from to help a congregation put their faith into action. With this resource, preachers can use the sermon ideas in their own context and make it relevant for their congregation. For information and to subscribe to weekly emails, click here.
Staying informed about climate crisis:
- Basic information is available from many sources, such as
Natural Resources Defense Council https://www.nrdc.org/stories/global-climate-change-what-you-need-know/
- Subscribe to InsideClimateNews.org (the weekly newsletter from a Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization) and/or to Climate Nexus’s daily newsletter (send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or for GRIST (either daily or weekly).
- To learn about your region’s environmental concerns, contact your local chapter of Sierra Club. To view climate risks and clean energy opportunities in each of the 50 states, visit Climate Nexus.
Other faith-based resources: Web
- Christianity and Climate Change is a nine-part video series for small groups featuring Katharine Hayhoe, the internationally renowned climate scientist and Evangelical Christian. The videos are only six minutes long, leaving plenty of time for discussion:
• What the Bible says about the natural world,
• Climate change is a poverty issue,
• How to persuade others to care about climate change,
• What we can do as a church,
• Speaking to other Christians about climate change,
• Grateful for fossil fuels but time to move on,
• Climate change is a threat multiplier,
• There can be a better future, and
• It is not too late.
- Christianity and Climate Change is a nine-part video series for small groups featuring Katharine Hayhoe, the internationally renowned climate scientist and Evangelical Christian. The videos are only six minutes long, leaving plenty of time for discussion:
- Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass. provides Creation-care resources in four areas: Pray, Learn, Act, and Advocate (The “Learn” section includes articles connecting climate change and racism, climate change and Covid-19.) The Website also includes links to many Episcopal resources.
- Episcopal Diocese of Mass. provides seasonal Creation-care resources and also “Sustainable Life,” a list of suggestions for responding to climate emergency.
- “Climate Change and Social Change”: Four presentations by T. Wilson Dickinson on how movements for food justice, climate justice, and social justice fit together, and the role that Christian communities can play
Other faith-based resources: Books
- T. Wilson Dickinson, The Green Good News: Christ’s Path to Sustainable and Joyful Life (Cascade Books, 2019) – an environmental justice reading of the Gospels
- Pope Francis, Laudato Si – Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home (2015) (also available as a free download on the Web)
Other helpful resources:
- National Issues Forum Institute has materials on controversial issues (e.g., immigration, policing) and a short video about how to moderate “deliberative forums,” in which people deliberate with each other on a variety of difficult public issues.
- Anything by environmental justice activist, Mary Annaise Heglar, such as “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, 2019) or “We Don’t Have to Halt Climate Action to Fight Racism” (HuffPost, 2020).
- Eco-America/Blessed Tomorrow recently (2021) released four two-page action sheets. The front includes “What You Need to Know,” and the back includes “What You Need to Do.”
- Climate Solutions for Your Home and Neighborhood
- Climate Solutions for Your Workplace and Congregation
- Climate Solutions for Your Community
- Climate Solutions Advocacy with Policy Makers
Possible “asks” in your sermons:
Lighten your carbon load Inform your congregation about ways to reduce their carbon footprint – e.g. https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/12/27/35-ways-reduce-carbon-footprint/
Eat low on the food-chain – moving toward a plant-rich diet is one of the most immediate and effective ways we can reduce carbon emissions. Eat local. Eat organic. Waste less food.
Buy less stuff. Get an energy audit of your home, so that you can identify ways to be more energy-efficient and perhaps save money (if possible, tell your congregation where to get an energy audit).
Drive less. Walk, take public transportation, carpool, rideshare or bike to your destination, when possible. If possible, purchase a hybrid or electric car. Fly less. If you must fly, buy carbon offsets (e.g., www.terrapass.com/).
Join the climate justice movement Pushing for systemic change is more important than making personal changes. Get politically engaged. Vote! … Join 350.org, the global grassroots network to stop all new coal, oil, and gas projects and build a clean energy future for all … Join ThirdAct.org, environmentalist Bill McKibben’s new initiative seeking to harness the wisdom and resources of elders (people over 60) to assure that we leave a fair, stable planet for future generations… Stand alongside marginalized, vulnerable communities in your area that are fighting environmental racism.
Restore the land and grow food Support local land trusts and farms. Cultivate a landscape that sequesters carbon and provides food for the homeless and low-income households. Launch projects such as composting, tree planting, habitat restoration, permaculture gardening, and growing produce for food pantries. Join the Good News Gardens Movement.
This article by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas was published in Anglican Theological Review (Spring, 2021, Vol. 103, 2), pp. 208–219.
I have preached countless sermons in countless settings about the urgent Gospel call to care for God’s Creation. Nevertheless, when I step into a literal or virtual pulpit to preach about the climate crisis, I still feel a flash of fear: This will be a disaster.
Preaching on any topic is inherently challenging. As Ruthanna B. Hooke explains in Transforming Preaching, there are many good reasons that newcomers and experienced preachers alike find it frightening to preach.1 Fear, she argues, is an intrinsic and even necessary aspect of preaching God’s Word: preaching can only be authentic when we truly open ourselves to the presence of the living God and publicly put our life and faith on the line. Barbara Brown Taylor compares watching the preacher climb into the pulpit to watching a tightrope walker climb onto a platform as the drum rolls.2 Preaching of any kind requires risky self-exposure and walking in faith. Before they embark, preachers and tightrope walkers must pray: Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast (Ps. 139:9).
However, preaching about the climate crisis may evoke particular anxiety. Although climate change is called the great moral challenge of our time, many preachers avoid preaching about it – often because of fear. Maybe we fear being ill-informed (I don’t know enough science). Maybe we fear provoking division in the congregation (Climate change is too political). Maybe we fear stressing out our listeners (Daily life is hard enough; why add to their worries?) or maybe we fear they won’t be able to handle the bad news (If I do mention climate change, I’d better tone it down and underplay the dire science). Maybe we fear that climate preaching is not pastoral (People come to church for solace, not to get depressed). Besides, we may tell ourselves, preaching about climate change should be someone else’s responsibility (Climate change isn’t really “my” issue). A preacher’s fears may cut close to home (I could lose pledges; I could even lose my job). Climate preaching may also require a painful reckoning with oneself that the preacher would prefer to avoid. Such a reckoning may be spiritual and theological (How do I preach resurrection when the web of life is unraveling before our eyes?) or it may be personal and moral as we face our own complicity. As one suburban preacher confessed to me years ago, “How can I preach about climate change when I drive an SUV?”
No wonder so many preachers delay addressing the climate crisis – most of us weren’t trained for this, we don’t want to stir up trouble, and we face an array of fears. As a result, many of us kick the can down the road, perhaps waiting for the lectionary to provide the “perfect” text, for a guest preacher to introduce the subject, or for a special (and thankfully rare) occasion, such as Earth Sunday or St. Francis Day.
Preachers who are hanging back from speaking about the climate emergency and those who have been preaching about it for years owe a debt of gratitude to Greta Thunberg, designated by TIME magazine as its 2019 Person of the Year. Thunberg is the Swedish teenager with the round face and straight blonde hair who delivered a fierce message to the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and all the adults who failed to take action: “Our house is on fire… We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. Either we do that or we don’t… Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t… Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t… We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.”3
Preach it, Greta! Although Thunberg is not addressing the religious faith of her audience, her fiery words and presence convey the message of a prophetic preacher: humanity stands at a crossroads and we have a vital choice to make, a choice of life or death, blessing or curse (Dt. 30:19). Science shows that we are at the brink of catastrophe: the only way to avert climate chaos and to protect life as it has evolved on Earth is to carry out a top-to-bottom transformation of society at a speed and scope that are historically unprecedented.4 We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. We need to make a decisive change of course toward clean, renewable sources of energy. We need to protect forests and topsoil, rivers and oceans, pollinators and the other living creatures with whom we share this planet, to say nothing of the eco-systems upon which all life depends. And we must do this quickly, equitably, and despite the opposition of entrenched political and corporate powers that are determined to keep drilling, burning, mining, extracting, plundering and profiting for as long as they can – even though business as usual is wrecking the planet. Thunberg’s moral call to action galvanized millions of people around the world and inspired the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, which is so far the largest climate demonstration in human history.
Hearing a strong sermon can dissolve fear, awaken moral responsibility, and mobilize action. I know this from direct experience – I was preached into jail by Bishop Steven Charleston. Back in 2001, while listening to him preach resurrection at an Easter Vigil service, I heard God’s call: I realized that in order to bear witness to the Risen Christ, I needed to gather up my courage and carry out my first extended act of civil disobedience. A few weeks later I joined a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, and headed to Washington, D.C., to protest the Administration’s intention to drill for more oil in the Arctic.
Here’s what happened: about a hundred of us from different faith traditions marched down Independence Avenue in our diverse religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, which was surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. After singing “Amazing Grace,” the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy.
As I later wrote, describing the moments before our arrest:5
We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building. The pavement under my knees is hard. At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray. Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone. I lift up my hands. I’m dressed for the Eucharist. I might as well hold out my arms as I do at the Eucharist….
One by one we pray aloud, words thrown into space, words hurled against stone. Is this whole thing ridiculous? …
But then came the revelation:
Suddenly I realize that behind the tension, behind the fear and self-consciousness, something else is welling up. I am jubilant.
“Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at the Eucharist.
“We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response.
How did I miss it? After years of going to church, after years of celebrating the Eucharist, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance. That worship is an act of human liberation. The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released?
I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt. It is God I love, and God’s green earth. I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great.
So what if our numbers are small? So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power? I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering. We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand. This is what I love. Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.”
I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy. That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy.
Is this what Jesus meant when he promised that the poor in spirit would receive the kingdom of heaven and that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness would be filled (Mt. 5:3, 6)? I am hardly the first climate-justice or social-justice activist to discover that her understanding of the Gospel deepens immeasurably as she bears public (and risky) witness to her faith. As Robert Raines (former director of Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in Bangor, PA) put it years ago, “The Gospel is just so much wind until we raise our lives against it like a sail.”
Strong sermons on climate change create the conditions for that kind of spiritual awakening: preacher and listeners alike are invited to take hold of their deepest convictions as they ask themselves: What do I truly value? What is love calling me to do? What is my moral responsibility to future generations? Am I willing to settle for a way of life that is destroying the web of life that God entrusted to our care? Am I ready to imagine a better future and to join with other people who are fighting for a just and habitable world? These are difficult and essential questions that all of us must face, individually and together. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the city “did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Lk. 19:44). Are we willing to recognize that we, too, live in such a time? This is a holy moment, a moment of truth, a moment of reckoning. Our calling as preachers is to step through whatever fears hold us back and to take up our pastoral and prophetic vocation to preach Gospel hope in a time of unprecedented human emergency.6
Are there any “best practices” for climate preaching? The Episcopal Church, in conjunction with ecoAmerica and Blessed Tomorrow, has produced a helpful manual. “Let’s Talk Faith and Climate: Communication Guidance for Faith Leaders,”7 released in 2016, explains why our faith calls us to lead on climate, provides key talking points, and gives examples of “successful messaging.” The chapter, “Prophetic Preaching,” in Jim Antal’s must-read book, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change,8 is likewise worth careful study, suggesting guidelines and what he calls “theological cornerstones” for climate preaching. Another timely book is Leah D. Schade’s Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit,9 which explores how to proclaim justice for God’s Creation in the face of climate disruption.
Based on my reading and lived experience, I hold several things in mind when I preach about climate change.
• Frame the climate crisis in terms of Christian theology. In a highly partisan, divided society, simply uttering the phrase “climate change” can make an audience twitch: Uh-oh. Here comes a sermon about politics. Our task as preachers is to re-frame the conventional narrative that climate change is only a scientific, political, or economic issue, and instead to place it front and center as a subject of urgent spiritual and moral concern for every Christian. Every climate preacher will need to locate the bedrock of Scripture, theology, and religious experience that establishes their worldview and values.10
I often make these points:
• God loved the world into being, pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and entrusts it to our care. I sometimes reference the origin story in Genesis, though I critique the concept of “dominion” (Gen. 1:26) when it is interpreted as divine permission for humanity to dominate and abuse the world. In my view, “dominion” does not refer to what Alcoholics Anonymous would call “self-will run riot”; rather, it means loving the world as God loves it. The second charge, to “till and keep” (Gen. 2:15) the garden, expresses more clearly our primary vocation to be a blessing on God’s Creation.
• The Earth does not belong to us, but to God (Ps. 24:1). The concept of “stewardship” reminds us that we are here to serve the Lord of life, not ourselves, and that our task is to safeguard Earth rather than to ransack and plunder. Still, the word “steward” can sound wimpy to me, as if our responsibility is limited to recycling the occasional can. Let’s find a more robust term to refer to the “children of God” for whom Creation is so eagerly longing (Rom. 8:19-22). Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”
• Jesus lived in close relationship with the natural world. In the Gospels we find him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, and spending weeks alone in the wilderness in prayer. His parables and stories are full of natural images: sheep and seeds, sparrows and lilies, water and fire, weeds, vines, and rocks. What would it be like to reclaim the kind of intimacy with the natural world that Jesus knew – to know, as he did, that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Ps. 19:1)? In my sermons, I often try to restore a sense of reverence for God’s Creation, to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that the natural world is nothing more than inert material, an object for us to exploit. The Earth, in fact, is a primary locus for our encounter with God. Such is the testimony of generations of Christian mystics and theologians, beginning with St. Paul (Romans 1:20). Like poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, we affirm: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.
• The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ affected and redeemed not only human beings but also the whole of Creation.11 Christ is the Word through whom all things were made (Jn. 1:3). In him, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20; c.f. also Eph. 1:10, 2 Cor. 5:19). Creation is thus made new (Rev. 21:5). As we relinquish a narrowly anthropocentric understanding of the Gospel, we realize that all of Creation participates in the Paschal mystery. Our search to create a more just and habitable world and to live more gently on Earth is how we share in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work”12 of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God, to one another, and to God’s whole Creation.
• We are called to love our neighbors. Are we loving our neighbors when we drown them, starve them, and force them to uproot themselves from their homelands? The rising seas, droughts, and extreme storms amplified by climate change are already harming innumerable neighbors, especially in the global South. Our “neighbors” likewise include future generations who depend on us to leave them a habitable world, and also the other-than-human creatures with whom we share this planet. God forged an “everlasting covenant” not only with human beings but also with “every living creature” (Gen. 9:8-17) – they, too, are the “neighbors” we are summoned to love.
• We are called to bear witness to a love that transcends death. In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We die in Christ and with Christ. And then we rise with Christ: from now on, our death is done with. It is behind us. We have died with Christ and are now alive in Christ – and to whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety, set free to love without grasping or possessiveness or holding back. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”13 That inner fearlessness, rooted in the love of God, empowered the early Christians to resist the unjust powers-that-be: early on they were charged with “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor (Acts 17:7). Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).
• Respect the lectionary, but don’t make it an idol. If you knew your house was on fire, would you wait for the “perfect” moment before calling for help to douse the flames? Not a chance. Once we know that climate change is an emergency, we will quite naturally seize every tool at hand. This Sunday’s lectionary readings could be the perfect springboard for a sermon on climate change. If we can’t make a direct connection, we can ditch the lectionary and preach about climate change in relation to the liturgical season, the Eucharist, or themes such as incarnation, justice, compassion, sin and forgiveness, and Christian witness and responsibility. I enjoy The Green Bible, which highlights in green font the biblical texts that the book’s editors consider most relevant to Earth-care. However, it seems to me that thousands of other biblical passages could just as well have been marked in green, for I read the whole Bible as a love-song between God and God’s Creation, as a living text that calls us to bear witness to a triune God who loved the world into being, who suffers with us and for us, and who empowers us to live together in right relationship with each other and the land.
My Website, RevivingCreation.org, includes about one hundred lectionary-based sermons about climate change and Creation care. SustainablePreaching.org is an ecumenical online resource that offers lectionary-based sermons on Creation care and a tool for searching out particular Bible passages.
• Share some science, but don’t worry that you need to be a scientist. As climate preachers we need to know and share the basics: climate change is real, it’s largely caused by human activity, it’s gotten worse in recent decades, and it will have disastrous effects unless humanity changes course fast. Basic information is available from many sources, such as NASA or reputable environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council.14 For up-to-date climate news, I subscribe to the weekly newsletter of InsideClimateNews.org15 and to daily news from Climate Nexus.16
In preaching I usually keep the science message short, brisk, and sober. To summarize the big-picture effects of a changing climate, I often quote a couple of sentences by Bill McKibben: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”17 Then I cite specific examples that might especially resonate with the local congregation (in California: drought, wildfire, and mudslides; on Cape Cod: rising and acidifying seas, and threats to groundwater and fishing).18 One reason that parishioners may be relieved to hear climate change discussed in church is that increasing numbers of Americans understand that climate change is already affecting their communities.19
• Find an entry point and connect the dots. What are the particular concerns of your congregation? Begin there and show how they link to climate change. The novel coronavirus, for example, teaches lessons that relate to climate change: science matters; how we treat the natural world affects our wellbeing; the sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place; we have the ability to make drastic changes quickly; all of us are vulnerable to crisis, though unequally.20 Climate change increases the likelihood of pandemics, because flooding, droughts, and weather extremes force agriculture into new areas. Converting more natural habitat into crop land accelerates the loss of biodiversity and increases the incidence of zoonotic diseases, those spread between wild animals and humans.21
Climate change also exacerbates economic and racial injustice. Low-income communities and communities of color are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change, the ones least able to prepare or recover, and the ones least likely to have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made.22 Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recently reported on the risk of “climate apartheid,” where the rich pay to escape the increasing heat and hunger caused by the climate crisis and the rest of the world suffers.23 So-called “climate gentrification” – where wealthy people seek refuge from the effects of climate change and move into once “undesirable” neighborhoods – forces out low-income and minority residents.24 Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate justice writer who is also Black, details the ways in which Black people suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise, and she issues a clarion call, “It’s time to stop #AllLivesMattering the climate crisis.”25
Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about – it is a cause that affects everything we cherish. The Pentagon has long called climate change a “threat multiplier,” which means that it amplifies existing problems. If we care about pandemics and public health, we care about climate. If we care about racism and human rights, we care about climate. If we care about poverty, homelessness, and hunger, we care about climate. If we care about immigration and refugees, we care about climate. (How many people worldwide will be forced to move by 2050 because of climate change? Estimates range between 25 million and one billion.26). If we care about violence against women and girls, we care about climate: climate change aggravates gender-based violence.27 If we care about preventing war, we care about climate: climate change increases the risk of conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water and arable land.28
In short, if we care about loving God and neighbor, we care about climate. The climate does not belong to a special-interest group. If we like to breathe, if we like to eat, if we want to leave our children a world they can live in, we care about climate. That is why it is so important to build an intersectional movement that pulls people out of their isolated silos of concern and pushes for comprehensive solutions: the groups protecting wilderness areas, farmlands, and wildlife habitat need to support and learn from the groups addressing racism, poverty, and asthma in the inner city. As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical, Laudato Si, we don’t face two crises, one social and one environmental, but rather “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution require an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”29
• Infuse your sermons with the empowering love of God. The more that people know about (and experience) the social and ecological breakdown going on worldwide, the more likely they are to feel paralyzed, panicked, or depressed. Despair holds many people in an icy grip. That is why a message of urgency needs to be accompanied by a message of empowerment and strength: God is with us.
I am deeply interested in the spiritual perspectives and practices that can sustain climate activism, even in the face of dire news about our planet’s health and the possibility that civilization will collapse. In order to be healers and justice-makers, in order to bear witness to the Christ who bursts out of the tomb and proclaims that life and not death will have the last word, we need to be emotionally and spiritually resilient. In this time of unprecedented challenge, where will we find the energy and hope to keep working toward solutions without giving up? To help answer that question, my colleague Leah Schade and I collected and edited an anthology of twenty-one essays from diverse faith traditions, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.30
Whenever I preach, I try to evoke the presence of a God who loves us beyond measure, a God who heals and redeems, liberates and forgives. I preach about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us; understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed; and, in the words of Peter Sawtell, calls us “to active resistance, not to quiet acceptance.”31 I preach about a God who knows our guilt and complicity in that destruction and who gives us power to amend our lives. I preach about a God who longs to create a Beloved Community32 that includes all beings, not just human beings. I preach about a God who releases us from the tyranny of death and who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy.
• Build hope by taking action. In almost every climate sermon, I include suggestions for faithful action33 such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, and planting trees and community gardens. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and help to propel social change. Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. We need to use our voices and our votes and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to hold Big Polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused (and continue to cause). We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. We can support 350.org, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. Maybe we can join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line.
If the voice of one young woman – Greta Thunberg – can rivet the attention of the world, what would happen if preachers everywhere unleashed their own passion for God’s Creation? What would happen if preachers across the Episcopal Church and in every religious tradition began to speak boldly and frequently about our moral obligation to create a more just and habitable world? Just as ecosystems have so-called tipping points – a critical point when they suddenly undergo rapid and irreversible change – so, too, human communities can experience a tipping point after which society changes swiftly in dramatic ways. Is such a thing possible in terms of rapidly decarbonizing a society? According to a recent article in the journal Anthropocene, an analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “suggests the answer is yes. In it, an international team of researchers argues that seemingly small ‘tipping points’ can trigger large, rapid changes in societies.”34 The team identified six relatively small, positive interventions that could help bring about systemic global change quickly, especially if they were carried out simultaneously. One of them sounds as if it were crafted with preachers in mind: “Activists and opinion leaders could emphasize the moral implications of fossil fuels – that is, the idea that burning fossil fuels in ways incompatible with the Paris climate targets is immoral. This has the potential to shift societal norms and, consequently, widespread patterns of behavior.”35
When we deliver strong climate sermons and put our trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, I wonder if we are like the boy in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-14): we put our words in Jesus’ hands and through his grace and power, maybe our offering will become the catalyst that enables a crowd to be fed. Maybe our words, like those of Ezekiel, will be infused with Spirit-power to enliven dead, dry bones and breathe life into a multitude (Ez. 37:1-14). Maybe that homily – that word of challenge, consolation, or encouragement – will contribute to the tipping point that releases a rapid societal transformation.
What do preachers do in a time of unprecedented emergency? Right before we preach our next sermon about climate change, we acknowledge our fear (This will be a disaster.) We entrust ourselves to God (Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast). Then we take a breath, open our mouths, and speak.
* Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, PhD, serves as Missioner for Creation Care (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ) and Creation Care Advisor (Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts). An Episcopal priest, author, retreat leader, and climate activist, she has been a lead organizer of many Christian and interfaith events about care for Earth, and she leads spiritual retreats in the United States and Canada on spiritual resilience and resistance in the midst of a climate emergency. Her latest book, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (2019), co-edited with Leah Schade, is an anthology of essays from religious environmental activists on finding the spiritual wisdom for facing the difficult days ahead. Her website, RevivingCreation.org, includes sermons, blog posts, articles, and newsletters.
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Preaching when life depends on it: climate crisis and Gospel hope,” Anglican Theological Review (Vol. 103, 2), pp. 208–219. Copyright © 2021 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. DOI: 10.1177/00033286211007431.
Link to the article on ATR: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00033286211007431
1. Ruthanna B. Hooke, “Why Is It Frightening to Preach?” in Transforming Preaching (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 1-21.
2. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993), 76, quoted by Hooke, Transforming Preaching, 3-4.
3. Greta Thunberg, “’Our house is on fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate,” The Guardian, January 25, 2019.
4. Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say,” Washington Post, October 7, 2018.
5. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2007), 79, 80-81. For information and support regarding civil disobedience, I suggest Climate Disobedience Center and Clergy Climate Action.
6. I helped to draft the 2019 statement by National Religious Coalition on Creation Care, “Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency.” As the statement makes clear, this is not only a “human” emergency but one that affects all life on Earth. In March 2021, the bishops of the Episcopal dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts declared a climate emergency.
7. “Let’s Talk Faith and Climate: Communication Guidance for Faith Leaders.” Other Episcopal resources for climate communication and for building momentum on climate solutions in your congregation and community are available at https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ministries/creation-care/.
8. Jim Antal, “Prophetic Preaching,” Climate Church, Climate World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 121-135.
9. Leah D. Schade, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2015).
10. For a helpful theological and devotional resource, view “A Catechism of Creation: An Episcopal Understanding.”
11. For a brilliant sermon that evokes how Creation shared in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, read Leah D. Schade’s “A Resurrection Sermon for an Earth-Kin Congregation,” which was preached outdoors and is included in Creation-Crisis Preaching, 85-89.
12. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword,” The Green Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers (HarperOne), 2008, I-14.
13. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), p. 107.
15. https://insideclimatenews.org/. “A Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment.”
16. To sign up, send an email to: email@example.com.
17. Bill McKibben, Eaarth (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2010) xiii, book jacket. The title is deliberately mis-spelled in order to signal that the planet onto which you and I were born is not the same planet we inhabit today.
18. To learn about your region’s environmental concerns, contact your local chapter of Sierra Club. To view climate risks and clean energy opportunities in each of the 50 states, visit Climate Nexus: https://climatenexus.org/climate-change-usa/.
19. Brady Dennis, “Most Americans believe the government should do more to combat climate change, poll finds,” Washington Post, June 23, 2020.
20. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Leah Schade, “6 Lessons Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Climate Change,” Earth Day Network, March 25, 2020.
21. Georgina Gustin, “Our Growing Food Demands Will Lead to More Corona-like Viruses,” InsideClimateNews, March 24, 2020. Yale Climate Connections maintains an updated, curated list of articles connecting COVID-19 and climate, https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/03/key-readings-about-climate-change-and-coronavirus/.
22. Joe McCarthy, Global Citizen, “Why Climate Change and Poverty Are Inextricably Linked: Fighting one problem helps mitigate the other,” Feb. 19, 2010.
23. Damian Carrington, “‘Climate apartheid’: UN expert says human rights may not survive,” The Guardian, June 25, 2019
24. Nathalie Baptiste, “Climate Gentrification: Coming to a Community Near You,” Mother Jones, September 5, 2019.
25. Mary Annaïse Heglar, “We Don’t Have to Halt Climate Action to Fight Racism,” HuffPost, June 12, 2020. Yale Climate Connections maintains an updated, curated list of articles connecting racism and climate, https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/06/the-links-between-racism-and-climate-change/.
26. Migration and Climate Change, No. 31, IOM International Organization for Migration, 12.
27. “Climate Change Increases the Risk of Violence Against Women,” UN Climate Change News, November 25, 2019.
28. John O’Loughlin and Cullen Hendrix, “Will climate change lead to more world conflict?,” July 11, 2019, Washington Post.
29. Pope Francis, Laudato Si – Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home, 2015, par. 139.
30. Leah D. Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, eds. Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
31. Peter Sawtell, “Three Layers of Environmental Preaching.”
33. In order not to burden the sermon with a laundry list of resources and options for action, I usually put a handout of suggested actions in the service leaflet. The Episcopal Church’s Creation Care Website offers some suggestions, including the carbon tracker now used in many dioceses (https://www.sustainislandhome.org/).
34. Sarah DeWeerdt, “Here are a half dozen nudges that could bring about rapid decarbonization,” Anthropocene, January 21, 2020.
35. DeWeerdt, “Here Are a Half Dozen Nudges that Could Bring about Rapid Decarbonization.”