Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA.
|2 Kings 5: 1-14||1 Corinthians 9:24-27|
|Psalm 30||Mark 1:40-45|
The “Oh, sh*t” moment we all must have
“A leper came to him, begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”
Today Grace Church is taking part in the National Preach-In on Global Warming. We’re joining more than one thousand congregations of varying faith traditions across the country who are focusing their attention this morning on the urgent reality of climate disruption. I’ve preached on this topic many times, and I’m not going to say much about the facts on the ground. You already know the science. Rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal, gas, and oil are destabilizing “the only climate under which human civilization has flourished.” 1 Sea levels are rising; oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic; weather events are becoming more severe; species are going extinct; ecosystems are shifting; refugees are already on the move. According to NASA scientists, last year was the ninth-warmest year on record, and nine of the ten warmest years in the modern meteorological record have occurred since the year 2000. 2
Now I want to ask — what happens inside you when you hear facts like these? How does your body respond? If you’re like me, you feel something constrict or tighten up. When I think about global warming, I sometimes feel my belly squeeze and my breathing get shallow. I want to push the news away. I don’t want to think about it. Why? Because it can make me feel anxious and helpless, maybe full of despair. I’d much rather turn my attention to something pleasant, or at least something that seems more immediate and closer to home — like: time to make supper.
However, as Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton writes, “At some point — finally — the full truth of what the climate scientists are saying breaks through all of our defences. We can no longer pretend the impacts of warming are too far off to worry about, or that the scientists must be exaggerating. We realise that our apathy is rooted in fear…” He goes on to say, “For some, the realisation creeps up as the true meaning of warming leaks into consciousness. For others, the breakthrough is sudden and overwhelming.” 3 In other words, there comes a point when we finally get it, we finally grasp the enormity of the climate challenge. One journalist calls it the “Oh shoot” moment, though actually he uses a more basic expletive than that. 4 The “Oh shoot” moment is the instant when our denial breaks open and we realize that the people we’d like to ridicule as “alarmists” are bringing us news that is essential for us to hear.
I remember exactly where I was when I hit my “Oh shoot” moment. In the summer of 2001 I was on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor for an intensive weekend conference about the science and politics of climate change. After a long day of taking copious notes and trying valiantly not to go numb under the barrage of bad news, I went outside before bed and stood alone — reeling — under the stars, trying to assimilate what I’d heard, trying to find my balance again, trying to pray, trying to find my way back to God.
When we reach the “Oh shoot” moment that we all must have, we may feel as lost as the leper in today’s Gospel story, as desperate as he was, as distressed and alone, as needy for help. Anxiety is even more contagious than leprosy, and out of anxiety we may isolate ourselves and chew on our worries alone, or we may deliberately or unwittingly spread our anxiety around like an infection, making other people catch it or making them keep a safe distance when they see us coming.
What do we do with our feelings of helplessness and despair? How do we face the unraveling of life as we know it without panicking or giving up? Where do we find energy and hope to keep working toward solutions, and what spiritual practices can sustain for the long struggle ahead?
I’ve been pondering these questions for the past ten years in my efforts as a climate activist, and I’d like to offer three words, three spiritual practices, that can guide us when the world as we know it is falling apart. The words are “creation,” “crucifixion,” and “resurrection.”
“Creation” is when we root ourselves again in the love of God. If we’re reeling with anxiety, fear, anger or sorrow, we need to ground ourselves again in the basic fact of our belovedness in God. In today’s story, the leper comes to Jesus and kneels before him, begging to be healed. “If you choose,” he says, “you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40 ). And how does Jesus respond? In one of the rare moments when the Gospel writer tells us what Jesus is feeling, the text says, “moved with pity” — or, as some translations put it, “moved with compassion” — Jesus stretches out his hand to heal the suffering man. The God we know in Christ is a compassionate God, a God moved with pity who reaches out to all who suffer, to all who feel lost, afflicted, helpless, or estranged. When the news of climate change — or of any other trauma — threatens to undo us, we can remember what I call the “creation” practice: we recall our belovedness in God. God created us in love and for love, and God will never let us go, even if we die.
What helps us to stay grounded in love? Maybe we bring awareness to our breathing for a while, and consciously breathe in the love of God. Maybe we turn our attention to something beautiful that’s right beside us, maybe notice the stillness of the trees or the way the sun is shining just now against that cloud. Bringing awareness to the present moment is one way to reconnect with the love of God, for God is always and only found right now, right here. Or maybe we dip into Scripture and turn to the God who says, “I have called you by name; you are mine. You are my beloved; on you my favor rests. You abide in me, as I abide in you. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Nothing can separate you from my love.” There are many ways to come home to God’s love, and that is the first practice we need to cultivate when times are tough and everything in us wants to close down or flee.
A second spiritual practice is “crucifixion,” the willingness to stand or kneel at the cross and to let our hearts break. In today’s story, we see Jesus’ vulnerability: he stretches out his hand to touch the leper, whom society considered untouchable and ritually unclean. From this little scene at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, it’s already evident that for the sake of giving us healing and wholeness, Jesus will move toward us and share in our pain. Jesus’ solidarity with human vulnerability reaches its fullest expression on the cross. When we pray at the foot of the cross, we discover how close God is to us in our terror and vulnerability and loss. When we look at Jesus dying an agonizing death, we gaze squarely at everything that frightens us and does us harm. We face our fear and anxiety, our sadness, anger, and guilt. And we see that all of it — all of it — has been taken up by Jesus, that all of it has been embraced by God. Even our sin, even our willfulness and greed, our apathy and despair – all of that, and more, is met on the cross by the outpouring love of God. There is nowhere we can go, nothing that we can experience, that God in Christ does not share in and redeem.
So when the latest bad news about climate change — or anything else — grips my heart, I go to the cross in prayer and let myself grieve. I let myself howl, if I need to, for we must let our hearts be broken by the things that break God’s heart. That is how we share consciously in Christ’s suffering, and how we know that he shares in ours. That is how we discover how intimately he loves us, and where we receive the resilience and zest to renew our efforts in the world with fresh energy and zeal.
And so God draws us into the third spiritual practice, “resurrection.” Through conscious sharing in Christ’s crucifixion, we are drawn by God’s grace into resurrected living. Filled with the Spirit, we share in God’s mission to restore all people and all creation to unity with God and each other in Christ. Resurrection as a spiritual practice is doing our part to heal what is broken, to resist evil with love, to be agents of justice and compassion. Like the healed leper in today’s story who can’t contain his joy, we want to proclaim the reality of hope and healing through the power of God.
Of course, what we feel sent out to do in our newly resurrected lives may take many forms. The world needs healing at every level, so wherever we feel led to begin is a good place to start. Commitment to care for the Earth will affect what we buy and what we refuse to buy, what we drive and what we refuse to drive, how we heat our homes, how much we re-use and re-cycle.
The season of Lent begins in ten days, and I hope you will participate in this year’s Ecumenical Lenten Climate Fast 5 — look for details in the written announcements. I hope you will join me during coffee hour to send Senator Scott Brown a Valentine’s Day postcard that invites him to love the Earth by opposing efforts to weaken or delay enforcement of the Clean Air Act. I hope you will read and sign The Clean Air Promise, which I will then return to Interfaith Power & Light. 6 Finally, I hope that some of you will consider joining me at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Earth Day, April 22, when tens of thousands of people from all walks of life and from all across the country will gather for a rally to galvanize this country’s environmental movement.
God has so much love to give us, so much vulnerability to share with us, so much energy to give us in the mission to heal and restore life. Creation — when we ground ourselves in the love of God; crucifixion — when we open our hearts and minds to the dangers we face; and resurrection — when we pass beyond anxiety and fear to take action that makes a difference: these three practices can give us the wisdom and courage to move through that “Oh shoot” moment and to relish many moments of creativity, generosity, and joy.
1. Byron Smith, “Doom, Gloom and Empty Tombs: Climate Change and Fear,” Studies in Christian Ethics, 2011, 24:77 DOI: 10.1177/0953946810389120, p. 78 (online version: http://sce.sagepub.com/content/24/1/77).
2. “NASA Finds 2011 Ninth-Warmest Year on Record,” January 19, 2012 (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2011-temps.html)
3. Clive Hamilton, “The ‘Oh shit’ moment we all must have,” April 27, 2010, http://www.earthscan.co.uk/blog/post/The-e2809cOh-shite2809d-moment-we-all-must-have.aspx, cited by Byron Smith, op. cit., p. 78.
4. Clive Hamilton, op. cit, p. 79, citing journalist Mark Hertsgaard.
5. Sign up on Facebook, or visit this site: http://www.macucc.org/pages/detail/2410, to receive a daily email with suggestions for reducing your carbon footprint.
6. The mission of Interfaith Power & Light, the organizer of the National Preach-In on Global Warming, is “to be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.” (http://interfaithpowerandlight.org/)