Sermon for Earth Ministry’s 16th Annual Celebration of St. Francis (held at Olympic View Community Church, Seattle, WA), October 2, 2010. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas.
|Psalm 148:7-14||Matthew 11:25-30|
When a leaf needs to speak
As I prayed about this sermon, I knew that I wanted to give you something, but what kept coming to mind were not ideas, or even words, but images of a leaf. I kept imagining myself standing here and holding up a leaf. I decided to trust what was coming to me in prayer, so I wandered about, looking at trees, and came back with this [holding up a leaf].
As I imagined holding this very leaf before you, I asked, “OK, Leaf, what do you have to say to these good people?” And the leaf gave me three messages.
The first one: Here is the world in all its beauty. This leaf is unlike every other leaf. If you spent just five minutes examining its stem and veins and color and shape, you would see that this leaf is a very particular leaf, one that has its own contribution to make to the world, just as each of us has our own particular part to play in the whole web of life. This particular, irreplaceable leaf emerged in connection to the rest of the tree: its stem connected to a branch, the branch to the trunk, and the trunk to the roots. From below, the roots absorbed water and nutrients that were drawn up the tree-trunk and passed along to the leaf. And from above, sunlight shone down and made the leaf grow. So this leaf is intimately connected to sunshine and water, to dirt and cloud, worms and sky. And this leaf is connected to us, and to every creature that shares what the Book of Genesis calls “the breath of life” (Genesis 1:30). When we breathe in, we take in oxygen that the leaves have released, and when we breathe out, we exhale carbon dioxide that the leaves in turn take in as food. With every breath we exchange the elements of life with plants.
What a beautiful world we live in — one that is so very particular, so full of such unique and exquisitely designed creatures as a leaf, a tree, a person. And everything is so interconnected. Here is the world in all its beauty — that is the cry of mystics from every religious tradition, and the deep perception of things that animates the Bible, when in the Creation story God takes a look at the world that God has made, and pronounces it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Everything is particular; everything is connected. Study this leaf with a quiet eye, and you will glimpse the imperishable, shining through what perishes. You will see the invisible, illuminating what can be seen.
Here is the world in all its beauty, the leaf says. And it says a second thing, too: Here is the world in all its fragility. This leaf is soft and easily torn, and it has been separated from its tree. It speaks about the vulnerability of the world, about its mortality and pain. Week after week last summer, we were riveted to the terrible sight of oil and gas gushing up from the floor of the sea, a mile down deep in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP oil spill is one of the most violent assaults on the natural world that any of us have ever seen. And yet, as Bill McKibben points out, if everything had gone smoothly, if the oil had made its way “up through the drilling pipe, onto the platform, off the gulf into some refinery and thence into the gas tank of a car,”1 the damage it would have created would have been even more extreme. The relentless burning of dirty energy is changing the planet in “large and fundamental ways,” and, as McKibben points out, global warming is not just a future threat. It is, he writes, “no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality? Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”2 “We’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet,” he says.3 Of course, different places can have a string of cool or warm days, but the average planetary temperature is going in only one direction. NASA reports that the first half of 2010 set a record for global temperature.
Fragile, afflicted, under assault — that is a truth about the world in which we live. When we acknowledge that, we pierce the illusion that human beings can treat the earth with impunity, drilling, mining, dumping at will, burning fossil fuels without care for the consequences, buying the next new thing, and the next, and the next — as if nature were at our beck and call, a supposedly endless supply of “resources” for the use of a single species, as if the natural world were a business, and we were holding a liquidation sale.
When we see the world’s fragility, we allow ourselves to grieve what human beings have done. We break through our numbness and denial, and feel the anger and sorrow that spring from love. We find the courage to acknowledge our uneasiness and fear, and the moral clarity to admit that we need to change course.
This is where a third message speaks from the leaf: Here is the world in its need and longing to be healed. The world is beckoning us, inviting us, even crying out to us: Stand with me! Protect me! Set me free! If we perceive the beauty of the world, if we perceive its fragility, then we can’t help but hear its call to each of us to become a — what shall I say? The traditional word is “steward,” but I am looking for a word that is more robust and urgent than that. How about “a healer,” “a liberator,” “a guardian,” “a protector”? We need, as McKibben says, to find ways to live more “lightly, carefully, and gracefully”4 in the world. We need to join the search that so many others have begun, the search to bring forth a human presence on the planet that is “environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just.”5 We don’t have much time to accomplish this, so it is a precarious and very precious time to be alive. We have a chance to take part ? if we choose ? in a great work of healing.
What does that look like in our own lives? We take the steps that individuals can take. Maybe we recycle, drive less, and quit using bottled water. Maybe we eat local, organic foods and support our local farms. Maybe we install insulation, put up solar panels, turn down the heat, use AC in moderation — hey, you know the drill.
Working to stabilize the climate begins at home, but it cannot end there. The scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale. We need to push our political leaders to get this country and other countries on track to bring down the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, the uppermost level that many scientists say is safe for life as we know it to continue on this planet. What is the level today? 390 — and climbing. There is work to be done.
The good news is that we have an opportunity every day to bear witness to the God who loved us, and all Creation, into being. The face of the Risen Christ shines out in every leaf and blossom, in every chickadee and butterfly, in every worm and wren. When we take action to mend the fabric of life that seems so swiftly to be unraveling, we express our reverence for God. Although it was a struggle to stop the deathly flow of oil that erupted at the bottom of the sea, nothing can stop the love of God that is being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). That love will guide and sustain us in the work that lies ahead.
Here is the world in all its beauty? its fragility? and its need and longing to be healed.
If I could, I would place this leaf in your hand, and yours, and yours, and yours. We need people who live with grateful awareness of life’s beauty and fragility — people who are willing to take the risk, and bear the cost, and carry the joy of standing up for life.
This sermon is based on my Baccalaureate Sermon delivered at St. Timothy’s School, Stevenson, MD, on June 5, 2010.
1. Bill McKibben, “It’s about the carbon: What’s worse than the gulf oil leak?” The Christian Century Magazine, June 1, 2010, http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=8460
2. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket. Italics in original.
3. Bill McKibben interview, Democracy Now!, April 15, 2010 < http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/15/mckibben >
4. McKibben, Eaarth, p. 151.
5. “Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream,” a symposium sponsored by the Pachamama Alliance ? < http://www.awakeningthedreamer.org >