A sermon preached
At Saint James's Episcopal Church
March 11, 2001
I. LEARNING TO SEE
I grew up attending Saint Barnabas Church in Irvington, New York, a small parish in a small town. We had a particularly nice tradition for children on Easter Sunday. A large wooden cross covered with mesh would be placed just in front of the Eucharistic table. It stood there, barren and forbidding, until the offertory, when every child in the parish would come forward, each carrying a flower. The children would push the stems of their flowers through the mesh, as they did so, the harsh and naked cross seemed to blossom, a symbol of new life in Resurrection.
I grew up with another Easter ritual, thought it was not associated with the church. It was the ritual watching of the movie, the Wizard of Oz. I grew up, as some of you did in the day before cable and before VCRs. All we had was seven channels: 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13 (which was the public television station). When something was on, you either watched it or you missed it. For some reason, it seemed to be a TV tradition that the Wizard of Oz was shown once a year around Easter.
Until I was about eleven years old our family watched television on a black and white set, which meant that we did not fully appreciate this film. As I think most people here know, color film was invented while the Wizard of Oz was being made. So the first and last half of the film, which take place in Kansas, are in black and white. But all of the scenes in the magical land of Oz are in color.
I was not really aware of this until my parents finally purchased a color television. And I will never forget the moment when I discovered what I had been missing. Dorothy flies through the black and white tornado in her black and white ramshackle house, and the house lands with a huge bump. Dorothy carefully, nervously opens the door, through which she beholds the colors of Oz - red flowers, blue-suited Munchkins, and, of course, the very yellow Yellow Brick road.
I think this is a good metaphor for what we are called to do in Lent. It is very easy, under the pressure of our preoccupations and the bizarre priorities of our culture, to let our view of the world drift into the narrow tones of greys. But as Christians, we are called to see the world as God sees it, in all its colors, in all its glory, and misery, and beauty and ugliness. In Lent we should be opening our eyes and our hearts to the full pallette of love.
In Scripture the ability to see is a metaphor for faith. And, conversely, blindness, the inability to see, is a symbol for lack of faith.
For example, in today's reading from Genesis, Abram, who has trusted God and been brought from the land of Ur, is told that despite his great age, he will become the father of a great nation. What do you mean? Says Abram. I just don't see it. So God asks him to look at the sky. "Look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them," says God. "So shall your descendants be." And although the idea is still incredible to him, Abram goes out and looks and he perceives enough of what God is saying to enter into the covenant with God.
We see this same theme in the Gospels. In his earthly ministry, Jesus says, over and over again, how can you have eyes but you do not see, ears but you do not hear? What will it take for you to wake up, to move from a black and white to a color world? In one memorable passage, speaking about how people rejected both John the Baptist for his asceticism and Jesus for his conviviality, Jesus says,
To what shall I compare the present generation? You are like children calling to each other in the marketplace, "We piped for you but you would not dance; we wailed for you but you would not mourn." (Matthew 11)
We hear a similar frustration in today's gospel passage, where the agony that Jesus felt rings down through twenty centuries.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing. (Luke 13)
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE EARTH
In Lent, just as in Advent, we are called to wake up. Maybe we should prepare a huge banner that stretches across the front of the sanctuary, that says just that: "WAKE UP!"
But how do we do that? The traditional advice is that we should use Lent as a time of introspection, of looking inward to examine ourselves.
And I believe that. A life of faith is, in large part, a life of continuous self-discovery, of moving beyond illusion and convenience into genuine discipleship. But I am not convinced that the crisis in which we find ourselves has arisen because we are not thinking about ourselves enough. The problem is that we seem to have lost the capacity to see or to speak about our place in the world around us. We need not just introspection but also the opposite and it is interesting that we don't really have a word for that. We need also "extrospection."
In our service today we are considering the state of our physical world and if ever there were a place that needed our individual and collective extrospection, it would be this. The voices of alarm are multiplying around us daily. Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece a few weeks ago called "Rising Tides:"
It's February and it's cold in New York, which can help us maintain the fiction that the planet is not warming at a scary rate. But the snows are disappearing from Kilimanjaro, and a few years ago scientists were astonished when a mammoth fragment of the Larsen Ice Shelf at the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula collapsed like a window shattered by a rock. The fragment had measured 48 miles by 22 miles and was hundreds of feet thick. It eventually disappeared.
Many strange things are happening. The seasons are changing, rainstorms are becoming more intense, sea levels are rising, mighty glaciers are receding, the permafrost (by definition, the permanently frozen subsoil in the polar regions) is thawing, trees are flowering earlier, insects are emerging sooner, and so on.
Global warming is not coming, it's here.
Robert Watson, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change, opened an international meeting last November with these words:
It is not a question of whether the Earth's climate will change, but rather by how much, how fast and where. It is undisputed that the two last decades have been the warmest this century, indeed the warmest for the last 1000 years, sea level is rising, precipitation patterns are changing, Arctic sea ice is thinning and the frequency and intensity of El-Nino events appear to be increasing.
In addition, many parts of the world have recently suffered major heat-waves, floods, droughts and extreme weather events leading to significant loss of life and economic costs. The frequency and magnitude of these types of events are expected to increase in a warmer world. These adverse impacts will severely undermine the goal of sustainable development in many parts of the world, with developing countries, and the poor in developing countries, being most vulnerable.
THE SILENCE OF THE CHURCH
I know what many of you are thinking, oh my God, this is so frightening, this is so huge, what could we ever do about this? And I am going to come back to that question in a few minutes. But before we get to our responsibilities, let's step back and look at the situation as a whole.
What millions of people are saying is that this fragile earth, our island home, our refuge in the darkness and harshness of space, is being destroyed.
I know we don't want to hear it, but I will say it again.
This fragile earth, our island home, our refuge in the darkness and harshness of space, is being destroyed.
But such is the denial, the self-involvement, and the cowardice of our leaders - particularly in the United States - that in the face of this blistering truth we hear nothing but silence.
We hear silence from our political leaders, who know that to win our votes they should never mention anything inconvenient. Our president wants to start "drilling in the cathedral" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as columnist Tom Friedman described it, in order to obtain less than six months of supply for industrial machine. This same president has just proposed a one trillion dollar tax cut so that Americans, who already consume more than any other nation, can buy more stuff!
In the aftermath of World War II, this country was able to find money it did not have to give to its enemies to rebuild. Now the only thing we can think to do with our cascading oceans of extra cash is to give it to ourselves.
We hear silence from our business leaders, who care more about their profits than their planet. There are a few exceptions, but the great majority of executives and board of directors and mutual fund managers are in fact violating their fundamental fiduciary duties by acting as though the immense and implacable reality of climate change simply didn't exist. The system is structured so that all the rewards are for short term growth, short term profit, even though we all know, as one writer put it, that you can't do business on a dead planet.
And most shocking and reprehensible of all, we hear silence from our religious leaders. Think about this - in the face of the systematic desecration of God's world and the potential extermination of God's children, especially the poor children of the developing world, our bishops and our clergy and our theologians and our lay leaders have nothing bold or useful to say.
In our liturgies and sermons and pronouncements we applaud the ancient martyrs of the church, we extol those who opposed slavery, we look back with nostalgia at those who fought for civil rights, but in our day and age, confronted with our own challenges, our church is as limp, and self-satisfied, and complicit as any of the past religious hypocrites we find it so easy to condemn.
Oh sure, there is a little course here, and a meaningless convention resolution there, but if we apply a little honest extrospection, if we compare the magnitude of the problem with the mewling timidity of the church as an institution, then we are forced to admit that what we are seeing is nothing less that a betrayal of the Gospel. We are witnessing the strangulation of the earth, yet the churches have been without voice, without direction, without passion, without conviction, without clarity, and without courage.
Looking at all of this I am reminded of Trevor Huddleston, the famous English priest who became a pastor in Soweto in the 1940s and 1950s, who wrote a searing condemnation of apartheid in his book, Naught for Your Comfort. On the first page of his book he wrote that on the issue of racial justice in South Africa and around the world, "the church is asleep," he wrote, "though sometimes it talks in its sleep."
IV. GOD ACTS THROUGH THE WEAK
It is easy for me or for us here to criticize others in the name of prophecy. And however true those criticisms may be, the real question in Lent, where introspection and extrospection come together, is whether we can turn that hot prophetic light on ourselves. For several years I have loved this congregation and recently I have come to love our new rector, and I know how many challenges we all face here, individually and collectively.
I know that all of us are struggling - with difficulties in our own lives or with difficulties in the lives of those around us. People in this congregation are wrestling with loss, illness, and uncertainty, with the challenges of young parenthood or advancing age, with the challenges of marriage or of being single. And I know that collectively this congregation is trying to do too many things with not too few dollars.
So I would not be surprised if some of you were thinking the following. "Be realistic, Bob. Don't you believe that given our difficulties we should be exempt from the call to act on a matter that, truthfully, is beyond our ability, beyond our reach, and in our some ways beyond our comprehension? We rely on God and surely God will find a way out of this problem and we, the struggling faithful at St. James's, who are barely keeping our noses above water, we should not be asked to take on any special role!"
This reminds me of a story that some of you may know about a man - we'll call him Obadiah -- who got up one morning and found his house surrounded by water. He stepped out on the porch and a neighbor drove up on a tractor and said, "Quick, Obadiah, jump on. There's a flood coming and we are driving to safety."
Obadiah replied, "That's all right. You go ahead. I am relying on the Lord to save me."
The waters rose and eventually began to fill the first floor, and Obadiah went up to his bedroom on the second floor. And as he was looking out the window another neighbor came chugging by in a powerboat and said. "Come on, Obadiah, jump in. The flood's going to get worse and we are headed to safety."
Obadiah replied, "That's all right. You go ahead. I am relying on the Lord to save me."
Finally the waters rose so high that Obadiah had to step out on to the roof. As he watched the waters swirl around him, he prayed very hard. And suddenly a helicopter appeared above him, and a state trooper called down with a bullhorn saying, "Obadiah, we're going to lower down a rescue basket and we'll take you to safety."
Obadiah replied, "That's all right. You go ahead. I am relying on the Lord to save me."
And the waters continued to rise and rise - until Obadiah drowned! And he went to heaven and he appeared before the Lord. And Obadiah was not happy. He said, "Lord, I trusted you all my life. I knew that you would care for me and rescue me. I trusted you even in the midst of a terrible flood. What happened?"
And the Lord said unto Obadiah, "What do you mean, what happened? I sent you a tractor, a powerboat, and a helicopter!"
We talk about the miracle of the incarnation, of what it means that God chose not just to reach out to humanity but to become one with humanity. Our theology often dwells on the way in which this bridge connects us to the privilege and power of divinity. But we often forget and neglect the other side of this equation - that by being connected to God in Christ and through the Spirit we now also share in responsibility for creation. That's why the hymn says "Take my hands and let them be consecrated Lord to thee." That is a basic consequence of being empowered by the Holy Spirit - that God works through us. That's the miracle and that's the scary part - God works through us, in real people, in real time, in real places.
That's the basic story of Scripture. God appears to individuals and asks them to do things that are completely beyond anything that is feasible or reasonable. And notice that in virtually every case they refuse!
God asks Moses to free the Hebrew people and Moses says, sorry, forget it, I am not the right guy, I am lousy speaker.
God asks Isaiah to step forth into prophecy and Isaiah, sorry, no can do, I am a man of unclean lips.
God asks Jonah to go preach against the city of Nineveh in the east, and Jonah says, sorry, and takes a boat headed west.
Jesus asks Peter to follow him and Peter says, "No, I won't. Depart from me. For I am sinful man."
We could summarize the Bible pretty effectively by saying it is a book full of stories in which God appears to various sinful, broken, useless, preoccupied, tired, and busy individuals and asks them to do something huge and outlandish. They all say go find someone else, because we are sinful, broken, useless, preoccupied, tired, and busy.
And God says, sorry, I can't. You are all I've got.
THE IMPLICATIONS FOR ST. JAMES'S
I am proud that a group of parishioners here at St. James's have started to explore the theological and practical questions of the preservation of the earth in this parish. I am grateful to our rector, who has not only encouraged this interest to grow, but has included such concerns in his own preaching and graciously invited me into his pulpit.
It's good that we are having an environmental Sunday - it's more than most churches are doing -- but God is calling us to go way beyond that.
First of all, I am trying to find a way to stop using the word "environment" because it is itself a dull, unappealing word. It doesn't convey anything of the qualities of shameless beauty or spectacular interconnectedness or urgent vitality that we find in creation. The practical and theological challenge is not around "the environment", it is around slowing and reversing the systemic destruction of the earth. Our job is not to love and serve "the environment"; our job is to love and to serve life.
So what must we do? I was at Yale University on Friday speaking at a symposium on "the environment," and I was struck by how much time and energy people spent debating about whether we should do this or that. That's silly. We need to do everything, at every scale. And that should make us feel good, because that means that everyone can do something.
We need to take stock of our personal behavior and to change it; we need to take stock of our community behavior - in this church, in our businesses, in our neighborhoods - and to change it; we need to take stock our public and political behavior and to change it; and we need to take stock of our planetary behavior - and to change that too. At coffee hour you are going to be offered some great opportunities to start moving - go ahead, get started!
But this is not just about signing up for different organizations. We also need to start offering real spiritual witness. We need to create spiritual disciplines for the home that help us root our practices of recycling or energy reduction in gratitude for Godís bounty. Some of us say "grace" at meals as a vestige of a time when the scarcity of food was such that everyone understood that a meal was a gift. Maybe we should develop other forms of grace. Maybe we should develop a prayer of contrition for use every time we take out the garbage.
We need spiritual practices that are appropriate for our communities. We need to rethink and to reshape our liturgies to challenge us and to support us in this new and dangerous reality. The next time we have a Sunday that focuses on creation we should each bring in one bag of garbage and piled it directly on the altar and let that stand for a week as symbol of what we are doing to Godís creation. We need to rethink and reshape our dioceses and our ecumenical work. We need to wake up our bishops. We need to rethink and reshape our efforts at work and in our neighborhoods.
We need spiritual practices to challenge, openly and publicly, the ignorant, smug, self-satisfied, self-dealing, irresponsible, ostrich-like behavior of our public leaders. As long as we stay locked up in our church buildings, our prayers of intercession will not bear real fruit. One of the reasons society at large is ignoring the consequences of climate change is that they do not see people of religious conviction in public spaces. To paraphrase Alexander Solzhenitsyn, they see our silence as acquiescence. The churches marched against the war in Vietnam. The churches marched for civil rights. The churches sit home for the destruction of the earth.
We should be praying on the steps of the legislature. We should be praying in front of car dealerships that sell destructive automobiles. We should be praying in the offices of banks and investment houses. And we should pray honestly - not that we are there as representatives of purity, unaware by our own hypocrisies -- but that we feel called by the Spirit, in our weakness and failure, to offer public witness to the devastation unfolding around us.
And finally, we need to develop spiritual disciplines that are planetary in their perspective. In the last eight months I have traveled on four of the world's six continents and I have seen some of the whirlwind we are about to reap. The people of Bangladesh and India, of Mexico and Honduras, of Kenya and Mozambique, of China and the Pacific Islands are already falling under the hammer blows of climate change. We talk in this church and in this denomination about solidarity with others around the world, we talk about mission, but we do not understand, in our bones, what this means. When I ask people in other parts of the world what would be the most important thing we could do in the United States for them, what I hear most often is - "change the behavior of your own country."
Could St. James's do this? It is true that we are burdened, and that we have little compared to some. But we have great abundance compared to others. We sit here, in one of the wealthiest cities of one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation in the world, surrounded by immense intellectual, human, and financial resources. We have everything we need to launch a community of hope and of resistance
We are not, like those before us, struggling to build a nation, or move to a new country, or survive a depression, or defeat a global tyrant in war. We are not being asked, like Moses, to challenge Pharaoh to his face; or being summoned, like Jonah, to go to the most powerful city on earth and turn its heart back to God; or being invited like Peter to give away our livelihood in order to follow an unknown rabbi on a path that would oppose both the supreme religious authorities of the nation and the mightiest empire in the world.
(Or maybe we are.)
We are in this time and place being asked to practice extrospection, to learn to see in color, and to act. The Holy Spirit waits, prepared to magnify even the smallest deed of courage on our part. But the Spirit will not force. We must come forward individually, like the children of Saint Barnabas, each with our own blossoming commitment. Through such faith and such God-empowered acts we may yet witness the re-flowering of the cross and the resurrection of life on earth.
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