Sunday, December 27, 2015

Following Jesus No Matter What in the Anthropocene

Merry Christmas!

I'm sharing the sermon I preached this morning. When I considered the Prologue to John this year, it was in light of the Paris climate talks, the unholy silence around climate change in this nation, and thinking about a new grandchild growing up in this strange new world. This morning was also our annual carol sing at Church of the Resurrection; knowing that, some familiar carols were part of my reflection, too.

Christmas I 2015
John 1:1-18
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska, December 27, 2015

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Merry Christmas! I’m awfully happy to be here as we continue our celebration of Christmas, especially since the Christmas Eve snowstorm prevented us from getting from Hastings to Omaha on Christmas Eve. The silver lining of missing our Christmas Eve celebration here was that we got to spend some of our Christmas Eve with our three-month-old grandson, James. And Christmas is one of those “no matter what” times — whether it happens for us in a traditional setting or under unplanned circumstances or in an entirely new setting, whether we are in a happy time in our lives or a sad time, Christmas happens. Just as real babies get born under all sorts of circumstances, the baby Jesus gets born on Christmas Eve no matter what.

New babies can bring lots of joy to a family and a community. No matter what else is going on, a baby refocuses our thoughts and emotions for at least a while. When a baby looks at us and smiles, it’s nearly inevitable that we find ourselves smiling in return.

I think one reason we love the familiar Christmas story that we read on Christmas Eve from Luke’s Gospel is that we can identify with the joy of a baby being born “no matter what”. And we relish seeing our own much-loved children re-enact the story in the Christmas pageant. We hear about the shepherds and the angels and know this was an event for the whole world, but we also see the intimate joy of Mary and Joseph tending to the new baby. We push aside what we know is coming — the flight into Egypt, Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the Cross — and focus on the joy and wonder of the baby lying in the manger.

But despite that refocusing and those blessed moments of pure baby joy, families throughout the ages, including Mary and Joseph, also have moments of concern. What sort of life will this baby have? What will the world be like as he or she grows? Can we provide what the baby needs? Many families today share the same concerns as those of other generations — the old global problems of war, poverty, oppression, prejudice, and violence. One of the most theologically significant aspects of Luke’s nativity story is God becoming incarnate in the form of an infant, completely vulnerable and dependent and endangered by the forces of evil in this world. God enters into our vulnerability and into the dangers of human life. We and our children are not alone.

Today we have a new concern, accelerating global warming and the effects of the climate changes that result from global warming. The challenges of climate change exacerbate all those old concerns, increasing tensions that lead to violence and war, making life harder for people who already struggled to have the necessities of life, and making those inclined toward oppression of people who differ from their immediate circle more likely to act on their prejudices.

Before Christmas the world witnessed an incredible gathering of world leaders in Paris to work on an agreement for the nations to act together to basically cut our losses with regard to global warming. From the point of view of the world of diplomacy and political relationships, the conference was a big success. Nations pledged reductions in carbon emissions, and small steps were taken toward righting the injustice faced by the Climate Vulnerable Nations, a group of smaller island nations and developing nations who face many of the worst consequences of climate change first despite having done the least to cause global warming. However, climate change is as much a problem to be solved by science as by politics, and from the point of view of what we know about predictions for our future paired up with various levels of emissions, the problem is far from solved. And the steps taken toward righting the injustice consist mostly of recognizing the injustice — a significant political step — and expressing a hope that the larger nations who emitted most of the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere while becoming wealthy will contribute money to help developing nations transition to clean energy sources and handle the damage already done. It’s a step forward, but I don’t know how much comfort recognition of my plight and a hope that someone might help me out would be if I lived on Kiribati or some other low-lying Pacific Island watching my crops die as salt water infiltrated my land. Because the laws of physics demand more of us in this case than do the old political play books, this major gathering of the world’s leaders is hard to evaluate.

Here, though, is perhaps the strangest thing about the Paris climate talks: After they finished and the world leaders and diplomats went home, we in the United States didn’t hear very much about them. Since the talks ended, debates for the Presidential candidates of both major political parties have been broadcast. Both debates were supposed to be about national security and relations with other nations. None of the moderators at either debate asked a single question even touching on climate change. It was as if nothing at all was happening to the climate and as if this big gathering of the world’s leaders had never happened. For a grandma hoping for some global stability as her grandbaby grows up, the all too common silence around this issue from the news media, political and religious leaders, and people who discuss every current event except this one is shocking.

It’s a whole new world, and many people feel less secure and more vulnerable than ever.

This Christmas passage from John’s Gospel can take us from the realization of our vulnerability to a realization of the fullness of life that Christ brings to us, a fullness of life that restores our hope and confidence. John’s Good News of the Divine Word, the light that shines in the darkness, is that God is indeed right here with us no matter what. The Word became flesh and lived among us, pitched his tent among us. Every place — this church, this neighborhood, this city, Syria, Kiribati, the Arctic Territories, Paris, every place — is holy ground.

A sense of sacramental living is part of our Episcopalian ethos. Sacramental living is living as if we might touch and connect with the Holy in every part of our everyday lives. It’s why we believe a small piece of bread and a sip of wine can be for us the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s why we use water for baptism, oil for healing, and a Bishop’s hands for confirmation and ordination. These ordinary, everyday things help us experience the Holy. How can this be? John tells us that God is right here with us, nearer to us than our own heartbeats, closer to us than our own breath. If we respond at all to God’s love, we will be living sacramentally, living in such a way that we expect to find God around every corner, waking up in the morning in eager anticipation of the possibility of an encounter with Jesus. And if we are in a world so valued by God and suffused with God’s loving presence, then we will live in a way that values all of creation, not just our favorite little corner of creation. And we will value the living things in those places, most certainly including our sisters and brothers whose very existence is too often forgotten or ignored.

Knowing that God has come to live among us as one of us also lifts us to a place of strength and courage. Fear and that nagging feeling of vulnerability tempt us to divide the world into us and them, where ‘us’ means good and ‘them’ means bad. When we know that the Word, the Christ, has come to live among us and we see the light shining in the darkness, we see how silly so many of our divisions are. We have the strength and courage to live in our culture without buying into the powerful cultural forces that would keep us divided from one another.

Knowing that Christ is among us and that the simplistic division of Us from Them is not reflective of the reality of God’s kingdom, we also find the strength and courage to speak the truth instead retreating into a fearful or embarrassed silence. We can act boldly out of love for one another and for all of creation, no longer shrinking back. We can share Jesus’s truth and love with a world that sorely needs to hear words of love instead of words of hate and words of truth instead of silence. We find the strength and courage to follow Jesus no matter what.

Luke’s nativity story of the baby in the manger connects us with a vulnerable baby. This morning’s passage from John helps us understand why we have hope in that Holy Child and why we continue to have hope for all of our children. The Word that was with God and one Being with God from the beginning has come to live among us! We are not alone. We can look at the world’s biggest problems and get to work on them because Christ is here with us no matter what. And if we fail to do what needs to be done before it is too late, we still are not alone. The difficulties we will face if we continue doing too little too late will be spiritually bearable if we continue to have the courage to follow Jesus and live into God’s kingdom, loving one another and refusing the loud voices of our time that encourage us to ignore or even hate those Jesus calls us to love.

What do we do to honor the Baby Jesus?  We keep loving. We keep working for justice and peace. We keep speaking the truth into the unholy silences created by powerful people who lack the courage to acknowledge our real problems, and we refuse to be frightened by the straw men they create in an attempt to distract us from the work of God’s kingdom.

Jesus is sustaining us and giving us strength and courage to do our best for all of the children of the world. And so we sing “Joy to the world” in the face of fear and anger. We let our own little lights that Jesus gave to us shine in the night of ignorance and prejudice and greed. We have ears to “hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell”, and we “go tell it on the mountain and over the hills and everywhere” because the Word made flesh has pitched his tent among us all over the world.

We belong to Jesus. We know that the light continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. This is our joy no matter what. Amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Magnificat and the Unholy Silence

Advent IV

This post is a few days late; the Fourth Sunday of Advent has come and gone, and Christmas Day is nearly here.

An extra full calendar and to-do list contributed to the delay, but the greater reason for the delay has been the need for time to make some sense in light of Advent of what is happening in the world and the way we talk — or fail to talk — about it.

While studying the Gospel passage for Advent IV this year (Luke 1: 39-56) , I was struck by something very obvious that had never really caught my attention before. Mary says:
[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 
Photo of a piece by
Pat Wiederspan Jones
These words express a hope and a longing for justice, for compassionate treatment of those who would usually have no power and no voice, for the restoration of a world where wholeness and holiness replace divisions and sinfulness. Many of us who share that longing treasure the Magnificat because it so beautifully expresses that hope. Always before, the joy of this prophecy caught my full attention. This year, however, I wondered at Mary’s words and their power through the centuries because the proud and powerful still lord it over too many people in this world; most hungry people in the world remain hungry while rich people eat far more than we need and throw generous amounts of leftover food in the garbage. The Romans and their lackeys remained in power after Jesus was born, eventually nailing Jesus to a cross. How do these words remain so powerful and meaningful to us when the economic and political structures in the world continue to oppress people who are meek, “lowly”, hungry, or poor?

The distance between the holy vision of the Magnificat and the unholy picture of our world is strikingly evident in the way those in power have manipulated the public conversation about climate change. Recent investigations have concluded that the American Petroleum Institute and a slew of big oil companies knew about greenhouse gases and their predicted effect on the climate from the 1970’s. (See yesterday’s story Exxon's Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too from InsideClimate News, Bill McKibben’s piece in The Guardian October 14, 2015, or NPR’s November 5, 2015 story.) They knew, but they chose to be silent about what they knew, choosing instead to work against efforts to limit our use of fossil fuels and to work instead for increased extraction of fossil fuels. That silence now endangers all living things on the earth.

The unholy silence of the fossil fuel industry was matched in the two televised candidates’ debates that have occurred since the big climate talks in Paris. In neither the Republican nor the Democratic debate did any of the moderators ask a question about climate change even though “national security” was supposed to be a focus for both debates. Surely the politically and economically destabilizing effects of an unstable climate should be included in any serious conversation about national security, especially so soon after the gathering of the world’s leaders in Paris.

This silence is everywhere — in our own conversations with friends and family where we might discuss every sort of issue under the sun except climate change, whenever we leave a Sunday morning worship service with no prayer having been prayed or words preached that acknowledge what is happening, when good people who care about human welfare write and speak about hopes for a better world in 2016 and beyond without acknowledging the gravest threat to human welfare in this century.

The economic and political structures that discount the lives of millions of people are still in place, and even though we live in a time when information about what is happening all around the world is readily available, we barely hear a word about how the big changes in the earth’s climate make human life even more insecure. The lives of “the lowly” and “the hungry” are getting more and more precarious, but we go through our days acting as if they aren’t even there.

But Mary’s words still grab my heart, not because they describe something that has happened or is likely to happen in the political sphere or be reported by the corporate media, but because they describe the reality into which Jesus invites us to live. Yes, it’s true that the powers that be in the worlds of politics and business and, too often, even the church continue to find new ways to support the old injustices and keep the old silences about oppression, but that doesn’t mean that we accept that as our reality.

Jesus showed us his kingdom. Jesus saw the people at the edge of the crowd, the women, the lepers, the short tax collector up in the branches of the sycamore tree. Jesus saw them and he talked to them, acknowledged their existence, and treated them as children of God. Jesus didn’t worry about offending the religious elite when he sat down to eat with people considered too sinful for polite company, and he preached God’s truth and God’s justice even when people were offended by what he preached.

The Magnificat gives us courage to do what Mary did, to do whatever God calls us to do and to live in the way God intends us to live no matter what other reality the powers that be offer us. Today, the Magnificat can give us courage to break the unholy silence. We can say no to the talking points and prescribed silences of those with power to lose; we can say yes to the reality of God’s kingdom and speak from a reality that sees the weakness of the powerful and the poverty of the rich. Mary does not call us to a false hope; Mary helps us to follow Jesus with eyes wide open to see the world around us as it is.

As we follow Jesus and live further into the kingdom, we find our voices and creative ways to resist the death-dealing culture of the rich and powerful. Many sense a change swelling up from the grassroots, ready to bypass the old obstacles. As we find our voices, we begin to sense that, in the words of The Canticle of the Turning, "the world is about to turn".

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent 3: Rejoice!

John the Baptist and Amos in Paris

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance…And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (John 3: 7-14)

John the Baptist comes along this week exhorting us to a level of repentance that results in righteous action. The examples John gives of righteous action all involve honesty and generosity with our money and possessions. In particular, if we have more than enough — two coats — we must share with anyone who has nothing. If we have food, we need to share it with people who don’t have food.

The Daily Office readings from Amos the past couple of weeks prepared us well for this Sunday’s Gospel lesson. Amos tells the people that their religious observances have become empty because of their dishonesty and their disregard for poor people. “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24)

Today (December 12) the COP21 meeting in Paris reached a landmark climate agreement. Some of the negotiations this week revolved around the question of whether to stick with the 2 degree Celsius target for global warming or revise that target to the 1.5 degree mark that the Climate Vulnerable Nations need to survive. As Democracy Now reported a protestor pointing out this week: “They are not deciding how to tackle climate change; they are deciding who lives and who dies.” Hearing this against the backdrop of our readings from Amos and John the Baptist makes it clear that wealthier nations cannot take the easy way out with a 2 degree target that saves many of us but sentences people in climate vulnerable nations to death.

Another justice question at the conference was about whether wealthier developed nations, whose industrialization depended on burning fossil fuels that created greenhouse gases, should give money to less developed nations to help them adapt to climate change. In the United States, this will become an issue for Congress to address, and it could be a tough sell given our political atmosphere. And yet we hear John the Baptist saying “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none”.

This agreement opens the door to justice, but wealthier nations will have to decide whether we will walk through it. The present international commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions would result in global warming greater than two degrees Celsius, far from the 1.5 degree target. The agreements in principle to assist less developed nations in adapting to climate change will need to be backed up by the actions of individual nations. What this agreement gives us is an opportunity to repent of our past disregard for the earth’s climate and the earth’s most vulnerable people and do the right thing. We in the United States will need to press our elected officials to accelerated our transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and press them to do justice in sharing the burden of most vulnerable nations’ adjustment to climate change.

This Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday to rejoice in the midst of our Advent preparation. There is joy in justice. Our rejoicing can be full rather than empty if righteous action accompanies our religious celebration.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent II: Repent!

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6)

A week into the COP21 climate talks in Paris, it is too early to tell whether a strong enough agreement will result from these meetings. We hope for a just agreement that is strong enough to mitigate global warming sufficiently to avert catastrophe and not just delay it. People who understand the importance of these talks are eager for news in the days ahead. 

Although what the world’s leaders do with this opportunity will probably be what we remember most about 2015 in the years ahead, our news in the United States this week has been dominated by other stories. More gun violence, related concerns about both foreign and domestic terrorism, and coverage of presidential candidates seemed to predominate. Even with the effects of climate change exacerbating the conditions that allow terrorism to take hold, some American politicians and pundits have suggested that it is wrong to give the climate conference any sort of priority if we face any other sort of threat. 

A great flaw in such thinking is that we can separate environmental issues from other issues. The failure to realize the interconnections within the web that sustains all life on this planet is what has gotten us to this critical last hour attempt to negotiate an agreement that might avert a global catastrophe. A similar failure, the failure to recognize the interconnections among various “issues”, is one of the greatest political obstacles to success.

Despite the increasingly obvious human toll of climate change, we have a habit of thought left over from the
twentieth century that continues to make concern for the environment a side issue. That leftover way of thinking separates concern for humankind from concern for the earth. A pinched perspective on life, perhaps a legacy of the Great Depression, gave us a sense in the last century that we could — and probably should — be concerned primarily for humankind without being concerned about the rest of creation. Given the false choice between concern for people and concern for “nature”, we chose concern for human welfare over concern for the great outdoors. (The latter, after all, would always be waiting for us when we wanted to take a break.) We developed a false dichotomy between human welfare and the welfare of other living things that not only was an intellectual error, but has resulted in the biggest threat ever to human beings around the world. Many of our politicians and pundits continue this error. 

This week’s Advent Gospel (Luke 3:1-6) turns to John the Baptist proclaiming a “baptism of repentance”.  John the Baptist isn’t calling for a simple confession of our sins or a change in government policies. He is calling for a deep, life-changing reorientation of our souls that results in righteousness, in lives aligned with God’s ways, not the ways of the marketplace or the political forum. Such a reorientation of our souls results in a strong grounding in reality, an immersion that restores our sense of wonder and our awareness of the interconnections among things. This restoration reveals the fallacies in the ways of thinking we are offered by so many of the loudest voices in our nation. 

Luke begins today’s Gospel passage with references to various political and religious leaders in order to set the events he is describing in history, to pin down the year when John began preaching. Yet we pay much more attention today to the words of John than we do to anything the people considered “historical figures” said or did. What endures today isn’t so much what the rulers thought or did; those loud voices of their time aren’t the ones that echo down through the centuries to the Church today. What is important to us as the second week of Advent begins is the single voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness.

We are preparing ourselves to once again bear witness to the Incarnation, to God becoming human, bridging the divide between heaven and earth and showing that divide to be less real than we had thought. One way to prepare ourselves for that Christmas witness is to learn to think past the paradigms and categories the loud voices of our time would have us accept as real. 

Everything is connected. Interpersonal violence in our homes and communities is connected to violence between competing factions within nations. These forms of violence are connected to violence between nations and violence to the biosphere. Violence to our biosphere results in droughts, floods, famine, and rising seas that produce refugees who need to go somewhere. Violence to our biosphere results in lack of access to food and water and living space that easily results in conflict. Everything is of one piece. A nation or world that solves problems at the point of a gun will never be able to restore a sustainable biosphere. 

Repent. Say no to the false choices we are offered. Refuse to listen to the loudest voices. Instead, listen to the quieter voices that call us to peace and restoration. Listen to the voices that matter in the long-term, the ones that prepare us to better hear and follow Jesus, the one who taught us to love of God and love our neighbors. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent Hope 2015

Advent is about waiting in hope. This time of year, the days are short in the northern hemisphere. Along with the darkness from the longer nights, we have days like today in Nebraska when clouds and fog make even the daytime darker than usual. Some days, new snow or thick fog makes everything seem quieter than normal. Advent calls us to an inward spiritual observance of what we might be experiencing outwardly and physically; Advent calls us to look for signs of hope, pieces of light sparkling in the midst of spiritual darkness, and to enter into spiritual quiet so we can listen for the sound of good news. 

In the Advent I Green Sprouts post three years ago, Doing the math in hope, I told about hearing Bill McKibben speak in Omaha as part of his Do the Math tour. McKibben’s primary message that night was this:

It’s simple math: we can burn less than 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. And they’re planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them.

McKibben went on to talk about the then new campaign for institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry as a way for people to help address what our political leaders had been unwilling to address with any significant action. Divesting was one way of doing everything we can to change the trajectory of climate change by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Divestment wouldn’t solve the problem, but it might be enough of a push to make a difference. 

Bill McKibben also said our precarious situation, while very discouraging, was also exciting because we were getting “nearer to the heart of things”. In that 2012 Advent I post, this was my reflection on the idea of getting nearer to the heart of things:

And we are indeed down to what is essential to survival; we are down to questions of meaning and questions about our priorities; we are down to questions about where our hearts lie when we face the finitude not only of our own lives but of our biosphere, our planet, and the way of life it has supported. Our search for hope in this seemingly hopeless situation leads us to a place of repentance and conversion: Are we willing to do what it takes to make hope possible?

I left Bill McKibben’s presentation thinking that the Episcopal Church needed to divest from fossil fuels, and a few months later found that other Episcopalians were thinking the same thing. We did not expect divestment to come easily. We were going forward from a position of hope and faith, knowing that we were doing what we needed to do even if we failed in our efforts. In the end, everything came together at this year’s General Convention to make it happen. 

After the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to divest major funds from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy this summer, it seemed to me that choosing to divest “was both a sign of our hope and a catalyst for future hope”. 

As I think about hope this Advent, I wonder at how quickly our efforts bore fruit. I give thanks that this small piece of the work before us went well. And I go back to the Advent questions I asked three years ago in light of the discouraging facts about climate change and what it will take for us to ensure a sustainable future for humankind: Where do our hearts lie? How do we hope when everything seems dark? Can we set aside lesser priorities of personal convenience and comfort in order to do what needs to be done for the greater common good both close to home and in corners of the globe about which we know very little? 

These 21st century questions are timeless Advent questions; the journey of the heart we take to repent and turn ourselves and the world around is an Advent journey. 

The beginning of this Advent season brings us to the important climate talks in Paris. There are good reasons to think that the best we can realistically expect from these talks are promises to limit future greenhouse gas emissions significantly but not enough to do more than delay the catastrophe. In everyday terms, we might say this is “the best we can hope for”. 

But there is also genuine hope. Genuine hope sees the darkness for what it is, but looks and listens for light and good news. There is genuine hope that hearts and minds will change, that the voices of the activists outside the talks will be heard, that the voice of the poorest people in the world will somehow be heard among these leaders of the nations, and that the voices of the oceans and the birds and endangered plants and animals will count for something. And there is genuine hope that if our leaders fail us yet again, we will find other ways to ensure that fossil fuels stay in the ground.

Pray for those gathered in Paris, that may have wisdom and courage and the ability to understand deeply what they are doing this week. Pray for those of us not gathered there, that we continue to speak and act in ways that bring genuine hope. Pray for hope and in hope. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thanksgiving Weekend: The Paris Talks

Thanksgiving Memories
This Thanksgiving weekend, a Facebook post from a friend in New Zealand sending good wishes to her friends celebrating Thanksgiving Day in the United States brought back memories of our family’s Thanksgiving celebrations when we lived in the Waikato region of New Zealand in the early 1980’s. Late November in New Zealand is late spring. The idea of giving thanks for the harvest was completely out of sync with our location, and many of our traditional Thanksgiving foods were hard to find there in the springtime, but we did our best to put together a small Thanksgiving feast that would give our children some idea of the holiday being celebrated back home in the U.S.

The first year we lived in New Zealand, talking to family members back home who were surprised that the fourth Thursday in November was a regular workday for my husband, and that I was having to be creative in the kitchen to try to produce anything resembling the meals they were having in Iowa and Ohio, was eye-opening. We all get so immersed in the way things are in our own corner of the world that sometimes we forget that not everyone’s lives are like our own. Of course, as soon as we began to explain and remind them that it was the equivalent of the end of May in the northern hemisphere for us and that Thanksgiving is an American holiday, people understood why things were so different where we lived. We all can understand that our own experiences in our locations are different from those of other people, but sometimes we forget that, especially when we live in a powerful and exceptionally wealthy nation. 

The Paris Climate Summit
As our Thanksgiving celebration winds down in the United States, many people around the world are looking toward next week’s climate summit in Paris. These talks are critical. Some consider them the last chance for the nations of the world to take the necessary steps to address climate change in a significant and politically orderly way. 

The stated goals of several large nations is finding a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, people in the Pacific particularly know that even that amount of warming will spell disaster for them, and they are asking for an agreement that has the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

I hear a lot in our press about the goals of the United States and China and the European nations as the climate talks approach, but there are voices from the Pacific — and from other parts of the world as well — that need to heard. (See the Climate Vulnerable Forum website to learn about that partnership of countries most immediately vulnerable to a warming planet.) We can’t address a global problem if we forget about a large part of the world.

From the Church in the South Pacific
The Anglican Bishops representing Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa, the Dioceses in New Zealand, and the Diocese of Polynesia have issued a statement urging the parties at the Paris conference “to work intently to secure a legally binding international agreement that limits global average temperature increase to below 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels”. The Bishops remind us of what is happening in their part of the world, and then further remind us of Jesus’s core teaching of love for our neighbors:
Already the impacts of climate change are being acutely felt in the South Pacific. This year we have witnessed first-hand the devastation that climate change will visit upon our region through more intense cyclones, severe storm surges, saltwater intrusion, coastal erosion, and the bleaching of corals. 
Jesus teaches us to love our neighbour and especially to show practical love to the poor and vulnerable, declaring that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” In this spirit, we believe that the needs of the Pacific Islands and other communities acutely vulnerable to climate impacts should set the terms for what is agreed at the Paris climate negotiations.
We are all connected. To address a global problem, we need to see that what affects people in one part of the world affects us as well, even if we live in a very different part of the world. What affects our brothers and sisters in Polynesia affects us in Nebraska!

A post with the headline Polynesian Archbishop on rising sea levels: “We’ll go first, but you will follow” from the Anglican Communion News Service quotes Archbishop Dr. Winston Halapua, the Bishop of Polynesia, telling why his concern to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is because of his concern for us as well as his concern for his own people:
The point I make is that, yes, we (here in the Pacific) are the first ones to go. But the others who think they will be OK – they’re kidding themselves. They will not be OK. Because we love the world . . . and because we love you, we are saying: alter your way of life.
The innocent go first, the powerless go first. . . And the voice from the powerless says: ‘I care for all.’
My thought after reading the statement from the Bishops and the comments from Archbishop Halapua is that the Pacific voice must be heard, but the ACNS post says:
Archbishop Winston says it’s no longer a matter of whether the Paris negotiators hear “the Pacific voice. It’s not the Pacific voice that needs to be heard,” he says. Because now, the sea rising is our voice. It speaks for us. It speaks for Oceania.
The Anglican Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki reports that a cross made in that diocese and blessed in the waters of the Waikato River will travel to the Paris conference with Bishop Graham Usher, one of the Church of England’s environmental bishops. It seems appropriate that a cross representing a region that has an important message for the rest of the world will be in Paris as the climate talks proceed. For us Christians, the cross represents the victory of the Crucified One over death. Jesus taught that the last will be first and the first will be last, something those of us in parts of the world that aren’t yet feeling the effects of climate change as much as others might keep in mind. Our own interests and our own way of viewing the world don’t give us the big picture we so urgently need to see. 

I ask your prayers. 

Pray for everyone with a place at the table in Paris. Pray for them to have wisdom, the ability to see beyond their own spatial and temporal boundaries, and love for their global neighbors. Pray for the nations most immediately vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, and pray for those of us whose less immediate experience may cloud our judgment. 

And give thanks for our Christian sisters and brothers in the Pacific region who are speaking with clarity and wisdom and love at a critical time, and continual thanks for the beauty and diversity of the earth and its living things that give us joy and comfort even as we grieve what we have lost and are still losing.

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect for Thanksgiving Day, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 246)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

St. Francis: Action Grounded in Compassion

“What did you do once you knew?”

This year’s celebration of St. Francis falls at a time when there is growing awareness of climate change and its effects. The effects are all around us now, even if we don’t always articulate the connection between these effects and rising global temperatures. Global warming brings exceptionally dry conditions to some areas and torrential rains to others, while rising sea levels make coast flooding more frequent.

This week, heavy rains associated with Hurricane Joaquin are causing historic flooding along parts of the eastern seaboard in the United States. On Thursday, a rain-soaked hill in Guatemala collapsed in a landslide. CNN reports that at least 73 people died in the landslide, and hundreds are missing. And this same week, Ed Struck reports that rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. Some of the ecological effects of these fires are already evident; some of us in Nebraska remember some smoky days this summer from fires in Canada and the northwestern United States. Down the road, if these fires burn through the organic layers that protect the permafrost in northern regions, the carbon concentrated in permafrost will be released, accelerating global warming. 

St. Francis Day this year comes also on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. During his visit, Pope Francis exhorted the American people and our leaders to pay attention to climate change and make the changes we need to make in order to allow us and all living things to thrive. His visit makes it easier, perhaps, for us to look beyond the blessing of pets to the deeper teachings of St. Francis that are so important for us to heed in the 21st century.

St. Francis’s compassion extended far beyond domestic animals. Most notably, Francis had compassion for poor people. Born into comfortable circumstances, he left all of that to live as poor people lived. Today we might say he stood in solidarity with the poor. His compassion extended to all living things: people, plants, water, the wind, the sun, moon, and stars. His compassion even extended to death itself, part of the great web and cycles of life. 

His compassion flowed out of his love for Christ. His grounding in Christ was evident in his loving restoration of ruined churches and in his creation of the first crèche to make the story of the Nativity more accessible to people. Francis did not neglect worship, and his attention to the words of Christ in the Gospel guided his heart and his mind, but he also did not neglect action in the world.  As Francis understood as a deacon, when the Gospel works long enough on someone’s heart and mind, the natural result is compassion that extends in an ever-widening circle.

The great work for Christians today is to extend that circle of compassion not only in wider and wider circles in today's world, but also to extend that circle to future generations. Compassion says that if we see the potential for living things to suffer now or 10, 20, 50, or 100 years from now, we should do whatever we can to alleviate that suffering.

What do we do? What response is one we would be happy for people who may be alive in 100 years to know about? What response is one we are happy for God to know about now?

A prayerful reflection on how we act with compassion in today’s world might start with this passage from Hieroglyphic Stairway read by the poet, Drew Dillinger:

Sunday, July 26, 2015

How are the scallops?

St. James Day and the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Since the scallop shell is a symbol for Saint James, this blog has taken the feast day in the past to look at the future for sea scallops given the increasing acidification of the world’s oceans. [See St James, Scallops, and Drought from 2012 and Feast of St. James: Scallops and their Companions from 2015.] The same carbon pollution that contributes to global warming is also increasing the acidity of the world’s oceans, changing the chemistry of shell production for scallops, oysters, clams, and other shellfish. 

So how is our fight against ocean acidification going? How are the scallops this day, this year, and how are they likely to be in the future? 

When I looked over information about ocean acidification and shellfish from the past few months, the answers to these questions did not surprise me, yet I can’t comprehend them. The scallops are not doing well, and they are likely to do worse in the future. Moreover, the economic impact of the loss of shellfish seems to be growing more apparent to more people. Yet ocean acidification is increasing, not decreasing. We know it is happening, we know a lot about the harmful effects of ocean acidification, but we haven’t done anything significant to stop it. Because we allow all sorts of short-term concerns to prevent significant action on global warming, it’s not surprising that we treat ocean acidification, its evil twin, the same way. But why do we do that? Why do we prioritize our immediate, short-term comfort and our fear of change over the preservation of life? That’s the part I don’t comprehend. 

A new report on research done jointly by NOAA, the University of Alaska, and an Alaskan shellfish hatchery indicates that without mitigation, the ocean waters they studied in Resurrection Bay may not be able to support shellfish hatcheries by 2040, only 25 years from now. Ocean acidification and warming waters also threaten the lobster industry in Maine. Another study released this year looked not only at the vulnerability of the shellfish but also at the social vulnerability of the coastal communities that will be most affected by the loss of shellfish. Several coastal states are looking at changes in policies to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification on the shellfish industry and the communities that depend on the industry economically. 

It’s all very discouraging. However, Joe Romm reported yesterday on the probable end to the global coal boom. China’s use of coal has helped fuel the coal boom, but now awareness both of the health effects of carbon pollution coupled with a growing awareness of the threat of climate change to China’s future has resulted in policy changes to transition away from coal-intensive industries in particular and energy-intensive industries in general. Joe Romm’s post suggests that China’s transition to cleaner energy sources should in turn make clean energy sources more available to developing countries. All of this makes real progress from the Paris climate talks a little more possible: “The Paris talks should also make obvious to all what the world’s top climate scientists and governments already know and have stated publicly: The world has to go to zero total carbon pollution long before 2100 and indeed as close to 2050 as possible — before actually going carbon negative.”

While the focus of the Paris talks is mitigation of climate change, a serious commitment to decreasing carbon pollution will mitigate the evil twin of ocean acidification as well. Will it be enough? Is it worth the attempt?  The Gospel lesson this Sunday morning is John 6:1-21, which includes the version of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes in which a boy offers his five loaves and two fish, an offering that seems too small to feed the crowd but ends up being sufficient. All we can do to save the shellfish and keep climate change somewhere below the catastrophic category is to offer what we have, to make the attempt and find out later whether the attempt was enough. 

We have about four months until the Paris climate talks begin. We can offer our prayers and advocate with our nation’s leaders for a truly significant commitment to phase out carbon pollution soon enough to make a real difference. And even though it's difficult to think about, we can make the effort to learn more about what is happening, talk about it, and pray and reflect on it, and then perhaps find it within ourselves to make it clear to all those in power that preserving life, including preservation of as many ocean species as possible, takes priority over our short-term concerns and our fears of change. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Choosing Hope: Divestment from Fossil Fuels

But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled. (Mark 6:37-42)

Two weeks after the close of the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Sunday lectionary has us pondering Mark’s version of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. This story of Jesus taking what we can give and turning it into all that we need speaks to our situation today with regards to climate change. [See previous posts Loaves and Fishes and Environmental Impact Statements and New Questions for a New Time based on other John and Matthew's versions of the story.] 

All of us working to mitigate climate change and its effects know that what we can offer is not by itself enough to stop the catastrophe that seems to be slowly unfolding before us. Yet we offer what we can because our faith tells us that Jesus can use our efforts in ways that we cannot imagine; we offer what we can because hope is a Christian virtue. 

The vote for Resolution C045
in the House of Deputies
Two weeks after the close of General Convention, several of us who advocated for the Episcopal Church to divest from fossil fuels are still processing the success of Resolution C045 that calls on major funds of the Episcopal Church to divest from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest in clean energy. Part of my own processing is realizing the success of our efforts against the discouraging background of the daily onslaught of news stories about climate change and its effects. Since General Convention ended, the rather discouraging State of the Climate 2014 report has been published, fires continue to burn in western Canada and California, homes and lives have been lost in floods in Kentucky and southern Ohio, and a new study says that we are already in the "worst case scenario" for sea level rise. What does our action mean when compared to the enormity of the situation?

In the greater scheme of things, the amount of money to be divested and reinvested is not great. And the moral reach of the Episcopal Church in 2015 is not as great as it was a few decades ago; the pronouncements of the Episcopal Church do not carry the weight among leaders of government and industry that they once did. None of this, though, makes the passage of Resolution C045 insignificant. In the midst of our General Convention, we managed to have a conversation of sorts about climate change. We acknowledged the big hot elephant in the room and talked, first in the Environmental Stewardship and Care of Creation committee hearings and then, briefly but clearly, in both Houses of General Convention about what is happening and how the church might respond. When presented with a proposal to change our investment policy to reflect the realities of today’s world and our concern for people now and in the future who are negatively affected by climate change, we voted in favor of divestment.

Along with divestment/reinvestment, another successful resolution that came out of the Environmental Stewardship committee was Resolution A030 that creates an Advisory Council on the Stewardship of Creation with work at the provincial level to develop theological resources and networks for practical application to help us respond to climate change. 

We offered what we could at General Convention, knowing that even when the challenge seems beyond our ability, Jesus can take what we freely give and use it to provide just what we need even when we can’t imagine what that provision might look like. Choosing to divest from fossil fuels was both a sign of our hope and a catalyst for future hope.

Given the challenges before us, we could easily have been cynical rather than hopeful. We could have ignored climate change completely. Opponents of divestment offered arguments that we should keep our “place at the table” in the fossil fuel industry even though the nature of the industry is the extraction and processing of the fossil fuels that are killing us. Following that advice, we could have clung to our current investment policy while telling ourselves that it was for the sake of advocating for something — for the fossil fuel industry to do something other than what it does? —and not because of our own fears. We could have looked at the enormity of the challenge of climate change and decided it was beyond our abilities to do anything at all, choosing to put our energies into the church’s internal concerns rather than into serving the world in Christ’s name. But we chose hope and we chose faith in Jesus. 

Hope during these challenging times looks like General Convention. In all sorts of areas, we chose to follow the Gospel as best we know how; we chose to give Jesus what we have in faithful expectation, in hope, that Jesus, working through us and through what we offer, “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 102). 

Part of the joy of participating in General Convention this year was the lack of cynicism and the spirit of hope grounded in faith in Jesus. I’m still processing all that we did in Salt Lake City, but I know that my hope for the church and for the world was shored up mightily by what we did there.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Abandoning Business as Usual?

A resolution calling on the Investment Committee of the Executive Council, the Episcopal Church Pension Fund, the Episcopal Church Endowment Fund, and the Episcopal Church Foundation to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean renewable energy is on today’s priority calendar in the House of Deputies at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. The House of Bishops has already passed Resolution C045.

This has been an amazing General Convention so far, with signs of a sea change in the Episcopal Church. Many people have a deep desire to be the church in the world rather than simply hoping that the world might stop by some Sunday morning and see how pretty our buildings are. Getting serious about our response to climate change is a big piece of being the church in today’s world.

Yesterday I came across a post written two years ago, Discipleship and Abandoning Business as Usual. While the Sunday lectionary is not this year’s, and the specific examples of current effects of climate change and the political conversation are different, I’m sharing it because it still speaks to what we are about today at General Convention.

Please pray for the members of the House of Deputies as we continue our work on all sorts of resolutions, and especially pray for us to find the wisdom, courage, and love to end the practice of profiting from the destruction of life on this planet.

Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9: 61-62)

As we prepare for our Sunday Gospel reading of Luke 9:51-62, we are hearing about record high temperatures and dangerous heat in the southwestern United States, the most recent widely publicized effect of global warming in the news in our part of the world. In India this week, there were mass cremations of hundreds of people who were killed in floods and landslides two weeks ago. Officials there predict that the final death toll will be more than 1000 people. In Canada, the city of Calgary is beginning what promises to be a long clean-up from flooding. According to this report from the CBC, “the province faces a potentially decade-long cleanup effort that could cost $5 billion by BMO Nesbitt Burns estimates.” President Obama gave a long-awaited major speech about climate change this week.

The reality of climate change is becoming clearer as both the increase in extreme weather events and the necessity of preparing for and mitigating its effects become more visible. “Business as usual” is not a realistic option any more.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

All In: Being the Church in Today's World

Oscar Romero said in 1979:

To try to preach without referring to the history one preaches in is not to preach the gospel. Many would like a preaching so spiritualistic that it leaves sinners unbothered and does not term idolaters those who kneel before money and power. A preaching that says nothing of the sinful environment in which the gospel is reflected upon is not the gospel. 

This morning I had the delight of preaching at my parish, Church of the Resurrection in Omaha. I didn’t preach a creation care sermon per se, but I did preach on the Gospel passage. (Mark 3:20-35), and climate change is a huge piece of the history in which we preach now. (Notice the CO2 number for May on the graphic to the right.) If we turn from trying to hold onto the past to trying to follow Jesus in the present, we will find ourselves responding in significant ways to climate change and its effects. 

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All In
A Homily on Mark 3:20-35

“When [Jesus’] family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21)

What must it have been like to be Mary, the Mother of Jesus!

This week began with the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day we remember the expectant mother Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who was herself miraculously expecting a baby. The Visitation is one of several days and seasons of the church calendar when we think about Mary.

We hear about and wonder about Mary the mother at Christmastime, when we tell the story of her going to Bethlehem on a donkey and then giving birth in a stable when she arrives. What was it like to be far from the comforts of home that night, giving birth, wondering at what the angel had told her and at the appearance of the shepherds? What did she feel as she snuggled her newborn baby?

We also think about Mary during Holy Week when we hear about her witnessing Jesus’ suffering and death. Mothers know that it is agonizing to know your children are in pain. How unbearable it must have been for Mary to watch her son beaten and humiliated and then hanging from the cross! 

The Feast of the Visitation looks back at a happier occasion. Elizabeth exclaims “Blessed are you among women…” and Mary replies with the words that we know as the Magnificat:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.


51 He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 

This, my friends, leads us to this morning’s Gospel lesson, this part of Mark’s Gospel where people are telling Jesus’ family “He has gone out of his mind.”  I wonder what Mary thought of these reports. Mark reports that Mary and Jesus’ brothers went and stood outside of where he was and sent to him. Maybe they wanted to talk with him and see if he really did seem to be losing his mind. Or maybe Mary remembered the vision she had during her pregnancy that evoked the words of the Magnificat, the vision of Jesus bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich — who would usually get the best of everything — away empty. This is a vision of Jesus turning the world upside down and inside out. Maybe Mary wanted Jesus to come home because she knew the way prophets were treated. She knew that anyone preaching the kingdom of God risked being dismissed as crazy as best and being ostracized or even killed at worst. Jesus was doing things and saying things that made the people in power uneasy. 

Where our translation says “He has gone out of his mind”, other translations say things like, “He has lost HIs senses” (NASB) or “He’s gone mad!” (Good News Translation). The King James Bible says a fairly restrained, “He is beside himself.” Similarly, The Message translation says, “They suspected he was getting carried away with himself.” 

Whatever words we say, these sorts of words are used to dismiss someone who makes us uneasy. Ideas that challenge us, things that are new or different from what we are accustomed to, get dismissed as “crazy”, and we think the people who propose these uncomfortable ideas or actions have gotten a little too carried away. 

Hearing people say such things about Jesus and his ministry, Jesus’ family goes out to restrain him. While we can understand why his family might want to restrain Jesus to protect him, as followers of Jesus, we certainly don’t approve of anyone — not even the Blessed Virgin Mary herself — trying to restrain Jesus from doing his ministry. And yet when we look at the Church as a whole, we see people who are supposed to be followers of Jesus trying to restrain the Church from continuing his work. 

If we follow Jesus, who came to bring God’s kingdom, to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, if we are going to live our own lives and our lives together as a church community in our own parish and diocese and denomination in ways that turn all the injustices of the world upside down and inside out, we will be unusual. We will be what folks in this part of the country call “kind of different”. If we do it right, all in with our hearts on fire with love for Jesus, we won’t get carried away with ourselves, but we will get carried away with Jesus, and it will seem too extreme to some people, including some in powerful positions.

In recent lectionary weeks, we’ve read about Jesus sending the Holy Spirit to guide us, comfort us, and help us. This summer is a critical time for our parish and for the greater Episcopal Church. It’s proving to be a critical time for this neighborhood and this city as we try to figure out how to ensure all of our neighborhoods are safe places to live, work, and play. And this year is a critical time for our world, perhaps the last chance for the world’s leaders to set business as usual aside and get things figured out correctly to prevent catastrophic climate change. 

In these critical times, let’s not dismiss the Holy Spirit when it leads us to do something that is new or unfamiliar or hard to understand. Let’s not immediately dismiss those who sound crazy or extreme to us but who might be speaking the Spirit’s words. And let’s especially not block the work of the Spirit by appealing to what the powers that be would like us Christians to look like and do. If all the world sees of Christians is our removing ourselves from the rest of the world for an hour, more or less, on Sunday mornings, if our purpose in coming to this holy table is “for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal” if we have church meetings and conventions where we worry about maintaining the status quo, Beelzebub, the personification of evil, rejoices because we are harmless to him. C.S. Lewis’s character old Screwtape himself couldn’t invent a better scenario than to have the church preoccupied with maintaining the status quo. 

Those who truly follow Jesus will not try to hold back the work of the Holy Spirit because it makes us uneasy. We will be open to whatever allows the Spirit to turn things upside down and inside out until Jesus’ work of reconciliation, justice, and radical love is completed. It might look crazy to us, it might puzzle us, and it will sometimes be very difficult, requiring us to tap into wells of creativity and courage and love we didn’t know we had in us until the Spirit led us to them. But given a choice between some craziness — Spirit-led work rooted in Christ’s love and infused with passion and creativity — given a choice between supporting that sort of craziness and blocking the work of the Spirit, followers of Jesus have no choice but to walk where the Holy Spirit leads us. 

As we prayed earlier, “O God…Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them.” And may God grant us wisdom, courage, love, and abundant joy as we find our way. Amen.