Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Rogation Days: Praying the Bounds of a Warming World 2016

This 2016 version of what has become an annual Rogation Days post includes an update on CO2 emissions and a look at our trend of record-breaking warmth. While the past year has seen some encouraging developments — the Paris talks on a global scale and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voting for major funds to divest from fossil fuels on a smaller scale — the importance of these developments lies more in the realm of increasing awareness and acknowledgment that we do have a crisis on our hands rather than in the realm of the sorts of big and enforceable changes in policies and practices that would be most effective in mitigating global warming. 

The great hope is that we might reach a tipping point of social and political will that precipitates those big changes before we reach more tipping points in the unfolding rise in global temperatures. Along with praying the bounds or limits of our biosphere, we need to be praying fervently for collective wisdom and courage in our common life. 

Rogation Days: Praying the Bounds of a Warming World

The traditional English celebration of Rogation Days, the three days preceding Ascension Day, included a procession around the boundaries of the parish (often coextensive with the boundaries of a village). At stops along the boundaries, the congregation prayed for the welfare of the village and especially for a good growing season, and the priest blessed the fields. The procession stopped several times for these prayers and blessings, often at important landmarks along the boundaries of the parish. Along with an occasion for prayer and blessings, walking the bounds or beating the bounds also ensured a public memory and a clear public proclamation of exactly where boundaries lay. Ensuring clarity of the boundaries eliminated disputes and gave everyone a common understanding of the bounds of the parish.

The Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church adapts the tradition to our time and place by focusing on traditional rural concerns for the growing season the first day, commerce and industry the second day, and stewardship of creation the third day. In this way, the custom of offering prayers and blessings on the Rogation Days has been preserved in a meaningful way for our context. But since we aren’t living in old English villages, the traditions of creating awareness of boundaries and blessing the bounds has been lost along the way. Some Episcopal parishes process around a neighborhood, community garden, or large church property or drive out into the country to bless a parishioner’s fields, allowing the tradition of praying these prayers outdoors with a festive procession to continue, but any “bounds” that are walked lack the importance of the boundaries that were both declared and blessed in earlier times.

In this era of accelerated global warming, however, we might begin a new Rogation custom of observing and praying the bounds or limits of our biosphere. Through our lack of awareness of the limits of the amounts of greenhouse gases that can be released into our atmosphere without jeopardizing life on Earth, we have made our bounds smaller. Each year the world fails to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and acknowledge the laws of chemistry and physics that determine the limits of our biosphere for human life, we leave ourselves less room for solutions that allow us to continue to live and live well. Our inaction is pulling the bounds tighter, leaving us less and less wiggle room. 

During the Rogation Days, we might prayerfully study the current state of global warming and pray about the bounds or limits we discover. 

Here is a place to start in considering our bounds or limits. It’s too early in May to have all the averages for the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for April, but we do have some sobering information. (Remember that the upper safe limit of atmospheric carbon dioxide to sustain life as we have known it on this planet is 350 ppm.) The highest-ever daily average of CO2 recorded at the Mauna Loa observatory was 409.44 ppm on April 9 of this year. (Second highest was on April 8: 409.39 ppm. The highest daily peak recorded at Mauna Loa for all of 2015 was 404.84 ppm on April 13 of that year.)

Ralph Keeling, the director of the Scripps CO2 Group, commented on the April record-breaking CO2 concentrations:
The larger story remains that Earth hasn’t seen levels this high in at least several million years.  Unless fossil fuel emissions soon drop significantly below current levels, I expect CO2 levels will surpass the 450 mark by around 2035 and the 500 mark around 2065.
 Barring some major breakthrough that allows excess CO2 to be scrubbed from the air, it is currently an impossibility for us to reach the target of 350 ppm that many consider the threshold of dangerous climate change effects.  I expect it will take at least 1,000 years before CO2 drops again below 350 ppm.
NOAA’s State of the Climate report for March 2016 tells a story of record global warmth. Globally, the first three months of 2016 were the warmest January-March period on record. Even more striking is this:
January–March 2016 also marks the highest departure from average for any three-month period on record. This record has been broken for seven consecutive months, since the July–September 2015 period.**
Our bounds are indeed being pulled tighter, and yet the urgency of the situation does not seem to be reflected in our national conversation either in the political sphere or in the religious sphere.

We need to put significant limits on emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases around the world to mitigate global warming. We can acknowledge the need for those limits and pray about them. As temperatures rise we are experiencing all sorts of big changes that place further limits on human activity. Agriculture is impacted, marine ecosystems suffer, and people are forced to leave places that have become uninhabitable because of rising seas, extreme temperatures, or lack of water. These are our new bounds, the limits within which we will try to live and continue to love one another and love God. Prayer and mindful meditation about those limits is one of the great gifts people of faith can offer now.

If we pray about those bounds and mindfully accept them, we may be able to find blessing there as well. A clear public proclamation of these limits coupled with a blessing of all living things inside these new bounds brings Rogation Days out of the realm of quaint Anglican history and into the heart of what Christ calls us to do today.

For stewardship of creation
O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 259, Collects for Rogation Days)    

**NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, State of the Climate: Global Analysis for March 2016, published online April 2016, retrieved on May 3, 2016 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201603.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Do you want to be made well?"

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2016
John 5:1-9

When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)

It was lovely this rainy morning to step into our newly repaired and painted sanctuary — the sort of delightful new thing that is in keeping with the Easter season.

This Sixth Sunday of Easter is Camp Sunday in our diocese, and we should hear more about that at announcement time. There’s something about spending time in the outdoors with new friends from across the diocese that makes the camp experience a consistent catalyst for spiritual growth for our children and teen-agers. And in harmony with the outdoor theme, today is also Rogation Sunday, the beginning of the traditional Rogation Days when we pray for a successful growing season and, as a sort of American update to the old English customs of Rogation, think about and pray about environmental stewardship.

For most of Omaha outside of our walls, though, this weekend is known more for the big Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting that brings lots of visitors here. One of the visitors this year, Dr. James Hansen, was here to advocate for a shareholders’ resolution on climate change. Dr. Hansen, a former climate scientist for NASA who is now a full-time climate advocate, also lectured at Creighton University Friday evening on the topic “Energy and Climate Change: How Can Justice Be Achieved for Young People?”

I’m pretty sure most of the people gathered at that lecture were unaware of the exquisite timing of having a leading climate scientist in our midst as we Episcopalians begin our annual observance of the Rogation Days, but it delighted me. In my work in environmental stewardship and environmental justice, I’m well aware of the very critical and uniquely challenging situation we are in with regards to climate change caused by global warming. Things are much more dire than people might guess from the disproportionately small amount of attention the news media and political establishment give climate change, and it’s tempting to be discouraged.

But as a Christian, I’m also aware of the hope in which we live always, no matter what. Hearing Dr. Hansen talk about the problems we face and possible solutions, and being in the company of more than 700 people who were willing to spend their Friday evening thinking about these things, was both sobering and heartening.

One of the questions for Dr. Hansen at the end of his talk was from a woman who said that when she had told a couple of other people that she was planning to go to a lecture about climate change, their reaction had been one of what she described as “fatalism” — basically the idea that there’s nothing we can do about this big problem, so why bother? Her question for Dr. Hansen was focused on how we can combat this fatalism: how can we help people feel empowered rather than fatalistic. Being immersed in this morning’s Gospel lesson, I realized how this new question about climate change can be answered at least in part by this old story from John’s Gospel.

This story has a lot to say about why we so often fail to do the things that would make us — and our planet — well, that would make us healthy, whole, and holy. And this story also tells us something about hope, especially the kind of hope that empowers us to take on big challenges.

This story in John’s Gospel is unlike the other Gospel stories about Jesus healing people. In the other stories, someone seeks out Jesus. Think of the story that precedes this morning’s lesson in John’s Gospel: the healing of the son of the royal official. John tells us that when the official heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee, “he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.” Jesus says the word, and on his way home the royal official learns that his son’s fever has left him. Or think of the man whose friends lowered him through the roof of a house lying on his mat when they couldn’t get near the door to bring their friend to Jesus for healing. Or think of the woman whose years of hemorrhaging had made her such an outcast that she didn’t dare to think of speaking to Jesus. But even she approached Jesus, though not in his direct line of sight, sure that if she could just touch the cloak of his garment she would be made well. In today’s passage, though, the situation is reversed: Jesus approaches this man who had been ill in some way for 38 years and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”

It may seem an odd question to ask someone who shows up every day at the place where people go in hope of being healed, but then the man gives an odd answer. Instead of a simple, “Yes, I want to be healed”, he gives an explanation of why he hasn’t been healed. Tradition said that an angel periodically stirred up or “troubled” the water in the pool. The belief was that at the moment when the water was stirred up, it had healing properties, and the first person in the pool when the water was stirred up would be healed. The man explains to Jesus that he has no one to put him into the pool when the water moves, and that by the time he can make his way to the pool on his own, someone else always steps down into the water ahead of him.

In offering an explanation rather than an answer, this man may be telling Jesus more about why he doesn’t expect to be healed than about whether he wants to be healed. Maybe he can’t even make sense of wanting something that seems unattainable.

The puzzling thing is that even though what this man has done for years hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, he keeps on doing the same thing day after day after day.

Why does he do that? It could be that, inaccessible as the pool is to him, it’s still the most accessible means of healing he knows. Maybe he continues his vigil by the pool because it’s his only hope of any sort. Or maybe it isn’t hope at all that keeps him coming back for another day of the same thing; maybe the familiarity of even this discouraging routine holds some sort of comfort that keeps him from changing what he does. His answer to Jesus’s question does indeed sound like the answer of a fatalist as much as it does someone with hope. That may be because there isn’t that much difference between false hope and fatalism. False hope is simply the optimist’s way of being fatalistic. Both work on the assumption that nothing we can do or are doing will make any difference; both assume that our fate and our present choices are unrelated.

False hope is magical thinking, wishing that the familiar thing we keep doing that isn’t helping us at all might magically produce the results we want.

I recall some students from my teaching days who wouldn’t read the books or engage in class discussions all semester yet hoped — in this false sense of hope, I assure you — that they might pull a good grade out of the course at the end of the semester.

That’s false hope. Real hope is something very different. The hope that Jesus offers is always real hope. In this story, we, the hearers of the story, begin to see hope the moment Jesus notices the man and speaks to him.

The startling beauty of the story lies in what Jesus does next. Having heard the non-answer to the question about whether this man wants to be healed, Jesus says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Jesus answers the explanation by cutting to an unimagined alternative. Jesus does just what we celebrate throughout the Easter season: he shows us something new and unexpected, creating a way where there was no way, creating hope where there was no real hope.

The sort of hope that Jesus brings isn’t a passive false hope that somehow everything will turn out well without our changing anything; Jesus brings genuine hope that calls us to act by embracing the new thing that Jesus offers. Real hope can feel risky because it calls us to abandon something familiar in favor of something we haven’t even fully imagined.

“Stand up, take your mat and walk” would be a cruel thing to say unless we somehow know, as Jesus seems to in this case, that the person really does have the capacity to get up and walk. Jesus simply calls us to do what we can do. When we do have the capacity to do something different – whether we had that capacity all along or have through an encounter with Jesus experienced the beginning of healing that we ourselves have the power to accept and complete – then being told to get up and walk is exactly what we may need. When we have the capacity to make different choices, to choose health over sickness, wholeness over brokenness, holiness over sin, then Jesus calls us to get up and do something.

Individuals, parishes, communities, and all of us on God’s good green Earth get stuck more often than we might like. Often when we get stuck in a bad place we put our energy into reciting to ourselves and to others our explanation of why we can’t do anything else instead of putting our energy into the disciplined work of getting up and doing something new. We might dodge the question “Do you want to be made well?”, or we might express a vague desire for our own lives and our common life to be better — maybe we even dream of the assurance of a stable climate that can continue to support human civilization and diverse forms of life on our planet — but our inaction and our sometimes contrary actions answer the question “Do you want to be made well?” with a resounding “No”.

Do we want to be made well? That’s a big question for all of us. Because if we want to become healthy, whole, and holy in our own lives, in our parishes and communities, and in the biosphere that sustains life on this planet, if we tell Jesus we want to be made well, we are also telling Jesus that we are ready to make some changes. We are telling Jesus we are willing to imagine with him a way to live that differs from what we are doing now, and we are saying we are willing to risk getting up and getting to work doing something new. Jesus invites us into his creativity; Jesus invites us to be empowered to engage our creativity and find a way for all of God’s children to have a chance at healthy, whole, and holy lives.

The words of this morning’s Collect remind us that God’s promises “exceed all that we can desire”. May we have the grace and imagination to believe God’s promises and accept the real hope Jesus offers us; may we have the grace to abandon false hope and fatalism in favor of the full life Jesus offers us all. Amen.

Preached on May 1, 2016 by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska