Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas: Wondering as We Wander

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I,
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
(Song by folklorist John Niles, inspired by a fragment of a folk hymn)

Christmas traditions run deep for many of us, yet despite the continuity provided by certain traditions, each year’s Christmas experience is unique. This year’s Christmas for at least a good chunk of Americans seems somewhat different as we are living through what feels like a new sort of moment in our nation’s history. The sense of instability has shown itself in recent days with a deep plunge in the stock market (heading toward possibly the worst December for the market since the Great Depression), a government shutdown, and the impending departure of Defense Secretary Mattis. Add the elements of environmental instability to this, with little encouraging news from either the scientific or the political spheres, and it’s no surprise that something feels different this Christmas. 

How any of this will play out is unclear. We have solid science to help us see what will happen if we continue on our current path of environmental destruction, but even that is uncertain as the future direction of the human actions that have gotten us into this crisis are unpredictable and the exact nature and timing of global warming’s feedback loops are still only partially known. 

The American social and political traditions and the environmental stability that felt like givens to those of us born in the middle of the twentieth century are now unreliable. Having lost our way, we are wandering, searching, hoping for something we can’t quite envision. 

The Christmas story is about hope, about light shining in the darkness. Mary’s song — our Gospel for Advent IV — reminds us that God shows mercy for people who are poor and oppressed, that those who are suffering in the present moment have real hope that a more just order will be restored. 

The Christmas story is also about wonder — the wonder of God being born among us, the wonder of a young woman receiving a visit from an angel and of a new baby with seemingly ordinary parents being seen as a King, but telling us when he is grown that his kingdom is not like other kingdoms. There is starlight, angels singing to terrified shepherds, and other people amazed at what the shepherds told them. And there is Mary, treasuring the words of the shepherds and, as Luke tells it, pondering them in her heart.

The Christmas story is about experiencing wonder as we wander toward the Light. Wonder isn’t the whole story — Mary went through the very real experience of pregnancy and childbirth along with those reflective and even mystical experiences — but perhaps it’s a necessary ingredient that we neglect at our own peril.

The wonder of Christmas was brought home for me yesterday when I went to see my young grandchildren in their congregation’s Christmas pageant. My three-year-old grandson was an angel, with the only directions being to hang around with the older angels and be where they were. But despite the efforts of the grown-ups in his life and the influence of Mr. Rogers in teaching the difference between real life and make-believe, the idea of people in costumes pretending vs. seeing the real thing is still shaky for a three-year-old, shaky enough for the enacted wonder of the story to become real wonder. When Mary brought out a baby doll that had been hidden away and put the baby in the manger, my grandson looked and looked at the baby, hovering near the manger and watching over the baby Jesus. His sense of wonder was evident and contagious. The story is still new for him, and that helped me hear the story in a new way as well. 

There are many occasions for wonder in our own daily lives. We have seen an amazing moon the past couple of evenings, a moon with a special glow. That science can explain why this moon looks different from others doesn’t take away from its beauty or its ability to expand our thoughts beyond our ourselves and our daily tasks. There are glimpses of joy on the faces of people of all ages; there are the small gray and brown birds that appear from hidden places to feed at feeders, the occasional sound of a wren, and the quiet of fields and woods far from town, and the winter skies seen from those same rural places. There is ice forming and melting, there are snowflakes falling like little stars, and the sight of friends and family who have been away from home. Wonder — and its companion, joy — are there for the noticing. 

Wondering at the world around us and finding joy in God’s creation forms our hearts to love the world. We care for what we love, and the more connected we feel to other people and all of creation, the more easily we will see the way to live whole and holy lives even when the world feels unstable and fragmented. The world needs people who are whole and holy; God needs us to do the work of mercy, justice, repair, and love that will lead to a better world for all people and all living things. 

May Christmas wonder be yours during this Christmas!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Into the Darkness

Advent I

Perhaps it’s because Nebraska has had several snowy, wintry days already this year, or perhaps it’s because of the weight of the news about climate change. Perhaps it’s because the level of corruption, incompetence, and willful ignorance among some of our top elected officials is taking us farther from addressing global warming instead of bringing us closer to the sort of large-scale all-in effort needed to mitigate climate change and adapt to a warming world. Perhaps it’s that the scientific reports seem less abstract when we see photos of places destroyed by fires, floods, and sea level rise. Whatever the reason, as this Advent season begins, I feel more keenly than I ever have at Advent that we are journeying into darkness. 

We pray “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” in our Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, and we use phrases like “dark times” to describe a difficult point of our personal or collective history. But non-metaphorical darkness, real darkness, can be a welcome time of sleep. It’s when we dream and re-energize our bodies for another day. Clear, starry skies on the darkest and coldest nights pull us into a world of wonder. Darkness is neither bad nor good, it simply is. 

However, when we aren’t safely tucked away in our beds or purposely star-gazing, darkness can be scary because we can’t see what is around us and may be disoriented. That’s when we long for a light in the darkness. A small flashlight on a walk back from star-gazing in an open field or seeing a farmstead’s yard light ahead when driving on a dark night can make a big difference. 

As we enter Advent this year, I’m keeping an image in mind of entering a quiet, restful darkness while knowing where to find some light when I need it. Maybe in the darkness, even if it's sometimes uncomfortable, we will learn something, dream something, that will help us see and participate in a new thing. In Advent, we contemplate the mystery of Christ as the one who was, who is, and who is to come again, the one that John’s Gospel describes as the Word who was from the beginning. “What has come into being in him was life,” writes John, “and the life was the light of all people.” We know where to find the light, and we also know that it’s both a necessity and a joy to pass through the darkness of Advent in order to more fully receive the light that always shines in the darkness, the light of Christ we celebrate at Christmas. 

This year, our spiritual journey into darkness seems an especially good fit for what we are experiencing in our daily lives, in this unique moment in the intertwined history of humankind and planet Earth, and in our current political situation. In the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus talks about our ability to see the signs of the season such as the sprouting of green leaves telling us when summer is near. We can read the signs of our times if we pay attention. Reports of daily eco-disasters and scientific reports show us different kinds of signs of the same reality. As we pay attention, the darkness can seem overwhelming. It’s disorienting because we are in an unfamiliar place. However, as we allow ourselves to see the signs and enter the darkness of our current situation, we are also entering the more familiar darkness of Advent, that darkness that is meant to help us see the Light more clearly. Even though humankind has never before been in this same place, we know how to do this because we know how to journey through Advent and we know the Light is near. 

For a daily dose of wonder to help us reflect on our place in the vastness of creation, check out the 2018 Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Light in the darkness: What do we want?

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”  (Mark 10:51)

We Americans have had a harrowing week, the sort of week in which our Christian belief that light shines through the darkness becomes a matter of faith more than observation. But we do believe that the light shines in the darkness and that love is stronger than hate. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s statement after the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh expresses our faith and describes the response of prayer and action that translates our sympathetic and loving thoughts toward our Jewish friends into a real sharing of love.

Nebraska Episcopalians who attended our Annual Council in Gering this week had a little more than a day of renewing and beginning friendships, being with and listening to our current Bishop and the two Bishops who preceded Bishop Barker, hearing a strong witness to Christian discipleship from Dr. Tom Osborne, and worshipping together. We were in a strikingly beautiful part of our state under clear blue autumn skies. All of this was light in the darkness. When we left Gering on Saturday morning and started hearing the news of what had happened to another faith community in Pittsburgh, I was grateful for the renewal and strength we took away with us, because those of us who are trying to follow Jesus at this point in our history need strong faith and minds and hearts. 
The Gospel lesson for today is the story of Bartimaeus, a blind man who calls out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” when he is told that Jesus is passing by. Jesus calls Bartimaeus over. Instead of assuming that what Bartimaeus needs most is to see, Jesus asks “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus is direct in his request: “My teacher, let me see again.” 

What do we want Jesus to do for us on October 28, 2018? Do we want an end to hate crimes and violence, or is there some payoff in personal status or social arrangements that makes us want a sort of half-healing where we gain some sense of protection while the currents of hatred and ignorance that fuel the violence continue? 

The week’s climate news was not only harrowing in its own right, but also very much connected to the other issues we are facing. The Red Cross president, Peter Maurer, talked about how climate change is exacerbating both domestic and international conflicts. [The Guardian: Climate change is exacerbating world conflicts…] Another article by National Geographic described the link between climate change and immigration from Guatemala. [Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate.] Climate change is one of the societal global changes that feeds the racism and xenophobia that underlies so much of the politics of hate in the United States. 

What do we want Jesus to do for us? When we pray for our nation, do we pray for Jesus to help us find the strength and wisdom and courage to effect large scale economic and cultural changes, or do we simply long for some vague miracle that will make us safe? 

My plan for the next ten days includes standing in solidarity with our Jewish friends in Omaha, praying for real healing for our biosphere and our nation and for the strength, courage, and wisdom both corporately and personally to contribute to that healing, and keeping all of this in mind when I vote on November 6. 

We must become clear about what we truly want, and then ask Jesus for what we need to change our direction.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Servant Leaders Needed

Proper 24B: Mark 10:35-45

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10: 42-44)

After James and John asked to sit on either side of Jesus when Jesus is seated in glory, the other disciples were upset with James and John for trying to assure their own status. Knowing the disciples were quarreling about who would be the greatest among them, Jesus explained that leadership among his followers differed from the leadership model they saw around them in the secular world, the world of the Gentiles. In a world dominated by the Roman Empire, rulers were tyrants who lorded it over others. This is reversed in Jesus’s vision of the beloved community of his followers: the greatest among them, the leaders, are there to serve the others, not to be served. A leader in God’s kingdom is primarily concerned with the welfare of others.

This is a timely Gospel text here in the United States. We are seeing in our nation today what happens when the well-being of the many is sacrificed to the pursuit of wealth and status for the few. We are seeing the middle class shrink while the wealthiest among us make decisions for their own benefit with little regard for the rest of us. Many of those in power don’t even pretend to care about the well-being of others, appealing to ideas more in line with Ayn Rand than with Jesus of Nazareth.

When leaders look only to their own short-term interest instead of the long-term interests of the majority, environmental degradation is one of the results. With regard to climate change, for example, the stakes are high. The World Resources Institute has produced a chart showing the difference half a degree of warming makes in a variety of areas that impact our quality of life and our economic well-being. I recommend taking a look at this, as it gives an accessible summary to help us better understand why climate change is such an urgent issue and why governments need to prioritize large-scale action to mitigate climate change.

In the United States, money from the fossil fuel lobby has heavily influenced those holding elective office, discouraging them from taking effective action against global warming. Officials have looked at their own short-term gain instead of the welfare of their nation. Instead of being servants of those who have elected them, they have effectively lorded it over us by lining their own pockets. To me, it’s especially offensive that many of those who fail to act as servant leaders self-identify as Christians, often emphatically so. Jesus is clear that supporting tyrants and pursuing our own status while ignoring the needs of those we should be serving is not compatible with Christian discipleship. This week's Gospel lesson is clear about the way for Christians to exercise leadership, and the science tells us we can't continue with business as usual. Our lives and the stability of everything that supports us and other living things are at stake.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

IPCC report: Seeing our neighbors and following Jesus

This past week the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on global climate change. While not surprising for people who have paid attention to previous reports from the IPCC, this report brought with it a much more dire look at our future that has made more people pay attention to the report and understand the urgent need for big changes in the ways we produce and use energy. The prognosis is grim even if we do our best, but our future with dramatic and large-scale changes that mitigate the amount of global warming is a much better future than what we face if we continue with business as usual. According to the report, we have about ten years to turn things around.

This week we also watched Hurricane Michael rapidly grow in intensity over abnormally warm water and bring terrible destruction to the Florida panhandle before continuing into the Carolinas and Virginia with more destructive winds and heavy rains. In case we lacked the imagination to understand the sorts of consequences we face if we fail to mitigate global warming, we had an immediate example with Hurricane Michael. 

In the Church, our Gospel lesson today was the story of the rich man asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10: 17-31) This man had scrupulously observed the religious law. He had done everything just right to ensure both spiritual and financial well-being. However, he evidently sensed that something was missing, and so he sought out Jesus and humbly asked him if there was something else he needed to do. Jesus told him he lacked one thing. Jesus told this man who was so focused on his own welfare that he needed to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus. Instead of being preoccupied with his own welfare and comfort, he needed to see and serve his neighbors and then follow Jesus. 

In preaching at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha today, I mentioned the IPCC report and talked about the extraordinary times we are living in, suggesting that this story from Mark’s Gospel can help us figure out what to do in the 21st century just as it spoke to the people of Jesus’s time. The contrast between the culture in which we live and the kingdom of God is at least as glaring for us as it was for the people in Jesus’s time. 

The point isn’t that all of us need to sell everything we have, but that we need to put our focus elsewhere. Jesus calls us to look up and out from our own lives so we can see our neighbors and the needs of others, and Jesus calls us to follow him. In today’s world, seeing our neighbors near and far will make it readily apparent that we can’t go on living the way we are living, that we all will have to support changes in business as usual in order for more of us to make it through this century with enough of the basics like food, water, shelter, and basic infrastructure to live good lives.  

We don’t know where Jesus will lead us in the years to come as our culture either changes and adapts or falls apart, but we do know that there are many, many people in the Church who are studying Scripture and listening in prayer and speaking with our wisest teachers and trying to figure out together what it looks like to follow Jesus in these challenging times.

We live in a consumer culture that isn’t working well for us either spiritually or materially. The planet simply cannot sustain the drive to economic growth dependent on us buying more and more stuff, and our souls suffer as well until we ground our priorities in Jesus’s teachings rather than the teachings of our consumer culture. The culture tells us that money can buy happiness — or at least numbness to the pain — while Jesus tells us that the happiness of material success is nothing compared to the joy of following him and giving to others.

While I know some other preachers today talked about the IPCC report and the climate crisis, I also suspect that it went unmentioned in more pulpits. If we are following Jesus and focused on our neighbors near and far, we have to pay attention to these global changes and the effects they are having and will continue to have on people. 

Mark writes that when Jesus told the rich man what he needed to do, the man went away grieving “for he had many possessions”. As a parishioner pointed out today, we don’t know if he went away sad and then kept living as he had lived, or if he went away sad about the big change in his life he was about to make.

If we look away from the climate crisis and fail to advocate for the systemic changes needed to create a more livable world for all of us, we will be like the rich man in the parable if he chose his old way of life over eternal life. If, though, we acknowledge how hard the task ahead is but then go ahead and work at doing it, we will assure our own joy in following Jesus starting now and help assure a greater chance at a sustainable life for all living things on our planet in the future.

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Click here to contribute to Episcopal Relief and Development’s Hurricane Relief Fund.

Click here to read the IPCC’s panel Summary for Policy Makers of last week’s report about the impacts of global warming above 1.5 degrees C. 

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cruelty or Compassion

End of the Day, Feast of St. Francis, 2018

My heart has been heavy this year on the Feast of St. Francis. After looking at today’s main news stories this morning, I went outside — where the temperature had dropped some 50-60 degrees since yesterday afternoon — thinking that breathing some fresh air and moving around doing some garden clean-up would make things brighter. I was working on a flower bed that surrounds our small statue of St. Francis when one of our resident cottontails hopped out from under a bush. It surprised me, though, by not hopping away as they often do when we startle them. Instead, it hopped to a spot a couple feet away from me and then stopped and simply watched me.
This bunny’s lack of fear reminded me of the stories of wild animals and birds approaching him. The animals and birds seemed to sense that Francis was compassionate, that near him there would only be kindness and not the cruelty other people sometimes aimed at wild creatures. 

Francis sensed the interconnectedness among all things that the modern study of ecology has demonstrated. That interconnectedness in the natural world is paralleled by interconnectedness of events and issues in the economic and political spheres that may at first glance seem unrelated. There are many important issues demanding our attention right now, but all of them — including our failure to address climate change in a significant way — are interrelated. Environmental concerns tend to get pushed aside given other immediately compelling issues, but our welfare depends on not losing sight of the state of the biosphere both for its own sake and because of the way it connects with all the other concerns before us. 

The welfare of the birds is something to consider as we remember St. Francis. BirdLife International’s 2018 State of the World’s Birds report describes a “steady and continuing deterioration” in the state of the world’s birds. Even some of the world’s most well-known bird species are declining, and this should concern all of us: “These statistics aren’t just bad news for birds, they are also warnings for the planet as a whole. The health of bird species is a good measure of the state of ecosystems in general.”

One of the news stories I read this morning bore the discouraging heading Climate scientists are struggling to find the right words for very bad news. Reporting on the 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Washington Post reporters Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report on our increasing understanding that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. is essential to avoid global catastrophe and the IPCC’s task of communicating their knowledge and helping the world’s nations come to agreements that allow us to do this urgent work in a fairly short amount of time. 

Other news stories today were about the confirmation process for a new Supreme Court justice and the related issues around women’s rights and the #MeToo movement that have been highlighted by this process. And there were stories about other things such as the immigrant children who have been separated from their parents, gun violence, and ongoing wars and civil disturbances. 

Given all of that, here is what struck me as especially insightful on this day when we remember St. Francis. The Atlantic published a piece by Adam Serwer called The Cruelty Is the Point. Serwer suggests that the many events and current policies which seem cruel aren’t cruel as an unintended consequence of some noble goal, but rather that the cruelty — and the bonding around the “joy” of inflicting cruelty among supporters of current policies — is the point. In reading it, I thought about our lack of concern for the birds and other living things, the indignation of many Americans at the thought that we might choose to change the ways we produce and use energy so that people in other places might live, and the cruel things said and shouted at women in recent days who dare to speak their truth. It’s all of one piece, and that one piece couldn’t be further from the compassion that St. Francis embodied and taught.

Deeply rooted kindness, heartfelt compassion, simple Christian love are the antidote to cruelty. Animals do sense which people are kind like Francis and which people are cruel, and when we humans are paying attention we do a good job of sensing that, too. Francis was known for his devotion to God and his compassion for all living things. Strengthening our own devotion to God and our own capacity for compassion are the essential elements to ready ourselves for the work that lies before us for our nation and for every living thing with which we share our planet.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Remembering Hildegard in 2018

Today the church remembered Hildegard of Bingen as we continued to learn about the destruction resulting from Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut. We know that climate change is making hurricanes more destructive, we know that emissions from human activities cause climate change, and we also know that the United States, at least, in 2018 lacks the political will to curb those emissions to the degree necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Hildegard, a remarkable woman of the 12th century, can help us understand our situation. Along with writing down and illustrating her visions, she led a religious community, preached (an amazing thing for a woman in that time), healed people, and composed music. 

But it’s Hildegard’s concept of viriditas that speaks to our concerns today. Viriditas is “greenness” or green power, a creative life force that she sensed in all of creation, including plants, animals, and precious gems. The way Hildegard described it is a sort of spiritual and biological power. For Hildegard, God was the ultimate creative force; greenness was the presence of God in the world. Unlike many in the church in her time, Hildegard taught that the body and soul are integrated. She understood the interconnectedness of all things that we deny in practice when we collectively refuse to make the systemic changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Were she with us today, Hildegard might very well have insight into our situation. She taught that sin “dried up” the greenness, writing:

Now in the people that were meant to green, there is no more life of any kind. There is only shriveled barrenness. The winds are burdened by the utterly awful stink of evil, selfish goings-on. Thunderstorms menace. The air belches out the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples. There pours forth an unnatural, loathsome darkness that withers the green, and wizens the fruit that was to serve as food for the people. Sometimes this layer of air is full, full of a fog that is the source of many destructive and barren creatures, that destroy and damage the earth, rendering it incapable of sustaining humanity. 

But humans are also capable of becoming conduits of viriditas. By opening ourselves to the greenness of creation, we tap into a deep source of creativity. Hildegard’s vision helps us understand why people engaged in environmental advocacy find times of renewal outdoors so necessary to sustaining compassion and creativity in discouraging times. 

More about Hildegard is available from the Holy Women, Holy Men blog. The Spirituality and Practice website provides links to several resources.

Episcopal Relief and Development is accepting donations to its Hurricane Relief Fund here. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Christian Witness In a Wounded World

When I visit with church people about the environmental crisis, the most common question is “What can we do about this?” or (tellingly) “What can I do about this?” Sometimes, of course, the response is a less positive “I can’t let myself think about this!” that points to an underlying assumption that there is nothing any one person can do about the environmental crisis, and so no point in putting any energy into thinking about something so unsettling. The people who want to do something, either collectively or individually, have the moral response right, I think: We need to do everything we can to make our situation better. The people who are overwhelmed, though, have one piece of it right: It’s too big for our small efforts at stewardship — e.g. recycling our plastic, turning down the thermostat a degree or two — to make much difference. 

Along with thinking about what sort of honest response to give people who are eager to do their part in repairing the Earth, I wonder about what particular gift we Christians can offer as humankind faces a challenge unlike anything else we have faced before. It would be silly for us to try to duplicate the work done by the big conservation and environmental advocacy organizations, who employ professionals who are better equipped than we are to lead in small mitigation efforts and in advocacy. We can pray, and we certainly know something from salvation history about hope. 

I was invited to preach at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Hastings, Nebraska, this past Sunday. This congregation looked at consumer habits and plastic pollution during Lent, and I was asked to preach about where this fits into the bigger picture of our environmental crisis.The Gospel lesson (John 20:19-31) was the story of “Doubting Thomas” encountering the risen Jesus. Reading this story again in light of questions about plastic pollution and climate change helped me articulate better some of what the Church’s call might be in this century. Here’s my reflection on this passage in light of these questions:

But [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

Good morning! I’m delighted to be here with you this morning, and especially delighted that I’m here because this congregation has been studying the problem of plastic pollution and looking at the sorts of habits to adopt as a congregation and as individuals in response to that problem. No doubt most of you now know more than the average American about the size of the problem and its ramifications for human health and the ecosystems in which we live. I don’t know about you, but when I look at the statistics about the amount of plastic produced and how much of it ends up as trash, I can’t even wrap my head around it. What I do know is that I’ve taken photos along shorelines from our little lake here in Hastings to the Great Lakes to the Hawaiian Islands of plastic trash that all looks the same — those brightly colored bottle caps stand out everywhere. 

I serve as a deacon in The Episcopal Church. While deacons get assigned to a parish — mine is Church of the Resurrection in North Omaha — we serve directly under the authority of the Bishop. Our charge is to serve as a bridge between the church and the world, interpreting the needs and concerns of the world to the church and making Christ’s love known to the world in word and deed. We have a special call to serve the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely — in other words, to help and advocate for people who are marginalized. I began my ministry as a deacon working in hunger ministry here in Hastings when we were first starting the Open Table lunch program, a typical sort of ministry for a deacon.

In 2007, while serving our parish in Grand Island, I went to a national conference for Episcopal deacons where our Presiding Bishop — our equivalent to an Archbishop — told us that given our charge to care for the poor, the sick, the hungry — for people in any kind of need — we needed to get to work on the environment! She explained that pollution and climate instability exacerbated all of the miseries we deacons traditionally addressed. That was what I needed to hear, as I had already become excited about something called the GreenFaith Fellowship Program that trains religious environmental leaders. I entered the fellowship program and changed the course of my ministry.

GreenFaith, an interfaith group, organizes its work in three categories: spirituality (connecting the wonder we experience in nature with our faith), environmental stewardship (the sorts of practices that help conserve our resources and keep our air, water, and land healthy), and environmental justice (noticing that the impacts of pollution and climate change often hit the poorest communities and communities of color first and worst, and advocating for better policies and systemic practices to change that).

As part of our fellowship program, we attended retreats around each of those areas. To my surprise, the most spiritually moving of the three, the one where I truly felt I had stood on holy ground, was our environmental justice tour of the toxic sites of the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey.

One of the many sites we saw that day was the biggest trash incinerator in New Jersey, which sat within a half mile of two low-income housing projects. It was also near the intersection of several freeways. The air quality was not good. We exited one of those freeways and got off our bus and stood at the gate of this place.  As our guides told us more about what we were seeing -- about the mercury emissions and the high asthma rates near the incinerator – I watched an unending stream of garbage trucks come off the expressways and go through the gate to the incinerator.** I turned to Rabbi Troster, the head of the fellowship program, and said that this must be like the lowest circle of hell. He said that was what he had thought when he had first visited the incinerator. Yet there was something holy in witnessing this. 

When the entire tour was done and our group was reflecting on it, we found that everyone in the group had had a similar experience as we made our pilgrimage and stopped at several toxic sites. Seeing those things had connected us to the holy. The sense I made of that was that seeing how our habits of consumerism and carelessness affect some of the most marginalized people in our own country had given us a glimpse of how our way of life affects Jesus. As we treat the least of the members of God’s family, so we treat Jesus. When we stand as witnesses to suffering, we stand close to Jesus.

Our Gospel reading about Thomas illuminates that sort of witness to environmental degradation and injustice. I believe that a major piece of an appropriate response from Christians to the big environmental challenges of our time — and I’d put plastic pollution and climate change at the top of a list of those challenges — is better understood in light of this story about Thomas and his doubt.

In this story, the other disciples believed Jesus was alive because he had appeared to them, but Thomas expressed doubt because he wasn’t there to see it for himself. (Notice that Thomas was evidently the only one who had had the courage to leave the locked house.)

If you’ve been a church-goer for a number of years, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ve heard a preacher say we should be more like the other disciples and less like Thomas. Here’s my full disclosure this morning: I really like Thomas, just as I really like Martha, Lazarus’s sister who didn’t choose the better part. They are my kindred spirits, and since both of them are considered saints, I think that’s okay.

I like Thomas because I think there’s something deeper than garden variety doubt going on here. Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” These aren’t the detached words of a mere skeptic; these are the words of someone who is passionate about knowing the truth, and the words of someone experiencing deep grief. 

To take the word of others and believe that Christ is alive – which is the one thing Thomas would like to be true more than anything – means taking the risk of believing too hastily. If he took their word for it only to discover later that this belief was wrong, it would be like losing Jesus all over again. Thomas is already too heartbroken to take that risk.

Notice that when Jesus appears to Thomas and shows him the evidence, so-called Doubting Thomas not only believes that Christ is risen but goes beyond what any of the others have said. He addresses Jesus as “my Lord and my God”. Thomas may have understood the meaning of Christ’s being alive more than did some of the others, and perhaps that’s why he was so cautious about believing. For Christ to be alive and appearing in various places, including locked houses, implies that Jesus was indeed more than beloved teacher and friend. He was God! The truth of Jesus’s resurrection changes everything, and I think Thomas understood that in a profound way. Being clear about the truth was more important to him than being offered hope that might prove to be false or comforting words that could be half-truths meant to make him feel better. Thomas wants to be a witness to the truth.

The truth about Jesus was a joyful truth. The truth about environmental degradation in the 21st century is discouraging and sobering. Most people in our nation manage to ignore this truth most of the time, either by outright denying it or simply not thinking about it because it’s emotionally difficult to do so. But the truth, whether it be joyful or sad, has a way of bringing us closer to Jesus and grounding us more deeply in our faith. And standing close to Jesus on a solid foundation of faith is a good place to stand as we look at the scale of the challenge before us.

For most of us, the first steps in bringing our faith to bear on the environmental challenges facing us is to commit ourselves to greater personal responsibility for reducing our use of toxic substances and energy, reusing items instead of throwing them away (because there isn’t really any “away” where they can go), and recycling whatever we can. Along with our small contributions toward reducing the amount of plastic waste or carbon emissions, these practices keep our awareness of environmental issues in the front of our minds and serve as an example to others.

But we are so far down the path of environmental degradation that the amount of real difference we can make depends on our efforts toward environmental stewardship being done as one piece of systemic change, not in isolation.

So the next step for people of faith facing our environmental challenges often is to advocate for better corporate and government policies. We can write letters, visit with legislators, and use our power as voters either as citizens, members of church councils, or stockholders. 

Environmental stewardship and advocacy are important, and we need to encourage each other in our efforts. But these are good practices for anyone, no matter what their faith or lack of same. To be honest, there are several fine environmental organizations that are better equipped to lead us in environmental stewardship and advocacy than are most of us in the church. 

What we can offer in ways others can’t, and, I suspect more and more, what is a call from God to the church today, is to serve as Christian witnesses to the environmental crisis. We can look at the truth about plastic pollution and climate change and, instead of ignoring it, denying it, or sharing a false hope that things will magically get better without our having to do anything inconvenient, we can simply stand prayerfully with that truth. Standing close to Jesus on a solid foundation of faith is our unique gift, a gift that gives us the inner peace, strength, courage, and love to bear witness to the truth. 

Tom and Cathie, who are sitting right here with us this morning, continue to serve as both advocates and witnesses for our land and water in Nebraska by their perseverance in attending rallies, hearings, and landowners’ meetings in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Tom participated in civil disobedience, a now traditional way for Christians to stand as witnesses to the truth. If you want to know what witnessing to the truth looks like, you have good resources right here in your own congregation.

Witnessing to the truth requires us to do some homework and be discerning about what we read and listen to. The pursuit of truth takes some effort!  We can be witnesses by gently speaking the truth in our words and actions, whether that be in conversations with family and friends, in the course of our advocacy efforts, or by standing with others in actions like rallies or marches that advocate for better policies. 

Are our acts of prayerful witness successful in terms of convincing others or improving policies? We always hope they will be, but often they are not. However, that doesn’t mean we are powerless. In times like ours, it’s important to speak the truth for its own sake. That is what gives our lives meaning and also gives our souls true peace. Standing in witness is a form of prayer, and we know prayer is important even when our prayers appear to be unanswered.

Our world is wounded; pollution and climate change are intertwined with other justice issues, and there is work to be done that requires both actions of stewardship and advocacy and contemplative practices such as prayerful witness to the truth. Thomas was passionate about knowing the truth about Jesus; Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds. In a wounded world, faithful Christians — the ones who know and follow Jesus — don’t shy away from touching the wounds.

If we remain faithful to truth and bear witness to it alongside Jesus, whatever happens will have meaning. That in itself is a form of hope that might serve us well in the years ahead — the hope that we live meaningful lives of integrity no matter what. Amen.

**For an update on the incinerator, here’s a 2012 article about emissions controls being installed on it. GreenFaith was part of the coalition of activists pushing for emissions controls.