Maybe it’s just that social media has made it easier to know about what is happening in parishes across the country, but it seems like St. Francis Day is celebrated more widely than it used to be. Parishes bless pets on or near October 4, and people remember some of Francis’s words or share images of St. Francis with their friends.Once we get past the sentimental side of St. Francis, we see a saint who showed great compassion to poor people, giving up his own privileges to live in solidarity with the poor. While it is nearly as easy to romanticize or sentimentalize his poverty and his compassion for the poor as it is his compassion for animals, when we set aside the sentimental side, his story is very striking. Francis took Jesus’s teachings seriously, and his life shows us what following Jesus can look like.
Francis’s compassion flowed out of his love for Christ. 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 our present 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
We are told that St. Francis preached to the birds, and he is often depicted as a friend to the birds. The reality this St. Francis Day is that climate change is endangering the birds. Climate change is threatening all living things, but we are so paralyzed by this that this evening’s debate for vice-presidential candidates did not include a single question about dealing with climate change or its effects. We spend much of our lives acting as if nothing is happening.
Bill McKibben recently wrote Recalculating the Climate Math, which very clearly explains why we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground and rapidly develop clean energy sources. Using new information from Oil Change International, McKibben’s essay argues that to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C. “we’ll need to close all of the coal mines and some of the oil and gas fields we’re currently operating long before they’re exhausted”.
We are nowhere near doing that. We may admire St. Francis’s compassion for the birds and for the people who stand to suffer first and worst from climate change, but our compassion is not yet great enough to overcome the fear of change that keeps us from doing what we must to address climate change in any meaningful way or even to talk about it very often.
Perhaps next St. Francis Day our churches could honor Francis by hosting serious discussions about climate change and its impacts, or by encouraging parishioners to advocate for action on climate. If we can find as much compassion for people suffering the effects of climate change and for the birds and wild animals and plants as we have for our domestic pets, we all might stand a chance of surviving this century.
– Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett
Follow Archdeanon Betsy’s blog at https://nebraskagreensprouts.blogspot.com
Trinity Sunday – Guided into the Faith
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 15:13)
Much of what we read in John’s Gospel about the Spirit of truth, the Advocate, is hard to grasp. One thing we do know about the Spirit of truth, though, is that the guidance from that Spirit will help us see what is real — what is really real — and what is merely imagined or supposed. If we follow the guidance of the Spirit, we are grounded or anchored in reality.
The past several months have been stressful ones for me. Part of that stress is personal: I’ve been sick much of the time, family members have been sick, and two family members died. However, feeling extra stress seems to be widespread this year. Our national political conversation — if it can even be called a conversation — is unlike anything I remember experiencing before, and the lack of civility and the frequent lack of reason in our political speech seems to have seeped into other areas of our lives. Fear of where all of this might lead seems to be pervasive among people across the political spectrum. And those of us who are keenly aware of what scientists have been telling us about climate change from anthropogenic global warming realize that our decisions in this century — certainly our political decisions, but also our decisions in many other areas of our lives — have greater potential for good or ill than at any other time in human history.
I mentioned to my spiritual director this week that I have been feeling disoriented in time and thought it had to do with all the crises of various sizes that have disrupted my life over the past year. Because of everything else that has been happening, the rhythm of my weeks and the rhythm of holidays and of nature’s seasons have been disrupted frequently. I was surprised when my spiritual director said a lot of people have been reporting the same thing. This has been an unusual spring where we live, with many spring blooms appearing much earlier than usual, but with a couple of spells of unusually cool weather as well. Some days so far this May have seemed like perfect “What is so rare as a day in June?” days, while others have felt like late October.
But as I thought about feeling disoriented in time, I realized how disoriented many people are in space as well. How often does someone nearly walk into us — and how often do motorists hit something — as a result of being distracted by electronic devices? One thing I like about my iPhone is the escape it can provide if I’m sitting in a waiting room, but an “escape” that in reality leaves me right where I was is of course not a true escape at all; it’s merely a purposeful disorientation, a means of making myself feel like I’m someplace else. And it’s not all about electronics. We can travel around the country, for example, and never experience local food or culture thanks to chain restaurants, hotels, and stores. We can easily imagine ourselves to be someplace other than where we are.
For a variety of reasons, we find ourselves unanchored or ungrounded in all sorts of ways at precisely the point of history when we most need to connect with and understand the reality of what is happening in the world. We need to remain ever open to the Spirit of truth instead of trying to escape into a false reality, but instead of experiencing the guidance of the Spirit we often find ourselves instead in a swirl of thoughts, claims — many of them false claims — and events that seem all important one day and are forgotten the next. I suspect that one of the reasons we allow our leaders to get away with an inadequate response to global warming is that most of us are untethered enough from reality to believe it is less urgent than it is.
Staying grounded or anchored in reality is a necessity for spiritual health. If we become ungrounded, we forget who we are (and whose we are) and we forget what we really believe deep down in our hearts. The state of ungroundedness allows just the sort of political chaos we are witnessing now, one major piece of which is the way we have collectively lost sight of the important task of caring for our one and only planet.
Late spring is a great time to reconnect with the seasons and experience a deeper connection to our locale. Tending to the soil and growing some of our own food whether in a large garden plot or a container on a front stoop makes us aware of the season and the weather while it helps us slow down. Walking outdoors gives us a chance to look around and see where we are; walking lets us see the shifts in light as the day or the season unfolds. It lets us see which flowers are blooming and what sorts of birds, insects, and other animals are around. When we walk outdoors, we might hear the birds singing, a sound that is restorative for souls that have become unanchored.
Gently reconnecting ourselves to reality through intentional practices like gardening and walking allows us to be resilient in the face of the harsher truths of our world. Staying connected, allowing the Spirit to guide us in the truth, helps us find the strength, wisdom, and compassion to respond to the world’s needs as effectively and compassionately as we can. When we make a connection with the real world around us, we will find Jesus in that connection.
Trinity Sunday reminded us that God is relationship. If God is relationship, it isn’t surprising that we find God when we turn away from the false perception of ourselves as beings independent of one another and independent of our biosphere. If God is relationship, then of course we grow closer to God when we realize our interdependence and realize our true place in time and space.
— Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett
Follow Archdeacon Betsy’s blog at http://nebraskagreensprouts.blogspot.com/
Rogation Days: Praying the Bounds of a Warming World 2016
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.
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.**
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.
**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.
St. Andrew’s in Seward celebrated God’s creation with an April 24 worship service that recalled the traditional Rogation Days in England, when the fields were blessed at planting time. Mother Verneda Kelly blessed a vessel of soil, and parishioners were encouraged to take a scoopful home to their own gardens. And yes, the congregation sang, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”
About 40 people — from the church and the community — attended the Earth Day celebration that afternoon in and around the parish hall. There were locally grown plants for sale, along with “green” products such as homemade laundry soap, and tote bags and hats made of “plarn” (recycled plastic bags). Some of the most eye-catching of the recycled products were beautifully hand-braided “rag rugs” made by a 96-year-old friend of St. A. Just think, she has been recycling for nearly 80 years!
From noon on, darkness came over the land until three in the afternoon. (Matthew 27:45)
I spent some of the time between noon and three o’clock this afternoon reading and thinking about the darkness that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include in their accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. John’s Gospel account of the Passion, the one we will hear in churches using the Good Friday liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer, doesn’t mention this. But the synoptic Gospels all do, with Matthew and Luke (Luke 23:44-45) adding that the curtain of the temple was torn in two when Jesus was crucified. Matthew adds (Matthew 27:51) that “the earth shook, and the rocks were split.”
Commentaries disagree on the meaning of all of this. Some argue that this was a solar eclipse, while others say it is was a different kind of gloom. As thunderstorms and snowstorms swept across Nebraska on Wednesday, lots of us saw streetlights come in during daylight hours; we know that darkness at noon doesn’t necessarily mean a solar eclipse. Commentators also disagree on whether the Greek should be translated to tell us darkness came over the land or over the entire earth. And then there is discussion about the earthquake mentioned by Matthew: are we to understand that there was the sort of earthquake that today would be recorded by a seismograph, or was this report of a shaking of the earth more a way to describe the meaning of Jesus’s death?
No matter which combination of Gospel accounts and commentaries strike us as the best interpretation of this piece of the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, what stands out is the underlying claim that the crucifixion and death of Jesus was not only experienced in the hearts and emotions of the people who witnessed it, but was also felt or experienced in some way by all of creation. This is an important claim, because if we put any stock at all in the claim of darkness coming over the land (or the earth), we agree that the connection between Jesus and creation is such that the suffering and death of Jesus was echoed in the nonhuman world around him. In this, we affirm that our relationship with Jesus not only can’t be isolated from our relationships with one another, but that our relationship with Jesus can’t be isolated from our relationship with all of creation.
The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer (p. 848) answers the question “What is sin?” this way:
Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.
Given that, it is difficult to understand why we in the Church don’t pay more attention to what is happening to God’s creation, especially since people who are marginalized by virtue of economic status or race more often than not experience the effects of pollution and climate change first and worst. Environmental degradation is still a side issue for many in the church, and we continue to pray, preach, plan, and act as if we were living in a world unaffected by the great changes happening today.
This Good Friday, this deacon finds it important to share something that got mention in the news this Holy Week but may not make it into the hearts and prayers of many worshipers on Easter Sunday. I share it in the hope that we might be moved to include the changes in the earth’s climates and its effects on us and other living things in our prayers, our conversations, and our moral choices.
A paper published in the European journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics looks at effects of melting ice beyond the effects of sea level rise. Sea level rise itself might happen sooner than earlier predicted because of the sort of feedback loops scientists are studying. The paper claims that beyond the obvious dangers of sea level rise, cold meltwater entering the ocean can lead to changes in the circulation systems such as a possible shutdown of the North Atlantic Ocean circulation. One result of a slowdown or shutdown of this system is an increase in extreme storms.
Here is Dr. James Hansen discussing the main points of the paper:
In the transcript of the video, Dr. Hansen includes this preface:
The main point that I want to make concerns the threat of irreparable harm, which I feel we have not communicated well enough to people who most need to know, the public and policymakers. I’m not sure how we can do that better, but I comment on it at the end of this transcript.
Climate Progress has a piece by Joe Romm that both clarifies the main points of the paper and discusses some of the implications. (See Leading Climate Scientists: ‘We Have A Global Emergency,’ Must Slash CO2 ASAP)
Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake with him while he prayed the night before his crucifixion, but the disciples were unable to keep awake. Can we stay awake and aware in our own time to witness the suffering unfolding around us, or will we sleep unaware through this “threat of irreparable harm”?
— Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett
Follow Archdeacon Betsy’s blog at http://nebraskagreensprouts.blogspot.com/
Ash Wednesday in the Anthropocene
Accept our repentance, Lord.
(Litany of Penitence, Book of Common Prayer, p. 268)Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence in preparation for Easter. Among the sins for which we repent is the sin of wasting and polluting God’s creation, a result of the sin of “lack of concern for those who come after us”. It’s a failure of love for the people of the next generation and the one after that, a failure to love our children and grandchildren enough to change the way we produce and use energy.
The ashes on our foreheads are a sign of our penitence and our mortality. As the ashes are imposed on our foreheads, we hear “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are mortal, created from “dust”, the fundamental stuff of the universe. Religious people perhaps more than others are tempted to forget this from time to time. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe in the resurrection of the body, but we Christians often speak as if we believe in the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul instead. Reacting to a culture that tempts us to see ourselves as bodies without souls — the root of many sins — we sometimes overcorrect and begin to think of ourselves as souls without bodies. Forgetting our embodiment, forgetting that we are made of dust, can also be the root of sins.
The dualism resulting from thinking of our souls and bodies as independent of one another is one source of our failure to care enough about God’s creation. We talk about loving God and loving one another, but somehow think we can do that by being nice people who don’t want to think about the ongoing destruction of the biosphere since the concrete world around us isn’t “spiritual”.
If you’ve been following the national political conversation leading up to the presidential election, it seems the risk climate change poses to human life is not on most people’s — or at least most politicians’ and commentators’ — lists of most important issues. The destruction of the biosphere is treated at best as some sort of side issue. It is amazing that the biggest threat ever faced by humanity is given only glancing mention at best, and is still downright denied by some.
Pondering our own mortality as individuals can be difficult intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, but we recognize that coming to accept our mortality is necessary to our growth as mature Christians. Pondering the mortality of our species, and pondering it not in some distant age, is much, much more difficult, but equally necessary for Christians in this century to think about and pray about.
Phil Torres is a philosopher and the author of the book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse. The book will be released in a week. From some of the reviews available, it sounds like Torres pits science / reason / observation against religion / faith / revelation (a different dualism from the soul / body split) and indicates that religious eschatology puts us in danger of not responding adequately to the very real risks to the survival of humanity we face in this century. Given this negative take on religion, it’s perhaps ironic that an article by Phil Torres published today on the Common Dreams sight gave me a deeper understanding this Ash Wednesday of the importance of pausing to think about and pray about our own personal mortality and the mortality of our species. Our survival might depend on our remembering our mortality, on our remembering that we are dust.
In Biodiversity Loss and the Doomsday Clock: An Invisible Disaster Almost No One is Talking About, Torres outlines some of the risks we face as a result of climate change and related forms of environmental degradation, and then notes:
We must, moving forward, never forget that just as we’re minds embodied, so too are we bodies environed, meaning that if the environment implodes under the weight of civilization, then civilization itself is doomed.
Ash Wednesday brings us back to the reality of our embodiment. An adequate look at our own mortality this century must include embracing the reality of our environment.
Remember that you are dust.
Remember that we are connected to one another and to everything else on our planet.
Epiphany: Overwhelmed with Joy
What has overwhelmed you with joy? The births of my children and grandchild overwhelmed me with joy, as have many moments in my children’s lives when good things came their way. Musical joy has overwhelmed me in concert halls and churches. I can count on being overwhelmed with joy at some point during the spring migration of the Sandhill cranes every year, often at the moment around sunrise when thousands of crane leave the Platte River. Similarly, spring flowers and autumn leaves have the power to overwhelm me with joy, as do the first beautiful snowfall of the year, a meadowlark singing in the spring, and the stars on a clear night in rural Nebraska.
I wrote at Epiphany last year (Epiphany: Leaving by a Different Road) about the need for us in the Church to learn from the wise men who went back to their own country “by a another road” and change our course on climate change. The church for the most part has treated environmental stewardship in general and climate change in particular as a sort of side issue, which says to me that there is “a wide gap between what we know at some level in our heads and what has seeped in deeply enough to really change our direction”. That post concluded by asking what that different road looks like for us:
What does that different road look like for us? I suspect we may not know until we commit ourselves to taking it. We may need to make a new road by walking, by being intentional about remembering climate change and remembering the reality of today’s world whenever and wherever we do the work of the church. The old roads lead us back to the expediency of the status quo, and that is killing us.
A year later, I’m even more convinced that we find our way home to a more stable climate once we take our eyes off the old road and commit ourselves to the task of creating a new way to respond to the needs of the world in this new world of climate instability.
We notice what is happening around us, using all of our senses. We let it seep into our minds and hearts. We pay attention to the signs that point the way, and we open our imaginations to help us piece together those signs so the way becomes clearer. We do the work of deep discernment, and when we discern the way — or at least the first few steps of the way — we start moving.
All of this takes a sturdy spiritual grounding. Staying connected to Jesus, we are overwhelmed with a spiritual joy that can support us through the work ahead. Along with that crucial spiritual grounding in Christ, if we build on that Christian joy and remain open to being overwhelmed with joy through the people around us, the art we create, and the wonders of God’s creation, we will be energized to head down whatever road will help to sustain us and other living things because we are passionate about whatever overwhelms us with joy.
The wisdom of the wise men wasn’t all about their ability to notice the signs that led them to the new King and then told them to go back by a different road. The wisdom of the wise men was also about their keeping their hearts open to being overwhelmed by joy. Joy will get us a lot farther down the road than fear will, and joy will certainly make the journey easier for us all.
Following Jesus No Matter What in the Anthropocene
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
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.
Magnificat and the Unholy Silence
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.
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”.