A sermon on Climate Change, Apollo 11, Racism, the Prophet Amos, the Christ Hymn, and Mary & Martha
Delivered by ECN’s editor, the Rev. Nathan Empsall, on 07-21-2019 at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James in Wooster Square, New Haven, CT. The readings for Proper 11 this sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year C are Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, and Luke 10:38-42.
May I speak with God, who is Creator, Word, and Holy Spirit.
It is wonderful to be with you all here this morning as your supply priest. I’m grateful for your warm welcome, but above all, I’m grateful that Harlon (the priest-in-charge) told me that in this heat, y’all are okay if I skip the vestments!
It’s hot. But we’ll come back to that. First, I’d like to begin with these beautiful words from Colossians:
“For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”
This short passage is what’s known as the “Christ Hymn.” Scholars say that these six verses are a hymn the author is quoting that the original readers would have recognized.
And what a hymn it is! This passage is some of the favorite Scripture of those who study the field of religion and ecology, and who study Jesuit geologist Teilhard de Chardin’s Cosmic Christ theology. That’s because these verses don’t just tell us that all people were created through Christ, or that all people will be reconciled to God – no, we’re told that all things in heaven and all things on earth are created by, loved by, and reconciled to God.
All things! As my friend, Cosmic Christ theologian Catherine Amy Kropp, has said, “’All things’ is a lot of things! You can’t just think about the human story… you’re thinking about the rocks and the animals and the creatures and their relationships and the whole cosmos and everything.”
This is a powerful idea to dwell on anytime, but I think it’s especially pleasant to think about this week, as we observe the 50th anniversary of the remarkable Apollo 11 moon landing. As our Book of Common Prayer says, “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home” – all of it is reconciled to God in Christ.
“This fragile earth, our island home.” Looking back on that day 50 years ago, Michael Collins – the third astronaut on Apollo 11 – said he was struck by his view of the moon, but he was even more struck by his view of the earth. As he told the New York Times this week, “The thing that really surprised me was that it projected an air of fragility… I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.”
Collins and the Book of Common Prayer are right. The planet is very fragile indeed; a web of interconnected earth systems that ensure any changes ripple across the entire earth. I joked earlier about the heat. Unfortunately, this heat isn’t really a joke. Two separate scientific reports released this week told us that, thanks to climate change, last month was the hottest June on record—and this month is on pace to be the hottest July.
Though the earth is one of those things created through Christ and reconciled to Christ, we haven’t done a very good job taking care of it for Christ. Fossil fuels, consumption, and corporate agriculture create humane-made climate change, a grave threat to this corner of God’s cosmic creation. That’s why we’re seeing our actions result in larger, hotter, and longer-lasting fires in the west, bigger and stronger hurricanes along the coast, heat waves all over the country and the world. The list goes on.
All of us suffer from environmental damage, but it’s the poor and marginalized who suffer the most: More drought means more hunger and more refugees. Low-income communities are the least prepared to pay the financial costs of the damage, and all too often, majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods are the site of new toxic-waste dumping sites and fossil-fuel infrastructure.
When Jesus told us to love the least of these the way we love Him, I don’t think this is what he had in mind.
Of course, greed-driven climate change is not the only injustice facing our society today. White supremacy and nationalism abound, as well. We were reminded of that last Sunday when Donald Trump tweeted his latest racist attacks against four women of color in power. We were reminded again on Monday when the president tried to ban all claims of asylum on the Mexican border, and on Thursday when the administration floated the idea of allowing no new refugees into the United States at all next year.
So much for the Bible’s call to welcome the stranger.
Today’s Old Testament reading has something to say about all this. The Book of Amos was written at a time when Israel’s size and military might were at all-time highs. Income inequality was also at its worst — the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and the moneyed elites using an unjust system of debt to keep the working class in place. Sound familiar?
Amos warned Israel’s ruling class to shape up: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land… I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.”
Hearing this Scripture today, it’s only natural to wonder: Will we face the wrath of God too? Are we as a nation also heading towards such judgement?
I think the heat waves, hurricanes, and fires show us we’re already there. But God didn’t send these disasters; we brought them on ourselves by messing with the order of the earth systems – the natural order of God’s creation. Amos and the prophets aren’t telling us that God will inflict pain upon us; they’re saying that if we don’t live with one another and with the earth as God intended, then we will hurt ourselves. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
But there is hope, and good news. There is always good news in Jesus Christ.
We turn back to Colossians, where the author tells us, “You who were once estranged and hostile… doing evil deeds, [Jesus] has now reconciled [you through the cross] so as to present you holy and blameless.”
That’s my favorite thing about Jesus: We always get another chance. Ours is a savior who looked down from the cross and says, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Colossians says that despite our past sins, despite whatever racism, homophobia, mean words, pollution, and blasphemy have come before, we can again become “holy and blameless” before God – all we have to do is try. This second chance is ours, the letter’s author says, “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel.” Stay secure in hope. Try every day, and when we fail, try again the next day.
The question is, HOW do we try? And that’s where today’s Gospel comes in. I think the story of Mary and Martha provides three key lessons for how we can put our faith into action today.
First, we must root all things in God.
That’s what Mary was doing, sitting at the feet of Christ. Putting God first. Nothing in this passage says that what Martha was doing in the kitchen wasn’t also important; it just wasn’t quite AS important.
The message is clear: Nothing matters more than Jesus. Everything else of value, including service to others, gets its value from God.
This is why nearly every major leading Christian social-justice figure, from Dorothy Day to Oscar Romero, has rooted themselves in routines of prayer and Scripture. Known for their robust public lives, they also have robust interior spiritual lives. All our works are rooted in our relationship with God, and while we shouldn’t ever forsake those works, we do need to put them in God first – just as Mary does.
The second lesson for putting faith into action from today’s Gospel is that as long as our sisters and brothers are trying to do the right thing and aren’t hurting anyone, we shouldn’t rebuke them.
Notice here that Jesus does not criticize Martha for being in the kitchen – he only criticizes her for rebuking Mary. Everyone has a different calling, and everyone has different spiritual gifts. If Martha wants to engage in service and hospitality, who is she to tell the other women they must join her instead of making their own decisions? And by that same token, if Mary wants to learn from Jesus, who is she to tell Martha that she’s wrong to serve dinner to Christ’s disciples?
There’s a lot of nastiness in the world today, including among friends and allies. It even happens in the church. But that’s not how Jesus wanted Martha to talk to Mary, and it’s not how he talked to Martha. Honor with kindness the choices others make, and we’ll be stronger together.
Finally, this Gospel shows us that we need to invite and welcome everyone into the Kingdom of God. It was not normal for a woman to sit at the feet of a rabbi, yet Jesus said let Mary stay. It was a revolutionary message for its time – and I daresay it’s still a revolutionary message for our time now, a time of wage gaps, glass ceilings, and Me Too.
And what a message it is: Everyone is invited to the kingdom of Heaven. Everyone is my neighbor, and God calls me to love everyone. Just as Jesus opens the door to gender equality in this story, so we too must open our hearts and our doors to the homeless, the queer community, immigrants and refugees, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, and anyone else who faces marginalization or oppression in this life. God loves them, and God loves you.
That’s how we begin to do the work of justice. Not alone, and not by telling others what to do – but by welcoming everyone in the name of Jesus, standing up to those who would tweet “go back where you came from” and chant “send her back,” and rooting every last piece of this work in a spiritual life with Christ, the loving and forgiving Christ
and in whom
all things were made, and in whom
and all people are reconciled.