In opening sermon in series on faith and the earth, Bullitt-Jonas urges using fear to step beyond borders

Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas addresses Chautauquans for the first time virtually during the Service of Worship and Sermon on Sunday, June 28. Bullitt-Jonas recorded her sermon titled “Faith for the Earth: Love and Fear in a Time of Emergency,” from her home in Massachusetts.

“Fear is everywhere these days. We can feel it viscerally in our stomachs, in our pounding pulse and in our rapid, shallow breathing,” said the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas during the Service of Worship and Sermon on Sunday, June 28. While portions of the service were broadcast from the Chautauqua Amphitheater, Bullitt-Jonas recorded her sermon from her home in Massachusetts. “We can feel paralyzed,” she said, “or pushed to lash out violently.”

The title of her sermon was “Faith for the Earth: Love and Fear in a Time of Emergency,” and the scripture reading was John 15:9-13 (NRSV): “Jesus said: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Bullitt-Jonas said Jesus was doing what anyone would do when facing death: He was saying goodbye and “he tried to express what matters most.” What mattered to Jesus was the love of God the father, to abide in Jesus’ love and to love one another by laying down one’s life for one’s friends. 

“This is at the heart of every religious tradition,” she said. 

She quoted Michael Leunig’s poem, “Love and Fear.” 

“There are only two feelings, Love and fear: / There are only two languages, Love and fear: / There are only two activities, Love and fear; / There are only two motives, two procedures, / two frameworks, two results, Love and fear, / Love and fear.”

Fear, Bullitt-Jonas said, makes people vulnerable to authoritarian leaders. “Those leaders say not to be afraid of climate change, institutional racism, the police, or the coronavirus,” she said. “Or they stoke people’s fears by telling them they will only be safe if they build walls to keep each other out and down, oppressed and repressed.”

She said that fear can be precious. “Fear can alert us to genuine danger. Our planetary web of life is unravelling and human civilization is at risk of collapse.” She cited statistics to show that the number of animals on the planet has plummeted by half since 1970 due to destruction of habitats.

“This is biological annihilation,” she told the virtual congregation. “This is not just about losing the wonders of nature; they are not just nice to have, they are vital. This mass extinction event is racing faster and is closer to collapse than scientists thought. We have about 10 years left to take action.”

Bullitt-Jonas noted that Siberia had a prolonged heat wave recently where the temperature reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit. 

“People in poor, low-wealth communities are hit the first and the hardest,” she said. “This is a matter of justice. We have to act fast, or there will be nothing for our children and our children’s children.”

She asked the congregation: “Are we afraid? You bet, and if not, we ought to be because fear propels us to take action. Thank God for Greta Thunberg and the school strikes for the climate.”

When Thunberg spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019, she told the global leaders to panic, to act as they would in a crisis, like their house was on fire.

“Thank God for the people who are pouring into the streets, who are sick and tired of being afraid of institutional racism,” Bullitt-Jonas said. “They refuse to turn away from each other and turn toward each other in ways that the world has never seen.”

She told the congregation, “Abide in love, place your feelings in something bigger, in the embrace of love. We are surrounded by divine love, love that will never let us go. That love is infused in us. Breathe the divine love in and your moral courage will be renewed. You may be afraid but you are not overcome.”

Bullitt-Jonas quoted Persian poet Hafez: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house and I want better quarters for you.”

Every choice matters. “Even one-tenth of a degree Centigrade means the difference between life and death. Love matters most of all,” she said.

Bullitt-Jonas closed her sermon with a story about her first extended act of civil disobedience. In 2001, she joined the group Religious Witness for the Earth to protest the drilling for oil in the Arctic. About 100 people marched down Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C. to the Department of Energy for a brief worship service. They finished by singing “Amazing Grace” and then about 22 people walked slowly to the doors of the building and knelt to pray.

“I had crossed an invisible boundary. I am not a thrill-seeker, but I was intentionally breaking the law,” she said. “The old me was no longer in charge; the security of following the rules was gone.”

While she did not expect an open assault, Bullitt-Jonas was aware of the police presence and the supporters who watched as she knelt on the stone steps and put her arms out, as she does when presiding at communion.

“I closed my eyes and felt jubilant,” she said. “I thought of the communion response ‘Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.’ Praising God was political resistance and an act of worship.”

She continued, “So what if I have no power in the eyes of the world. I have the power of self-offering, to say ‘This is where I stand, here is love.’ To step beyond borders makes me so happy.”

Bullitt-Jonas asked the congregation to risk arrest, to carry out civil disobedience. 

“If you could not fail, what would you do to heal the world?” she said.

The service was preceded by the traditional opening ceremony, Three Taps of the Gavel, presided over by Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill. Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president for religion and senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided at the service broadcast from the Amphitheater. Chautauqua interim organist Joshua Stafford played “Dawn,” by Cyril Jenkins, for the organ prelude on the Massey Memorial Organ. The first hymn was “Holy, Holy, Holy,” by John Bacchus Dykes. Guest artists Amanda Lynn Bottoms and Michael Miller, from the Amp stage, sang the words to the hymn. Candy Maxwell, chair of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, read the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis 12:1-5a. Amanda Bottoms, guest artist, sang “Ain’t That Good News,” arranged by Edward Boatner. Recorded from his home, Les Linn, trumpeter for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra played “Taps,” by David Butterfield during the Chautauqua Family Milestones: In Memoriam, a listing of all Chautauquans who have died between the end of the 2019 season and the beginning of the 2020 season. The offertory hymn was “For the Beauty of the Earth,” by Conrad Kocher, sung by guest artists Miller and Bottoms. The offertory anthem, sung by Miller, was “Antiphon from Five Mystical Songs,” by Ralph Vaughn Williams. After the sermon, recorded from his home, Robert A. Jonas provided special music on the Japanese Shakuhachi, a rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, and George David Weiss, first sung by Elvis Presley. Bottoms and Miller sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” by John Rutter, for the choral response to the benediction. The organ postlude was “Toccata in ré majeur,” by Marcel Lanquetuit. This week’s services are sponsored by the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree, Jr. Chaplaincy and the John F. Tyrell Endowment for Religion.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.