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Listening with empathy leads to action, preaches Bullitt-Jonas — “Are we listening to the cry of the poor, the cry of the earth?”

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“We are in a social and ecological emergency, and the only way to protect the earth is to transform our society with unprecedented speed,” said the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. She was preaching at the morning devotional Monday, June 29, on CHQ Assembly

Her sermon title was “Faith for the Earth: Are We Listening?,” and her scripture text was 1 Samuel 3:1-10:

“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”

“Samuel was a great prophet,” Bullitt-Jonas said. “Not like a fortune teller to see the future, but so deeply rooted in the love and justice of God that he could speak with moral clarity about God’s vision of what could be — a world where all can thrive.”

She told the virtual congregation, “We need that today. We need clean energy, to protect our oceans and rivers, and to do it quickly.”

Business as usual is wrecking the planet. “We have to stop plundering the earth. This is a holy moment of truth and reckoning,” she said. “We can choose life, or business as usual, which means death. This is a moment pregnant with possibility.”

She continued, “We need to call on God. We need a source of holy strength for the stamina to go on. We need good leaders and well-written laws, but we need to tune our hearts to the divine presence.”

Bullitt-Jonas called listening one of the practices that keeps people grounded in a crisis. When Samuel listened, his call to serve God began. 

“The word of God was rare in Samuel’s day. His ears were open and he heard God call three times. Eli finally explained that it was God, not he, who was calling Samuel,” she said.

Eli told Samuel that when he heard God calling again, Samuel should answer, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

“A key to being a prophet is the willingness to listen,” Bullitt-Jonas said. “There is a quality to that listening, not just looking like you are paying attention.”

This listening is not self-centered, she said: “It does not confirm what we already believe, or we are out of here. If we are uncomfortable with someone else’s opinion, politics, religion, color, we can tune them out.”

But during the lockdown, people in the cities were changed by what they heard. They could hear birds, cars, “the pots and pans of people celebrating the first responders as they left for home.”

And after the death of George Floyd, millions of people listened to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Millions of white people listened. They may have heard the cries before, but white people hardly ever heard,” Bullitt-Jonas said. “As Fr. Richard Rohr has said, they were enveloped in their ‘unspoken privilege of being white.’ Now that white people have actually begun to listen to the words, they have begun to hear the pain and longing behind (them).”

Bullitt-Jonas said that by listening with empathy, people are moved to action. She sees a “multi-sector upsurge against racism” that will require deeper prayer to maintain.

“Are we listening to the earth’s cries? We have ‘an unspoken privilege of being human’ as if we don’t have to listen to the groaning of creation,” she told the virtual congregation. 

She noted that over 3 billion birds have disappeared in the last 50 years. “Would we notice the silence?” she asked. “The oceans are filled with seismic booming as oil companies map the ocean floor, looking for oil deposits and killing the sea creatures. In the rain forests, you hear the sound of chainsaws making way for cattle ranches.”

“Can you listen with the ear of your heart to hear the crash of the glaciers into the seas, or the whoosh of the rivers of ice as the glaciers melt? Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in one day,” she said, referring to news last summer that the country’s ice sheet hit a new record in terms of largest single-day volume loss.

Bullit-Jonas told a story of a shaman, a traditional healer, from Greenland who went to the United Nations to speak to world leaders about how the big ice was melting. He returned home, happy to have spoken to these world leaders. But his friends asked, “Did they hear you?”

“Are we listening to the cry of the poor, the cry of the earth?” Bullitt-Jonas asked. “We need to repeat the mantra — ‘Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.’ We are listening. We are listening.”

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president for religion and senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided. Joshua Stafford, interim organist for Chautauqua Institution, played improvisations for the prelude and postlude. Robert A. Jonas played a theme on listening on a shakuhachi before the sermon. The live portion of the service, broadcast from the Hall of Christ, did not have sound until the music before the sermon, and the sermon itself, recorded in Bullitt-Jonas’ Massachusetts home. The online version at CHQ Assembly has the sound restored. This week’s services are supported by the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree, Jr., Chaplaincy Fund and the John William Tyrell Endowment for Religion.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the morning worship column, a recap of the morning worship service. She is a Presbyterian minister, an author or editor of five books on Chautauqua, and just finished six years of service on the Chautauqua Lake Central School Board of Education. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her dog Sammi, a Stabyhoun — a breed no one has ever heard of.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for this enlightening condensed version of our world around us. Your words are a reminder of what I have felt, especially during the days of silence when the world seemed to stop. What a glorious time it was! I am hopeful this tumultuous time we are in will inspire a much needed and long awaited change for our people and our earth.

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