The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston: “To Change History: The Global Covenant”
Please join me in your spirits as I pray.
Lord God Almighty, I come before you now as a bearer of a message, as a witness to what I believe you have spoken to me in my heart. But for me to carry this message and share it with others, I need the anointing of your Holy Spirit. I need your strength. I need your courage. I need your vision. I need your wisdom. Come now from all four sacred directions. Come now, Holy Spirit of God. Touch my mouth with a coal of fire, and let whatever I say be the truth, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Please be seated. Thank you.
I wanted to pray before I began to speak to you because what I want to share is something of enormous importance to me, and I think to all of you.
But before I do that, I want to thank everyone who was a part of the process that allowed me this opportunity to stand in this pulpit again today. I really don’t know whom to thank. There are probably many names. So let me just say that I am very honored and very humbled to be here in this great Cathedral as part of this series of some of the best preachers from the United States.
You know, it’s one thing to receive that honor, but it’s another one to be worthy of it. So all I can say to those who invited me and allowed me to be here, I can only pay you back with the one gift that any preacher has at his or her command. And that is the gift of brevity.
And in the back of the room we heard a voice, “Thank you, Jesus!”
I will be brief. I will be honest. I will tell you the truth. I will call you to do something with me. Listen. I will call you today to stand up and to do something with me. Let me explain why.
I am not unfamiliar with this pulpit. I know that in this pulpit the world listens when the preacher comes to deliver the message. This is an international pulpit. This Cathedral, this community, is a place where people from around the world come, as you have come today. So I am honored to be here, but I am not unfamiliar with the moment, for I was here sixteen years ago. October 12, 1992. For those who may not be familiar with the date, nor understand its significance, let me remind you that in 1992 this country remembered 500 years since the arrival of Columbus onto the shores he called a “New Land,” and onto the shores that my ancestors called “Home.”
In 1992 this Cathedral, as it has so often in the past, opened its doors to welcome thousands of men and women whose voices might otherwise not have been heard. This Cathedral was packed with people from Native tribes throughout the United States and Canada and beyond. There were thousands of us here. Our friends and our supporters. And we gathered in this Cathedral so that that anniversary of October 12, 1992, might not be dismissed as a celebration alone of the conquest of this hemisphere by colonial powers, but rather be remembered for what it was: a celebration of the dignity, the courage, and the survival of America’s indigenous people.
I was proud to be asked to preach on that day. And as I walked up this aisle to come to this pulpit then, a Native man placed around my neck this very cross that I have worn ever since, to remind me of that glorious time. It was for me a blessing, that when I spoke I might speak with an authority. Listen. That I might speak with an authority of the Holy Spirit of God. It was not about me in this pulpit. It was about the thousands of indigenous people that were gathered here. It was their voice that needed to be heard.
Four great drums in each corner of this Cathedral beat out the heartbeat of Native America. Beat out the rhythm of justice. And here I am now wearing this cross, standing in this pulpit and hearing the echoes of those drums. Hearing the echoes of that truth that was spoken on that day.
I’m a believer in a faith that tells me that when any man or woman stands to speak the truth, the Holy Spirit is present. For the Holy Spirit of God is truth. And as Jesus said, “The truth is what will set us free.”
Shall I now come again to share this truth with you? Be you my witnesses, all, each and every one, if what I’m about to tell you is untrue in your hearts and in your experience. Brothers and sisters all, I come here this morning to claim that there are two great forces that will through the course of this century be the most important challenges that humanity has faced in its history to date. Two great forces that, like tectonic plates beneath the surface of our societies, move and shift and pull us in directions of dread and of loss and of grief. Above them, on the shifting sands that they provide, we see a world beset by problems that may distract us from their realities. We are mesmerized by economic collapse, by terror, by war, by racism, by hatreds and divisions. And we look around us seeking answers.
Look deeper. Listen. Look deeper. Two great challenges before us in this century are the following. First, religious war. Second, catastrophic climate change. Religious war in this century has returned from the past to haunt us in ways we would never have imagined before. We assumed that religion had moved to the sidelines of world history. We assumed that it was simply a polite exercise of a small group of peoples’ personal piety, only to discover that religious passion can so inflame human beings that death, destruction and terror, and acts so fearful that we scarcely wish to speak of them, can occur. Children blowing themselves up in the name of God? Religious war divides Muslims and Christians. Religious suspicions of hatreds fuel the ongoing struggles between Palestine and Israel. Do I exaggerate, or do I tell you the truth? And unless we confront and deal with these very tensions that continue to feed the fire of hate, fear, and terror, will we ever know peace?
Are there any armies large enough, are there any weapons powerful enough, that they can stop this sense of imbedded conflict and suspicion that arises from what should be the very depths of faith? What will stem that tide? What will change that story in our generation?
And if that in itself was not convincing enough for you, then hear and mark me well for the second truth: That while we struggle with one another, caught in wars and in terror, we are standing on a planet that is literally dying beneath our feet. Am-I-telling-you-the-truth?
Global warming, catastrophic climate change, the loss of all that we have known for centuries of our civilization as the very home in which we live, is suddenly beginning to be destroyed from within by a reckless use of resources. And soon our struggles over ideology, religious truth, will be made moot, as there will be no place left for zealots to live.
Do I paint too graphic a picture? Am I too negative? Am I bringing what you know in your own heart is truth, but yet disturbing to hear?
What do we do about this? What answers do we have? Brothers and sisters, all, what answers do we have to these two great forces as I have described them? Do we look to our politicians as our saviors? Do you expect that politicians alone will find their way through these two great challenges and bring us safely to where we need to be? How many of you would say in your heart this morning, “O yes, I’m quite sure our political leadership of any party is capable of doing that”? How many of you, honestly?
Will the scientists save us? The scientists have pointed out to us the truth of global warming, climate change, have they not? They have shown us very graphically the trajectory that our planet is on if we do not act and act decisively, sacrificially, energetically, and courageously. But they cannot alone be responsible for saving us. They pointed to the problem. They have shown us the possibilities that we can use as a solution. But by themselves they cannot be expected to muster the kind of international movement that is needed to change human history.
And our corporate leaders? Do you expect that they will save us? Do you expect they will roll back pollution, that they will find answers to global warming?
Who will save us? Who will act? When the need is so great. The time is short. Who will do this for us? Whom shall we send? Whom shall we look to for our salvation?
I had a vision. Listen. I had a dream. Listen.
There is an answer. There is the beginning of an answer. Where will it come from? From communities of faith. From people who believe in something greater than themselves. From spiritual people. From religious people. From those of us who care enough to stand up and to act together to effect change and to make things different because we are people of faith. Because we believe in something and have the courage and the resolve to act and live through that faith.
I had a vision. I had a dream. I saw in mind’s eye a simple question begin to dawn. And I believe it was from God. This is what I saw:
I said to myself, “What would happen if my own church, the Episcopal Church, decided at its General Convention in 2009 that it would voluntarily say, that as a whole community, we would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of global warming, we would reduce those by fifty percent? Cut them in half as a minimum, if not by a much larger percentage. Seventy-five, eighty-five, ninety percent. What would happen if we chose to do that as Episcopalians?”
The answer came back to me, as God often does, with a smile. God said to me, “People would say, well what else would you expect. There are those liberal Episcopalians again off trying to be politically correct.” Am I telling you the truth?
The vision continued to expand. But what would happen if it were not just Episcopalians, but Southern Baptists that joined us? What would happen if it were Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists and Unitarians? What if every Christian denomination in the United States stood up and said, “We will promise, we will pledge, that we will reduce voluntarily the greenhouse gas emissions from our church, from our community, by a minimum of fifty percent within ten years; and we mean in every parish, in every school, in every office, in every hospital.” What if thousands of Christians in the United States stood up across denominational lines, without regard to ideology and said, “On this one thing we can be united for the sake of our children and their children’s children.”
What message, what witness would that create in the United States? Listen. Listen.
Can you feel the vision with me? Can you join me in this? And what if it were not just Christians? What if the whole of the Jewish community joined their Christian brothers and sisters in making the same pledge? Every synagogue, every temple, every office, every school, voluntarily reducing in a covenant with their brothers and sisters? And what if Muslim people in America joined us? Every mosque? What if in cities and towns across America we saw not divisions between people of faith, but a united front in which Christians, Jews, Muslims, were all joining together to make one grand witness to say, “This we can do together and change history.”
Would CNN be able to ignore that story? Am I telling you the truth? Would the politicians be able to ignore that story? Would the scientists not rejoice and stand beside people of faith and say, “Hallelujah, at last somebody’s really trying to do something”? And what if it caught on worldwide? What if every faith community around the world joined us in making this shared witness? What if the Vatican pledged to reduce its own polluting greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of fifty percent, and every other Roman Catholic community around the world followed them?
Would we change history then? Would we no longer be the also-rans in society as religious people, or those who are simply seen as part of the problem and not part of the solution? Can you grasp in your hearts and minds this vision of people of faith witnessing not only to ecological sanity and the saving of this earth, but of a unity of purpose of a common cause that unites us and allows us to work together, shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand, around the world? Would we not, at least, muffle the cries of the terrorists who say it could never be?
Are you bold enough for this vision? Are you listening, Episcopal Church? Are you listening, Southern Baptists? Are you listening, Presbyterians and Lutherans? Are you listening Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains? Are you listening, Roman Catholics and Orthodox? Are you listening? Are you listening?
This is something we can do together if we choose to do it. And let me now recruit you into how we may do it. And be so bold as I prayed at the beginning of this sermon, that God will anoint me now with the Holy Spirit, when I say that I am calling each and every person of faith to help me with what I have called the “Genesis Covenant.” “Genesis” because it is about life and “Covenant” because it is a pledge to action. The Genesis Covenant is simply this: At our next General Convention in the Episcopal Church, I will bring forth the resolution asking that the Episcopal Church make that voluntary pledge, and inviting every other faith community in the world to join us.
We will have ten years in which to make these reductions, to make these sacrifices and these changes. And we will ask others to join us in doing so, and to sign the covenant with us. Not as individual parishes and congregations, because if we do it piece by piece, step by step, with individual congregations, you know as well as I what will happen. The usual list of progressive parishes, the usual list of suspects for the liberal cause, will show up and we’ll have a handful of churches doing this instead of a whole body of faith doing it together as one cause. This must be done on a national and international level. It must involve whole faith communities making this pledge together.
On March 1st of this year a new website will appear on your screens. Mark the date. GenesisCovenant.org. I want you to go to that website,* and I want you to join us. I want you to see how you can become a part of this international cause with Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Christians alike. We’re a small community now. We’re a small community, but growing. I need you. I want you to join me and to help me.
Ultimately, I’m recruiting activists in every faith community. The Genesis Covenant is not an organization. It is a rallying point. It is a focus. It is a goal. It is up to each and every activist, each and every minister, faithful person, in their own community, to take this pledge through whatever channels are necessary to the highest level of legislative authority in their denomination or religious community, and to have this endorsed by that body, mandating that the entire community, “as for me and my whole house,” we will do this together.
And through that new website you will be able to link with resources that will help you make it possible as well as with your brothers and sisters of other faiths in your community that are working for the same cause, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, working together for the common sake of our earth and of our children.
March 1st, GenesisCovenant.org. Will you join me? Are you listening? Will you join me? And what will come of this? What are my intent and my purpose in standing in this pulpit today? I’m taking advantage of you, you know. I’m taking advantage of the opportunity you gave me. I’m an Indian. What else would you expect? I’m here to speak the truth. I’m here not just to dazzle you with my rhetorical ability or my supposed intellectual understanding of religion. I’m not her