A Sermon for Earth Sunday
Thank you for inviting me to join you and thank you to everyone who contributed to creating this special service. As you know, I serve our diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, and I travel around preaching, speaking, and leading retreats about our vocation as followers of Jesus to protect and heal God’s Creation. If you’d like to know more about what I’m up to, I hope you’ll visit my website, RevivingCreation.org.
I’m especially happy to be here because of your efforts to heal the living world entrusted to our care. Let’s give a shoutout to your Green Team for the monthly Environmental Sunday Series and to your Youth Group. I shouldn’t have been surprised a few days ago when I received a newsletter from the Anglican Communion Environmental Network – a newsletter, by the way, that goes out to Anglicans all around the world – and noticed that it included a story of this church hosting a panel of teenagers advocating for bold, collective action to address climate change. As your rector commented when I shared this news: Whoa! Thank you for the ways you bear witness to the Lord of life.
We have a wonderful Gospel text to consider this morning, the third Sunday of Easter. It’s a story that’s familiar to most of us: two confused and grief-stricken disciples walk the road to Emmaus and unexpectedly encounter the risen Christ. I can’t imagine a better story to work with on Earth Sunday, for it expresses in a nutshell how those of us engaged in the battle to save life as it has evolved on Earth can draw strength and sustenance from the wellsprings of our faith. That’s the gift that Christianity can bring to a frightened, troubled world: the gift of spiritual teachings and practices that empower us to move from passive despair to active hope, from confusion to clarity. So, let’s join the disciples on their walk and see if we can find our place in the story.
It’s late in the afternoon of the day of the resurrection. We don’t know exactly who the two disciples are, but since they share a home, it’s likely that they are husband and wife. One of them is named Cleopas, and if this is the Clopas referred to in John’s Gospel (John 19:25), then his wife, Mary, was among the group of women who stayed with Jesus at the cross. As the two of them head down the dusty road, late in the afternoon of the first Easter, they are struggling to speak about Jesus’ crucifixion. Surely, they are traumatized: they’ve just witnessed an act of unspeakable brutality and violence inflicted on someone they dearly loved. Not only that – the cruelty and suffering they’ve witnessed has triggered a crisis of meaning: what can they trust, what can they believe in, what kind of future is possible now that the one whom they hoped would save them has been killed? To make matters even more bewildering, they’ve heard a rumor of hope – reports that Jesus has risen from the dead. None of this makes sense. They’ve got things to talk about.
We’ve got things to talk about, too. What would you bring to a conversation about the crucifixion of Mother Earth? Maybe you’d confess your heartache about dying coral, melting glaciers, and thawing tundra, or your anxiety about sea-level rise, massive droughts, and severe weather. Maybe you’d speak about your grief for the species that are vanishing and for those that are struggling to hold on, as their habitat is swallowed up by palm oil plantations and cattle ranches, by freeways and malls. Maybe you’d express outrage that so many corporate and political powers are determined to perpetuate and even expand the extraction of coal, gas, and oil, despite the fact that burning fossil fuels is causing a dramatic rise in global temperatures, and every living system of the world is affected and in decline. We are living at a decisive moment in history, for climate science has made it clear that we won’t be able to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world unless we change course fast.
We need to talk, just as Cleopas and his unnamed companion needed to talk. We may not think that other people are frightened or concerned, but in fact they are. A recent survey1 of 10,000 children and young people in ten countries around the world found that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change; more than half reported each of the following emotions – sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty; almost half of these young people said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning; and fully three-quarters said that they think the future is frightening.
Is this a good time to talk, to name our fears and share our concerns? You bet it is. Talking about climate change with friends, family, and co-workers – and with our elected leaders – is an essential step to building momentum for change. When we end what’s been called “climate silence” and start talking with each other, start walking the road of life together and speaking about our deepest fears and naming our possibly very faint traces of hope, today’s Gospel story assures us that even though we may know nothing about it, Jesus is walking beside us.
That’s what the two sad disciples discovered, to their great surprise. It seems they traveled miles with an apparent stranger and talked with him at length without recognizing that the one they longed for was walking right beside them. It’s a poignant scene, for how often we, too, get lost in our sorrows and fears and have no idea that the risen Christ is walking with us. Maybe it’s a frustrating scene, too, for Jesus sounds impatient when he bursts out, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe!” I think it’s a funny scene, too, for the person whom the disciples are lecturing about recent events in Jerusalem is the very person who knows more about those events and their meaning than anyone else on Earth. As Frederick Buechner once put it, “Blessed are they who get the joke.”
Our Gospel story invites us to acknowledge and name our climate grief and anxiety and to give thanks for the assurance that God’s love is walking with us, sustaining us, and mysteriously present with us, even though, like the two disciples, for a while we may know nothing about it. That’s the deep truth of Christian faith, a truth that I pray the whole world will come to see and know in this perilous time, for God’s abiding love alone can guide us forward and help us forge a new path, a new, more excellent way of walking on the Earth.
What happens next in today’s story? When the disciples fail to recognize Jesus, he patiently interprets all of Scripture to them until they begin to perceive and understand. Jesus is gentle and deeply respectful: he doesn’t force himself upon the two disciples as they approach the village, but instead he walks ahead, as if he were going on. He waits for the two disciples to invite him to stay with them, and only then does he enter their home. And it’s there, around the table, when he takes bread, blesses, and breaks it, that their eyes are opened, and they recognize who he is.
Our story not only conveys the deep truth of Christ’s abiding presence with us – it also provides two practices for experiencing the risen Christ: reading and reflecting on Scripture, and the blessing and breaking of bread.
When it comes to Scripture, the eyes of our faith are being opened to perceive the deep ecological wisdom in the Bible. Like many of us, I grew up believing that the Bible cared only about human beings and God, as if for some reason only one species, Homo sapiens, was worthy of God’s attention. It turns out that this interpretation of the Bible is far too small, for in fact, from the first words of Genesis, when God created all that is and pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:30) to the last pages of the Book of Revelation, which speak of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), the sweep of our salvation history embraces the whole creation. The New Testament tells us that Christ lived, died, and rose not only to heal the human soul and the human community, but also to heal the Earth community, to reconcile all things on earth and in heaven, “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it, the “supreme work”2 of Jesus Christ is to reconcile us to God, to one another, and to God’s whole creation.
This means that caring about the health of the Earth, and the fate of the Earth, isn’t some extra, new-fangled, add-on to Christian faith, one more “issue” to add to our many other concerns. No, protecting, healing, and loving the Earth is core to Christian faith, and once our eyes are opened to it, we find this message running throughout the Bible.
We meet the living Christ in the pages of Scripture, and we also meet the living Christ in the natural world. You know what that’s like – the joy and wonder that may come upon us when we lift our eyes to gaze at the Holyoke Range, when we look down and see the fern unfolding its tiny green fist, when we listen to the call of cardinals, and when we feel the wind or the rain on our face. The crucified and risen Christ is giving himself to us in and as the living world around us. As Martin Luther once said, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” The living Christ meets us again and again in the book of the Bible and, also, in the book of Nature.
And Christ meets us here as we share the bread and wine of Holy Communion. When the celebrant at the altar lifts up the bread and wine, all of Creation is lifted up. When the celebrant blesses the bread and wine, all of Creation is blessed. The bread that is placed in our hands is made of wheat, earth, and sun, of rainwater and clouds, of farmers’ hands and human labor. Christ dwells in the bread and wine, and God gives God’s self to us, once again, through the natural world. When we stretch out our hands to receive the bread, we take in what is natural and we take in Christ.3
You and I have practices to sustain us in the days ahead, practices that strengthen our resilience and resolve to take bold climate action and to join in healing God’s Creation. As with the two disciples, the risen Christ will meet us in our honest conversation and lament, in our reflection on Scripture, and in our breaking of the bread. When our eyes are opened, we, too, will understand that the risen Christ was with us all along. And then, as in today’s story, he will likely vanish from our sight. Why? Maybe because he has other places to go, other people to strengthen and inspire. Or maybe because his living presence is now fully within us, so that we can embody his love in fresh and creative ways.
The two disciples of our story have had a long, traumatic day and have walked many a mile, but now, with their hearts burning within them, they find the energy to leap up and travel the seven miles back to Jerusalem to bring their joyful news to their community. At the beginning of today’s story, hope is only a rumor. By the end, the disciples themselves embody hope: they will give their lives to the possibility that God’s love will be fully expressed in the world. Rather than quietly accepting a killing status quo, they will join God’s mission to reconcile and heal, and they will bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy.
On this Earth Sunday, we celebrate the risen Christ who is in our midst, calling us to be healers and justice-seekers. How is God calling you to step forward?
This sermon is also posted at Rev. Margaret’s website: https://revivingcreation.org/walking-our-way-to-climate-hope-earth-sunday/
1 Caroline Hickman et al, “Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey,” The Lancet, December 2021, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00278-3/fulltext#
2 Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword,” The Green Bible (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers (HarperOne), 2008, I-14.
3 This paragraph is adapted from Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (Forward Movement, 2012,2013), 35.
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