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.
“Do not hold on to me…”
Rather, she was to inform the disciples that the resurrected Christ would soon be ascending to God.
In her sermon last week, Molly reminded us of Bishop Fisher’s words at our most recent diocesan convention. He reflected: “...[Mary] just wanted the old body back, and the gardener turned out to be the Risen Jesus. She embraces him but the Risen Jesus tells her he needs to keep on moving. But tell the disciples he is Risen. And she becomes the apostle to the apostles…We, too, want the old body back. 2019. Or 1955. But, the old body is gone and Resurrection to something unknown and a little scary is here. And Mary Magdalene goes with this new reality and gives a message to the apostles that changes the world.”*
Mary Magdalene could have remained stuck in her fear, grief, and uncertainty, continuing to yearn for and cling to the old body. Instead, she embraces this new reality, and takes Christ’s instruction to heart: ‘Do not hold on to me…’ She shares Christ’s message to the disciples; a message that turns this world upside down and right side up again, as our Presiding Bishop likes to say.
Which brings us to today’s gospel lesson. It is now evening on that very same day. Having received Mary Magdalene’s messages, the disciples are now gathered in a house, behind locked doors. John’s gospel states it was their fear that locked them in.
Fear of the news they’ve just received and its implications.
Fear of how leaders within the Judean community might respond.
Fear for their safety.
Fear of what was to come.
Fear of everything.
These disciples, who had dedicated their lives to helping Jesus’ share God’s dream for this world, have now locked themselves behind closed doors.
This is most certainly a temptation we have all faced at one juncture or another. The unknown can leave us feeling terrified and stuck. It is also a ripe environment for nostalgia. When we feel like things are falling apart and beyond our control, many of us long for the safety of the familiar, a yearning for the way things used to be. That same desire that initially left Mary longing to cling to the old body.
In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown unpacks the dangers of nostalgia. She writes,
“Across our research, nostalgia emerged as a double-edged sword, a tool for both connection and disconnection. It can be an imaginary refuge from a world we don’t understand and a dog whistle used to resist important growth in families, organizations, and the broader culture and to protect power, including white supremacy.
I wish things were the way they used to be in the good ol’ days.’
What’s not spoken:
When people knew their places.
When there was no accountability for the way my behaviors affect other people.
When we ignored other people’s pain if it caused us discomfort.
When my authority was absolute and never challenged.” **
Nostalgia may at first seem harmless on the surface. Yet it can be a mask for our desire for control, power, and an excuse for pursuing our own selfish desires above the needs of the wider community.
Like Mary, when she went to the tomb, we may want to cling to the old body. Like the disciples, locked in the house, we may want to remain in our fear; yearning for some false illusion of safety, ignoring the impermanent nature of a life of faith. Yet we know Mary embraces the new reality of the resurrection, and in today’s gospel, we see the disciples do the same.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the resurrected Christ appears in the locked house. The risen Christ offers the disciples a familiar greeting, and then shows them his hands and his side. They rejoice.
While Acts of the Apostles describes the Holy Spirit being shared with the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, John’s gospel describes it taking place at this moment in today’s lesson. Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. In doing so, Christ has empowered them to share the Good News of God’s love and dream for this world, through the forgiveness of sins. The hour had come for the disciples to abandon their fear and uncertainty, in order to embrace this new reality. While they may not have yet understood the full meaning of this new reality, the disciples chose to trust in the hope and promise of the resurrected Christ. They knew they must move forward in faith, whatever that may mean.
John’s gospel continues by telling us one of the disciples, Thomas the Twin, was not present when this all took place. When the disciples shared what had happened with him, Thomas explained he could not believe without seeing for himself.
The following week, the risen Christ appeared again at the house where the disciples were shut up together in the same house (though not locked up, so they've grown a little). Christ greeted them, and then instructed Thomas to touch his hands and side. This moves Thomas to believe.
The resurrected Christ then says something that was important for the disciples to hear, and even more important for us to hear. The risen Christ says,
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
While we sometimes like to offer judgemental commentary on Thomas’ kinesthetic need to see and touch to believe, I do not think that the point of this story is to judge Thomas’ learning style. Rather, I think the resurrected Christ was offering a message to everyone who would come after the disciples, meaning every generation after, including ours. Christ was blessing us for believing even though we did not bear witness to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the empty tomb, or encounter the resurrected Christ. We walk by faith, with each generation building upon the faith of those who have gone before us.
Friends, this is exactly what we are here to do today. In just a few minutes, one of our parish’s little ones, Simon Cox, will be baptized and welcomed into the household of God. In our tradition, we welcome infants and little ones to be baptized because the parents, sponsors, and local faith community commit to raising the child in faith. We promise to believe on their behalf, to support, encourage, and foster their faith. Then when they have grown up and become young adults, they can decide whether or not to choose this path for themselves in a confirmation liturgy.
Today Simon’s parents, sponsors, and our parish are committing to believe on his behalf. As a faith community, each and every time we baptize a little one or a young person, we are promising that we will be there for them as the body of Christ.
When little ones and youth are ready, they too will take on the mantle of faith along with the rest of the community, to support the next generation of the faithful.
…we join Mary Magdalene in stepping away from our uncertainty to embrace a new reality.
…we join the disciples in releasing our fears and nostalgia to receive the Holy Spirit as our guide.
…we join the generations of the faithful who have gone before us, believing even though we have not seen or known firsthand.
…we do all this as the body of Christ.
As we prepare to head back into the world today, I would encourage us to do some reflecting this week:
* The Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher, Diocesan Convention address, Diocese of Western Massachusetts, October 2022
The Christian scriptures actually give us four different stories of what happened on the third day. The resurrection story told in John’s gospel, which we’ve heard this morning, is perhaps the most interesting of the Easter stories in the four canonical gospels, full of curious and thought-provoking details. John’s story of the third day begins in the dark, with Mary coming to the tomb. John doesn’t tell us how Mary knew where the tomb was, though Luke reports that the women disciples had followed Joseph when he laid Jesus’ body to rest, nor does John tell us what Mary’s purpose was, though the other gospels indicate that she came with spices to anoint the body. It's worth taking a moment to imagine what Mary’s state of mind must have been, whatever her reason for coming to Jesus’ tomb. To do so, perhaps we should each remember, for a moment, about how we felt after some of the worst weeks of our lives. The joy of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, days before, must surely have been shadowed, for his close friends, by some of his gloomy predictions and parables, and by his repeated assertions that he was going to die. Mary and the others witnessed the hostility of the religious leaders, who held significant power in the Jerusalem community. What must the last supper have been like for them, hearing hid declaration that “this is my body, given for you”, and “this is my blood”? I assume that Mary was there. And then it unfolded as Jesus had said it would. He was arrested, tried, sentenced (with the apparent support of the very crowds who had welcomed him to the city), and executed in the brutal manner favored by the imperial power of the time. And Mary had stood by, watching. Imagine the depth of her despair, not to say her grief at the loss of one who was clearly beloved to her. Imagine, then, too, Mary’s dismay when she observed the stone moved from the mouth of the tomb, and the enclosure empty. Loss on top of loss. Startled, probably frightened, John tells us that Mary RAN to tell Simon Peter and John. Unlike the gospel accounts in which the rest of the disciples don’t believe the women’s initial report of the empty tomb, here Peter and John respond quickly to Mary’s witness, and they hurry with her back to the tomb. After looking into the tomb to verify Mary’s story, John tells us, simply, that the disciples returned to their home. He doesn’t tell us what they made of what they had seen or what they intended to do with it. I suspect that they needed to talk with one another and probably with the others, to puzzle over the mystery of the empty tomb. Mary was not ready to leave, however, and we don’t know whether the other disciples even suggested that she do so. She stood by, weeping, undoubtedly struggling. This week Heather had I had the privilege of hearing our colleague, Anna Woofenden of St. John’s, Northampton, preach a wonderful sermon on this passage. I want to share with you the way Anna describes the moment: “[Mary] weeps in grief, and if I venture a guess, she weeps because it’s just not how she thought it all should, or could, go….Worn out and exhausted, yet still getting up and showing up first thing in the morning at the tomb. She’s doing the next, right, faithful thing, even though the next right faithful thing was anointing the dead body of her messiah and friend. But then the body, the corpse, isn't even there to care for. The tomb is empty, the next faithful thing is not clear. She questions and weeps. But she’s still there.” (1) And then finally, the most surprising claim of all. Mary turns and sees a figure that she takes to be a gardener, though John tells us that it is, in fact, Jesus, himself. He speaks, asking who she is looking for, but she does not recognize his voice any more than she has known him by sight. This risen Christ is not quite the one she has known as Jesus of Nazareth, and besides, she saw Jesus die. Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away. When Jesus speaks once more and calls her by name, Mary knows. She finally understands. She believes. Just as it did when Jesus was crucified three days before, Mary’s world changes. John tells us that when she returned to the disciples, she told them: I have seen the Lord. Mary experienced the risen Christ because she showed up. Not knowing, not understanding, weighed down by grief and despair, uncertain as to what to do, she did, as Anna suggests, “the next faithful thing”. When what she was looking for wasn’t there, she stuck around. She looked, she noticed, she asked, and Christ called her name. At our Diocesan Convention last Fall, Bishop Fisher talked about Mary Magdalene in this very story, observing that maybe Mary is the saint we need right now. He said, in his address at Convention, that “She asked the gardener where he was because she just wanted the old body back, and the gardener turned out to be the Risen Jesus. She embraces him but the Risen Jesus tells her he needs to keep on moving. But tell the disciples he is Risen. And she becomes the apostle to the apostles.” The Bishop went on to suggest that “We, too, want the old body back. 2019. Or 1955. But, the old body is gone and Resurrection to something unknown and a little scary is here. And Mary Magdalene goes with this new reality and gives a message to the apostles that changes the world.”(2) There it is. The gospel story, as ever, is our story. Even as we sit here, proclaiming our “alleluias”, hearing beloved words and singing glorious hymns, I suspect that all of us carry in our hearts our own despairs, our own griefs, our own fears. We live in a world broken by war and violence, by division and distrust. We watch and fear for the destruction of the planet and know that entrenched hatreds continue to fuel oppression. And some of that is in us, much as we hate to face it. And so often, our impulse is to run home to avoid the scary thing we don’t understand. We long to have the old body back, to keep on with what feels familiar and comforting, even as we know that it no longer serves the needs of today. But the gospel story, beginning with the Mary at the tomb on Easter morning, is that the Love of God is stronger than any of the powers of death. The good news is that even the unexpected and unfamiliar and scary can be the first hints of new life breaking forth. We just need to do the next faithful thing, and we need to do it together. If we can stick around, and look, and ask, we will see that we are surrounded by life after death. By the drive of all beings toward wholeness, toward healing. By life renewing itself, through the power of God, the presence of the risen Christ. Our story of new life appearing around us is part of the larger story of new life discovered by Mary, John, Peter, and the other disciples. Just as something in them enabled them to meet the resurrected Christ in a gardener, and in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus and on the lakeshore, we meet the resurrected Christ in the Word and sacraments, in community, in one another, and in service to God’s world and God’s children. Trust in the God of whom Jesus spoke and who Jesus trusted compelled the disciples to continue Jesus’ ministries and to preach the Gospel to all lands. Trust in the God we know in Jesus Christ is our calling, as well. Our opportunity – our privilege – is that we can make a difference in this world despite the death, destruction and divisions we see around us and that burden our hearts. We can open our eyes and ears and our selves to the moments of resurrection that fairly shimmer around us. We can move forward boldly because the love of God in Christ transforms all things. Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
1. “Renewal of Vows sermon”, April 2023, Anna Woofenden 2. The Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher, Diocesan Convention address, Diocese of Western Massachusetts, October 2022
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