Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Lebanon, CT
“Lazarus, come out!” Christianity and the climate crisis
Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or sign that reveals Jesus as the giver of life, and that also precipitates his death. The raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court, which reaches the decision that Jesus is dangerous and must be killed. And so next week we come to Palm Sunday and begin the anguish and ultimately the joy of Holy Week.
Today’s story begins in a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has died; he has been dead for four days; and his sisters Mary and Martha are in distress, grieving with family and friends. The story begins right where we are: in a world that is full of death, full of grieving, full of loss. Mary and Martha know the wave of sorrow that can wash over us in the middle of the night. They know the anguish that can drain life of its zest and meaning.
This morning you and I may find our selves in the same place in which Mary and Martha begin this story, for there is plenty of death in the air these days. I’ll take just a moment to sketch what’s going on – and I’m sorry: it’s intense. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by the development of huge swaths of land and the destruction of habitat. Humans have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. We are on the brink or in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event and alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
And there’s more bad news: related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet is breaking records for heat, month after month. The New York Times reports that: “The five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.” The oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life and sea-level rise. This week a report on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef shows that climate change is pushing coral ecosystems toward “ecological collapse.” Lead author Andrew Baird told the New York Times, “We never thought we’d see this happen...We thought the Barrier Reef was too big to fail, but it’s not.”
Meanwhile, extreme storms are growing more severe. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding right now in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, after a devastating cyclone produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days. In a perfect illustration of the fundamental injustice of climate change, which hurts poorest communities first and hardest, nearly 3 million people have been affected across this region of Africa, which is one of the poorest in the world. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming.
So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes. When we hear bad news like this, it’s very easy to shut down. It is difficult to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. Most of us aren’t climate skeptics; most of us don’t deny outright the conclusions of science – but most of us do engage in a kind of everyday denial: climate change can make us feel anxious and helpless, so we change the subject and focus on more manageable things. When we feel powerless to imagine, much less create, a better future, we tend to carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. It’s as if we fall under a spell and make what former U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
That’s where our gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Martha and Mary are bereft. And then – something changes. Jesus arrives. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, a few verses later we come to the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse that is often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He wept. Here is no distant God, no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God who meets us in our suffering, a God who shares in our pain. When we feel anguish, it’s easy to look for someone to blame, to conclude that God isn’t real, that God is punishing us, or that God has abandoned us. But gazing at Jesus in this story reveals something different: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too.
It is a heart-opening, mind-opening revelation to discover that when we weep for the Earth, when we feel outrage and protest, God is grieving with us and through us. God is bearing what we cannot bear alone. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing, the first step in birthing new life, comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it, and when we do so in the presence of God. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. And when we grieve in God’s presence, we move out of numbness, out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine.
So, as the wise Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy puts it, “Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a sign of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.”1
So I want to ask you: Where do you feel the pain of the earth and its creatures? Where do you hear the groaning of God’s creation?
And I will add this, too: the unjust powers of this world don’t want us to grieve or protest. They don’t want us to feel outrage and sorrow when we face the deathly patterns that are part of this society: the racism and militarism, the abuse of the helpless, the poisoning of air and water, the relentless assault on the web of life. The powers-that-be would much prefer that we stay numb – zombies who are too busy or bored or distracted, too defended to feel the pain that allows something new to be imagined, something new to be born. “Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life.
In the vulnerability of his open heart, Jesus opens to a power greater than himself. “Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the throng of people must be thinking just then? Probably something along the lines of, “Hey – is he nuts?” But reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope, some folks move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb.
And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, there comes a voice. “Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.” It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses us by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I’ve heard it, too. Deep inside us is a presence, a voice, a Someone who calls us to quit hiding in a deathly place and to step out into fullness of life. We can go for a while, maybe a long while, not engaging with reality, not engaging with the climate crisis, and just laying low, hiding out, ducking from everything that seems too hard to face, too hard to bear. The powers-that-be want to keep it that way. They murmur, “That’s OK. Get comfy in that little tomb. Make peace with it. Decorate it. Stay small.”
But then comes that insistent, disturbing voice, calling us by name. “Phil,” it says. “Come out. Carla, come out. Ted, come out. Wolfgang, come out. Will, come out. Margaret, come out.”
“I love you,” God says to us. “I want you to be fully alive, not just partially alive, not just going through the motions. I want you to grow up into your full stature in Christ. I loved you into being, I sent you into the world to fall in love, and I call you now to serve love without holding back. So come out of your hiding place. Come out of your helplessness. Come out of your fearfulness, and join the struggle to save life on this sweet Earth. The resurrection life that I give you doesn’t start beyond the grave. It starts right now. I didn’t create you to live in a tomb.”
When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption. But I also see person after person hearing – and answering – a deep call to step out and to engage in the struggle to protect life.
On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, and if we can afford it, buy an electric car. Maybe we can buy “green” electricity that comes from sun and wind. We can put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang up our laundry on a clothesline, buy carbon offsets if we have to fly, eat less red meat or no meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on.
But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are building among people of faith and good will who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration and human rights – for all these issues connect. Many people of faith are excited about the Green New Deal, which is the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. Both GreenFaith and Interfaith Power & Light have statements on their Websites that we can sign, to show that people of faith support the goals and values of the Green New Deal.
Will we be “successful”? Will we avert runaway climate change? I don’t know. But I do know that every choice matters. Every degree of temperature rise matters. I’m told that: “Even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.”
The Church was made for a time like this. God is calling us out of the tomb of inertia and despair and into the whole-hearted, joyful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care.
Jesus is calling: “Lazarus, come out!”
What will you do as you answer that call?
- Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1991), 187.