Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Federated Church of Orleans, East Orleans, MA
1 John 3:17
“You are witnesses of these things”
Today we are deep into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, and I want to share a story told by an Episcopal bishop about leading worship one Easter morning. Bishop Mark Macdonald was preaching to a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation. When the time came to read the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, Bishop Macdonald stood up and began reading in Navajo: “It was early in the morning…” Almost before the words were out of his mouth, “the oldest person there, an elder who understood no English, said loudly (in Navajo), ‘Yes!’”
The bishop remarks that “it seemed a little early in the narrative for this much enthusiasm,” so he assumed he had made a mistake – maybe he had mispronounced the words in Navajo. So he tried again: “It was early in the morning…’” This time he heard an even louder and more enthusiastic Yes. After the service, the bishop went up to one of the lay leaders and asked if he had pronounced the words correctly. Oh, she said, looking surprised, of course. Well, asked the bishop, then why was the older woman so excited? Oh, he was told, “The early dawn is the most important part of the day to her. Father Sky and Mother Earth meet at that time and produce all that is necessary for life. It is the holiest time of the day. Jesus would pick that good time of day to be raised.”1
Bishop Macdonald realized that while the early dawn is certainly the best time for new life, he had never thought about the possibility that this “observation about the physical word could be theologically and spiritually revealing, that it suggested a communion between God, humanity, and creation that is fundamental to our… existence.” It took him a while to absorb this. He writes: “An elder with no formal schooling had repositioned the central narrative of my life firmly within the physical world and all its forces and interactions. It was,” he says, “an ecological reading of a story that, for me, had been trapped inside a flat virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.”
Today, on the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world. Like Bishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”2
I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of “spirituality” as completely ethereal. The God I grew up with had no body. Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body – both one’s own body and the “body” of the natural world. The natural world and its wild diversity of buzzing, blooming, finned, and feathered creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings. Since the time of the Reformation, Christianity – at least in the West – has had little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, is of any real interest to God.
So what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that has never been forgotten by the indigenous people of the land – to know that the Earth is holy. Its creatures are holy. The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God.
Our Gospel story this morning is full of meanings, but surely one of them is that the Risen Christ is alive in the body, in our bodies, in the body of the Earth. While the disciples were talking about how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36-37). But Jesus doesn’t come as a ghost. He doesn’t come as a memory, as an idea, or as something from “a flat, virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.” He comes as a living body, a body made of flesh and bone that can touch and be touched, a body that can feel hunger and thirst and that wants to know, “Hey, isn’t there anything to eat around here?” Scripture tells us that the Messiah is born, lives, suffers, dies, and rises as a body, and that says something about how much God cherishes the body and wants to meet us in and through the body – through our bodily senses of sight and sound, through taste and touch and smell, in this very breath. Scripture tells us that for forty days the disciples met the living Christ through his risen body. And then, when he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ body withdrew from the disciples’ sight, so that his living presence could fill all things and so that all of us can touch and see him, if our eyes are opened.
What this means is that when you and I go out into nature, when we let our minds grow quiet and we simply gaze at the white pine, the first blooms of forsythia, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything and not pushing anything away, we begin to perceive that a holy, living presence fills everything we see. Wherever we gaze, the Risen Christ is gazing back at us and his presence is flowing toward us. “Peace be with you,” he is saying to us through wind and tree, through cloud and stars. “Peace be with you. I am here in the needles of the pine tree beside you that flutter in the breeze, and in the bark overlaid with clumps of lichen, each one a tiny galaxy. I am here in the ocean waves that form and dissolve on the shore, in the sand under your bare feet, in the sea gull that is crying overhead. Peace be with you. I am here, and you are part of this with me, and you are witnesses of these things.”
This morning I brought with me an icon of the Risen Christ.3 The icon imagines Christ as a Native American figure whose body shines out from every habitat and every creature – from the sky above to the water below, from mountains, field and buffalo. The God who created all things also redeems all things and fills all things. Through the crucified and risen Christ, divine love has woven together the human and natural worlds into one inter-related whole.
When our inward sight is restored and our eyes are opened to behold Christ in all his redeeming work, the Earth comes alive and we perceive Christ in every sound we hear, in every handful of dirt that we hold and in every bird we see. We are witnesses of these things.
In our first reading this morning, Peter speaks about God’s power to heal and to bring forth new life, and he says, “To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15b). Our Gospel passage ends with the risen Christ speaking about God’s power to bring new life out of suffering and death, God’s power to reconcile and forgive and heal. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Today more than ever we need witnesses to the love and power of God and to the divine love that fills the whole Creation, for God’s Creation is in the process of being recklessly assaulted by an economic system that is based on limitless expansion and dependent on the relentless burning of fossil fuels. Countries around the world agreed in the Paris Climate Accord that we must limit the rise of the global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees. The national proposals of the Paris Accord help get us part of the way there, but only part of the way (3.3 C, or 6 F), so we must rein in dirty emissions even more boldly than that. If we stick to our present course and keep going with business as usual, global temperatures will skyrocket by the end of this century, raising temperatures an average of 4.2 degrees Celsius (or 7.6 Fahrenheit). Human beings simply can’t adapt to that level of heat. We would be living on a different planet.
Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat less meat, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. I was thrilled to see the solar array behind the church. That's the first time I've ever seen solar panels behind a nice white picket fence!
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us push for policies that support the development of clean renewable energy, since that is where our future lies, if we’re going to have one. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and advocate for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.
Here on Cape Cod you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians may see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage.
What motivates us to join the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on this planet? As followers of Jesus, we take action not only out of fear, although we do fear for the future of our children and our children’s children if we leave them a scorched and barren world beset by climate disruption. We take action not only because we’re angry, although we are angry, and refuse to allow political and corporate powers to dismantle the web of life for the sake of their own short-term profit and greed. We take action not only out of sorrow, although we do grieve for all the species we have already lost and will lose, grieve for the dying coral and vanishing bumblebees, grieve for the climate refugees, the vulnerable poor, and all the innocents who are already suffering and whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed.
Fear, anger, and sorrow – all these feelings may galvanize us to act. But stirring beneath them all is love, love for each other, love for the Earth entrusted to our care, love for the God whose mercies cannot be numbered. We were made for communion with God and each other and God’s Creation, and we put our trust in the power of God to work through us to heal and reconcile and save. I don’t know if in the end we will be successful, but I do know this: we intend to be living witnesses to the power of a living God until the day we die.
1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, edited by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008, pp. 150-151. Macdonald is the former bishop of Alaska, and now serves as the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.
2. Ibid, p. 151.
3. “Mystic Christ,” by Fr. John Giuliani, Bridge Building Images, Inc.