April 19, 2020
Delivered (pre-recorded) by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Washington National Cathedral, DC, for the live-streamed Earth Day Holy Eucharist
1 Peter 1:3-9
“Do not doubt but believe”: The promise of eco-resurrection
I am speaking to you from western Massachusetts. It is good to be with you. I hope that wherever you are sheltering in place in this difficult time, you have access to a corner of God’s Creation, whether it be a garden or a stretch of woods, a tree on a city sidewalk or a patch of blue sky outside your window. In times of anxiety and stress, many of us instinctively want to head outside to make contact with the natural world, for it is here that God so often brings us comfort and solace, here where we renew our relationship with the web of life that God entrusted to our care.
Our Easter readings, prayers, and hymns suggest that Christ’s death and resurrection are good news not only for human beings but also for the whole Creation – for river and mountain, whale and sparrow, forest and field. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, one of the first things we do is listen to an ancient chant:
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen!
Easter is good news for all the round earth.
This week people the world over will be marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Some of you may remember how, back on April 22, 1970, fully 10% of the American people – Republicans and Democrats alike, rich and poor, city-dwellers and rural folks, young students and old people like me – took to the streets, and to parks and auditoriums coast to coast, pushing for strong action to protect the health and integrity of the natural world. By the end of that year, we could celebrate the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were passed just two and three years later.
When Americans come together to do what needs to be done, we can do great things.
Fifty years on, during an excruciating time of global pandemic, human beings around the world are freshly aware of the truth conveyed in that first Earth Day and in every Earth Day since: truly, we belong to one connected family. We share a single planet. We drink from the same water. We breathe the same air. We face the same dangers. All of us depend for our lives and livelihood on what our prayer book calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.”
Today, on this Second Sunday of Easter, we hear a familiar story from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. Three days after the crucifixion, on the evening of the first Easter, the risen Jesus enters the locked room, appears to the disciples, and says “Peace be with you.” The disciple named Thomas isn’t there, and he’s unwilling to believe that Jesus is alive unless he sees and touches Jesus for himself.
When Jesus appears to the disciples a week later, Thomas is with them this time. Again, Jesus says: “Peace be with you,” and then he turns to Thomas, and, without another word, as if Jesus knows that Thomas will only understand through direct experience, he invites Thomas to touch his wounded hands and side. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side,” he tells Thomas. “Do not doubt but believe.” That’s when Thomas finds his faith and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”
Do not doubt but believe. Those are powerful words to hear just now. In a time of social distancing, we can’t reach out our hands to touch someone else’s wounds, but we do know in a visceral, direct, and – yes – hands-on way many things we didn’t know just a month or two ago.
Two months ago, who would have believed that a disturbed relationship with the natural world, including the loss of habitat and biodiversity, could create conditions for lethal new viruses and diseases like Covid-19 to spill over into human communities? Who would have believed that how we treat the natural world could so radically affect our wellbeing? Who would have believed that business as usual could so suddenly be disrupted? Who would have believed that, if we were sufficiently motivated, we could change our everyday behaviors so rapidly and completely?
Do not doubt but believe. Of course, some people did know these things before the coronavirus hit, but now all of us know them together. Now we know for sure how much science matters, how much we need access to the best science available – public health depends on it. And it’s the same with climate science: some of us have doubted that climate change is real, and urgent, and largely caused by human activity. And that’s not surprising, because some special interest groups have worked very hard and spent millions of dollars in a deliberate campaign of disinformation to keep the American public confused. The same folks who once spread doubt about the risk of smoking tobacco are throwing their weight behind some of the current efforts to make us doubt the reality of climate change.1 Some groups are even trying to spread doubt about the validity of science itself, doubt about the value of scientific research and scientific fact.
But the truth is that the scientific controversy is over. The science is settled. People sick with Covid-19 have a fever and the whole planet is running a fever, too. Climate scientists worldwide are telling us with increasing alarm that we have a very short window of time in which to address global warming adequately. Just last week a new study showed that unchecked climate change could collapse whole eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years. The natural world is at far greater risk from climate breakdown than was previously thought.Two months ago we might have shrugged off that report, telling ourselves: “Well, that can’t be true; things never change that fast; everything is bound to stay the same for the foreseeable future.”
Now we know better.
So when I hear Jesus say to Doubting Thomas, “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” I hear Jesus inviting Thomas – and inviting us – to face the truth of crucifixion. We might wish away the reality of the violence and the wounds. We might wish very ardently that none of this wounding of our dear planet was happening, that we weren’t seeing dying coral and melting icecaps, rising seas and growing numbers of refugees. Yet it is happening, and just as on Good Friday the disciples couldn’t pretend that Christ’s wounds on the cross weren’t real, so we, too, can’t pretend that the wounds to God’s Creation aren’t real.
But that’s not all. When Jesus says to Doubting Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” he is also saying: Face the truth of resurrection. Christ is risen.
And if Christ is alive, then there has been unleashed into our world a power that is greater than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy.
If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering, no anguish we can endure that Christ himself does not suffer with us.
If Christ is alive, then we are, every one of us, cherished to the core, and we can create a new kind of society that welcomes everyone and that dismantles the systems of unjust privilege and domination that have separated us from each other and from the Earth.
This, my friends, is the source of our spiritual and moral power. For the good news of Jesus Christ is that even in a time of coronavirus and climate crisis, right here in our grief and fear, we are met by a divine love that weeps with us and grieves with us and embraces us and empowers us, a love that will never let us go, a love that will never die.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says to his disciples, and then he breathes the Holy Spirit into them – the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation. He is sending them out to bear witness to the resurrection, to the wild, holy, and completely unexpected fact that through the grace and power of God, life – and not death – will have the last word.
Through the power of the Risen Christ, we, too, are sent out to be healers of the Earth, sent out to take our place in the great work of healing the wounds of Creation, sent out to restore the web of life upon which we, and all creatures, depend.
For as long as we have breath, Christ will be breathing his Spirit into us. We can be more than chaplains at the deathbed of a dying order; we can be midwives to the new and beautiful world that is longing to be born.
Let’s pause for a moment and take a good, deep breath; let’s take in the Holy Spirit that Jesus is breathing into us.
There is so much healing we can do, so much power to reconcile that God has given us, so much life that we can help to bring forth as we join God’s sacred mission to renew the Earth.
Do not doubt but believe.
1. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; see also Ross Gelbspan, The Heat is On; and Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2007 report on ExxonMobil.
NOTE: A video of the whole Earth Day Eucharist service at Washington National Cathedral may be viewed here. The sermon begins at 39:55.
The sermon alone may be viewed here.