Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Earth Sunday: “You are witnesses of these things”
Friends, what a blessing to be with you! We have some firsts going on this morning. For starters, this is the first time I’ve offered the same sermon to folks in both the Diocese of Massachusetts and the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. To those of you I haven’t yet met, my name is Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, and although my title in each diocese is different, my role is the same – to help us work together to heal and protect God’s creation, to defend the precious web of life that God entrusted to our care.
Today we’re celebrating Earth Sunday, the Sunday before Earth Day, on April 22, when people around the country re-commit themselves to restoring the planet that we call home. So, here’s another first: This is the first Earth Sunday since the bishops of our two dioceses declared a climate emergency and issued a call that we reach deep into our faith and rise up to take action. As I see it, our two dioceses are poised to do great things together, to bear witness in fresh ways to the redeeming love and power of Christ.
I’ll say more about that in a moment, but first I want to share an Easter story.1 It’s told by Mark Macdonald, formerly the Bishop of Alaska and now the National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada. Bishop Macdonald was leading worship on Easter Sunday for a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation, which is in the American Southwest. 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 thought 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 the lay pastor and asked her if he had pronounced the words correctly. Oh, she said with surprise, of course he had. Well, asked the bishop, then why did the older woman get so excited? The pastor explained, “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.”2
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 Earth Sunday, the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world. Like Archbishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”3
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 our own body and the “body” of the natural world. The natural world and its wild diversity of creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings. Since the time of the Reformation, most of 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, were of any real interest to God. So, what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that was never 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 24:36-378). 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. That must say 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 now 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 simply gaze at the maple tree, the snowdrops, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything or 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.”
“You are witnesses of these things.” We witness Christ when we sense his living presence in the natural world and our deep reverence for Earth is restored. Our hearts are opened and so, too, are the eyes of our faith as (in the words of today’s Collect) we “behold [Christ] in all his redeeming work.” But that’s not all. A witness is not just a bystander or a spectator, a neutral observer who watches from the sidelines. Scripture tells us that bearing witness to Christ means being an active participant, someone who testifies, who speaks out, who even risks everything4 to convey the good news that God in Christ is with us in our suffering and our joy, in our ardent longing for life, and in all our efforts to create a more just, healthy and peaceful planet.
In a time of climate emergency, when ice caps and ice sheets are rapidly melting, extreme storms, droughts, and wildfires are becoming more common, and part of the Gulf Stream seems to be weakening, leading to the possibility of what one scientist calls “monstrous change” that would affect not only the Atlantic Ocean but life far and wide, we are summoned as never before to bear witness to our faith in a God who calls us to live in harmony with God and God’s creation.
If you haven’t yet done so, I hope you will read the bishops’ declaration of climate emergency – as the bishops suggest – “thoroughly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.” The text is posted on both of our dioceses’ Websites. It gives us four areas in which we can focus our efforts: we can pray, individually and together, rooting ourselves in the love of God. We can learn, coming to understand, for instance, how tackling the climate crisis connects with tackling poverty, economic inequity, and racism. We can act, finding ways, for instance, to radically reduce our carbon footprint, to plant and share food through Good News Gardens, and to turn our churches into “resilience hubs” that support vulnerable populations during a climate disaster. And we can advocate, pushing for the urgently needed changes in public policy that will propel a swift and just transition to clean, renewable energy. There is so much we can do! Next month, along with Creation Care Justice Network, I will host a four-week series of webinars to explore each of these areas – pray, learn, act, and advocate – so that members of our two dioceses can connect with each other and talk about how we can move forward together in addressing the climate crisis.
I hope you’ll join us. For this is a very good time to bear witness to our faith. Thanks to the tireless advocacy of climate activists in Massachusetts – including some of you – Governor Baker just signed a good, strong climate bill, and momentum is building for even more ambitious action. Momentum is also building at the national level, as the Biden Administration convenes a Leaders Summit on Climate and looks ahead to the U.N.’s international climate talks this fall.
What part will we followers of Jesus play in leaving a habitable world to future generations? On this Earth Sunday, please join me in renewing our resolve to bear witness to the God of love “who makes all things new (Isaiah 43:18-19; Isaiah 65:17; Rev. 21:5) and who came among us to bring us life, and life abundant (John 10:10).”
1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, ed. by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008), 150-157.
2. Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” 151.
3. Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” 151.
4. The Greek word for “witness” is etymologically related to the word for “martyr.”
Please note: A video of this sermon is available.