First meditation for Good Friday, April 22, 2011. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Boston, MA
|Isaiah 52:13-53:12||John 18:1-19:42|
We are keeping company today with Jesus as he moves through his betrayal, arrest, and trial, and as he gives his life on the cross. I want to thank the Cathedral Scholars for chanting the Gospel for us with such clarity and fervor. The passion story may be deeply familiar to us, but this afternoon we can’t help but hear it with fresh ears. No doubt you know that today Good Friday coincides with Earth Day. This is the first, last, and only time that these days will overlap in our lifetimes — unless, of course, we plan to be around 84 years from now, in 2095, which is the next time it will happen. Of course we can dismiss today’s overlap of dates as nothing more than coincidence. But if it is just a coincidence, then I rejoice in the God who provides such coincidences. For when we place Earth Day and Good Friday side by side, or, to put it another way, when we take Earth Day and our concern for the ongoing integrity and vitality of life on earth, and bring it to the cross of Christ, we receive power not only to face the precarious state of our ailing planet, but also “to comprehend … the breadth and length and height and depth” [bbllink]Ephesians 3:18[/bbllink] of the redeeming love of God.
It is often in nature that I perceive the divine and come face to face with the glory of God, so in recent years the destruction of our life-giving and God-given eco-systems has struck me more and more as a crucial dimension of Jesus’ crucifixion. The meaning of Good Friday has opened up for me: I see the earth itself being nailed to the cross.
Back on that first Earth Day in 1970, some twenty million Americans — that’s one out of every ten of us — rose up to proclaim their love for the natural world. They took part in rallies, protests, and teach-ins, and demanded that our government take action to restore the environment. And it worked. Soon afterward, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, strengthened the Clean Air Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency.
But forty years later, the troubled relationship between human beings and the rest of creation is starker than ever. A quick scan of the past year makes it clear how much we need a national and international movement to protect God’s good earth. A year ago this week we watched, aghast, as the BP oilrig exploded, killing eleven rig workers and spilling five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the largest accidental oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. This week we watch, aghast, the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, where radioactive particles have been released into the sea and air, and where workers are locked in a desperate struggle to prevent total meltdown.
Meanwhile, “since the Industrial Revolution, emissions from human activities of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have driven the earth’s climate system dangerously outside of its normal range.” 1 Of course there have always been natural cycles of warming and cooling, but for the first time in our planet’s history the cycle is now being driven by human activity. Heat-trapping gases released in the burning of fossil fuels are forcing the earth’s temperature to rise, and the earth’s temperature is not only rising, it is rising increasingly fast. Nine of the ten warmest years occurred in the last decade. 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year in 131 years of recordkeeping. Last year 19 countries endured unprecedented heat. Temperatures in Burma reached 117 degrees Fahrenheit, setting a record for Southeast Asia, while the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan hit 128.3 degrees Fahrenheit — a record not only for the country but for all of Asia, and the fourth hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere. 2010 brought us a heat wave in Russia, fires in Israel, flooding in Pakistan and Australia, landslides in China, record snowfall across the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and 12 Atlantic Ocean hurricanes — the kind of extreme weather events that climate scientists consider characteristic of a hotter climate. “Unless global temperatures are stabilized, higher sea levels from melting ice sheets and mountain glaciers,” combined with the expansion of warmer ocean water, will displace “millions of people as low-lying coastlands and islands are inundated.” 2 Heat waves and droughts will decimate harvests, and shrinking mountain glaciers will imperil the water supply of hundreds of millions of people.
Climate change epitomizes our assault on the natural world. Scientists tell us that modern industrial society, with its sudden expansion of our capacity to extract and consume the planet’s abundance for the sake of short-term profit, is simply not sustainable. For the past 250 or 300 years, human beings have been extracting goods faster than they can be replenished, and dumping waste faster than the earth can absorb it. Those who are rich live in a luxury once reserved for kings, while the billions who are impoverished struggle for clean water and a mouthful of food. Species are going extinct at a rate unprecedented since the death of the dinosaurs. 3 And the global climate with its delicate balance of gases turns out to be more fragile then we ever imagined.
How serious is the threat to God’s creation? Here is what one mainstream environmental lawyer, Gus Speth, has to say: “…all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and [organisms] and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But, of course, human activities are not holding at current levels — they are accelerating, dramatically.” 4 Back in 1951, when I was born, there were 3 billion people on the planet; today there are close to seven billion.
Are you still with me? Have you tuned out yet? It is no easier to listen to even a quick sketch of the damage going on around us than to it is to face the agony of Jesus on the cross. It is painful and scary to acknowledge this devastation, this crucifixion, and if I were speaking at a climate rally, I would probably leap right now to saying what we can do about it and what actions we must take. God knows that there is a lot that we must do, and do fast. But holy wisdom tells us that first we must stop on Good Friday and reflect deeply on how we respond. What do we feel in the face of the crucifixion of this beautiful world that God entrusted to our care? Where do we feel the ache of what has already been lost, and what we are likely to lose? We cannot rush ahead to Easter if we want truly to understand where we now find ourselves, if we want to change course, and if we want to draw upon the self-giving love of God who pours out his life for us on the cross. If we don’t take time to pray through our emotional response, we may do one of two unhelpful things: either become paralyzed with anxiety and do nothing, or go rushing off to do something, anything, not because the action is particularly effective, but simply because we want to stay one step ahead of our feelings. When we don’t stop to feel our love and grief, then our actions are likely to be motivated only by anxiety, worry, and fear.
If we feel the love we will also feel the grief. But, oh, there are so many reasons to avoid our grief! For starters, who wants to feel pain? Not I. What’s more, we may not want to look morbid, or we may fear bringing other people down. Maybe we’re afraid of being considered weak or emotional or sentimental. Maybe we’re afraid that once we start feeling the grief, we will succumb to despair.
I remember going to a weekend climate conference on Thomson Island in the Boston Harbor about ten years ago, and listening to a cascade of facts about thinning polar ice caps, melting glaciers, and the projected rise of the average worldwide temperature in one hundred years. I took copious notes, trying valiantly to absorb the information and not to go numb. But by Saturday afternoon, as I listened to a presentation by a doctor from Harvard Medical School, I was feeling overwhelmed. Before bed I went outside and stood alone under the stars, trying to assimilate what I had heard. At breakfast the next morning I looked for the doctor, and carried my tray to his table. I told him how stunned I was by what he had told us.
“How do you bear it?” I asked him. “What do you do with your feelings?”
“I don’t get into my feelings,” he told me. “I focus on what I can do.”
I considered that comment as I ate my cereal. On one level, it made sense. In the midst of battle, we need to act. We need levelheaded leaders who can say, This is what we must do. Let’s go. When labor organizer Joe Hill was dying, he reportedly said to his followers, “Don’t mourn. Organize.” Maybe it’s a guy thing, too — who knows?
Yet for the long haul we also need to sort out what we feel. Is not grief a way of expressing our love? Is not anger a natural response to injustice? Is not allowing ourselves to express our guilt and regret, our sadness and rage, a way of drawing close to the God whom we meet at the cross? It is in kneeling at the cross that we discover how close God is to us in our terror and vulnerability and sense of loss. When we look at Jesus dying an agonizing death, we look squarely at everything that frightens us, and does us harm. We face our fear, our sadness, and our guilt. And we see that all of it — all of it — has been taken up by Jesus, that all of it has been embraced by God. There is nowhere we can go, nothing that we can experience, that God in Christ does not share with us. Even our sin, even our willfulness and greed, our impatience and envy, our laziness and despair – all of that, and more, is met on the cross by the outpouring love of God.
So I invite you to let yourself kneel in your mind’s eye at the foot of the cross and to notice the love you feel for the earth, and where you most feel its pain. Is it the mountains of Appalachia, whose tops are being blown off so that coal companies can extract the coal that generates most of the electricity in this country, perhaps in this very cathedral? Is it the millions of acres of pine trees that have been killed from New Mexico to British Columbia by the mountain pine beetles that no longer die off in winter because the winters are no longer sufficiently cold? Is it the diminishing songbird population, the dying coral reef or alpine meadow, the polar bear on the iceberg or the elephant in the forest? Is it the refugees on the move in sub-Saharan Africa because Lake Chad has dried up, or the islanders forced to leave their homes in the Pacific Ocean because the sea is rising? Is it the poor in this country who struggle to pay high heating bills and who need help to weatherize their houses, if they have one at all? Is it something more modest and closer to home, maybe a particular field once full of meadowlarks and clover in which you wandered as a child but which has since been “developed” into a mall? Or a sweet little city park you once knew that has fallen prey to drug dealers and neglect? Where do you most feel the pain of the earth? Where do you hear the groaning of God’s creation? What do you need to bring to the cross of Christ, where Christ takes up what we cannot bear ourselves, and whose every word to us is love?
1. Facts in this paragraph are from research posted by Lester R. Brown’s Earth Policy Institute.
3. For two recent articles on mass extinction, visit “Multitude of Species Face Climate Threat” and “Saving Endangered Species as the Climate Changes”
4. James Gustave Speth, The Bridge on the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008, p. x (Preface).