Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (Earth Sunday) April 24, 2022 Written and recorded by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ Acts 5:27-32 Psalm 150 Rev. 1:4-8 John 20:19-31

Earth Sunday and resurrection hope

Today is Earth Sunday, the Sunday after Earth Day, when people across the country expressed their determination to fight for a healthy and habitable planet.  Over the years I’ve celebrated quite a few Earth Sundays, as maybe you have, too, and I’ve noticed that Earth Sunday often lands, as it does today, on the Second Sunday of Easter.

What happens when we bring Earth Day into the light of Easter? The first thing to say is that our Easter liturgies are clear that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news not only for human beings but also for the whole of Creation – for rivers and mountains, forests and fields, hawks, whales, and bees. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, we start by lighting a fire in the darkness and by listening to someone chant these ancient words: 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! Too often our liturgies limit the good news of Christ to human beings, and we push to the margins all the other creatures and natural elements with whom we share this planet, as if Homo sapiens were the only species of any interest to God. But Easter and Earth Day give us a chance to remember the larger truth: according to Scripture, God loved the whole world into being, sustains all things through the Holy Spirit, and through Christ redeemed and reconciled all things in heaven and on earth “by making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:19).  What’s more, our Christian faith looks ahead to the renewal of all things (Matthew 19:28), to the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), to the day when humans live in peace with God, with each other, and with the whole of God’s creation.  Folks, the good news of God in Christ is not just for us – it’s for all the round Earth! That’s one reason I like associating Earth Day with Easter: we have a chance to highlight the deep ecological meaning of faith in Christ.  Cherishing and protecting the natural world is not just an “add-on,” a sideline hobby for a few Christians who call themselves “environmentalists.”  In fact, protecting the Earth that God entrusted to our care is central to being Christian.  It’s a faithful response to the very first task given to humans at the very beginning of Genesis – to “till and keep” the Earth (Gen. 2:15), to be stewards and caregivers. Prophets and sages throughout the Bible, culminating in Jesus himself, cajole us and urge us to participate with God in creating a beloved community in which people and the land live together in balance and harmony, in a shalom of justice, wholeness, and peace.  Mystics of every faith tradition tell us that human beings are not separate from – much less “above” – the rest of the created order but are siblings of wind and water, of porcupine and tree – all of us, every living being, every element of the natural world, created and cherished by the same almighty God. What strikes me this year, as we consider the familiar story from John’s Gospel that we always hear on the Second Sunday of Easter, is that it’s a tale of how ordinary people begin to grasp the meaning and power of resurrection. It’s a story not just about Jesus’ resurrection, but ours, as well. The story begins in a closed, tight place. The disciples are huddled inside a house with the doors locked, the text says, “for fear of the Jews.” The term “Jews” could more accurately be translated as “Judeans,” referring to a local group of religious leaders caught up in a power struggle in Jerusalem.  The point is that the disciples are frightened, and we can understand why – they’ve been through trauma; their beloved friend and leader has been brutally executed; they could well be hauled before the authorities as accomplices of Jesus; and they are wrestling with guilt and shame for abandoning or denying him. That very morning, Christ rose from the dead, and although it seems they’ve heard about it – the verses right before this story report that Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she’d seen the risen Lord – apparently the news hasn’t really reached them; it hasn’t transformed them; it hasn’t changed a thing. They are still frightened, huddled, and alone. The resurrection, if it’s real, might be good news for someone else but it hasn’t had much impact on them. I want to stop right here, for I think that’s where many of us find ourselves this year: closed down, holding back, locked up tight.  The brutal war unfolding in Ukraine, the appalling revelations of corruption and self-serving in the halls of power, the crushing weight of racism and economic inequity – all these and more can overwhelm us with the stubborn power of sin and death. News of the natural world may drive us even further into despair: relentless rises in global temperatures, driven largely by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels; last month’s collapse of a massive ice shelf as an extreme heat wave blasted Antarctica with some areas reaching temperatures 70º Fahrenheit above normal; dead coral at Great Barrier Reef; wildfires and drought out West; hurricanes down South; and a sweeping new report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announcing that it’s now or never if we’re going to limit global heating to 1.5º Celsius, the uppermost limit to keep Earth reasonably protected from catastrophic climate change.  What’s a person to do but duck their head, close the door, and turn on the TV, right?  It’s easy to slide into “doomerism” – into the hopeless conviction that it’s too late to turn this around, it’s not my responsibility, the future is set in stone and can’t be changed – in short, death will have the last word. Of course, succumbing to this temptation pleases fossil fuel companies, since our passivity allows them to go on merrily extracting, selling, and reaping billions from their products. But into the closed room of withdrawal and fear steps the risen Christ.  Christ isn’t stopped by locked doors or locked hearts. He comes and stands among us, breathing forgiveness and peace. “Peace be with you,” he says to the disciples – indeed, he says it three times in this one short passage.  “Peace be with you.”  Christ’s peace is timeless, and he is offering it to each one of us right now.  Can you breathe it in?  Right now, as we share this time together, can we let Jesus draw near and, with our next breath, can we breathe in his presence, breathe in his love and forgiveness? As we breathe out, can we extend that compassion to the world around?  Experiencing the resurrection is as intimate as breathing in and breathing out, as intimate as the subtle shift of a heart that has been closed now beginning to soften, as tender and powerful as a new sprig of grass pushing up through asphalt. Then, as Jesus breathes peace into his frightened, guilty, and now awe-struck disciples, he shows them his wounded hands and side. When Thomas refuses to believe unless he sees and touches the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and puts his hand in Jesus’ side, Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and touch the wounds. I wonder what the disciples see when they look at Jesus’ wounds.  Surely in those wounds they see the harsh reality of violent suffering, sin, and death, but I wonder if those wounds are now radiant – if they are now lit up with love, and if light is pouring from Jesus’ wounded hands and side. In gazing at his wounds, I wonder if the disciples see that all the wounds of their lives, all the wounds of the world, have been taken up into God. I wonder what it would be like if we could look at the wounds of creation like that.  I wonder if we could learn to see the wounded Earth as revealing not only the harsh reality of sin, suffering, and death, but also as lit up with God’s undying love. I wonder what it would be like if, in tending to the wounded body of creation, we knew that we were also ministering to the wounds of Christ – so that in every act of love for creation, in every choice we made, say, to eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet, to walk rather drive, or to push for state and federal policies that promote renewable energy and keep fossil fuels in the ground, we were honoring the presence of the wounded and yet risen Christ. For it is not only peace that Jesus gives his disciples. He gives them a commission.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21), he says, breathing into them the Holy Spirit, the same creative wind and energy that moved across the face of deep at the very beginning of creation.  Jesus not only loves and forgives us – he also summons us to share in the divine life of God that pours itself out in acts of justice and compassion. Like Jesus, we, too, have been sent here on a mission. We participate in the same holy work that he began. The early Christians were really clear about that. They shared Jesus’ passion to welcome and bring into being the love and justice of God.  Like him, they stood up to the empires and unjust powers of this world. The New Testament suggests that they spent as much time inside jail as outside! As we heard in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, when Peter and the apostles are asked why they refuse to cooperate with the police and local authorities, they answer, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). Today, Christians and people of many faiths are rising up to call for an end to new fossil fuel projects and a rapid, just transition to a sustainable future. Some of you listening to these words in Massachusetts have joined rallies to protest a new gas pipeline in Springfield, to stand against a compressor station in Weymouth, or to stop a proposed new power plant on the North Shore. Some of you have organized a team to block coal trains. Some of you are planting community gardens, pollinator gardens, and Good News Gardens. Some of you are supporting local land trusts to protect forests and farmland. Some of you are fighting to make clean energy accessible to low-income communities. Some of you have joined campaigns to push the four biggest banks who finance fossil fuels (Chase, CitiBank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America) to quit propping up the oil and gas industry. Some of you will join the Poor People’s Campaign on June 18th in a March on Washington. We are so done with huddling in fear! Whenever the crucified and risen Christ draws near and opens the closed doors of our minds and hearts, as he does today and every day, we hope to breathe in his love, to receive his forgiveness, to honor his wounds, and to find our place in the Spirit-filled, justice-seeking movement to protect the web of life that God entrusted to our care. Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen, indeed!  Alleluia! _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ On April 24, 2022, Rev. Margaret delivered this sermon in person at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of GreenFaith’s Sacred Season for Climate Justice.  A video of the sermon as recorded for the two Episcopal dioceses in MA and for Southern New England Conference, UCC, is posted on her YouTube channel and on the respective Vimeo or YouTube channels of those faith communities.    
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter 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 Acts 2:14a-22-32 Psalm 16 1 Peter 1:3-9 John 20:19-31

“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.   
“St. Francis, The Canticle of Creation,” by Nancy Earle, smic (https://www.windseeds.com/ )
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.
Freesia. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
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 yearsThe 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.
Bluebirds & finch. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
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.