Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Acts 9:36-43Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 23John 10:22-30

The LORD is my shepherd

“The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.”
(Psalm 23:1-2)

Sometime this week the first balmy days of spring arrived.  Magnolia is now in bloom, Barn Swallows and Eastern Phoebes have returned, lilac is in leaf, and over in Hadley you can stand in front of Whole Foods and – if you’re up for it – suck deep into your lungs the aroma of cow manure.  Spring is with us in all its beauty, and this morning, as planned, we are celebrating Creation Sunday, the Sunday closest to Earth Day, which is tomorrow.  But good luck to preachers (like me) who planned to preach this morning about the natural environment, because all week our attention has been riveted not to our gardens nor to the well-being of planet Earth but rather to the bombings at the finish-line of Boston’s Marathon, and then to the suspense and drama over the ensuing days as the City of Boston was locked down and the manhunt intensified. 

What a week it has been.  We’ve been in shock.  We’ve wept over the death of innocents.  We’ve been forced to consider the softness of the human body, how vulnerable it is to being wounded and maimed.  We’ve seen how swiftly a day of accomplishment and joy can be transformed into a scene of unbearable carnage and loss.  We’ve watched a vital metropolis turn into what looked like a ghost town, its streets emptied of everything but police vehicles, and its people (quote-unquote) “sheltered in place.”  We’ve had a brief taste of the fear that millions of people the world over feel daily who are subject to violence from war, drones, or terrorist attack.  We’ve felt gratitude for the courage and selflessness of everyone who rushed to tend the wounded, to comfort the bereaved, to search out the perpetrators and to protect the city.  After five long days we exhaled with relief when the second suspect was caught, though our sense of triumph was tempered by remembering those who suffered injury and those who died.

Here on this Good Shepherd Sunday, I invite us to hold before God’s loving eyes all that we’ve witnessed and heard, and all that’s been stirred up within us.  I invite us to take a few moments together in silence to breathe in the love of God.  With every breath in, we receive the love of God; with every breath out, we let go into God.  As we breathe love like this, I invite us to bring to mind images of the week just past, and to let them be touched or blessed by the Good Shepherd, who knows us each by name.  We have witnessed trauma this week, and we’ve also witnessed acts of courage and kindness, so let’s give ourselves the gift of silence as we bring ourselves consciously into the presence of the One who abides with us, who sustains us, and who will never let us go. 

(Silence)

Strong and gentle Shepherd of our souls, we lift up to you everything that is in us – our fear and sense of helplessness; our confusion and bitter anger; our aching sorrow for the waste, the loss, the pain; our gratefulness for the goodness that dwells in so many people’s hearts; and our determination to end violence and to build a culture of peace.  Help us to resist quick judgments and the lust for revenge.  Give us bold and compassionate spirits, and fill us with the deep peace that comes from knowing: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).   Amen.

It is good to abide in the presence of Jesus the Good Shepherd, for especially in a turbulent or fearful time, we need that kind of grounding.  We need to attend to the inner voice of love that is sounding deep within our hearts, when so many of the outer voices around us are frightened or cynical or shrill.  As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me” (John 20:27).  When we hear that voice and sense that presence, we know that we’re not alone.  We know that we are sustained by a power greater than ourselves.  We know that we belong to a love that will never die, and that nothing and no one can destroy.  And when that love springs up again within us and around us, like grass pushing up through the asphalt, our spirits revive and we open ourselves to the possibility that the power of God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (c.f. Ephesians 3:20).

You who know me know by now that violence against the Earth is what has most captured my attention.  The violence that human beings take out against each other mirrors the violence that we take out against the Earth, and the Good Shepherd’s love impels us to become healers of violence in every way we can. 

So at the end of last summer, when a friend invited me to help organize a “Climate Revival” in downtown Boston, I immediately said yes.  To me the word “revival” conjures up images of an open tent, a crowd of people singing with fervor, and a breeze of hope blowing through the air.  I admit it – this is all fairly imaginary.  I’ve never been to a revival, much less helped to lead one.  But what really caught my attention was the idea of a “climate” revival.  What if we created an event that inspired Christians of every denomination to roll up their sleeves and set about doing some serious climate-healing?  What if we brought together top leaders of many branches of the faith and mobilized a religious movement to protect life on this planet?  God knows that we need a movement like that, for the Earth is under violent assault.  As Bill McKibben pointed out in a recent article,1“…the Arctic – from Greenland to its seas – essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen.  The frozen Arctic is like a large physical feature.  It’s as if you woke up one morning and your left arm was missing.”

I don’t want to incite panic, but only if we see and face the physical trauma that our planet is undergoing will we break out of our denial and inertia.  And only if we root and ground ourselves in the love of God will we break out of our helplessness and despair, which tell us that it is too late to change course, that efforts to protect life as we know it on this planet will be defeated, and that catastrophic climate change is inevitable.

I give thanks that a movement to strengthen environmental sustainability is arising around the country, a movement that demands an end to dependence on fossil fuel, an end to oil subsidies, an end to environmentally risky projects that jeopardize and pollute eco-systems. 

The Climate Revival2 is scheduled for next Saturday, and as you know, the Presiding Bishop is coming to preach, as is the national leader of the United Church of Christ, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bill McKibben have sent in video recordings.  It will be the region’s largest and most denominationally diverse gathering of Christian leaders on the issue of climate change.

But here’s the thing.  The violence that took place in Boston this past week may prevent us from holding this event, which is to be at Old South Church and Trinity Church on Copley Square, just steps from the finish line of the Marathon.  Will the police shut us down?  Someone told me right before this service that today’s Boston Globe reports that a memorial run will be held in Boston that day and that it will cover the last mile of the marathon – in which case, the Climate Revival might have to be postponed.  I don’t yet know.  But I hope that we’ll be able to hold it, for all who come will have an opportunity to mourn our losses, and, just as importantly, an opportunity to deepen our confidence in the power of the Risen Christ and to strengthen our resolve to become living witnesses to the power of Resurrection.  In one way or another, people will be gathering next Saturday to bless the place in Boston that has been so violently assaulted.

Even if you can’t join us, or even if the Revival is postponed, I hope you’ll enjoy today’s special coffee hour, where you can sign postcards advocating for clean energy, pick up some low carbon tips, and make a donation to plant trees.  If you like, you can support the Nature Conservancy’s initiative to Plant A Billion Trees,3 a dollar at a time, in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, which is one of the world’s largest and most endangered tropical forests.  Tropical forests are the lungs of the Earth, releasing oxygen and storing enormous amounts of CO2, so let’s make those lungs strong.  Or you can chip in to buy a new tree for Grace Church, which we hope to plant on Pentecost.  This afternoon at 3:00 o’clock in the Parish Hall we will show the movie “Gasland,” an award-winning film about fracking, and we’ll be serving free popcorn. 

In a few moments we will baptize a wonderful little girl, Gianna Mattrey.  As much as I’d like to, I can’t promise that Gianna – or any of us the rest of us – will always feel safe.  I can’t promise that her life will always feel comfortable.  I can’t promise that she won’t experience times of heartache, that she won’t face periods of difficulty, challenge, or loss.  But what I can promise is that she will be sustained every moment of her life by the mercy and tenderness of God.  What I can promise is that the Good Shepherd will give her life meaning, purpose, and joy.  What I can promise is that the Good Shepherd will call her by name, and that wherever she goes, she will be at home in God’s heart.

May the Good Shepherd extend His loving arms over Gianna, over us, over the City of Boston, and over the whole Creation. 

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Psalm 23:6)

1. “Is the Keystone XL Pipeline the “Stonewall” of the Climate Movement?,” by Bill McKibben, April 8, 2013 (This piece was first published on TomDispatch)

2. For information and updates, check Facebook or http://www.macucc.org/events/detail/1104

3. Learn more at plantabillion.org.

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