Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 22, 2011. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
|Acts 7:55-60||Psalm 31:1-5,15-16|
|1 Peter 2:2-10||John 14:1-14|
The Way, the Truth, and the Life
I would like to thank my long-time friend and colleague Martin Smith for inviting me to preach here this morning, and to thank your Environmental Committee, which, as far as I can tell — given what it has been up to in just the last few months: planting trees, hosting a film festival, organizing a nature walk — is an unusually dedicated and talented group.
I want to speak about reclaiming the sacredness of God’s creation, but right off the bat I have to admit that at first glance the phrase may sound absurdly naïve or sentimental. The sacredness of creation? As soon as I say these words, I imagine someone wincing and I hear the wry, even cynical voices of people who say dismissive things like — tree hugger, whacko New Age devotee, pagan. I think of Oscar Wilde, who observed: “Nature is a damp place over which large numbers of ducks fly, uncooked.” Or of someone else’s remark that “Animals may be our friends, but they won’t pick you up at the airport.”
Fair enough. I’m not going to go all gushy on you.
But actually, when it comes to the natural world, many of us don’t feel sentimental or cynical. We feel uneasy, even anxious. There are times when I wake up at night thinking about what the future will hold. We have already burned enough coal and gas and oil to raise the planet’s average temperature by more than one degree, and if we keep to our present course, business as usual, the earth will be an average of four or five degrees hotter before the century is out. Nine of the ten warmest years occurred in the last decade. 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year in 131 years of recordkeeping. Do you know how many countries endured unprecedented heat last year? Nineteen. 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. 1
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.” 2
In a situation that speaks so much of death, of fear and hopelessness, it is astonishing — maybe even shocking — to hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). For of course they are troubled! We fear for our children and our children’s children. We know only too well that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, keep carrying out our usual daily activities in our usual way, then within two, three, four generations we will bring an end to creation as we know it.
And yet Jesus tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” It’s a message that runs through Scripture — do not fear; be not afraid. What I like so much about this way of putting it — “do not let your hearts be troubled” — is that it reminds me that to some degree I have power over whether or not I am beset with fear. You and I have the power to guard our hearts, the power to exercise what we might call “spiritual warriorship,” so that rather than be mesmerized by the forces of death and swallowed up by the latest terrifying statistics, we can tune our awareness again and again to the love of God that is always being poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). As spiritual warriors, we don’t turn away from the problems we face; we turn toward them and we engage with them, while consciously breathing in God’s love.
Jesus was hardly in denial about the fact of evil, suffering, and death. In today’s Gospel passage, he knew full well that he was on the brink of being arrested, tortured, and killed. And yet he could say to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” How was he able to say this? Because he knew that he was rooted in the love of God. Because he knew that nothing could separate him — or us — from the love of God. Because he knew that we, too, have been drawn, as he was drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed.
That is the great promise of today’s Gospel passage: at the deepest level of our being we belong to God; we abide in God and God abides in us. As we read in the First Letter of John, “…All who abide in love, abide in God, and God in them” (1 John 4:16). And the love of God extends not only to us, not only to human beings — it extends to the whole created world and to its diversity of buzzing, blooming, finned, and feathered creatures. In Jesus, God took on flesh, and the incarnation tells us that God comes to us in and through our bodies and through the “body” of the earth. So maybe it’s no wonder that the risen Jesus came back for a time in a body. After he died and rose again, he didn’t just vanish into thin air, into some ethereal, disembodied realm of light. He came back first in the flesh, as if to say: look for me here, in the body of this world. Look for me in the sights, sounds, and smells, the tastes and touch of the world. Here is where you will find me, for I am everywhere present. The created world is good — so says Scripture all the way back to Genesis. What is holy and what is natural, what is divine and what is physical — these apparent opposites are embraced and interwoven in the incarnation of Christ, and all of it shines with God’s glory.
That is the vision that animates us as we rise up to protect God’s creation. We have touched the deep truth that we are God’s beloved; we have breathed in again the love and presence of the divine Mystery that dwells within us and around us, who shines out in the waves of the Potomac, in the breeze on our faces, in the touch of a child’s hand. Fired by that love, we are set free to love as generously and boldly as Jesus did, and to live through a time of turmoil with creativity and even joy.
“I am the way,” Jesus said to his friends. “I am the truth and the life.” And from his words and actions, from his passion, death, and resurrection, a movement sprang up – a movement of passionate men and women who were convinced of the way of generosity and kindness, committed to the truth of love, and dedicated to a life of praising and serving God, whatever the cost might be.
In a time when the planet’s living systems are in peril, now is the time to reclaim our God-given connection with the earth. Now is the time to renew our union with God and all God’s creation — which includes not just our human fellows but all living creatures and the larger eco-systems on which all of us depend. As a society we have to change course, for our present way of life is unsustainable. Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable. Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable. Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable. We are living beyond our ecological means.
If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with our fellow creatures, now would be the time. Now is the time, as theologian Sallie McFague would say, to recognize that the world is not a hotel, but our home. 3 When we visit a hotel, we may feel entitled to use copious amount of hot water, to throw towels on the floor, to use and discard everything in sight and then to head to the next hotel – in short, to exercise what she calls the “Kleenex perspective” of the world. But when we realize that in fact the earth is our home – that God created it and loves every inch of it and entrusts it to our care – then everything changes. We realize that we live here; we belong here; we can no longer tolerate a life-style that exhausts the planet’s resources and that treats land, sea, and sky alike as receptacles for waste.
What can we do to simplify our lives? I invite you to think of one way you can listen more deeply to the land and to learn from it. Maybe you want to start a compost pile, to plant a garden, or to check out a farmer’s market. If you have some money to invest, you might invest in socially responsible funds or in local, green businesses. You might invest in your local land trust, seeking ways to protect some of the few remaining wild areas and local farms that we still have. You might get an energy audit, or invite the neighbor you’ve never met to come over for a cup of tea. We need to build up our local communities, to live in ways that are closer to the earth, more about sharing than about consuming, more about self-restraint than about self-aggrandizement, more about generosity than about fearful survivalism, so that we can take care of each other when the hard times come. There is joy that comes in living like this — a joy that springs up simply from being true to the basic goodness that God has planted in us. And because individual actions are necessary but not sufficient to the challenge that confronts us, together we need to create the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen.
It is you for whom Christ came into the world, you for whom he died, you whom he now would fill with his presence and his Spirit. In a few moments we will share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost. We will gather at that holy table, as we always do, so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed — not only the bread and the wine, but also we ourselves, and the whole creation, every leaf of it and every speck of sand. Sharing the Eucharist helps us to perceive at last not only our own belovedness, our own blessedness in God, but also the fact that everyone is beloved, all beings are blessed. Everyone and everything is part of a sacred whole, and all living things are kin. In the strength of the blessed and broken bread, and of the blessed and poured-out wine, we dare to hope that human beings will respond with grateful hearts and come to treat the world not as an object to exploit, but as a gift to receive, as something perishable and precious. We dare to hope that we will become at last who we were made to be, a blessing on the earth.
The risen Christ is among us and beside us and within us.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
1. Facts in this paragraph are from research posted by Lester R. Brown’s Earth Policy Institute, www.earth-policy.org.
2. 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).
3. Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008, p. 53.