Scripture: LUKE 24:36B-48
You who know me know there are innumerable places on this earth that fill me with awe. The Scottish island of Iona. The Swiss Alps. The rocky crags and sandy beaches of the coast of Maine. The mountains of Vermont, which, as the writer Frederick Buechner once said, only let you see as far as they want you to see. The trails at the South Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. The Grand Canyon.
As much as I love all these places, though, something has struck me of late: beautiful and awe-some and inspiring as they all are, I think of each of these places as an “it,” and really never as “you.” These places have always been things, outside of me, that I see but that always retain a kind of distance from me. They are places I take in rather than beings with whom I have an intimate connection.
Some of you, I know, will see right through my waywardness and superficiality. You may well have a far richer relationship with the vibrancy and energy of the natural world. I suspect, though, that I’m not alone in this noticeably more pinched sense of the world around us. And the reason I think I’m not alone in this narrower view is that, in many quarters, the earth seems to be viewed primarily for its effectiveness, for what philosophers call its utility. The culture in which we live tends to measure the worth of anything by assessing what it does for us. We value a thing if it offers us something worthwhile, if it’s useful. We value the earth when it provides heating oil or gas for our vehicles or copious amounts of tomatoes and grapes and beef and chicken. We want the earth to serve us, in a sense, to make our lives easier. It’s true for many of us as individuals, and so often it’s true for the corporations that may focus zealously on extracting its “resources” and maximizing profit. A psalm says “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (24:1). Too often, though, not for us. The earth, for us, can easily be reduced to a lifeless “it,” devoid of any intrinsic worth, valuable only for its usefulness.
The season of Easter is the giver of innumerable blessings. It’s a testament to hope. It’s a ray of light in what can sometimes be a rather bleak world. And it is an eloquent witness to God’s power over even the awfulness of death. Among the most radiant of Easter’s gifts, though, is something we may not pay sufficient attention to: its affirmation of the beauty and wonder of this physical earth and of the strange and wondrous and somewhat miraculous bodies that we share.
Look at today’s story from Luke’s gospel. When the first disciples anxiously wonder what will become of them in the wake of Jesus’ death, the oddest thing happens. As they stew and fret and probably despair, what should happen, but Jesus comes back and “[stands] among them” (24:36) and blesses them with peace. Since this is totally unlike anything they have ever experienced, we might safely assume that they are at least moderately freaked out when the dead Jesus is suddenly right there with them. Sensing how completely disorienting this must be for the disciples, Jesus doesn’t perform some miracle or deliver a dramatic speech to them. This resurrected Jesus does two incredibly simple things: he shows them his hands and his feet—as if to say ‘it’s OK—look at me, touch me, see that it’s really I’—and then this resurrected Messiah asks if they have anything to eat. They give him a piece of broiled fish, and he eats it. ‘There,’ he might well have said to them. ‘In case you had any doubt, I’m flesh and blood, and I’m hungry. And my body is here with your bodies because this “mortal flesh” matters. It’s vitally important. It’s a mind-blowing gift of the Most High God. Bodily, physical life is holy.’
One of the wrenching things about this pandemic in which you and I still find ourselves is that we’re not able to share space with other bodies, other people. When Jesus returns to earth after dying, among other things it’s to say at least this: your life matters; your skin and bones, your hungers, your desires, your physical connections—they matter. Earthly life isn’t just some unfortunate trolley stop on the way to the real destination. These days and nights and beaches and mountains and gardens and forests and intimacies and feelings—it’s all an incredibly magnificent mecca of its own, a place of unexcelled beauty and richness and radiance. By returning with hands and feet and famished as he is, Jesus is asserting an unabashed truth: you and I have these few brief moments on earth, and they are luminous, and they spring to life, and they are richly intertwined with every other body and thing on this earth, and indeed in the universe. So don’t you dare fritter it away. And don’t you dare assume that it’s all about you. The very marvel of life is that you and I have the unsurpassed privilege of sharing it with others. Yes, God holds us close after death, a truth Easter affirms with vivid and reassuring imagery. But Jesus’ bodily return reminds us, as well, that the richness of any afterlife is a magnificent continuation of the magic we know now. When Jesus comes back to earthly life, it’s as if he’s saying, ‘Treasure what you have here. And never forget that you and your precious bodies are all in this together.’
Jesus could have come back to life in some faraway impressive place, or in some seat of earthly power, or with some incredibly show of bravado. But no, he comes back to life in this frankly somewhat backwater place, and not with political and corporate royalty, but with the very friends with whom he has spent his life. Jesus isn’t out to impress the hordes and multitudes. He comes back to those he has loved. Relationship, to Jesus, is crucial. Connection is vital to Jesus’ understanding of what it means to be a child of God.
And what we may not be so attuned to is that Jesus has a profound relationship not just with the people with whom he has lived, but also with the earth and its fullness. The stories of Jesus are so often about seeds and sowers, harvests and barns, wine and water. He uses mud to heal a blind person’s eyes. He plucks wheat on the sabbath. He teaches on a mountain. He walks on the lake and stills a storm. Jesus and the earth are wrapped up intimately together. And he treasures it all.
So as we come to Earth Day this week, this is the Jesus who is at the center of our faith, a Jesus who adores every tree and field, every lake and mountain, every morsel of bread and wine and fish that he eats. My guess is that none of this is, for Jesus, is a lifeless “thing.” When Jesus sees a blade of grass or a storm-tossed lake or a craggy mountain, he sees, not an “it,” but a “you.” The whole earth is a living, breathing partner and friend for Jesus, and he treasures it as such.
Some of you, I know, get this. Bluebirds and forsythia and sugar maples are your friends. Others of us, though—we have a way to go. A way to go to stop seeing the earth as our tool, our plaything, our device to do with as we please. We have a way to go to see the earth, and the universe, as a vital “you,” a living, breathing partner in life. When we use and dispose of plastics with impunity; when we prolifically extract from the earth fossil fuels that soil our atmosphere; when we thoughtlessly dump poisons into the ground, it’s likely that we have neglected to see the earth as a “you,” and we have failed to live up to Jesus’ Easter hope of a world that is treasured not for what it can do for us, but simply for what it is—a precious creation of God’s, a creation that is teaching us and opening up previously undreamt-of riches. As the ancient Celts used to say, there are two books of revelation: scripture, and “the big book of creation.” If we shelve that second book, the costs may be catastrophic.
Earth Day calls us, we might say, to recollect the holiness of all that is, to see the revelation being unfolded in nature, and to remember that the earth is a “you” who invites us into a deep relationship. It reminds us that riches abound under every rock, in each leaf, in every stream, in each cloud—all of it a “you” who longs to be in relationship with us.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist, a scientist who writes for professional journals. She is also a keen appreciator of the natural world around her. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, she says that one day, as she was picking pole beans from her garden, something came to her in a way that it hadn’t before. “Maybe it was the smell of ripe tomatoes, or the oriole singing, or that certain slant of light on a yellow afternoon and the beans hanging thick around me. It just came to me in a wash of happiness that made me laugh out loud . . .. I knew it with a certainty as warm and clear as the September sunshine. [Not only do we love the land, but t]he land loves us back. She loves us with beans and tomatoes, with roasting ears and blackberries and birdsongs. By a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons. She provides for us and teaches us to provide for ourselves. That’s what good mothers do.
“. . . It reminded me of my little girls’ answer to ‘How much do I love you?’ ‘Thiiiiiiiis much,’ with arms stretched wide, they replied. This is really why I made my daughters learn to garden—so they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.”
Kimmerer once asked the students in a graduate writing workshop what would happen if we could sense that the earth loved us. One of the students replied, “You wouldn’t harm what gives you love.”
“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”
Kimmerer’s daughter Linden sometimes phones her while both of them are in the garden, planting and weeding. Kimmerer loves these conversations. “We water and weed and harvest, visiting happily as we did when she was a girl . . .. Linden is immensely busy, and so I ask her why she gardens, given how much time it takes.
“She does it for the food and the satisfaction of hard work yielding something so prolific, she says. And it makes her feel at home in a place, to have her hands in the earth. I ask her, ‘Do you love your garden?’ even though I already know the answer. But then I ask, tentatively, ‘Do you feel that your garden loves you back?’ She’s quiet for a minute; she’s never glib about such things. ‘I’m certain of it,’ she says. ‘My garden takes care of me like my own mama.’ I can die happy” (pp. 122-125).
If we’re to leave behind our abuse of the earth, it’s going to take a realization something like this for us to change our ways. Spiritual writer Christine Valters Paintner calls the earth “our original monastery.” The poet William Stafford says, “This earth we are riding keeps trying to tell us something with its continuous scripture of leaves” (“Reading the Big Weather”). God’s life is incredibly richly manifest in the fineness of this earth that shimmers with grace. Much as we love the earth, it’s also to be celebrated that the earth loves us back with a fierce and nurturing love. May we revel in gratitude for God’s magnificent gift of bodies and earth. And may we never use this earth as our plaything or tool. Instead, may we hold the earth with gentle hands and tender hearts, just as, by grace, she blesses us with nourishing care and unending love.