Scripture - John 20:19-31
Some of the most memorable moments and stages of my life have happened in settings of remarkable natural beauty. When I saw the Grand Canyon for the first and only time, some twenty-five years ago, tears sprang to my eyes. No photograph could prepare me for the sheer magnificence of that place. Every summer, Mary and I travel to Maine, where we delight in spending time on the coast, walking the beach, reveling in the breeze and the smell and the blue sky. We spent the first years of our married life in Vermont, where the green hills, said the author Frederick Buechner, only let you see as far as they want you to see. On my sabbatical trip several years ago, Mary and I were filled by time on the Scottish island of Iona, and reveled in the splendor of the Alps. And now we have the blessing of living in Northeast Ohio, where the hilly lands and meandering rivers and tree-lined trails gift us with astounding beauty.
Often, in the day-to-day routine of life, I forget the astonishing magic of this extraordinary world. Maybe like me, you sometimes take it for granted, and simply glide past the exhilarating marvels of this stunning planet on which, for a short time, we are privileged to live.
And then along comes Earth Day, which we celebrated this past Monday. And, as the poet Galway Kinnell once wrote, in a line I quoted several months ago in another context, “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness” (“Saint Francis and the Sow”). I suppose that is the purpose of that now forty-nine-year-old Earth Day. So often we ignore this planetary home of ours. We mistreat it and use it for our own ends and consign it to the back corners of our minds and hearts. So along comes this day and we remember: again and again, it is necessary to reteach the Earth and us its loveliness. You take in again the richness of the natural world that has nourished you. You gaze at the arresting photos in our lobby downstairs, photos taken by Fran Bayless of the astounding beauty of Antarctica. You celebrate the gift of the Earth.
Usually, on this second Sunday of the Easter season, when we read the story of Thomas, we reflect on questions of doubt and faith. And we will certainly do that again another year. What I’m struck by this year, though, is something else about that story. When Thomas hears the report from his friends about the visit of the resurrected Christ, he is understandably miffed that he wasn’t there at the time. And he knows he may eventually be able to affirm the visit of the Christ. But what it will take, for him, is some kind of physical proof. Stories and reports won’t do it. He needs to see and touch this Jesus.
The story is full of stuff: doors and a house and a lock and people. And then there’s Jesus, the crucified Jesus, now returned to life. And because Thomas has missed it, he says that, in order to believe, he’ll need to see the nail holes and touch Jesus’ hands and side. So when Jesus shows up a second time, a week later, that’s the very invitation that comes to Thomas: see, touch.
And we’re reminded that, even in resurrection, Jesus’ body matters. The stuff of daily life matters. Christianity isn’t just some ethereal spirituality in which bodies and things are incidental or irrelevant. God takes shape and form. Yes, there’s a fundamental dimension of God’s being and blessing that transcends this earthly life. But it is also true that God is intimately wrapped up with the physical world. Scripture is full of this affirmation of the stuff of the world, so full that we could cite countless passages. In the Bible’s first story, God creates the whole world and then seven times pronounces it good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). In the Song of Solomon, we hear that alluring invitation, so appropriate to this season: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance” (2:10-13). And just to take one New Testament example, in a letter to Roman Christians the apostle Paul says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made” (Romans 1:19-20). Sacred power and divine nature seen in and through the things of this world. The stuff of life matters. And it’s beautiful. And it’s holy. And it’s why so many of us see God in nature.
So with all that beauty, and with all that divine declaration that what is is good, it’s deeply alarming to recognize the depth and breadth of the environmental challenges that face us. We’re assaulted by diminishing air quality, a rise in global temperatures, plastics run amok and killing uncountable wildlife, an increase in catastrophic storms, more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought.
Among the many catastrophic consequences of climate change is the projected rise in sea levels, which will result in massive flooding and the resultant dislocation of millions of people. Since 1880, sea levels have risen about eight inches, according to the NASA website. In the next eighty years, it is projected to rise another one to four feet. Climate activist Bill McKibben reports that we may see 200 million climate refugees by 2050. When the ice on Greenland melts, he says, it “will raise the level of the oceans more than twenty feet” (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/bill-mckibben-falter-climate-change-817310/).
And at the root of the problem, of course, is the burning of fossil fuels. It’s not really news to any of us, but when so-called greenhouse gases—coal and oil, in particular—are burnt, they create a canopy of gas that retains the earth’s heat and leads to the momentous atmospheric changes we’ve seen. Continuing to do things the way we’ve always done them is the road to ruin. Reversing those changes, though, will demand a tremendous reprioritizing of our shared life. New sources of energy—particularly wind, water, and sun—will be crucial in correcting the mess we’ve made for ourselves and forging a brighter future. Undoing our dependence on those fossil fuels and finding new energy sources will be vital to the planet’s well-being. And what we need to say in this context, I think, is that making these changes is not just the expedient thing to do. It’s not some sort of politically correct, ideological agenda item. It’s a mandate that is God-given. It’s a spiritual practice. God has made it clear: honoring this planetary home of ours is both the privilege and the responsibility of what the poet Mary Oliver calls this “one wild and precious life” we have (“The Summer Day”).
So part of what’s incumbent on us is to be attentive to our daily practices and habits. Lowering the furnace setting in winter and raising the air conditioner setting in the summer. Not wasting water. Cleaning up trash. Buying energy-efficient appliances and automobiles. Avoiding single-use plastics as much as possible. Taking our own bags into the grocery story. Reduce, reuse, recycle, and, where possible, refuse. It dawned on me a few months ago that I don’t need a bag to carry the items out of every store I patronize.
There are bigger things, as well. Raising awareness that alternative energy sources are needed will demand the overhauling of the energy sector of our economy. Advocacy with business leader and our congressional representatives may help alter our dependency on fossil fuel.
At root, though, climate change will be reversed as we develop a renewed sense for the beauty and holiness of the Earth. Such appreciation can grow out of a habit of regular, intentional, grateful prayer. It can grow, too, with the help of story-tellers and poets. The great Jewish theologian Martin Buber, for example, tells this story: “After the maggid’s death, his disciples came together and talked about the things he had done. When it was Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s turn, he asked them: ‘Do you know why our master went to the pond every day at dawn and stayed there for a little while before coming home again?’ They did not know why. Rabbi Zalman continued: ‘He was learning the song with which the frogs praise God. It takes a very long time to learn that song’” (www.backstorypreaching.com). Is that a song we, too, might learn?
And there’s this poem by Mary Oliver, called “The Gift”:
“I want to thank the mockingbird for the vigor of his song.
Every day he sang from the rim of the field, while I picked blueberries or just idled in the sun.
Every day he came fluttering by to show me, and why not, the white blossoms in his wings.
So one day I went there with a machine, and played some songs of Mahler.
The mockingbird stopped singing, he came close and seemed to listen.
Now when I go down to the field, a little Mahler spills through the splutters of his song.
How happy I am, lounging in the light, listening as the music floats by!
And I give thanks also for my mind, that thought of giving a gift.
And mostly I’m grateful that I take this world so seriously.”
And finally one last poem, this one by a woman named Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands near the equator in the Pacific. The Marshalls are only about a meter or two above sea level, and they stand to get wiped out if present trends continue. This understandably fills Jetnil-Kijiner with anxiety and a quiet rage:
“We demand that the world see beyond
SUVs, ACs, their pre-packaged convenience
Their oil-slicked dreams, beyond the belief
That tomorrow will never happen.”
She’s acutely aware that what’s to come will affect everyone, that it will be no respecter of wealth or privilege or position:
“Let me bring my home to yours
Let’s watch as Miami, New York,
Shanghai, Amsterdam, London
Rio de Janeiro and Osaka
Try to breathe under water . . .
None of us is immune.”
Artists, says the climate activist McKibben, are the ones who take stock of our long history and of the future that seems to be pinching in on us. “This [threat to the climate] is a cost only art can measure,” he says, “and it makes sense that the units of measurement are sadness and fury—and also, remarkably, hope.” Listen again to Jetnil-Kijiner:
“Life in all forms demands
The same respect we all give to money . . .
So each and every one of us
Has to decide
If we value the Earth, if we value the bodies whose hands and sides Thomas yearns to see and touch, if we value the holy God who has given us this incomparable gift, if we value the future of this spectacular planetary home of ours, we will rise, won’t we. By the grace of the God who has given us life and who has given us new life, we will rise.