Earth Day Sermon for YHC: Second Sunday of Easter
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas tells his ecstatic friends, “I don’t believe you.” Or more emphatically, “I’ll never believe you.” That is, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side.”
The other disciples claimed they had seen Jesus. But that's hard to believe after he was nailed to a 2x4 and thrown in a stone tomb guarded by a Roman soldier. There are more reasonable explanations. Take conspiracy, for example. Resurrection was a grand plan cooked up by a leftist, religious movement on behalf of a failed messiah who was supposed to restore Israel and usher in the kingdom of God. It's just politics. In reality, he died a lonely and embarrassing death. That makes sense. Ockham's razor, right?
Thomas tells his friends that he needs to experience it. He needs to move his fingers along his raised, scarred skin.
John gives us this story about Jesus, of course, but it's also helpful as a parable about doubt and belief. Thomas, the patron saint of doubt, continues to live among us. Humanity will always be slow to believe anything that changes the status quo or demands us to reimagine the world and our place in it, particularly resurrection, which is scientifically unprecedented. But today folks are having an equally difficult time believing that morgues are really saturated with dead bodies from a pandemic.
If I'm going to believe it, then I need to experience it.
Thomas is the Easter saint we need to unearth every Earth Day--the vicarious representative of a numbed and desensitized, or plain resistant, population. Today, well-meaning climate evangelists will be standing on the street corner of Instagram and Facebook spouting statistics about sea-levels, soil quality, and biodiversity.
The coral reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate! Half of Florida will be gone by the end of the century! They might as well be holding a cardboard sign that reads, 'The End Is Near. Repent and Believe.'
Thomas is watching, eyes glazed over. I don't believe you. Didn't you hear about the conspiracy from the failed political movement that's desperately seeking power? It's always about partisan politics. Sounds like propaganda. His blood pressure is starting to rise. It's a little like trying to tell a sixty-five year old man that his pork sandwich will accelerate heart disease. Who wants to live longer, but sacrifice smoked ribs (or cheap clothes, nice cars, and convenient food)?
Or maybe there's another form of Thomas that's even more insidious: the jaded liberal. This is the Thomas who is dejected and numb, boarded up in an apartment of his own fear because he knows that any kind of environmental change is about as likely as physical resurrection. Evangelize all you want on Facebook, but statistics won't stop humanity from guzzling the gas and it definitely won't stop large corporations from chain-smoking fossil fuels.
"We can make a difference," the hopeful disciple might say. "Just look at the impact social distancing is having on our ecological life. We have seen new life: pollution is down and air quality has been improved by eight-five percent in some places. Forms of wildlife are returning to various habitats that they had vacated. Furbies, which haven't been seen since the early nineties, have re-entered the forests."
Call me cynical, but a photograph of a happy dolphin and the sound of bird chirping isn't likely to create lasting changes in personal habits or deter an entire economic system that's premised on commoditization and consumerism.
"I want to see," Thomas says. "Unless I experience the joy and promise of resurrection, I won't believe. And I don't care."
Thomas, the first Christian existentialist, reminds the church that fear and facts aren't great catalysts for belief and changed behavior. A Christian ecological ethic must be based on something other than a judgment house. It must be about love and hope.
In other words, Thomas needs relationship.
Most of us have some kind of intellectual understanding of our relationship with nature. We're either college educated or in the midst of a college education. We learn things like this: fossil fuels? Bad. Recycling? Good. Carbon footprint? Monitor. The problem is that many of us don't have any actual experience of being a part of a complex ecological system, though Young Harris is doing a good job to remedy that. We think we live in an urbanized, 'post-agricultural' world that is so separated from the land that we don't even recognize the smell of a cow. Why should we care about ecology when produce magically arrives at the grocery and water out of a faucet?
A professor of creation care and food, Norman Wirzba, once challenged our seminary class to grow a tomato plant. There's an easy grade, I thought. I'd much rather grow a plant than to write another paper. To my surprise, I learned that I knew nothing about the very soil of my life. It's much easier to memorize the facts and the figures about climate change than to be in relationship with the earth. Does one just sprinkle a little dirt over a seed? There are holes in the leaves, does that mean I should water it more? Less? Not at all? Did you know that soil has an acidity level?
Suddenly, I began to care about the dirt in my backyard. It's never about the facts and the figures. It's always about the relationship. One silver-lining of pandemic is that COVID 19 is teaching us about the vastly interconnected nature of the world, but we as Christians have known this all along. This is a distinctly Christian way of thinking about the world.
Wirzba taught us that the best way to make a significant change in our ethical framework is to put your body in contact with the 'other,' whether that's a piece of fruit or the farmer who picks it. Permit me to play with the Thomas story a little longer: unless we see the scars caused by monoculture farming and put our fingers in the soil, we won't believe in its crucifixion or its eventual resurrection. The earth is not the body of God, don't accuse me of pantheism, but the earth is pervaded by God's Spirit. It's possible that the church needs Jesus to guide our hands into the wounds we've caused on creation if we'll ever receive the hope that new life is possible.
The Thomas story reminds us that there's one other relationship that matters more than anything else, even more than our interaction with the physical world. It's our relationship with Jesus. Jesus' resurrected body gives us hope for a new world. We may have poisoned the earth, depleted habitats, and over-farmed the earth and seas. We've already caused irreparable and irreversible damage to the world and we will never go back to previous patterns of living. But sustainability isn't an insurmountable problem.
Resurrection reminds us that there is no end to God's creativity. No crucifixion is beyond God's redemption. We can destroy the material, including ourselves and the created order, but we can't seem to destroy the life-sustaining force of God in 'whom we live and move and have our being.' Even a self-imposed extinction of our own species, wouldn't be the final line in God's story.
Jesus' resurrection appearance to Thomas reveals to us that God hasn't discarded the material world, even if we have, which has been the plot of God's story all along that comes to a climax in Jesus. Here, we discover a God who climbed into a woman’s womb to bed fed through an umbilical cord. In Jesus, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And God climbs back into skin and gives us a new way to imagine the world. Jesus doesn't reappear as a disembodied soul waiting to fly away to heaven. He walks out of the grave and looks for food until he scores some broiled fish.
When Thomas finally meets Jesus, and touches his nail-scarred body, he exclaims, "My Lord and my God." Our Catholic brothers and sisters say the same in Latin, Dominus meus et Deus Meus, whenever the Priest elevates the consecrated bread and chalice. Reveal to us the mystery of the divine in the material, O God.
For Christians, Earth Day has no significance without resurrection. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus shows us that the material is infused with the heavenly and that the heavenly is infused with the earthly—a hypostatic union between the divine and the material. Christ resides in a particular flesh so that there might be no material where Christ's Spirit doesn't reside—in our neighbor, the streams and oceans, the mountains and fields of wheat. The bread and wine at the communion table.
We care about the environment because we've encountered the risen Jesus who shows us what it means to call creation good. And to be in relationship with Jesus is to be in relationship with the natural world he created, redeemed, and is sustaining with the very life force of God's breath. Resurrection was never about your soul. It’s about defeating death. It’s the healing of creation. God has not discarded creation for heaven. Neither should you. In the resurrection, God doubled down on the goodness of the earth.
So come, touch and see that the world is good.