This tender Gospel story is a favorite of mine, and of many.
We meet these two disciples, Mary and Cleopas, on the way home a couple of days after Jesus’ death. They figure everything is over and they might as well get back to everyday life.
But they’re still talking about it all, and grieving.
By the way: Luke only names Cleopas here, but John’s Gospel names “Mary the wife of Clopas” as one of the women who stood near the cross as Jesus was dying. Clopas and Cleopas are almost certainly variants of the same name.
So, we have a couple, followers of Jesus, part of the group that came with him to Jerusalem, returning, now, to their home in Emmaus, about eight miles from Jerusalem.
And on the way… a stranger walks with them.
When Father John and I talked about this story last week, he pointed out something I hadn’t noticed before: that this Gospel story echoes what the church does when we gather.
We meet one another.
We check in, sometimes – how are you? How are things? You look sad…
We read and reflect on Scripture – how does it speak to us? Is there something here to hep us find meaning or make sense of our world and what we’re experiencing?
At Eucharistic services we share a meal – with one another and with Jesus.
Then we get up and set out, shaped by our time together, perhaps – sometimes – with hope or good news to share with others.
I love this Gospel story, but I’m not going to talk about it much today.
Instead I want us to notice how it’s one example of the physicality of the risen Jesus.
He walks on a dusty road.
He sits down to share a meal.
He breaks bread.
He seems to be a person with a body – even though he also vanishes unexpectedly from the dinner table.
Other resurrection encounters point in the same direction.
Jesus eats fish. He breathes on people.
Thomas pokes at his wounds.
He cooks breakfast.
He returns to visit, console, and commission his friends, in his real, physical body. Scars and all.
That’s important not just because a ghost would be an easier story for the early church to tell… expected, almost.
But it’s also important because of what it says about the material world, this world we live in.
The idea of transcending material reality and returning as a spiritual being was just as present and perhaps just as tempting two thousand years ago as it is now.
Some of the core ideas of New Age spirituality have been around for a long, long time.
Like the idea that this world is a flawed crappy knockoff of a superior spiritual plane, and that the goal of existence is to achieve enlightenment and escape from this physical world.
The cave allegory of the Greek philosopher Plato – the idea that the things we perceive in this world are just shadows of a more true reality elsewhere – had been around for hundreds of years by the time Jesus was born.
We can see the pull of these kinds of ideas now and then in the New Testament – of a strong dualism between the material and the spiritual, with the material being deemed bad, flawed, lesser.
John’s Gospel, for example, walks right up to that line now and then, in passages that feed the development of Gnostic Christianity a few decades later, in the late first and early second century.
For Gnostic Christians, this world was the creation of some lesser, malevolent god, not the supreme and good God. Jesus was a divine being who came into our world to show us that we can transcend material reality and become divine ourselves.
Gnostic Christianity thrived for a while, but ultimately was declared a heresy – not consistent with the emerging theology of the Church – largely because it did not honor the incarnation and resurrection, the physicality and this-wordliness of Jesus’ life and teaching.
So: First Judaism, and then Christianity, were well aware of various versions of the idea that this world – nature, our bodies, human wellbeing – don’t really matter, because spiritual reality is primary.
And first Judaism, and then Christianity, reject and resist that idea.
This world matters.
How we act in this world matters.
Our human wellbeing matters.
Our use of resources, our stewardship of creation, matters.
Which brings me to Earth Day.
Early Christianity was perhaps not hugely interested in creation and the health of ecosystems.
But significant parts of Old Testament Judaism were.
Parts of the Hebrew Bible take God’s care for – and human responsibility for – Creation and the land very seriously indeed.
And over the millennia, many Christians have, as well.
We have seen that the world that God called good, the world that God came into and redeemed in Jesus Christ, merits our care, curiosity, and commitment.
We’ve looked on the diversity, complexity, beauty and strangeness of Creation in wonder, seeing it as a window into the heart of the Creator.
I think something like that was probably at work for Father Childs, the founding rector of St. Dunstan’s, who had an inordinate fondness for conifers.
He oversaw the planting of a wide range of conifer trees on our church grounds.
Many of those trees – imported from different climates – have not survived the decades, but we still have enough diversity on the grounds that UW professors regularly bring students out here for identification practice.
Appreciation of, and care for, creation as a value goes back to the earliest years of this parish.
We’ve given it fresh attention in the past decade – including the work of a Task Force in 2016 to develop our parish Creation Care Mission Statement. [You can read it in your bulletin.]
There’s a lot I love about that work.
I continue to find these to be helpful guideposts.
And: I think it lacks a note of urgency that might be present if we did that work today – just seven years later.
As the signs of climate crisis become more evident month by month, year by year, I think that for many of us creation care feels less like a sort of ethical hobby, and more like a core concern that weighs on all our plans and decisions.
We don’t know how to make sense of it or handle it, but it looms on the horizon like a dark cloud of uncertainty, fear and grief.
Unprecedented floods, storms, fires, droughts, species and ecosystem losses pile up in the news, week by week.
And it doesn’t feel like anyone with the power to change the trajectory has the will to do so.
In our Epiphany Climate Circle discussions – based on materials developed by the All We Can Save Project – one of the the session themes was Reframe. It invited us to think about the role of language, story, and culture.
One of the discussion prompts really caught my attention, in my role as a church leader: “Consider your organization’s role in shaping the ‘climate story.’ Does your [organization] leverage its storytelling and culture-shaping power for climate?”
I wonder what that could look like.
A church is most certainly a storytelling organization.
And as liturgical Christians, we hope that our weekly worship forms us, over time, towards the kinds of people God needs in the world. That’s a kind of culture-shaping power.
We pray, weekly, for the earth and the whole created order.
Is that enough? Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.
We used to use a longer version of our Prayers of the People that included these words: Spirit of Wisdom, move us from fear and despair towards courage and compassion.
Guide us to actions that protect and renew.
Maybe we need something like that, that lets us name out loud the feelings and challenges of this season, and ask for God’s help and guidance.
Or maybe there’s some other way our shared worship could help form us for the days and years ahead.
I don’t know the answer. But I wonder.
I’d be interested in your ideas.
How is your organization using its storytelling power for climate? That question is why I decided to preach Earth Day today, instead of staying closer to our Scriptures.
It made me want to think out loud, to wonder with all of you, how we’re called – as people of the resurrection, as Easter people – to Christian living as if this world really matters.
Even when that means taking on the grief and frustration and fear of rapid climate change and all that it might mean, for humanity and for the creatures and systems and places we love.
One of the biggest deterrents to looking head-on at climate change is that it can make us feel really helpless.
The material we used for our first round of Climate Circles – I hope we’ll do more! – wrestles with that helplessness and points at some important things that we can do.
The first being: Sit with our feelings. Sit with the grief and frustration, anger and fear, the overwhelming uncertainty.
Feel them. Process them. Share them. Find ways to release them together, and let them drive us to action, instead of overwhelming and paralyzing us.
One important point in the readings for the Climate Circle group is that our feelings have been weaponized against us.
For seventy years or so, Americans have been deliberately convinced that it’s our individual responsibility to protect the environment or save the planet.
Whether by cleaning up litter, or recycling, or switching to LED bulbs, or using fabric bags at the grocery store.
Those actions are all good! But they will not solve the problem. Huge, systemic changes in industrial, energy, and transit systems are needed.
But we have been intentionally taught to feel like it’s up to us – in order to deflect pressure from industry and government.
That’s not a conspiracy theory; it’s historical fact.
Feelings of guilt or shame over not consistently recycling, or not being able to afford an electric vehicle, or just generally not doing enough: those feelings just need to be named and released.
To make room for more honest and fruitful emotions, like anger, grief, compassion, and determination.
That said: It does matter for us to do the things we can, even small things, and to spread the word.
I’ve gone to a couple of webinars on the Inflation Reduction Act – the IRA, and the incentives it offers for households to do various kinds of upgrades.
And my biggest lightbulb moment was: Oh.
This works if lots of people do it.
So, for example, the best thing a church can do is make sure its members know that the federal government would really like to pay you to put in a heat pump, or replace your gas stove with an electric stove, or buy an electric vehicle, right now.
The more people use these incentives to help them take these kinds of steps, the more we shift, nationwide, towards electricity; and electricity can be, and will be, increasingly generated by sun and wind and water.
I think the IRA is really important and I hope everybody will take a look at what it could offer them. There’s great info out there.
But you may not be in a position to make home or vehicle upgrades! We all have different capacities and priorities.
A couple of households have been able to make major gifts to help St. Dunstan’s install our solar panels. I’m so, so grateful.
And: Not everybody can do that.
But we can all do something; and we can all spread the word.
Our individual actions will not save the planet.
But when our actions add up, they do have an impact.
We can shift consumption patterns.
We can shift habits and norms.
We can shift public officials’ priorities.
Another thing we can do is build local networks of mutual care and resilience.
Get to know our neighbors. Share tools and ideas and resources.
In an increasingly uncertain future – where larger systems may be more vulnerable to all kinds of risks – we’re going to need to look out for each other, and figure out ways to do what needs doing for ourselves and one another.
Look: it’s not nothing that a committed group of five or six people made quite a lot of sugar, in March and April, right here on our grounds.
Another thing we can do is cultivate imagination and hope.
That’s perhaps a particularly important piece of the work for a church community. In our storytelling and culture-shaping role.
A lot of the visions of the future that come at us are pretty grim – and the message can feel like, “You will have to give up everything you like to avoid this.”
I’ve learned a little from a friend about solarpunk, a genre of art and fiction committed to developing visions of a green future that are actually attractive and motivating.
Here’s a little from the Solarpunk Manifesto:
“Solarpunk is a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion, and activism that seeks to answer and embody the question “what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?”… As our world roils with calamity, we need solutions, not only warnings. Solarpunk wants to counter the scenarios of a dying earth, an insuperable gap between rich and poor, and a society controlled by corporations. Solarpunk is about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and also for the generations that follow us.”
I’m not proposing that we start developing Solarpunk Church – though, maybe? – but there is a lot to ponder here about how to bring creativity and hope to the challenges of this time.
We can’t naively assume that human ingenuity will avert global catastrophe.
But we can lean into the places where human ingenuity is pointing towards better futures for all living things.
And let’s not count out God or God’s creation as partners in this season of challenge, adaptation, and possibility.
This week I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a massive collection of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean.
Everything I’d ever read about it before just posed it as a problem that we have to solve. A cleanup project.
This article said that scientists are discovering that various kinds of sea life are colonizing the plastic and making it their homes.
And in fact that it’s becoming a new kind of ecosystem, where organisms that usually live in coastal areas, and organisms that usually live in the open ocean, are cohabitating and interacting and thriving.
Let me be clear: It’s not OK that there’s a huge amount of plastic floating in our oceans. Let’s stop putting plastic in the ocean, OK?
But it is a reminder of the vitality of the natural world and its systems.
It makes me think of a favorite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins – The World is Charged with the Grandeur of God. Writing in the mid-19th century, Hopkins expressed grief over the ways human activity and industry were marring and scarring the natural landscape – then writes:
“And for all this, Nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Let me close with one more short poem, by Adrienne Rich – words of sorrow and determination.
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
May it be so.