Easter 5C sermon 2016
Psalm 148; Revelation 21
Grace and peace to you in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last Sunday evening, as you all probably know,
I was at an interfaith blessing of the waters.
There were these parts in the service
where participants poured pitchers of water into a big basin,
and so one of my errands before the service
was drawing some water from the Susquehanna.
So there I was, bending down to get some water,
and the people beside me
who were out enjoying the beautiful day
said to me,
“You’re not going to drink that water, are you?”
And I was like,
“No, we’re gonna bless it.”
And one of the guys was like,
“I mean, great,
but just be careful not to touch it.”
And I had this moment of,
Can that be right?
I knew that pollution was a problem,
to be afraid to even touch the river water?
That guy had to be exaggerating, right?
So I went and looked up some information on the Susquehanna.
And here’s what I’ve got:
In 2005, American Rivers named the Susquehanna as
“The Most Endangered River in America”
[clicking link opens PDF file]
because of the level of pollution in it,
most of it from agricultural runoff.
In 2011, they gave it the title again,
because of the impact of fracking.
which are very rare in fish—
was caught in the Susquehanna.
That fish seemed to be just the tip of a looming iceberg—
a 2013 report from the PA Fish and Boat commission
[clicking link opens PDF file]
said that there has not been a successful spawn of smallmouth bass in the river
populations have been decimated by lesions and disease.
The Fish and Boat Commission are suggesting
that the very best thing that could happen for the Susquehanna right now—
is getting a section of the Susquehanna
that runs from Sunbury to York Haven
officially classified as an impaired waterway,
because that would let them take significant steps to address pollution.
Some of you may be wondering what the heck the hold-up is,
and I think there are at least two different answers to that.
The first is the official reason given
for why the Susquehanna didn’t make it onto the impaired waterways list in 2013:
there’s not enough scientific data to figure out exactly what the problem is.
The second answer that I suspect is at play here
is that we don’t actually want to know what the problem is.
The uncomfortable truth
is that when we do have scientific data about a given environmental issue—
river pollution, climate change, you name it—
it usually suggests that the root of the problem is human behavior.
And we don’t want to know that,
because that would mean that if we want fix the problem,
we have to change our behavior.
And changing our collective behavior
is like trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together:
it takes forever,
and if you do it right,
you will probably get burned.
But as Christians, we cannot avoid environmental issues.
And this is a difficult thing to admit—
let’s acknowledge that right now.
There may even be some of you listening
who are upset that I’m standing in a pulpit
and talking about what is far too often made into a political issue.
So let me clarify:
the reason I am standing in a pulpit
and talking to you about concern for creation
is because the Bible leads us here.
Listen to the words of Psalm 148:
“Praise God, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail,
snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!”
This song is a roll call for all of creation to praise God,
because he commanded and they were created.
My favorite line is the one about sea monsters:
I have a vision of Nessie gamboling in the lochs in praise of God,
and I see humpback whales breaching in praise of God,
and I see octopi changing color and texture in praise of God—
did you know octopi could do that?
It is so amazing that you could call it miraculous,
and it reminds me of that God’s brilliant creative imagination
did not reach its limit in humankind,
but is on display in a myriad of different colors and textures and life forms
all throughout the earth,
and the oceans,
and the skies,
In the farthest star,
in the smallest cell,
all of creation is caught up in praising God.
The psalmist describes the trees clapping their hands in praise of God—
how marvelous, to notice the wind rustling the leaves of a maple and hear
Psalm 148 calls us to that kind of noticing,
that kind of awareness.
It calls us to realize that creation is our partner in praising God,
and might actually fulfill God’s commandment to pray without ceasing
better than we do.
But it struck me that today,
as we read through the readings from our lectionary,
that the very first thing we hear after the huge creation party that is Psalm 148
is John of Patmos saying,
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more.”
Can that be right?
It’s the same thought I had on the banks of the Susquehanna.
I was looking at something so beautiful,
this river sparkling in the late afternoon sun
as the world softly turned green around it,
and a voice in my ear was telling me,
“Don’t touch it.”
In the same way, we come out of Psalm 148
and into this chapter of Revelation
and we look at the creation that’s here and now
and beautiful and wondrous
even though it’s wounded,
and John of Patmos sounds like he’s telling us,
“Don’t get attached.
It’s going away.
God’s gonna wipe it out and start anew.”
Some Christians do embrace that interpretation.
They believe that we can treat the earth any way we’d like,
because God is bringing about a new heaven and a new earth.
Some Christians not only believe in climate change,
but also see it as a sign of the apocalypse,
and want to hasten its effect
in order to bring about the second coming more quickly.
And I honestly do not know how it would strike
those brothers and sisters in Christ to realize
that some of creation is no longer waiting.
There are rivers that no longer flow.
There are species that no long thrive.
Two hundred years ago,
there were passenger pigeons who flocked so thickly here
that you couldn’t even see the skies when they migrated.
The last one of their kind died one hundred years ago.
God created the passenger pigeon.
God gave it iridescent bronze feathers on the back of its neck,
and wings that let it fly at 60 miles per hour,
and a nature that longed for company.
A God who so lovingly and carefully creates
did not delight in the death of the last lonely bird.
There is another way
of interpreting that passage we heard today from Revelation,
a way that is actually more faithful,
because it lets scripture interpret scripture.
Revelation is a strange book,
but it contains some of the clearest and most beautiful prophecies
of what the resurrection will look like.
But what Revelation says about resurrection
has to be interpreted in light of what we know from other parts of scripture.
And here’s what we know about resurrection from Jesus himself:
when Jesus appears to his disciples after he has been raised from the dead,
the disciples don’t recognize him.
But also, they do.
Jesus is somehow different in appearance,
but the same in his essential nature.
And there is one thing that we’re absolutely sure of
when it comes to Jesus’ resurrected body:
the wounds in his hands and his feet and his side are still there.
And what that suggests about the new heaven and the new earth
is that, however they look in the resurrection,
the woundedness does not simply disappear.
Like Jesus’ own wounds,
it is somehow redeemed and transformed
and brought to be a sign of life instead of death,
but it is still there.
I admit that there are times
when I long for a simple and uncomplicated newness,
for a cosmic reset button
that makes all things new and fresh and innocent.
But what God is promising in the resurrection,
according to John of Patmos,
isn’t a renewed innocence,
for the earth and for us.
Instead, it’s to wipe away the tears from our eyes.
And maybe only some of the tears will be human ones.
Maybe the rest will belong to doves and rivers.
In the meantime,
as we keep waiting for that day of resurrection,
this understanding of a new heaven and a new earth
still leaves us accountable for the ones that already surround us,
the ones where God’s love is blazing in and through
the sea monsters and the stars,
the waters and the warblers.
And the command that we were given in Genesis is unchanged
and only strengthened by the visions of Revelation:
keep and protect the earth.
Perhaps we can begin with noticing.
Notice the trees clapping their hands.
Hear the grasses on the hills rustle their song.
Look for the blooming of the phlox
and the swooping flight of chickadees,
and before you pull up the invading dandelions,
notice how beautiful they are,
and before you wipe the pollen off your car,
notice that God must really love the color yellow
since she clearly wants it to be absolutely everywhere,
and most of all,
Notice that God’s love for all creation,
is blazing all around you.
And love every bearer of that good news
as Jesus himself loved us.