This is the text of a sermon delivered by the Rev. Peter Sawtell on Earth Day, 2001. The same lectionary texts are used in 2004 for the Sunday before Earth Day, April 18.
Peter delivered this sermon at the church where he is a member, and where the offices of Eco-Justice Ministries are housed. The sermon includes some details that are quite specific to Peter's life which will need to be handled differently by another preacher. Some of the references to news items are dated, but not hopelessly so.
We hope the text helps stimulate your thoughts for preaching on this occasion.
©2004. Permission is given to lift ideas from this sermon. It may not be reprinted without specific permission.
Seeing, Believing & Acting
Acts 5:27-32 John 20:19-31
This spring the Adult class had a 6 week session on the resurrection. It was a marvelous, in-depth look at a complicated topic. The class had the patience and courage to deal with the difficulties, the context, the uncertainties.
It is hard, because the resurrection is a unique event – it is different even from the other miracles that we attribute to Jesus: the healings, and the resuscitation of the dead.
How do you describe a unique event, something that has never happened before? What words and images can you use? How do you talk about the experience of the risen Christ?
In the Emmaus story, two of the disciples spent hours on the road with Jesus and did not recognize him. What sort of body did they see in that stranger?
Luke and John talk about the holes in the hands and side of the risen Jesus. Matthew doesn't say one way or another.
In John, this strange resurrection being pops into locked rooms, and eats fish.
After 2,000 years, we still don't know how to describe the event. How on earth could the disciples explain it in that first week?
And that is the week where we encounter Thomas. We have to admit that he was not one of the big name disciples. The doubting scene is his big claim to fame. (He also has one line around the raising of Lazarus.)
The poor guy wasn't there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. All Thomas has to go on is the word of the women at the tomb, and from the other disciples.
Is it surprising that he doubts? This resurrection thing goes against everything he has known and experienced. The resurrection of Jesus was not just a "coming back to life" (as with Lazarus and others). It was something totally new.
What did they tell him? "He was here! We saw the holes in his hands and side! … But, then again, he wasn't really here – he came though the locked door."
For a Jewish mindset that didn't have a notion of the separation of body and spirit, that's a tough idea to get across. Of course Thomas didn't believe.
They told him, "It was real, Thomas. Just believe us. Even if we can't quite explain what it was that we experienced. Trust us."
Can you blame the poor guy for doubting? Can you blame him for demanding proof?
"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
There's no "seeing is believing" for him. He doesn't want to be taken in by good makeup and special effects. He's going to get his hands bloody. He's going to put his finger in the nail holes and his hand in the gash in Jesus' side.
When your world is getting turned upside down, when you're being asked to believe the unbelievable, maybe it's fair to demand extraordinary proof.
Thomas isn't the only person in history to doubt, and resurrection isn't the only subject for doubt.
The news in the last couple of months, the last couple of years, has had an ongoing theme of doubt and demands for proof.
Some of us have seen the evidence for global warming, (or to be more accurate, global climate change), and believed.
Others have sounded more like Thomas – unless I put my finger in the rising seas, unless I can put my hand in the reams of data that show beyond question that temperatures are rising, I will not believe.
Let me be open-minded and compassionate. For a minute.
Let me try to be as understanding of the climate skeptics as I have been of Doubting Thomas.
What we're talking about in terms of global climate change is, in some ways, as astoundingly new and incredible as what Thomas faced with resurrection. The physical mechanism of global warming is clear-cut, but it is a hard idea to grasp. And not only do we need to deal the actual warming, but we have to come to grips with all of the effects of that warming.
Can it really be that human impacts are overwhelming all of nature? Can it really be that the invisible puffs of exhaust from our cars and furnaces, the wisps of smoke from power plants, are transforming the climate of this enormous planet?
Sure, we can have local impacts, the skeptics might say, but I refuse to believe that we can upset the way the whole world works.
There's never been such a thing before. Humanity has never had that sort of power before. It just can't be.
Weather has power over us – with floods and drought, hurricanes and tornadoes, baking heat and freezing cold. We don't have that sort of power over weather.
You know: Everybody talks about weather; but we can't do anything to it.
This is a new thing. As Daniel Maguire wrote, "For the first time, our power to destroy outstrips the earth's power to restore." For the first time.
Global climate change goes against all of our human experience. It makes us think of ourselves and our environment in a totally new way.
Dealing with climate change, just like dealing with the resurrection, is a matter of belief, not thought. We can't predict when belief will occur. We can't say "Well, I have doubts, but if you can harmonize the mid-level atmospheric temperatures and the ground-level readings, then I'll believe." It takes conversion, a stunning change in world view and perspective, to really believe what is happening.
I look at my own background to conversion. I came to this issue with some helpful background that enabled my belief and understanding.
Back in the early 1960s, I lived in Omaha, 10 miles from the Strategic Air Command. The Cuban Missile Crisis created a boom industry in home fallout shelters, since we all knew that SAC would be the #2 nuclear target in the US if things got out of hand.
One of the construction companies hyping shelters had an office on a main street a few blocks from our house. To keep people nervous about the nuclear threat, they had a sign in front of the business showing the daily fallout levels. The US and Russia were doing open air tests of new bombs at test ranges in the Pacific. Three days after a test, radiation levels in Omaha would spike. When I was 10 years old, I saw dramatic proof of how small and interconnected our world really is.
By the way, we saw the same proof in Denver this week, with that thick haze blocking our view of the mountains. The haze came from dust stirred up in Chinese dust storms, and it contained not only oriental dirt but industrial pollutants from China.
In college, I majored in environmental biology – I spent years doing research and field studies on the delicate interrelationships that form ecological balance. I came to see that it doesn't necessarily take a lot of power to upset a major environmental system.
In seminary, I did concentrated studies about institutional racism, and came to understand different kinds of power, and the subtle but pervasive ways that a policy or expectation in one place can have a profound impact in some other area of community life. How a small shift in which neighborhoods get funding for elementary education, for example, can have a major impact on the racial bias in college admissions.
I came to the whole question of climate change with experiences and learnings that told me about environmental balance and global powers. With that background firmly in place, I sat down 5 years ago to read up on global warming. I sort of knew about it, and wanted to learn more.
So I took 3 days on vacation to steep myself in some books and articles. And I was devastated by what I read. The scope and the horror of what we are doing to our planet hit me in a way that I never would have expected.
I went from knowing about global warming, to believing.
Coming to that core realization about the scope of our impacts made for an extremely painful week. That realization from five years ago has, in large part, shaped my career and my life ever since. What I am doing with Eco-Justice Ministries is a direct result of that week of study.
Resurrection. Climate change. They are unique events, without precedent in all of human history. They are hard to believe without getting your hands bloody in the evidence.
A week after the first Easter, Jesus came back to the disciples. And this time, Thomas was there. And Jesus told him, OK – You don't believe? Then do it. Put your finger through my hand. Put your hand in my side. Feel it. Believe it.
The story is not entirely clear at this point. Did Thomas actually do it? The Gospel of John does not tell us that.
It does say that Thomas exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!"
Let's assume that those words were an exclamation of faith and belief, and not of shock and disgust.
Thomas finally encountered proof, and he was transformed.
Having come to belief, Thomas joined with the other apostles. That rag-tag band of losers became revolutionaries. They defied the authorities and preached around Jerusalem. They proclaimed resurrection and the power of God, even when that led to their inprisonment, and even their death.
Belief is transformational.
George W. Bush, last fall (in 2000), said that he thought the climate change studies were flawed or uncertain science. This winter, he says that he now believes that global warming is real, and a problem to be concerned about.
But in making that announcement, he was clear where he puts his real concerns. He said, "Our economy has slowed down. We have an energy crisis, and the idea of placing caps on CO2 does not make economic sense."
He promised the leaders of other nations, "We will work together, but it's going to be what's in the interest of our country, first and foremost."
That's like Thomas proclaiming, "My Lord and my God!", and then carefully shaping his life so that he can stay out of conflict and out of jail.
Mr. Bush may find that the scientific evidence is credible. He may find the political pressure persuasive. But he does not believe that humans are changing the climate of the planet. He has not been transformed. His world is still defined by economics and visions of unending growth.
But our alleged president is not the only one with a lack of belief. Time Magazine, two weeks ago (in 2001), had a 16-page special report on global warming. Part of that article said:
If Bush gauged the heat he'd take from the rest of the world wrong, he read the American people more or less right. A new Time/CNN poll showed that 75% of those surveyed consider global warming a "very serious" or "fairly serious" problem, and 67% said the president should develop a program to address it. But only 48% said they would be willing to pay 25¢ more for a gallon of gasoline. And while they are concerned about climate change, they are more fearful of seeing their electric bills soar or of losing their jobs.
As a people, we're "concerned." We're "aware" of the problem. But we don't believe. We have not been transformed in our thinking and our acting.
I said a few minutes ago that the work I am doing with Eco-Justice Ministries is a direct result of my conversion experience of 5 years ago. This new ministry is not just a matter of doing environmental work.
I take belief and conversion seriously. I'm aware that we're not just talking about energy policy and pollution controls.
Part of the conversion has to do with what one leader has called "coming to a new understanding of our place and purpose in creation."
I'm convinced that the church has a critical role to play in bringing people to that new understanding. The church is one of the key institutions, one of the central authorities, in helping people to believe that humans are part of nature, not outside it or over it. The church is the voice that can speak of intrinsic worth instead of our society's myopic fixation on economic value. The church has a stake in addressing the long-term, instead of the next election or the next quarterly report.
Eco-Justice Ministries – working out of our office downstairs – is trying to convert the churches, so that the churches can convert the society.
Because when it comes to something unique in all of human history, when it comes to something that stands outside of our experience, when it comes to an event that disrupts all of our self-understanding and our world-view, we need conversion, we need belief.
Belief in the resurrection of Jesus has spread from a small band of women and apostles, and transformed the world. Belief makes a difference.
With climate change, the evidence is more accessible than it was to Thomas. We don't have to believe without seeing. The scientific consensus is strong, even if it is statistical. The practical and dramatic evidence abounds. There's a poster in the back of the church listing 89 early warning signs of global warming. We can see the wounds. We can witness the nail holes and the bleeding wounds in our crucified mother earth.
I have hope – I live in the hope – that we as a people may believe. That we may be transformed. That we may, indeed, come to a new understanding of our place and purpose in creation.
Let us work together to bring that day of belief and transformation quickly.