Sermon Jen Bloesch
Following my freshman year of college, I went on a “service learning” trip with other college students to the Badlands in North Dakota. There, we met up with a park ranger, John, then in his early 60s, who had worked in the north unit Theodore Roosevelt National Park pretty much his whole life. He agreed for five days to take on our group of 10 women and 2 men to help him with some physically intense projects in the park’s back country. The first day of work, we hauled 10 foot poles for three miles across the park, up and down some good sized buttes. (show pictures) John would make sure to give us lots of breaks—every 10 minutes or so, we would put down the poles to rest our shoulders.
Often on these breaks, John would take the opportunity to point out the nearest plant or flower—“see this flower?” he’d ask. That’s a paschal flower—or whatever it was. It might easily have been rabbit brush, or dragon sage, or buffalo berry. He stopped for everything—for the smallest buds, for invasive species, for everything. Often he’d make us to get down on our hands and knees to actually smell the tiny little flowers that bloom close to the ground. By the end of the first day if we couldn’t recall the name of a plant we’d already seen, he’d scold us.
John would point out the birds to us too. We’d be walking along, and all of a sudden, he’d stop our line, make us go silent, and yell at us, “Do you hear that bird?” We’d make some feeble attempts at a guess, none of which were satisfactory. “Get it RIGHT next time!” Once, when I was at the front of our line, he asked me which bird was singing. “I don’t know, John,” I said, “I didn’t hear it. I was talking to you.” “So?” he retorted, “I was talking to you, too, and I heard it.”
Being with John was like being in a whole new world. John could speak a language the rest of us could not. He could read the land with one glance. Frankly, he opened my eyes. I had always “been interested” in the environment, but never had I witnessed the detail of the world around me like that before. What was just a beautiful scene of trees and buttes became a vivid landscape of aspen, ash, bentonite rock, silver sage, western meadowlarks, and red-eyed vireos. It is not an overstatement to say because of this trip, my life was permanently altered. It made me see the world with fresh eyes, it enlivened my own spirituality, and it deepened my relationship with God.
I imagine this kind of transformative experience is the kind Cleopas and his companion had when finally, they could actually see Jesus. As they walked along the road to Emmaus, they saw Jesus like most of us see a landscape, without truly noticing, without recognizing the sacredness before them. They saw, but they didn’t really see. At first they may have seen Jesus with their eyes, but they did not see him with their hearts. They knew the whole way that their hearts were burning, but it wasn’t until they recognized Jesus that they knew why.
The thing about this story is that it is a story about transformation. Once Cleopas and his companion truly saw Jesus, truly internalized the miracle that was before them, they could not remain unchanged. One moment they were walking along, talking to a stranger about the rumors that had been going around town. They expected their life to go on as normal. But when they finally saw Jesus for who he was, they immediately went to the disciples to share their story. They could not remain silent; they could not remain still. They had to share with the world what they had seen and what it meant! That Jesus has risen that he was alive was a fact to them that changed the world! It changed everything they understood about God! They could not remain unchanged.
Isn’t that the very nature of revelation? Revelation happens when something important—a key piece of information is given or a major event occurs—and it forever changes the course of history. Or it permanently changes the way people relate to the world. Or it fundamentally alters the way people understand the world. That is what Jesus is to Christians. His incarnation, death, and resurrection is a revelation that changed the way the early Christ followers, and later self-proclaimed Christians understood and made sense of the world. It is through Christ that we Christians define our relationship with God. Jesus was a revelation that altered the world. But such revelation depended on the people who could truly see him. It depended on the people who were willing to be transformed by him. It depended on the people who believed that Jesus’ resurrection meant something profound about God.
To see is to believe. But not just see with our eyes. It’s about knowing more deeply, becoming intimate with something such that it alters our understanding of the world. For me, that thing was Creation. After the trip to the Badlands—I actively started going bird watching. It took time, but after a few years, I was able to identify well over a hundred bird species by sight, and about forty by song. After a while, it was like I had learned a new language myself. Like John, I could be in conversation with others and could still recognize the three different bird calls happening around me. To me, this is sacred. If I ever want to feel close to God, I go out and listen to the birds.
Earth Day comes and it goes every year, and for me it is often a painful reminder of how little we see in this world. How few people know the names of the trees or the birds or the various types of butterflies. How much of the wealth of this world just utterly passes us by. How often we take a picture of it, say “how pretty” and move on. I don’t say this as a way to make people for guilty or for us to despair, but to highlight how when we are not looking, there is a world we are missing. There is revelation we are missing! Creation is like Jesus, just waiting for us to see her. She reveals her wonders to us all of the time, and if we are willing, getting to know her can transform us more deeply than we know. Wake up! Feel the sunshine on your skin. Touch the soil and feel all its granularity. Count the number of days it takes the trees to bud. Say a prayer on the equinoxes and solstices. Listen for the moments the crickets start chirping and when the stop. It’s not just a meditation of mindfulness. It’s about finding God and letting God change us, one tiny flower at a time.
To me, our incapacity to respond to climate change is indication that we are still like Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus unable to the see the miracle before us, still yet untransformed. It might be easy to pay lip service to environmental issues, but how many of us are willing to lay our lives on the line to protect Creation like the Water Protectors in North Dakota? They understand that they are standing on sacred ground. They understand that their well-being in inextricably dependent on the well-being of their environment. I think for the most part, the rest of us might intellectually know it, but we have yet to truly internalize it. We have yet to truly believe that God is Creation and Creation is God. We have yet to truly see the revelation that Creation is.
The thing about Jesus’ resurrection and this passage is that the story didn’t end here. The curtain did not drop with Jesus’ big ‘ta-da!’ One could argue that it is the end of the story because Jesus saved us all, and that’s the point of all this. But one could also argue that in a way, Jesus was passing on the baton. The Bible continues with the story of what the disciples turned apostles did next. And it continues with the churches that began to form in Ephesus, Thessolonica, Rome, Corinth, Philippi, and so on. The impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection was revelatory in that it changed the hearts of the people so that they could continue to spread Jesus’ message to others. They became the body of Christ, the church, so that the resurrection of Christ would continue to be lived out here on this planet. It was because they could “see” that they could become agents of change and transformation. It is the people that continue to live out the Christian drama.
So is it with Creation. The story did not end when God created the world. The drama continues to unfold here on this planet, and Creation now depends on people who see her revelation. She depends on us to notice her, love her, care for her, and be transformed by her. In the age of climate change, creating the kingdom here on earth has real live meaning. We need to be people who are eager to covenant with this planet—not only for our flourishing and survival, but to live out the kind of love and abundance we believe comes from God. And I promise you, discovering the revelation in Creation will not disappoint you. Once you discover that love—of beaches, of ferns, of weather patterns, of boreal forests, of fjords, or in my case—of the Badlands and the birds, you cannot remain unchanged. The incredible beauty and love that radiates from the natural world is tangible and completely worth the ache of your heart. May we open our eyes and look with our whole selves. After all, it is God that you’ll find.