Needing New Life – Nick Utphall reflects on Easter Season and Earth Day during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023, 2026)
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
Readings for Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023, 2026)
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
I had been looking forward to working on this commentary for months now. Back before almost everything changed, I was aiming toward it since before the start of 2020. I was feeling great excitement and some ownership about late April of this year.
It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!
I’m a Wisconsin boy, where we like to lay some claim to John Muir and Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. The last makes me feel a special stake in Earth Day, since it was when he was serving as one of our senators that Gaylord Nelson founded and initiated Earth Day. If you don’t know him, I’d like you to, and you can find a bit of the story at this website. What started as a day for teach-ins has grown into what the organizing network has referred to as the world’s largest secular holiday, with over a billion participating annually (at least in a typical year).
It’s not just my Wisconsin roots and pride. Our possibilities in the church cheer, wave their arms, shout, sing, jump up and down for the propriety of being a voice in these teach-ins and not leaving it alone as a secular holiday, but recognizing it as an appropriate holy day.
Earth Day almost always falls during our liturgical season of Easter, as we celebrate the resurrected Jesus, who was born so that we could know God’s presence in our world and in our flesh, and who suffered the burdens and sorrows and pains of our world. This Jesus brings us to new life in Easter. That’s not disembodied life that only awaits its future consummation. It is the first fruits, the seed that rises as a green blade to bear fruit. In northern hemisphere where I live, this holy season arrives with the signs and symbols of spring, the flowers and the returned bird song. This is how we know the risen Jesus, and it is connected to creation and re-creation, to our Creator and this Earth.
So, yes!, we observe and celebrate Earth Day in the church! And marking 50 years gives us much to look back to and honor. In those 50 years, besides legal protections for the environment and better understanding of ecological impact, in the church we have come a long way toward what we should have always been, as stewards and siblings of creation. Our prayers, liturgies, songs, sermons, and broader congregational practices, as well as advocacy positions, are much improved during the course of this time.
And 50 years also gives us the chance to look ahead. We look to the 11 remaining years before it is too late to stop a 2° Celsius temperature rise for our planet. We know that this commitment needs to happen now. We know that it takes all of us, across the globe, of all religions, of each area of our lives, adapting and mitigating and caring. We know it is urgent.
I had been looking forward to working on this commentary, then we began to live into a very different kind of new life, with safer at home and social distancing and death tolls and bad news and the coronavirus.
I would generally probably say that addressing climate change is the most important task for humanity. We could name some broader goal or task like “love,” but that would likely still include addressing climate change! The impending impacts are so catastrophic and our window of action is getting so short. As people created by God and placed in relationships with all the rest of creation, all the threatened creatures, from the most vulnerable human populations to species endangered of extinction and ecosystems moving toward collapse, there’s a lot at stake. It’s important. It’s important within church because of life all around us. If Earth Day is a holiday, we need to treat every day as an Earth Day holy day.
But in these weeks, I know for me it has taken a back seat. The emails and fundraising letters I’ve gotten from environmental organizations have gone almost entirely unopened. That kind of disregard I felt included writing this commentary, too. I couldn’t find place in my brain or schedule to put thoughts down, much less find expectation that you’d be interested in reading. Are your reflections for the end of April really going to have room for creation care and Earth Day? Or is that part of the set aside plans that has to be ignored for now?
In my congregation, we’re by no means having any sort of discussion in these weeks about burning our restored prairies. The tulip bulbs and seedling potatoes that Sunday Schoolers might’ve helped dig in later this month are nowhere to be seen. Our dreams of beginning to recognize the heritage of our property connected to Native Americans before us will have to wait. If we are going to celebrate Earth Day as a gathered community, it won’t be right now.
Even as we celebrate (and prayerfully mention in worship!) that the sun is warming and the rains refreshing and the trees are budding out and bluebird houses ready for nests, our congregation is not here to enjoy and participate directly. They are sheltered in place, for their own good and for the care of their neighbors.
Of course, there are glimmers of hope. In my neighborhood, as people are tired of being at home but unable to go much of anywhere else, the bike paths and city parks have been teeming with (appropriately distanced) people. It seems more than in a long time, people are recognizing the benefits and joys and relief of being outdoors. They are finding more attention for and meaning in those signs of spring and ways that life continues, that life flourishes, that life wins!
That has also been in an enlivened concern and charity toward neighbors, toward doing the best we can for each other and finding even simple ways (all that sidewalk chalk!) to assist or to make life livelier.
I continue to wonder about the reduction in C02 output as air travel has been reduced, especially international trips.
We’re seeing that a typically immobilized partisan Congress can move to address necessary relief, with responses that even a month ago would’ve seemed impossible to imagine.
Regularly people are pondering how this might change us going forward, what benefits we might be able to carry onward. Maybe that means positive opportunity to maintain environmental practices or maybe it helps propel us forward with societal and cultural change.
And in the meantime, we remember that not everything has changed. This is still God’s world. God loves this world. God comes to be present in all the moments of life. Jesus cannot be put back in the tomb. The Spirit is on the loose, breathing life. We are still the church, gathered (even on screens or in prayers!) in love, gathered for the good of the world, gathered yearning for good news and peace that the world cannot give.
So what about these readings that are filled with Easter and God’s goodness for these days, which also happen to surround the 50th observance of Earth Day, which nevertheless are very different days and likely have a message filtered through the realities of COVID-19?
Here are a few thoughts:
2nd Sunday of Easter
The image of Jesus with holes in his hands and side is phenomenally powerful and perhaps worthwhile as we confront this present moment of human crisis and also the larger impending planetary catastrophe. (My favorite image of it is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Thomas,” where it is both serene and yet remaining a little spooky, and where Jesus is directly in control.) We note that resurrection doesn’t simply undo the harm. It’s not a bright shiny Jesus who is suddenly perfect. Wounds linger. Even to call them scars is too much; that is about the body healing itself and sealing out. Here it is still a gash, but it is not harming or mortifying Jesus any more.
Already this is a far cry from a couple phrases in the other readings. Peter (Acts 2:26) quotes the Psalm for the day, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (Psalm 16:10). The 2nd reading tells you that you have been given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:4-5). Those are strong phrases, but not likely to resonate with our lives. We do experience corruption, in the aches that accumulate and the hurts that take longer to get past. We do and will perish. The news is thick with people perishing and having been defiled by the virus and disease.
We don’t pretend pristineness. We acknowledge defects and injuries. And for that, Jesus with holes in him is truer to our reality. There are problems and harms that we won’t just get over.
What is it to have a God who is part of those holes and hurts? A God who walks into our isolated homes and still says, “Peace,” who breathes fresh breath on us to inspire us for action and absolution?
Maybe, then, we also find God’s presence in the other wounds and injuries, and we proclaim and work for life, there, too. Though none are fully resurrection, images that occur to me are:
The remediation of the old copper mine at Holden Village (See https://www.thefigtree.org/june13/060113holdenvillage.html). It does not undo those gashes torn into the earth or the damage inflicted on the ecosystem. Forever those impacts will remain visible, but now they are doing less harm.
I think of planting human-made waste in order to provide structure on which coral reefs can grow. What in other instances could be garbage or polluted environment in this case fosters life and restoration. (See https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/artificial-reef.html.)
I wonder what we will value of our culture and society as we come through coronavirus; where has what is injuring us given new possibility and life?
None of these, again, are fully resurrection. But they remind us God is working for peace and on behalf of life in this wounded world that God so loves.
3rd Sunday of Easter
The first thing that strikes me is the 2nd reading. We may feel ourselves in a time of exile (1 Peter 1:17), exiled from our usual involvement in the world, displaced from our workplaces and schools, banished from our physical human interactions and our typical care for creation. Without overstating an apocalyptic moment, there is something of the end of an age currently (1 Peter 1:20). Maybe that includes how we’ve ignored public health funding. Certainly it’s made us feel less individually invincible and more connected. That makes genuine mutual love the only authentic response we can give (1 Peter 1:22). (Even while I’m typing this, I’m hoping that the weeks don’t accelerate in resentments and riots.) As Christian congregations, we regularly proclaim a foundation and practice of love. Maybe that is imperishable seed, ever ready to be planted and blossom and fruit for the sake of the world (1 Peter 1:23). Can we observe that as the Easter life germinating in us (see John 12:24)?
Exile may actually be an easier sense of these days. The Psalm prompts the harder edge, for when “the cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow” (Psalm 116:3). Perhaps more than any time in our contemporary human lives, these words resonate broadly for inescapable encounters with death. That grief and sorrow is real and should be held tenderly in our congregations, not brushed past with quick, cheap grace. And even as some of us might want to return to a larger issue of catastrophic climate change and tell others “how foolish they are and how slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25), perhaps we find ways to walk along and listen to each other. Those honest prayers and laments long to be heard by God. They need the God who has come to suffer with us. And they most truly need to be met by the Easter promise.
One way we receive the assurance of new life is in the gift of baptism. Perhaps the splash of fresh water can be a renewal and remembrance of baptism, that calls us close to God, a promise that is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:39). The physical presence of water is a daily connection to God’s goodness. That makes it easy to recommend as a touchpoint for people who may not be by baptismal fonts in church buildings but should have access to a tap or hose at home! Keep your people splashing, with every wash of their hands remembering that they are held forever by God.
Even as we are grateful for the waters of baptism and for the clean water that allows us to wash away the virus, we may expand our attention and our mutual love to those who are far away. You may select local or global projects for education and support in connection to Earth Day; there are many resources on expanding access to water and on assisting with hygiene in these times. One recent example was from Lutheran World Relief for World Water Day, to assist families who are additionally facing worsened droughts in Yemen: https://donate.lwr.org/campaign/world-water-day-2020-coronavirus/c275465
Not related to the readings, but to still observe this 50th Earth Day as church community when we are apart, here is a starter list:
Happy Earth Day 50 and happy 50 days of Easter, for your life and abundant life to come!