My sermon for 3 Easter B, April 22, 2012
This Gospel passage about Jesus eating fish with the disciples after the resurrection led to a very memorable conversation around my table at Easter dinner a few years ago. All those present were clergy, and you have to understand that by the evening of Easter Day, Episcopal and Lutheran clergy are punchy, irreverent, exhausted and uncensored… and so thinking about this story in the context of a Nathan’s presence at dinner that night and a certain book on his bookshelf, someone… it might have been me…but Jonathan thinks it was him… wondered aloud, “Since Jesus ate after the resurrection, did the resurrected Jesus poop?” As we know from that favorite book of Nathan’s, all living things eat, so “Everyone poops!”
Now at one level that is the absurd conclusion of a resurrected Jesus who eats, and is totally not worth spending time on…but at another level, Jesus is the son of a God who created the dust of the earth, and who said that creation was good—all of it, from the sun and moon to the heavens and seas, the land and trees and every creeping thing of every kind up to human beings. And whose Son was fully human, and knew all the intimacies of human life.
So the risen Jesus eats. And if he eats, he’s real. That’s the whole focus of today’s Gospel: the confirmation of the embodied, whole, physically present Jesus after the resurrection. The New Creation, of which Jesus is the first fruits, it is not just a spiritual—or ghostly—realm where we leave our bodies behind and exist someplace in the ether. It is physical, and involves touch and taste and sensations.
Now we can understand why the disciples thought Jesus might just have been a ghost or a spirit (the word for ghost and spirit is the same in Greek—pneuma), since he had just appeared to some of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus and then vanished from their presence. The same thing is true in the Gospel of John, where Jesus just appears in the upper room ignoring the walls and locked door. But also, in that Gospel, Jesus eats something to show his incarnate reality, and again it is fish (and bread) that he eats. Each time the risen Jesus is revealed in John and in Luke, it is through the physical: the breaking of bread after the road to Emmaeus, the physical presence of Jesus in the upper room showing his wounds, the breakfast on the beach in both Gospels.
Most Christians in the first two centuries deliberately moved away from understanding God and Jesus in terms of the purely spiritual or purely intellectual. There were Gnostics and other sects who sought the Gospel for only a spiritual or intellectual elite, but the Christianity that has survived was universal and balanced the spiritual with the corporeal.
We love God with all our heart and our mind and our souls… and our bodies aren’t far behind. It reminds me of the vows said over the rings in our wedding service, which conclude with “With all that I am, and with all that I have, I honor you...” A marriage that is only intellectual or only emotional or only physical will never last. It has to be all of ourselves that we (imperfectly) offer to our spouses. Our relationship with God is the same—it can’t be just our hearts, or just our minds, or just our souls or just our bodies. It can be—and hopefully sometimes is—all of those. And the body part matters, both our physical bodies and the physical creation around us.
And so it is a wonderful coincidence that today is also Earth Day. The Episcopal Church recognizes Earth day not by calling it earth day but by designating two holy people associated with the natural world to be remembered on this day. The first one you’ve never heard of—Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, who was an Episcopal Priest and explorer who was in the first group of people to climb to the summit of Mt. McKinley.
The second person we honor today as church is someone you have heard of—at least, I hope you have: John Muir. The naturalist, the man who brought together the Sierra Club and Theodore Roosevelt to begin the National Parks System and protect Yosemite and Sequoia from development and exploitation. The man who fundamentally knew that creation was good and must be preserved for us and our children and our children’s children.
Muir would probably fall into today’s “spiritual but not religious” category; his father made him memorize most of the Bible under threat of beatings, and so Muir moved away from such organized—and brutal—expressions of religion. But you can hear his constant relationship with the divine in his writings about nature and about his life. He believed that our primary source for understanding God was the book of nature. He wrote in his Travels in Alaska, "Every particle of rock or water or air has God by its side leading it the way it should go; the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness; In God's wildness is the hope of the world."
But Muir might never have gotten to that wilderness but for an accident. After spending the Civil War as a draft dodger in Canada, Muir found work as a sawyer in a mill. In early March 1867, he had an accident with a tool he was using when it slipped and struck him in the eye. He was confined to a darkened room for six weeks, and was unsure whether he’d ever regain his sight. When he did, he made the decision to follow his dreams of exploration and live in nature. Muir later wrote, "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”
The lesson Muir took from that was to be in nature; to read see God in the book of Nature. I see God in nature, too… or actually, I feel God in nature. I breathe God in nature. Especially in the kind of wondrous natural surroundings where Muir spent his time—Yosemite and Sequoia. They were beloved wild places when I was growing up in California. Encountering deer outside the cabin door, discovering the magic of a hot fire in a fireplace on a cold and snowy night, and always the incredible vistas. It’s impossible to feel big or important when you’re in Yosemite Valley, because the valley instantly puts things in perspective: it is ancient, we are transient. Humans build things that are pretty big… but nature is bigger. But also, like Muir, we realize that such beauty is something that cannot belong to one person, or even one people or one nation. It is something that needs to be cherished and loved by all; something that deserves the protection of all, because it is at once the most permanent and solid thing we can encounter, and the most fragile and vulnerable.
In the Revelation to John, heaven comes down to earth, not the other way around. Scripture is not about earthly creatures going “up” to heaven; it’s about waiting for the new heaven AND the new earth, and in Revelation, the heavenly city comes down out of heaven to make its home on earth in a new a glorious way. The writer of Revelation, and many other theologians, particularly Augustine, saw heaven in terms of a city—a place where people meet, where there is exchange of ideas and glorious architecture and an ordered society—things that all made sense as desirable in the first century culture. But maybe today heaven might be better thought of as a wilderness. A beneficient, beautiful wilderness. I’m not sure I could imagine a better heaven or feeling closer to God than I do at the foot of Yosemite Falls. Just as Jesus comes, not as a ghost, but as a real, physical person, heaven might have the tactile solidity of El Capitan, the rootedness of a redwood or sequoia tree, and the glacial pace of change that measures time in ways we cannot comprehend. And just as when you stand in Yosemite Valley you have a sense that this belongs to everyone… perhaps we might know that heaven belongs to everyone, through God, as well.
Muir wrote, "We all flow from one fountain—Soul. All are expressions of one love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all."