Tim Flannery, a leading environmental scientist and writer, reflects on the significance of breath in his book, Weathermakers. “It is in our lungs that we connect to our Earth’s great aerial bloodstream, and in this way the atmosphere inspires us from our first breath to our last… And it is the atmosphere’s oxygen that sparks our inner fire, permitting us to move, eat and reproduce—indeed to live. Clean, fresh air gulped straight from the aerial ocean is not just an old-fashioned tonic for human health, it is life itself, and 13.5 kilograms of it are required by every adult, every day of their lives.” (Weathermakers, p. 12-13)
Breath is central in today’s scriptures. “Let everything that has breath praise God!” “‘Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.’ When Jesus had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” For 50 days, we celebrate the Easter season, God’s restoration and renewal of the breath of life, breath that animates dust, breath that revives dry bones. God is the great aerial bloodstream that sustains our bodies and our planet. God is the spirit-wind that fills us, as theologian Paul Tillich puts it, with the “courage to be”.
Fear is also pervasive in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Jesus’ followers hear Mary Magdalene’s news of the empty tomb. But they don’t believe it. When I use the word “believe” here, I’m not talking about intellectual assent to a creedal statement. I mean trust. Mary says Jesus is alive and that he called her by name. The disciples bear witness to Mary’s transformation. But they don’t believe in it; they can’t trust it, claim it as their own. The trauma of Jesus’ brutal execution paralyzes them. They are terrified that those who killed Jesus will come after them.
Weary and grieving, Jesus disciples imprison themselves behind locked doors. Thomas gets a bad rap for being a “doubter”, but the reality is that coming to trust in Jesus’ resurrection is an ongoing project for all of his followers. Jesus breaks through the locked doors. He declares peace to their troubled hearts. He doesn’t say, stay here where it’s safe until you know the coast is clear. He doesn’t tell them to be careful. He gives them his breath. And he sends them out. As God has sent me, so I send you! But note that even after that powerful experience of peace, breath, and commissioning, a week later when Jesus returns, he finds the disciples right where he left them— huddled together behind locked doors.
During the July 4, 1999 blowdown storm, I lived and worked at Wilderness Canoe Base, on the northeastern edge of the boundary waters. I will never forget the sense of foreboding that saturated the morning. The thick, heavy air stood utterly still. Nothing moved. The humidity grew unbearable. After lunch, many of us spilled out onto to the porch of the dining hall to dance and play in the welcome rain. The strong wind did not frighten us at first. Almost gently, it lifted the trees from their shallow, rocky soil. The roots heaved and relaxed as if the earth itself were breathing. The sight, though strange, was also beautiful. My eyes followed as a giant pine sighed, leaned, sighed again, and then toppled. Look, that tree fell down, I said to the person standing next to me. In amazement, our eyes darted from one swaying, crashing tree to the next. Only minutes later, the whole landscape lay leveled before us. Sharp branches and heavy trunks blanketed the forest floor, crisscrossed in tangled piles higher than our heads. The brunt of the storm passed through in a few minutes, but thunder and lightening continued into the night. The next morning, the sky still growled threateningly.
The experts who comment on weather shook their heads at that storm. Straight line winds in excess of 90 miles an hour– very unusual so far north. The “storm of the century” they called it at the time. I look back on that day now and I suspect it was my first personal introduction to climate change. Hurricane Katrina, the Asian Tsunami, the North Minneapolis Tornado, Superstorm Sandy… we know that severe weather is growing in frequency and range and intensity.
I’ve begun reading A New Climate for Theology by Sally McFague (on sale for a mere $4 in Pilgrim Hall). In the first chapter she writes: “The weather used to be something you could count on: there might be an unusually hot summer or an exceptionally cold winter, but these were anomalies in an otherwise trustworthy pattern. This meant that at the deepest unconscious level, we could “count on” the climate—that is, on the atmosphere that is the basis of all life. We humans may have seldom thought of weather this way— as the ground of existence—but nonetheless that assumed confidence infiltrated our sense of security at a very basic level. …” (A New Climate for Theology, p. 17)
Bill McKibben, founder of the organization 350.org, urges us to address climate change through an immediate decrease in fossil fuel consumption. In an article for the Christian Century he writes: “A few numbers clarify our situation: • Two degrees—that’s how much even the most conservative nations of the world think we should limit the rise in global warming…. • 565 gigatons—that’s how much more carbon dioxide the scientists say we can pour into the atmosphere between now and 2050 if we want to have any hope of staying below the two-degree limit. At current rates…it will take us 14 years to seal our fate. • 2,795 gigatons—that’s how much carbon dioxide the fossil fuel industry has in its declared reserves, ready to burn. It’s still below the ground physically, but economically it’s already up on the surface. …And it’s five times 565— five times what anyone thinks we can safely get away with burning.” McKibben has started a campaign to divest from the fossil fuel industry, in hopes of convincing these companies to leave some of their reserves in the ground. Please read his short article; it is available here or in Pilgrim Hall.
When it comes to climate change, do we resemble the disciples: stuck, imprisoned, paralyzed, by fear, by doubt, by apathy, by comfort, by a sense of powerlessness? I feel like I have a lot of conversations of a certain kind. 1: I’m really worried about climate change. 2: Yeah, it’s crazy. We have to do something. 1: But what can we do? 2: I don’t know, it’s so big. 1: Yeah. There’s so much money in politics, it’s terrible, the people have no voice anymore. 2: Then there are those people who drive hummers, what do they get, like 1 mile to the gallon? 1: Argh, and the climate change deniers. Are they nuts? 2: Yeah, it’s so frustrating, there’s just not the will to change this. 1: Hmm.. well I don’t know what else we can do. 2: Well… have a good day. 1: Ok, you too.
I heard Monte Hillman speak at last year’s Annual Meeting of the MN Conference of the UCC. He described how his church, Mayflower UCC, is working to become carbon neutral by 2030. He will share that story with us today during 2nd hour. Hearing Monte’s presentation was an empty tomb, in the garden, kind of moment for me. Through the witness of Mayflower church, and others doing similar work, I have come to believe, and trust and hope. The Easter message is that our ways of death do not get the last word. A new kind of life is possible. “Peace”, “shalom”, “wholeness of life” Jesus greets us. He breathes on us, in us, through us. And then he sends us forth to claim the power of resurrection for ourselves, for our world, for generations to come. Amen.