9/9/19: I Believe in Miracles

Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Raphael, 1515

Listen to my sermon here, or read the transcript below.

I have a funny relationship to reports on the climate crisis. On one hand, I so desperately want the crisis to be covered by media sources – and I want it covered honestly, with transparency and frankness. I want to read the IPCC reports as they come out. I want to know the full extent of the crisis we’re in, because I want to be a knowing witness to what is unfolding, and perhaps even an agent in its change.

And yet, when reports on the climate crisis do come out, it is often so upsetting that my first instinct is to look away. I get a funny feeling in my stomach, and my hands sweat, and I can only sigh deeply at headlines that announce what kind of world we’re heading towards. Usually, I bookmark the story, and I spend a few days dreading it before I finally find the courage to read what bad news that report contains.

It’s been this way for a while, but I had no words for what I was experiencing. Eco-grief is a term I’ve recently become acquainted with, and learning it was relief – like a drink of water in a dry land. Eco-grief refers to a broad range of emotions experienced in response to the loss of ecosystems and species, and to environmental destruction. Like other forms of grief, it includes emotions like sadness, despair, frustration, anger, confusion, loss, and hopelessness – among others.

It was a relief to just have these emotions named, and to realize that I was not alone in my feelings of grief. Naming it and seeing that I was not alone became my foundation for acting for a different kind of future.

These are the thoughts I carried with me as I wrote this sermon; my convictions about the need for action for the Earth, my sense of grief in the climate crisis, and my knowledge that many others carry this grief, but still feel alone. And I believe that this is a place where people are sorely in need of hearing the Gospel.

I preached this sermon at my seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, as part of our observance of the Season of Creation, a liturgical movement which seeks to pray for and act to protect creation. You can access the audio to the sermon here, or read it below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about eco-grief or the sermon in the comments, and if the sermon touches you in anyway, I’d be delighted it you shared it.

Luke 5:1   Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

I believe in miracles. I have seen thousands of people fed from very little in feeding ministries; I have seen healing, the sick made well, too many times to count; and I have seen resurrection, life where life seemed impossible, with my own eyes. I can’t help but believe in miracles, because I’ve seen enough of them.

And yet, reading today’s Gospel, my heart sank, because I thought about how this miracle – the catching of fish – just wouldn’t be possible today. It’s not because Jesus has changed. It’s not because Jesus’s followers have changed – we’re still just as hapless as Peter. No, I thought about how this miracle of catching fish wouldn’t be possible because our waters have changed.

This miracle wouldn’t be possible in a world marred by ecological disaster, by the climate crisis. Because today, the truth is that we have overfished our seas – both freshwater seas like our Great Lakes and the Sea of Galilee, or Gennesaret, as Luke calls it, and our salt water seas. Today, the UN has warned of fishless oceans by 2050 – that’s 31 years – because of reckless human action. The climate crisis has also resulted in hotter oceans, which cause more severe weather on the oceans. There is an eighth continent of our trash floating in the Pacific Ocean, devastating the wildlife in the Pacific. And, of course, pollution running off from land and collecting from the air, builds in the oceans, threatening all life that comes in contact with it.

Our oceans have changed dramatically in the Anthropocene in ways which spell death for all animals – human and non-human animals alike. And I’m afraid of a world where there just wouldn’t be enough fish to fill Peter’s nets like in this reading from Luke.

My heart felt heavy as I thought about of the impossibility of this miracle today.

This miracle, like all of Jesus’s miracles, is meant to show us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God

In Luke, salvation – life in the Kingdom of God – is now, and Jesus’s miracles point to his role as Savior. The poor are fed now, the sick are healed now, new life is found now. And it tells us what kind of Kingdom Jesus is brining: it is a place of perfect justice, of something out of nothing, a place where our doubts are met with God’s endless faithfulness, and a place of life and life abundant.

And my heart was heavy in reading this miracle, because I thought of Peter’s net coming up full of trash and a few meager, sick fish, because our oceans and seas now are too sick for this miracle.

That heavy heart is a feeling I’ve become well-acquainted with in the last few years. I feel it when I read about Hurricane Dorian this fall, knowing that hurricanes are becoming stronger in hotter seas. I feel that heaviness when I see images of the Amazon Rainforest burning. I feel it when I read about the gutting of the Endangered Species Act, the flooding of the Midwest in the wake of unseasonable weather, wildfires overtaking Western states, devastating flooding in Kerala, water crises in India and South Africa, and on, and on, and on. It seems there is always something new to learn about the climate crisis, and it is never good news.

Perhaps you feel it, too. Perhaps, when you read about the unfolding impacts of global climate crisis, your heart begins to race like mine. Perhaps your hands begin to sweat. When you hear that we are at risk of fishless oceans in 31 short years, perhaps your stomach flips. Or maybe, maybe you feel outraged that the little being done to combat the climate crisis is too little, too late. Perhaps you wanted to cry when you saw the Amazon, the lungs of our planet, have been burning for weeks on end.

And if you are like me – if the climate crisis fills you with dread and anxiety and anger and sadness – then thank God. Your heart is still beating.

The natural response, the human response, to the kind of death we are witnessing in the climate crisis, is grief. And you are not alone in your grief.

It’s so common a feeling that environmentalists have named it: eco-grief.

Eco-grief is the surge of emotion you feel – the desperation, the anger, the sadness, the dread – when you learn that our oceans are in great danger, filled with trash, and the animals who call the oceans home are experiencing a mass extinction event at our hands. Eco-grief is the emotional response to learning that rising ocean levels are threatening the existence of entire nations and cultures, like in the Maldives.

It is grief like any other – and it is a healthy response to the crisis we are witnessing.

And in my grief, I don’t want fairy-tales. I don’t want false hope. But, a miracle might be nice. This miracle might be nice.

This miracle is about knowing that the Kingdom is a place where God meets our doubts with faithfulness, where we are strengthened to do things we could never have imagined, and where discipleship meets us with gifts we could not have imagined. It is about the life abundant we find in God.

But it’s not just that. This miracle does not only hold promises for us humans.

If we take this miracle of the great catch seriously as a glimpse into the Reign of God, then it would appear that the Kingdom of God is not just a place where we humans find life abundant – but where our waterways are teeming with healthy animal life, where biodiversity is strong, where our waters are free of trash and plastic and pollution, and where we value all on this planet – including the life in our waters.

The Kingdom of God holds promises for life abundant – for the sick, for the poor, and the oppressed – and for the Earth that makes our life possible. The Kingdom of God holds promises for the seas and oceans and all the animals who call them home; it holds promises for the Amazon Rainforest, for places suffering from drought, famine, and wildfire; it holds promises for endangered species. The Kingdom of God all of us – all life on earth – finds healing for our ills.

And so, in the mires of eco-grief, when our hearts are weighed down by the reality of the climate crisis, pollution, and mass extinction, but we are also called by God to witness the Kingdom – we have to ask ourselves: can we still believe in miracles in the climate crisis?

Can we feel the warmth of Christ breaking through our gloom? Can we see the Easter promise on Good Friday?

Even in my eco-grief, I have to confess that I still believe in miracles. I believe in a way out of no way, that our very little will be enough to feed the hungry, that healing is possible.

And I believe in the resurrection.

I believe in the resurrection of the body: not just my body, not just your body, and not just the body of Christ on Easter day, but I believe in the resurrection of bodies of water, I believe in the resurrection of the bodies of fish, I believe in the resurrection of the body of our Earth. I have seen too many miracles to confess anything less.

As a Christian, I do not – I cannot – believe that death will have the last word: not for me, not for you, not for our loved ones died before, and not for the fish. Not for the oceans. Not for the earth. And though it speaks so loudly, I do not believe that the climate crisis, and all the forces of Satan that instigate it, will have the final say.

And in the midst of my grief, I have to confess I still believe that this miracle – the catching so many fish – is still possible today. The abundance of life, the gift of biodiversity, the health of our waterways – they are hard to believe in our world, but they are miracles that I believe God is capable of enacting among us today, now.

And it might be a miracle we have to participate in with God.

Those fish in Peter’s nets, who almost sank Peter’s boat, were participating with Jesus to make the Kingdom known to us. They were co-teaching with Christ, as the natural world so often does, to let us know of the extravagant grace and life abundant to be found in God.

And it is our turn to be co-teachers with Christ so that the Earth might know of the promises God has in store for them.

For the fish, co-teaching with Jesus meant jumping into those nets; for us, it will mean turning away from the death-dealing systems that pollute our air and waterways, from agricultural practices which degrade our earth, from use of fossil fuels; it will mean large-scale change on the part of entire nations, and great sacrifice from us as individuals.

It will take nothing less than confessing that we have been sinful, as Peter does, and then dropping life as we know it to follow Jesus.

And it may take a miracle on the part of God for us to accomplish the task before us. But I do believe in miracles.

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