As we’ve followed Jesus to the cross this Lent, we’ve picked up some companions along the way: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the man born blind. Today, we pick up one more — Lazarus. (In his UCC devotion this week, Pastor Quinn Caldwell wrote about a five year old in their church who answers every question with a single response: “Zombies!” If that child comes to Children’s Time today, his answer will be pretty close to right. J)
Did anybody else grow up in a church where memorizing Scripture was a regular–and public–practice? The churches I attended as a child didn’t have the requirement, but my grandmother’s church did. During opening assembly for Sunday school, they’d go down the line and every person–to the youngest child–was asked to recite a verse of Scripture from memory. Of course, I never remembered to memorize anything. I can’t count the number of times John 11:35—“Jesus wept.”—saved my bacon.
It’s a short verse, but not an easy one. Commentators have spilled much ink over Jesus’ tears. Some assume Jesus cried out of sadness at the death of his friend. Certainly, Jesus was sad. A part of what it means to be human is to grieve the loss of loved ones.
But let’s think about this a minute. If Jesus’ tears are only a sign of his sadness at a personal loss, then his raising of Lazarus must also be a personal act. Did Jesus raise Lazarus solely because he was sad he’d died? Or was it something more?
Looking at the larger context of the story will help us figure some of this out.
When Jesus is told about Lazarus’ illness, rather than dropping everything and running to his friend’s side, he stays two days longer in the town where he and his disciples are working. Why? Because what he will do later, he tells them, will be for the “glory of God.”
A couple of days later, when Jesus and his disciples arrive at Lazarus’ tomb and he sees Mary and the others weeping at their loss, John tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed.” After weeping, he again will be “greatly disturbed” or “agitated.” The Greek word used in these verses contains an element of anger.
That hint of anger has led some commentators to see Jesus’ tears as a sign of deep frustration that people have not understood what he’s been trying to tell them—that he is the best glimpse of God we’ll ever see, that God is love, that death now holds no power over us.
It’s tempting sometimes to sentimentalize faith, to make everything we read in Scripture only about our own personal journey. Certainly, faith does bring us personal comfort. But I suspect that in this story, Jesus is trying to show us that it’s much more than that. Yes, God has loved us, loves us now, and will always love us…but God also loves the world! Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead…what might that mean for the world?
What might it mean for the Earth?
When Jesus meets Martha as he approaches Bethany, she tells him, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” When Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again, Martha says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus responds: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
So, here’s what I wonder. Does Jesus being the “resurrection and the life” also extend to earth? Can our faith in Jesus empower us to act our struggling planet into wellbeing? Can Jesus—or we, his followers—raise Lazarus Earth?
In response to this week’s executive order rolling back environmental protections, UCC leaders wrote a letter calling on all UCC congregations to support climate stabilization efforts. “It is time to join our voices and our bodies as we witness on behalf of the thousands of climate scientists whose findings over the past 50 years have led to the unassailable conclusion that climate change is real and is caused by humans. Our generation will either embrace profound change, or life as we have known it will be unknown to our children’s children.”
The letter ended with a call to members of UCC churches to gather for a Climate March in Washington, D.C., on April 29. (Some of our folks will be participating in the March for Science here in Atlanta the weekend before.)
An article about the Climate March on the UCC website includes an interview with Massachusetts Conference Minister, Jim Antal. Four years ago, I heard Jim speak at a gathering here in Atlanta. He said something that, at the time, I found startling. As time passes, though, I’m beginning to see the truth in it. He said that pastors should preach at least once a month on creation care. “If we don’t do that now, the time will come soon when the environment will be in such crisis that we’ll have no choice but to address environmental concerns in every sermon.”
A longtime advocate of environmental justice, Antal believes “people of faith need to recognize that preserving the gift of God’s creation is now a core vocation of the church.” So, you see, our Christian faith not only guides us in our climate stabilization work; it compels us to engage in that work.
UCC Minister for Environmental Justice, Brooks Berndt, says this: “An outdated view of climate focuses solely on endangered polar bears, melting ice caps, and scientific studies about global impacts that are universal in nature. An updated view emphasizes a lived climate reality that disproportionately impacts the poor, communities of color, and nations in the Global South. This updated view focuses on frontline communities that suffer in multiple ways. On the one hand, these communities get hit with severe weather events or pollution from fossil fuel extraction. On the other hand, these same communities frequently contend already with a number of ills ranging from high unemployment to poor health indicators. Suffering compounds suffering as climate becomes a threat multiplier.”
Antal adds: “The millions of Syrian refugees whose desperation has overwhelmed the international community are a small fraction of the pending refugee crisis that the rising oceans will soon trigger.”
Another UCC minister, Laura Martin, says, “We believe that climate change is real and one of the greatest theological issues of our time. If we truly believe that we are to love one another, then we must commit to honoring the conditions that lead to fullness of life. All of the impacts of climate change–increasing diseases, increased asthma and allergies, droughts, floods, famines—already are disrupting lives and leading to physical and spiritual deaths. We have a moral and theological obligation to respond.”
The article concludes with Jim Antal’s summation: “People of faith need to start acting like ‘the earth is the Lord’s.’ We cannot stand idly by in the face of the current assault.” http://www.ucc.org/news_ucc_creation_care_advocates_to_peoples_climate_march_washington_d_c_03272017
Ten years ago, in our prior Growth Planning process, the congregation made the decision to stay on this property. If there comes a time when we outgrow the property, we decided, rather than seeking a larger piece of land, we’ll seed another church. Working through that discernment process, we had come to realize just how connected we are to this part of creation.
The church has been focused on responsible stewardship of creation from the beginning. This building was built to be energy efficient; the widows were designed that way to allow in passive heat during the winter months. And our first cross was created by a church member from a tree cleared from the property to make way for this building. What I’ve come to realize recently is that creation justice is in this congregation’s DNA.
The point has been brought home again by the good work being done by the climate change group that began meeting last month. They already are working at efforts to stabilize the climate, efforts that focus on lobbying legislators. Why is that their focus? Because the dire circumstances we’re in now require large-scale reductions in greenhouse gases. Large scale reductions in greenhouse gases require limiting the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. Even if every person on the planet drastically reduced his or her carbon footprint, the effect would be negligible. The kinds of changes that must be made must be made at the national and global levels. The only way to make those changes happen is to convince legislators how vital those changes are so that they can enact laws that will support climate stabilization…which is why lobbying is our climate group’s main focus.
It’s a step….a tiny step. What else might we do? Can Lazarus Earth be raised? Can shifting climates be stabilized? Can carbon emissions be reduced? Is Jesus weeping in frustration that his followers have forgotten that he is the resurrection and the life for all of creation?
Will we have the courage—and the will—to dry Jesus’ tears?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017