I was grateful for the opportunity to join the good folks at St. Clement’s Church in Toronto yesterday. My sermon text is below. A recording of their worship service is available here. All the best to this congregation as they consider how creation care could be more fully expressed in their ministry.
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Texts: John 21:1-19; Psalm 104:24-30; Romans 8:18-25
Once someone mentions it, it is obvious: the Bible is an outdoor book. Someone has said that we spend 90% of our time inside—not true for the people of the Bible. Most of the action in the Bible occurs outside.
The thought that I want you to consider today, is not just that the Bible is an outdoor book, but that the Bible’s core message has deep ecological significance. Ecology, of course, is the study of connections—the connections that make up the web of life. Hear, once again these verses from John’s gospel, imagine the scene:
“When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. . . . Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus had appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”
Do not you notice all the connections? You can almost see the web of life here, can’t you? Jesus is hosting this breakfast. He is providing for his friends and students. They, still befuddled by Easter have gone to catch fish. The fish are connected to the rest of the aquatic ecosystem. The bread is made, no doubt, with grain from some local field. It is connected to invertebrates and soil microbes. This breakfast is being cooked over charcoal—energy being released from the wood, originally coming from the sun.
And the center of this web is Jesus: host, cook, teacher . . . and apparently fishing savant.
In my own tradition we would call this lake-side breakfast an image of Communion.
In the first chapter of Colossians. Paul unfurls a description of Jesus that is nothing less than startling. Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” “through him” all things were created, and “through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile . . . all things by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Friends, let’s gather around this image: Jesus on the shore beside a fire, welcoming his friends and students—welcoming you and me. Jesus, having been raised by the power of the Spirit, reconnecting, reconciling, bringing the gift of renewed communion.
In a world not yet fully transformed by Easter, this gift of communion contains the gift of vocation.
Yesterday I was participating in our denomination’s annual meeting. Our financial director happened to mention that during the audit process, one of the key auditors was calling in from India. In some ways our lives are stunningly connected. Yet in another set of ways, we are even less connected now than were Jesus and that clutch of students and friends.
Even, if they could not have spoken in detail about the transfer of energy and nutrients, they would have known that their lives depended on plants and other animals.
They pulled the fish from the lake. They saw the lamb on the hillside one day and on the roasting spit the next. They would have known the worry and the joy of watching fields grow.
They would have touched the seed, felt the rain and the sun. They would have shared with the psalmist the sense of God’s care in those things. They would have known, intuitively if not in a technical sense, that the waste of one organism is very often the food of another.
Their world—humans, plants, other creatures—was a very connected place. And when their world was squeezed by the poet’s imagination it dripped of God’s love and glory.
Our lives are different, not necessarily better or worse, but different. We obviously still depend on the web of life. We could not breath without the work of trees and other plants. We could not enjoy our breakfast without the work of pollinators and soil microbes. Our food, our clothing and the materials that make up our homes come from somewhere—but we largely do not know where that is.
The plants in our home area still leaf and bloom at certain times, their populations are naturally quite specific to that place, but we are largely ignorant of it. Our waste still goes somewhere, but it is hard to know where that is and whether or not it is helpful or harmful to those creatures seeking to make a living in it.
So, we live in a world that is at once connected and disconnected. You probably know that the words used for soil and for human in Genesis share the same root: adam and adamah (like human and humus). Theologically we are creatures of the land (and the lake). The promise and peril of the modern world is found in obscuring these connections.
Being creatures who depend on land and lake is frightening, so our economies have set up countless workarounds. Not wanting to be dependent on the limitations of local agriculture we now import from around the world. Not wanting to be limited by the ability of our own watershed to deal with our waste we export it to who-knows-where.
These workarounds have become so normalized we can no longer even see them. Like my friend in university whose manual transmission car required a rubber band to keep the stick-shift from losing its place. After awhile she failed to even see the problem . . . until others of us tried to drive the car.
But there are signs that our modern workarounds are not sustainable. Some contemporary analysts have begun using the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the impact of our disconnection from the natural world. (Richard Louv is one of the most prominent voices.)
We are losing entire species of plants and animals faster than we can identify them. According to a summary drawn up by the Smithsonian, the rate of extinction is now “hundreds, or even thousands, of times higher” than it should be. This is driven by human activity: over-harvesting, land-use change, pollution of various kinds.
In the not-too-distant past there were times when rivers around the Great Lakes were so overrun with industrial pollution that they caught fire. In the last 34 years a combined $22.78 billion (US) has had to be spent on cleanup, with more required.
And because the connections between our lives and those of other living creatures are so obscure it is still hard for us to own up to the invisible carbon pollution created by our way of life.
In Romans 8, Paul says that creation itself has been “subject to futility.” Creation is in “bondage” and waiting to be set free. “Creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” If creation groaned in the first century on account of the repercussions of misguided human choices, how much more now?
This sounds like finger-wagging, I know. But what I want us to envision is not a policy agenda or yet another indication of our inadequacy (we’re good at this in ON). What I want us to see is the space that is open in our lives and in our neighbourhoods and in our watersheds for God’s grace and beauty. The grace and beauty of reconciliation we see in the breakfast shared by Jesus and his friends.
They gathered in the company of Jesus, connections and relationships restored by the power of the resurrection. That communion moment was a sign of creation’s coming freedom. The invitation to participate in that breakfast—bread, fish, water from the lake—was an invitation to a way of life rich in thanksgiving and rich in connection. A life of fully orbed reconciliation and pulsing hope. A life of rootedness in the goodness of God’s creation, which can only be known as one gets to know a specific place.
If we are Easter people, people of the empty tomb and people who know of God’s self-offering love, we are also people of reconciliation, people of reconnection. And, yes, one long-ignored facet of this reconnecting work is with the natural world, God’s good creation, life’s web of which we are a part.
The great joy of this aspect of following Jesus is that it is, frankly, such a joy! Like that sense of relief that you feel after resolving a conflict with a friend—that deep exhale of satisfaction. Being reconciled with the land and water around us is similar.
Jesus knew where the fish and bread he served came from. Do we? If not, there is a fascinating puzzle to be solved. Jesus knew the rhythm of the seasons through the flowering and fruiting of plants. Do we?
Do we know if we could eat fish from the lake just south of us? If we can’t, why not? The disciples looked at and counted each of the fish they caught. What kinds of fish live in Lake Ontario? How many are there? What is an eel? Why do they live in Lake Ontario but not the other Great Lakes? Do our lives help or harm these aquatic creatures?
Jesus knew the source of the energy used to cook that lakeside breakfast. What is the source of the energy that cooked our breakfast? How does that breakfast and mine impact farmers in the global south?
When we really begin exploring the connections within our home region, we sometimes find a joy of learning and exploration that matches what we encounter when traveling to faraway destinations. Ask anyone who has taken up birding during the pandemic if you need a testimony.
Rebuilding these connections is a profoundly hopeful process. How could it not be? We get to participate in the Creator’s work of renewing all things. This is our vocation, in one form or another. Here is where we hear Jesus saying, “Come, follow me.”
 Canadian Geographic, March/April 2022, pp. 30-31.
2 thoughts on “A Sermon for May 1”
Thanks Anthony! I just read your sermon to Susan and she was all smiles. Me too! What a lovely and challenging message.
Much love, Susan and Eric
Sent from my iPhone
With Eric and Susan, I thank you for these insightful comments. Bill J