April 19

Paralyzing Paradoxes

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 24:36b-48

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Good morning! It is such a pleasure to join you from the pulpit today, and I am so thankful to Dean Hill and the rest of the Marsh Chapel staff for this opportunity to be with you as a preacher. You may have felt slight déjà vu with the gospel reading that was just expertly read by my very own father, Rev. Raymond Hittinger. In fact, if I were a cruel preacher, I might put you all through a pop quiz as this week’s passage from Luke is SO similar to the passage read last week from the Gospel of John. Jesus appears to the disciples on the evening of what we now celebrate as Easter Sunday. But in Luke’s account there are major differences. There is no Doubting Thomas as John describes. Instead all of the disciples share in doubt as well as fear. The disciples in John’s account are oddly not afraid when Jesus appears to them; they are joyful. Luke’s account actually seems more plausible. The disciples are more than just frightened by Jesus’ appearance, they are startled and terrified. And rightly so – dead things are supposed to stay dead. Despite Jesus’ allusions to the fact that he would fulfill the scriptures through his resurrection before his death, the disciples, like so many times before, just don’t understand what is going on.

Unlike in John’s account, it is not the disciples who ask to touch Jesus to better understand why he is there. Instead Jesus offers his hands and feet to the disciples, not only to see but to touch. Commentaries on this passage suggest that Jesus inviting the disciples to see his body is for them to recognize that it is him. The invitation for them to touch him is so there is no misunderstanding – this IS Jesus, embodied in front of them. He is not some other person or a Ghost, but is fully resurrected before them. He is a manifestation of a transitional period between the historical Jesus and his ministry on earth and the Christ of the future who will reign in the heavenly realm.

Even with this information, even in their joy of recognizing that this truly was Jesus who had just died two days previously, they were still in disbelief. They experienced an existential disruption by holding in tension the appearance of Jesus before them and the knowledge that he should be dead. While Jesus tries to comfort them by both eating and repeating the words that foreshadowed his death and resurrection, they still do not fully understand what will happen now and into the future. There are hints of the Jesus they once knew but also indications of the figure of Christ that is just beginning to form. They stand at the precipice of this liminal state, doubting and rejoicing at the same time.  Not knowing what to do next, Jesus must tell them what the Scriptures indicate will happen. The disciples are not actively participating until Jesus opens their minds to the Scriptures, but even this action is passive on their parts. Paralyzed in the paradox of fear and joy, the disciples cannot utter any words or contemplate what this reality means for their futures without Jesus.

We are a few days away from Earth Day – the time of year when we’re encouraged to be hyper-aware of our sustainable actions and to show that we care about the environment and the future of Earth.  Here at BU, our enthusiasm for bringing awareness to the environment and its crises is so great that Earth Day has been expanded into a series of events that extends a little over a week (Earth Week +, we call it). Earth Day and Earth Week celebrate the beautiful things about nature, encouraging us to learn about current environmental crises, and hopefully taking on sustainably minded actions. The celebration of Earth Day contains elements both of celebration and of apprehension, reminding us that as we embrace our interconnected existence with the rest of the planet, we also carry a large responsibility in acting in sustainable ways.

Perhaps the most pressing and in some cases contentious environmental issues in our global context today is climate change. Climate change, for some, is controversial. There are people who believe that it is not real, clinging to the argument that the climate change we are experiencing is only a natural phenomenon that is not influenced by human actions. Others hang on to climate change’s outdated moniker, “global warming” to describe it, giving the false assumption that every place on Earth must experience warmer temperatures for climate change to be true. I’m sure some of you experienced something like this during this past winter’s snow…I know I did: “So much for global warming, eh?” Or maybe you saw the video clip from C-SPAN of Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma on the floor of the Senate with a snowball back in February, arguing that because Washington D.C. was experiencing record cold temperatures, climate change could not be real. One should note that Senator Inhofe is also the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, meaning he is partially responsible for making decisions about how our country as a whole will respond to climate change. Or maybe you heard about how the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has banned the use of the phrases “global warming, climate change, and sea-level rise” to limit any unwanted attention brought to their projects, mostly as the Governor, Rick Scott, is also an avid climate change denier.

You might think that the easy connection to draw between these climate change doubters and today’s Gospel is obvious – both the disciples and these people share in disbelief over something that is right in front of them. You may go so far as to call these individuals doubting Thomases – people who feel that there just isn’t enough evidence to convince them that climate change is caused by human activity. But, I would argue that the denial experienced by the disciples is something radically different than the climate change denial that is currently present in our country. It’s a difference between carrying a tension of joy and terror which leads to disbelief on the part of the disciples, and a willful ignorance, or influenced interests, on the part of those who deny climate change.

The Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, has recently publicly stated that climate change denial is sinful, whether it is spurred by willful ignorance or for political gains. Sinful. Not wrong. Not ignorant. Not backward. But sinful. By those mentioned above either refusing to believe the facts that have been presented by scientists or being swayed by political interests, including the fossil fuel industry, they are committing sin. They are turning away from the severe impacts that climate change is creating around the world and failing to consider the larger impacts on nations that do not have the infrastructure available to address possible disasters on the horizon. They value economic gains and a continued status quo instead of facing the reality that we must make drastic changes in our ways of life to prevent further damage to the planet and to prepare ourselves for future changes in the climate. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. As the epistle writer of 1 John tells us “Sin is lawlessness.” Luther interprets the idea of sin as lawlessness as creating a stumbling block for one’s neighbor. It is insisting on one’s own way. It is failing to love one’s neighbor. This interpretation only serves to strengthen Bishop Jeffert Schori’s argument; in climate change deniers’ actions in pretending that climate change is not happening they are asserting their own way without consideration of those who may need the most help.

Climate change is not a belief. It is a reality. When asked to give her elevator pitch on climate change, science historian and Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes states the following:

“It’s simple. It’s basic physics and chemistry…that we have known since the 19th century. Carbon Dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means that it’s relatively transparent to visible light, but relatively opaque to infrared. Or to make it even simpler; light comes in, heat gets trapped. So if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more heat gets trapped. And sooner or later, the earth has to warm up. That’s basic physics and there really isn’t any other possibility…That sooner or later has passed, and here we are.”


Dr. Oreskes cites that as early as the 1940’s and 50’s scientists were speculating that at some point, they weren’t sure when, this warming was going to take place. We’ve now hit that point of average global temperatures rising. The overall temperature rise then leads to changes in the Earth’s climate, creating new, and sometimes, more intense weather patterns. I won’t bore you with the complex science explanations of how climate change actually works in altering weather patterns (after all this is a sermon and not a lecture) but there is plenty of well-researched information available on the topic with which the majority (97%) of scientists affirm the reality of climate change.

However, just because we know that climate change is real does not always mean that we know the best way to handle its realities. Scientists predict that the impacts of climate change will be devastating for our global ecosystem, and those who live in the poorest nations will face the greatest challenges. Rising temperatures will not only affect weather patterns to create storms that will result in devastating consequences, but weather patterns will also affect people’s access to clean water, food production, and erosion or disappearance of land, especially in small island nations. Developed nations, such as the U.S., possess wealth and ability to potentially handle some of these situations, but developing nations, those which, in most cases, are least responsible for climate change, will likely feel the greatest impacts and have very little means to respond.

We are even starting to see some of the effects of climate change in our own context. As I mentioned before, we experienced the snowiest winter on record in Boston had and record low temperatures. California is experiencing a historic drought, which not only affects residents’ access to clean water, but also impacts the rest of the nation as California is the largest producer of much of the produce that the country relies on.

I traveled to California for a conference on climate change in February. Aside from my joy of escaping our snowy cold winter for sun and temperatures in the 70s, the realities of the drought hit me as soon as I arrived at the conference. The majority of the people attending lived in California, and the theme of the conference was “Why water is sacred,” pinpointing their experience of drought as an effect of climate change. After years of increasingly severe drought, the past year has been a tipping point to create the worst drought situations that California has ever seen. I soon had to alter most of my behaviors I take for granted here (but probably shouldn’t); taking no more than 2 minute showers (turning on the water to get wet, turning it off to soap up, turning it back on to rinse off), eliminating “wasteful flushing,” and overall being much more cognizant of my water usage with every interaction.

The first night there, in our very first session, many of us were devastated by its end. The presenter set forth such a picture of doom and dismay that it seemed pointless to even try to do anything to address climate change. Those who attended felt completely depressed – why did we bother to come to this conference to discuss how the church needs to respond to climate change if there’s no point? Often, when people encounter the projected shifts in climate and the devastating effects that we will most likely see in the next hundred years (drought, flooding, superstorms, and destructive hurricanes, to name a few) they get overwhelmed and depressed by all of this information. The systems that are at play seem too large to challenge and the solutions seem too far out of our grasp to be made into realities. We are paralyzed in our fears about the future and our abilities to create change even with the knowledge that we have gained about the problem. A paralyzing paradox of knowledge and fear. We too, like the disciples encountering the risen Jesus, are in a liminal space between the causes and effects of climate change, looking for answers to guide us forward.

We might ask ourselves, “What can I do?” Or rather, all too often we are swayed to ask “what can I do.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that question on the surface. We should be questioning our own actions, but we tend to get stuck in only looking at what we do as individuals. Our country places a great deal of emphasis on our abilities as individuals which leads to us understanding ourselves as isolated entities. Climate change, as such a large complex issue, only worsens our anxieties when we think of its challenges as something that we have to overcome as individuals. Our paralysis in the paradox of the knowledge of climate change and uncertainty about what to do next is only exacerbated by our assertion that we must do it alone.

Bill McKibben, the founder of and famed climate activist, gave a talk on climate change at BU this past week. One of the most poignant things he shared about advocacy for climate change was this, “The most important thing you can do as an individual is to not be an individual. Come together.” Facing the realities of climate change can seem less insurmountable if we join together in creating opportunities for resiliency. That’s what happened at the conference I attended in California – after the initial evening of feeling distraught, the next two days together enabled us time to have conversation and make connections with each other across denominations, regions, and even areas of interest to help each other in developing plans for our ministries to take on the burdens of climate change.

Another one of the ways that individuals have come together in a big way in the last year was the People’s Climate March that occurred in New York City on September 21, 2014. I was fortunate enough to be one of the 400,000 people in attendance for that march which flooded the streets of downtown Manhattan. The march was in response to a meeting by the United Nations’ Climate Summit of world leaders in order to show popular for action against climate change at a global level. The amazing thing about the march was how it enabled people to come together in support of climate change action from various perspectives. It showed how climate change has already impacted many of our lives, and how we’re not willing to allow global political forces to continue to ignore these realities as global citizens. Even though we may all have come from different perspectives – religious, medical, education, worker’s rights, etc. – we were all united by our desire to draw attention to climate change itself and show how all of these issues are connected to one another.

Coming together in community is not foreign to us as Christians. In fact, it is one of our primary ways of being.  We are called be brothers and sisters to one another in Christ and to serve each other in God’s love. Reflecting on today’s Gospel, the disciples are not encountering the risen Christ on their own in Luke’s account. They are a community joined together to share in this period of perplexity, and will later go on as the community of Christ to proclaim the Good News to the rest of the world. There are no individual actors among the disciples in this story – not like in John where Thomas is singled out. All of the disciples are facing the challenge of the reality of Christ together. As people of faith, we aim to seek justice and righteousness in the world for everyone, not only for ourselves. Again, turning back to the scripture from 1 John read today, “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he (Christ) is righteous.” We are called to do “what is right” in all situations, and in this case, “what is right” is to recognize the major injustices which will be created by climate change and attempt to ameliorate them as much as possible.

In what ways will doing “what is right” take shape? There are no simple answers, unfortunately. However, hope can be found in the actions of climate activists around the country and world. For example, divestment from fossil fuel industries by colleges and universities as well as denominations has recently become an important means by which activists not only draw attention to the influence of the fossil fuel industry in various political and social institutions, but also encourage investment into alternative forms of energy. Additionally, some communities are focusing on forming alternative economies, such as time banking, which bring community members together in local economies that require less reliance on fossil fuels for goods to be transported. We are capable of being resilient in the face of climate change, and people are already laying the foundation for us to join in.

If we are to effectively address the issues of climate change, then we must find ways of being in community with each other at the local level (within our church and communities) and also at the global level through recognizing the ways all of our actions are interconnected and affect others throughout the world. Making connections with others expands our abilities to understand complex issues by seeing them from multiple perspectives and enables us to share our individual talents with one another to function in a more effective manner. By accepting the realities of climate change and seeking out opportunities to work together, we can eliminate the paradox created by climate change and free ourselves from its paralyzing effects. The disciples will eventually move out of the liminal state created by their disbelief in Jesus’ presence before them by the time of his ascension. Likewise, we must move out of our liminal state of uncertainty to be empowered by our knowledge and communal capabilities to seek justice and create a better, more sustainable future.


-Dr. Jessica Chicka, Chapel Associate for Lutheran Ministry

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