Amazing Surprises

Randall Tremba
April 22, 2012
3rd Sunday of Easter
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

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Today is the third Sunday of Easter and by happy coincidence it is also Earth Day. Let’s put them together and see what happens.

For the Earth Day side here’s a few lines from Greg Brown’s song “Spring Wind” quoted by Bill Howard at Earthfest last Sunday evening.

In a mucked up lovely river,

I cast my little fly.
I look at that river and smell it
And it makes me want to cry.
Oh to clean our dirty planet,
Now there's a noble wish,
And I'm puttin' my shoulder to the wheel
'Cause I wanna catch some fish.

And speaking of fish, here’s the gospel lesson for this third Sunday of Easter. (Luke 24:36b-48)

While they were talking about this (the crucifixion and death of Jesus), Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."

They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."

And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

If you believe in the grand and glorious story of evolution it’s hard to quibble with the Resurrection. I mean, really. If you’re OK with the mind-boggling, jaw-dropping 4.5 billion year old story of nature unfolding on this once lifeless planet, well, what’s not to believe in yet another amazing knock-your-socks-off surprise called “the Resurrection?”

The Resurrection, as it turns out, is far more than we’ve been told. There are many ways of seeing it. Let me tell you one way that’s recently come to light.

This planet could have been called planet Water. For eons nothing but water covered this big rock we call Earth. And then 4 billion or so years ago something happened.

In the soupy water something stirred. A simple cell with an urge to merge and replicate arose—not out of thin air but close to it.

It wasn’t much. But it was a start. Had there been choirs at the time, an anthem would have resounded. The simple cell has triumphed! Hallelujah! And, surprise, surprise, simple cells could do things mere molecules couldn’t.

One thing led to another including nucleated cells. Eventually bushy vegetation emerged in rivers, streams and oceans. An anthem could have resounded: vegetation has triumphed! Hallelujah! And, surprise, surprise, plants could do things mere cells couldn’t.

Under the sea one thing led to another including creatures with fins. And then one day a slithering creature with a twinge of curiosity squiggled onto land and said: WOW. Look at that lush garden of delight! Yummy, yummy.

At the time all creatures had but two things on their minds. One was eating. And I’m pretty sure you can guess the other. Some things never change!

Anyway, that slithering creature procreated. Some of its descendents developed legs, some wings. Things were really taking off now. An anthem could have resounded: animals have triumphed. Hallelujah! And, surprise, surprise, animals could do things mere plants couldn’t.

As each new emergent kingdom or realm arose on the earth it brought characteristics of the realm below and always introduced a surprise, a radically new aspect unforeseen, unpredictable until it was revealed.

And thus from the realm of animals emerged human beings, animal like creatures with a near infinite capacity to create and destroy but also a capacity to love. Evolution of consciousness—and with it cultural evolution—would now outpace biological evolution.

An anthem could have resounded: humans have triumphed. But that anthem would be followed by a dirge.Oh, my god, look what we’ve done to the earth and each other.

Torn up, paved on, filled in, trashed
Dammed up, scraped off, tossed out, gashed
The stream I walked last spring is now gone
Buried in rubble,
300 million living years traded for a handful of coal.

[from a poem by Than Hitt]

And that brings me to the story of the Resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus was killed, in part, for revealing another realm in the making, called in his day “the kingdom or kin-dom of God,” a realm of being that would replicate and flourish not by sexual procreation, as did the other realms, but rather—and here comes another amazing surprise out of the story of evolution—by acts of love.

God is love and those who abide in love abide in God. As you know, love isn’t just a feeling. It’s action. And justice, as it turns out, is the social or political expression of love.

This higher consciousness and capacity embodied in the Resurrection story is a relatively very recent discovery in terms of evolutionary time. And for the first time humans witnessed an evolutionary leap not in fossil records but with their own eyes. Not surprising they were left pretty much speechless, stretching language to the breaking point.

Whatever arose in that Resurrection episode arose into human consciousness as real as can be and started transforming ordinary people into bold lovers. The story of the Resurrection itself is but a glimpse or parable of new possibilities.

Out of the human realm something new is emerging, a life form with a capacity for forgiveness instead of retaliation, for non-violence instead of violence, and an amazing capacity to include more and more people, more and more racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious diversity within a community. Even as I speak it is inviting us to become less tribal and more global.

This emerging form of communal life is known by many names. Our tradition calls it “the Christ.” But by whatever name you can be sure it doesn’t arise without bold love and deep suffering on behalf of others. It brings with it wounded hearts, scared hands and feet. It arises not from the death of the human organism itself but from the death of the “old self” or ego. That kind of death leads to new birth and integration into this new life form.

Anything that stands in the way of this widening circle of love is (quite simply) sin. Racism may linger for years to come, but we’ve seen its defeat in the Christ who has triumphed. Sexism may linger for years to come, but we’ve seen its defeat in the Christ who has triumphed. Homophobia may linger for years to come, but we’ve seen its defeat in the Christ who has triumphed. Greed may linger for years to come, but we’ve seen its defeat in the Christ who has triumphed over sin and death.

And that brings be back to Earth Day.

In case you hadn’t heard, the Resurrected Christ made an appearance last month on the Eastern Shore. It happened this way.

In response to the fish kills in the Shenandoah River, the Downstream Project—of which our own Bill Howard is executive director—produced a documentary on the history and environmental problems of the Shenandoah and the Chesapeake Bay, including industrial pollution, sediment and nutrient pollution from the loss of riparian areas from livestock grazing, poultry processing, and human waste, threatening an entire ecosystem. A grim forecast, indeed.

Last month Bill and his co-workers accompanied the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a group of cattle and dairy farmers from the Shenandoah Valley to Tangier Island. The farmers spent three days getting to know some fishermen. Hostility had been brewing between these two groups for years.

Bill put it this way in his reflections shared at Earthfest last Sunday evening.

“The valley farmers set crab pots and tonged oysters, shared seafood, and stories of their remarkably similar and challenging lives. The farmers became more aware of how their agricultural practices affect the quality of the bay and the livelihoods of the watermen. With efforts like this, and organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I hold out great hope.”

And that’s what it means to be a witness to the Resurrection, a witness to the emerging human community founded on love and reconciliation. It’s not about ghosts. It’s about real things, real water, real fish, and real people transformed by amazing love. It’s about putting your shoulder to the wheel because you wanna catch some fish—for yourself and for a hungry world.