Sermon: Burning Hearts and Breaking Bread

Luke 24:13-32

Here we are, on the road to Emmaus. It’s Easter Sunday, but this day isn’t called that yet. It’s two days after our beloved teacher was brutally murdered, and resurrection is the last thing on our mind. Yeshua (the Hebrew name for “Jesus”) is dead, as far as we know, and he’s staying dead. We have no reason to think otherwise, despite the fantasies of some of the women in our group.

All we know is: Our world as we know it is gone, our hopes for a good life for us and our children and our people. This future has been taken from us, and we are trying to take this all in. As we walk to Emmaus, we are talking, talking, talking, so deep in conversation we barely notice the time or the landscape going by. The English translation of the Greek word for “talking” used in this passage means to “commune together.” Through our words, we are trying to find shared meaning in what has just happened. We are trying to reconstruct our world.

And, we are also “discussing,” as the text says. The Greek version of that word means “to examine together, hence to dispute and argue.” We are not of one mind about what just happened. Many of us have different analyses about how things ended up this way, with our rabbi dead and our hopes crushed, about where it all went wrong. And we are certainly not in agreement about what should happen next. We can imagine the arguments! Some of us are angry: “Those Roman bastards and our collaborators must pay for what they did. They only understand violence.” Some of us are despairing: “It’s no use. There’s nothing to do. They win. They always win.” Some of us are too full of guilt to even think of what comes next: “We did nothing while they took him. And we abandoned him as he died.” Some of us just are scared.

This story from Luke, called the Walk to Emmaus story, is an archetypal story, in that it holds a mirror up to our human experience and shows the various responses we have when our world is utterly changed. When we get the diagnosis or the divorce papers. When we get the 2 a.m. phone call or the layoff notice. When we hear the gun shot or the tire squeal. When the reality of COVID-19 really sinks in and we realize in our gut that we’re in this for the long haul, and that the world will never be the same.

Now, you may think that I’m going to make analogies between this walk to Emmaus story and the pandemic, and I could. But I don’t think COVID-19 is actually as world-changing as what COVID-19 is revealing about our society —- that is, its unsustainability. It’s this unsustainability that I want to talk about. I am not talking about how we just need to recycle and go solar. The idea that we can meet the challenges of this time by doing those things is a story that’s been keeping us from seeing what is really happening to the planet. I don’t want to bum you out during what is a difficult time, a time when some of us are already on edge. And yet, I feel compelled to share what is on my heart and mind and has been for some time because you are my community, my Body of Christ, and I need you to commune with me, to argue with me, to help me reconstruct the world. And I know there are others in our community who need this, too.

I think we live within a civilization — a global, industrial, extractive, capitalist civilization — that is unsustainable because it is based on endless growth on a finite planet. And I believe the future will continue to reveal its unsustainability until our society collapses, which could be much sooner than we think, or until we make big changes in how we organize human life and our economies. Our civilization is teetering on the edge.

The science fiction writer William Gibson supposedly said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” That future collapse is already here for some folks and has been for awhile. “Collapse” happened hundreds of years ago for the Indigenous people of this land and for the people of African descent kidnapped from their homes to take the Middle Passage to a life of chattel slavery and its enduring legacies. Collapse has already happened for those in Central America whose countries were essentially made vassal states of U.S. corporations and whose people must now leave their families to come here to work, so they can send money back to their families because their plundered economies can not provide jobs for them. Collapse has already happened to white factory workers in the “heartland” who have lost their high-paying, union jobs to globalization or automation and who now are un- or underemployed and who are dying what are called “deaths of despair” due to opioid abuse and suicide rates that are the highest in the country. You could argue collapse is very near for the 40% of Americans who don’t have more than $400 in their checking account, this in a country where the wealthiest three families own more wealth than the bottom half of the population.  This corona crisis is more fully revealing these inequities and the vulnerabilities of communities that have already experienced some form of collapse and whose resilience and resistance in the face of collapse is a model for those of us who have yet to experience it.

Our economic system depends on unending growth to survive. This system brainwashes us to consume more and more and more because that’s how it keeps feeding. It has to keep growing or it starts falling apart, as is being revealed right now. And this system is consuming the earth, eating it up. This is so much bigger than climate change. We are blowing up mountaintops to find coal, injecting toxic liquids deep into the earth to extract oil and natural gas, dynamiting hillsides to get the quartz to get the silica to make our solar panels, cutting down rainforests to raise cows and palm, dumping fertilizer made from fossil fuels into our depleted soils so we can produce food, all of this at great human and environmental cost. And as we make and consume the products of this system, we produce waste in the form of air pollution and water pollution and carbon dioxide and toxins and plastic and etc.

And there’s more and more of us doing this. Two hundred years ago, we turbocharged our economy by finding fossil fuels. Since then, our economic output and use of earth’s resources has skyrocketed, as has our population. Finding fossil fuels basically enabled us to grow the species. There are seven times more humans on earth than there were in 1800. Let’s be clear that it is only a portion of the world’s population that has burned most of the fossil fuel and that is consuming most of the planet’s resources. (And, hint: it’s us.)

In short, there are more and more of us consuming more and more stuff, generating more and more pollution and more and more carbon dioxide, and in the process we are reaching the biophysical limits of our home. Ecosystems are collapsing. We are using up this earth — its topsoil, its minerals, its rainforests, its wild places, the fish in its oceans, its fresh water and fresh air, its biodiversity, its atmosphere. The population of vertebrate animals on the planet has declined by 50% since the first Earth Day 50 years ago. Over 40% of global insect species are now threatened with extinction. We must pray that bees, that pollinate our crops, don’t become one of those species.

There are Indigenous and traditional peoples who know how to live in a no-growth society, who have figured out how to live in balance with the earth. Thank God their wisdom and ways still exist, even though our civilization has been killing them or forcing them to assimilate for hundreds of years. It’s happening right now, in Suriname, with the Wayana people. In the name of economic development— gold mining — they are being forced off their traditional lands and into the market economy, where they are becoming the newest members of the urban poor and where they, too, must consume the products of industrial civilization. 

It’s so clear that this giant industrial extractive capitalist machine that is destroying the planet can’t keep going. I recently read an article in Fortune magazine, of all places, that said basically this same thing! That we are using up 1.75 earths every year, in terms of resources used, but we only live on one. Yet you will hear almost no one in politics or even the environmental movement say that we need to justly and sustainably end growth. That “green growth” is not sustainable and is often the opposite. That renewables like wind and solar are necessary but they also consume a lot of fossil fuels and resources to manufacture and they are not going to save us. Almost no one is saying: We are at the limit. We’ve hit the wall, and it’s about to come down on top of us. We have got to start planning, now, for a just and sustainable managed descent of our economies or else we will free fall, and it will not be a soft landing.

There’s one more thing I want to say. I was trying to say it last Sunday at Education Hour, and I think that presentation worked for some of you and didn’t work for others. This is why I thought it was important: Our global economy has been built for roughly the past 70 years on access to cheap oil. But  the cheap, high-quality stuff is running out despite the bizarre but very temporary irony of low or even negative prices on oil right now. In order to get to this more expensive energy so we can keep getting our fix, our economic high, the developed world has gone into hock, has taken on loads of debt. This credit, ecological economist Nate Hagens has said, enables the extraction of things we couldn’t otherwise afford to extract to produce things we otherwise couldn’t afford to consume.  We’re already at 330% debt to GDP in the developed world and in order to keep growing, which we’re very committed to, we’re going have to keep taking on debt. But we’re going to reach a limit on how much debt we can take on until the whole financial house of cards comes tumbling down. Hagens, who I think understands this confluence of energy and finance says a more-or-less permanent Great Depression within the next 2 to 10 years is possible. An economic downturn greater than what we’re seeing right now but one we don’t really recover from. Maybe it’s already happening. And maybe it won’t happen. But I think we need to at least entertain this possibility, not just because of how it might impact us but because of whom it will impact the most.

This unsustainability of our civilization and its likelihood of ending and the proximity of its ending and its need to end is what I hold in my mind and my heart much of the time. When all this began to really sink in, I felt like the disciples on the road to Emmaus: The world as I had known it had ended. The future I was expecting for myself, for Patrick, for this community, all seemed gone… or at least very uncertain. The future was always uncertain, of course. I, with my privilege, just didn’t feel its uncertainty.  I know many of you feel this uncertainty, and I want to name it so we can look at it together. So we can talk and argue and discern as we walk into this uncertain future together. 

In the middle of that Walk to Emmaus 2000 years ago, the Risen Yeshua appears in the midst of his disciples, who do not recognize him. He asks them what they are talking about, and, as the text says, “They stood still, looking sad.” Jim Lichti said to me, “I wonder if Yeshua gave the disciples that moment.  I imagine Yeshua taking in their sadness, their confusion, and in a sense, giving it to them, embracing them in their sadness and confusion, and even embracing that sadness and confusion.”

I wonder if we might be still, for a minute, so you can feel what you’re feeling. It might be sadness and confusion. It might be impatience, as in, “Wow, I knew this a long time ago, Sheri.” It might be anger, or despair, or guilt, or fear. Maybe you’re not feeling at all because your mind is really active right now. Maybe you haven’t been listening. That’s all OK. Let’s just be still for about a minute and notice what’s there and allow it to be there, even embrace it…

I was going to end this sermon by talking about about all the reasons we have to be hopeful — about the incredible organizations and movements and scholars and activists and ordinary people, many of them in this Zoom room, who are imagining and building the new world within the shell of the old, right now. I was going to tell you that much of what we are already doing is the right thing to do right now. I was going to tell you that I am more hopeful now that I have been in a long time, even as I am more scared and uncertain.

But I decided that all that might just put us back in our heads, back in our intellects, and I don’t want to go there. Because the Emmaus story is telling us that that is not where we will recognize the Risen Christ. This is the clue the disciples are giving us, from their time of world-ending uncertainty, as to where we might find the Risen One: “Were not our hearts burning with us?” 

Of course, we will find the Risen One in our hearts. Our hearts, where we can be still and embrace everything that we are feeling and experiencing — the uncertainty, the fear, the anger. Our burning hearts, where the Love that is Lord of heaven and earth, as our hymn says, lives within us. Our spacious hearts, where we abide in Christ, as Christ abides in us. It is the eyes of this heart that recognizes the Risen Christ in our world. 

And, the story tells us, the Risen Christ will be known through small actions, small gestures that, nonetheless, reconstruct the world. This is how we remake worlds that are collapsing, that have collapsed, that will collapse, that must collapse: We break bread together and eat, and the Risen One is known to us in the breaking of that bread.  We make Janet’s mother’s zwieback or maybe Dan’s mother’s zwieback and twist the top one quarter turn and remember them and all our ancestors. We live more simply and consume less. We grow our own food. We give away free food. We go to the clinics and hospitals and homeless shelters and do our jobs even though it puts us at risk. We read Scripture together and talk about where it is alive for us. We support a small hospital in Sukadana that shows us a way forward. We make signs that tell Mayor London Breed we want her to provide housing for unhoused people, and we take photos of ourselves doing that and send them to her. We read poetry and host poetry readings. We protest banks that are funding fracking. We give money and soup to Maria Elena, through Ben, and though these small gestures, she feels loved and her world is reconstructed, just a bit. And so is ours. Amen.