Earth Day

John 21.1-19

Lake Galilee

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”


This is a good reading for Earth Day Sunday. The sun rises on a shining and blueLake Galilee. The story brings together an abundance of fish, splashing, happy people, (wonderful and weird details of Peter, wanting to appear properly dressed before his Lord, yet too impetuous and amazed to wait) and the earthiness of God’s presence and glory. Jesus presents the bread and fish for breakfast as proof of his bodiliness and as a reminder of God’s outlandish abundance, recalling both the last supper and the feeding of 5000. The charcoal fire gives a nice visual – crackling and snapping to the early morning light – and it’s almost olfactory – as we imagine the sizzling fish.  It’s a lovely setting for the last appearance of the risen Lord. And his commissioning of Peter, in referencing the sheep and lambs, brings to mind psalm 23 and green pastures beside still waters. All verdant and gracious. The reading lends itself well to a celebration of the Earth.

My association with Earth Day is two fold: first, picking up trash along the roadsides – something I’ve done since 1971, beginning in 7th grade with the Youth Group of the United Methodist Church of the Pines – and the second association is an internal soundtrack of feel good nature songs – the Danish hiking song with it’s blue skies calling and gentle wind blowing could be a new addition, joining such classics as the “59th Street Bridge Song” (slow down, you move too fast, you gotta make the morning last kicking down the cobblestones feelin’ groovy), or “Everything is beautiful in its own way” (from Ray Stevens) under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find its way, or Lois Armstrong thinking to himself of the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and what a wonderful world it could be. Last week we sang Morning has broken, that’s a good one, too, (the confirmation kids all made note of it in their sermon notes). I’ve got a long list.

It is good and proper to celebrate Earth Day in worship – and this church’s lovely design with the clear windows overlooking a lake is almost as good as worshiping outside – and quite a bit more comfortable and with reliable sound.  

However, there always seems to be a “however”. The older I get the more complicated things seem to be. I can’t just give myself over into celebration of this beautiful setting and my easy relationship with nature. I still feel that, but it is tinged, stabbed through with the rest of what I know to be true.

Many of my feel good songs came out against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and Agent Orange and the civil rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s and that absurdly on-going struggle for dignity and equal human rights. Feeling groovy was not a prerogative for a whole lot of people.

Earth day was inspired by a huge oil spill. Prior to 1970, there were no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect the environment. Remember acid rain? A factory could legally spew black clouds of toxic smoke into the air or dump tons of toxic waste into a nearby stream. On January 28, 1969, a well called Platform A, drilled by Union Oil 6 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara blew out. More than 3 million gallons of oil spilled, killing more than 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin was inspired to create Earth Day on seeing the 800-square-mile oil slick from an airplane in the Santa Barbara Channel. As a reaction to this disaster, activists were mobilized to create environmental regulation, and environmental education. On the first anniversary of the spill, January 28, 1970, Environmental Rights Day was created, and the Declaration of Environmental Rights was read. Twenty million Americans demonstrated in different U.S. cities, and in December 1970, Congress authorized the creation of a new federal agency to tackle environmental issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was born. 50 years later, the topic is still controversial. Pollution is big money, and people’s livelihoods on one hand, and health and well-being on the other are invested and in conflict.

The mention of a charcoal fire in the reading also reminds us of the high priest’s courtyard and Peter’s three denials, even as three times Jesus now asks Peter if he loves him and commissions Peter for the work of shepherding and feeding the flock.

And Peter, chatting with Jesus, wasn’t getting groovy news. He wasn’t going to snuggle the lambs. He was supposed to feed them, like Jesus, who gave his body, laying down his life as the good shepherd protecting the sheep. Peter and the others are to continue what Jesus had begun. He was to be a good shepherd for the people – all the people. Both Jews and Gentiles means all people. Those are the only two categories of people. Jesus tells him he will be bound and lead where he does not want to go. His fishing days are over — this last amazing catch has nothing to do with fish.

Barb, Mike and Al were just in Kansas City getting arrested in an Earth Day protest for trespassing on forbidden earth, the grounds of the Kansas City National Security Campus where workers manufacture a range of electrical, mechanical, and engineered materials essential for nuclear weapons designed for a global nuclear war. Talk about forbidden fruit. 

Celebrating Earth Day it seems, is less about gathering daffodils and picking up trash, and more about protecting the earth and all creatures from the ravages of our economic and militaristic consumption. It’s about racial and economic justice, it’s about integrity and sustainability. It’s a lot harder and more dangerous and consuming than a day in the sunshine pulling trash out of a river, or collecting household toxins, or emptying the garage of the winter’s recyclables. It’s a lot more like Jesus asking Peter (three times, out loud) if Peter loves him. Can you feel that terrible entrapment of love and fear? It’s a lot like asking for your life – to be changed, given; for your plans to be laid aside; for love to be real, not intellectual or flirty or flippant. Real and acted on. Love for the earth. Love for the people negatively affected by our wealth and prosperity. Love for the animals whose homes and habitats we destroy in complicity and for the sake of more stuff. Love for air and water and soil – sacred creations, each of them. Earth Day is not a poster to hang on the wall. It is an existential challenge and commissioning.

God sent Jesus into the world, not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved, redeemed, brought into focus.  Jesus was rejected and killed for this work, and so will Peter be, and others of the disciples, for trying to bring God’s ‘love beyond borders and boundaries’ to light, for trying to teach the completely radical nature of God’s way of abiding love for ALL LIFE. Like the ancients, we assume God’s favor for us over others, we create hierarchies of value and enshrine them in liturgical text like psalm 8 with all things under the human’s feet. The birds and trees and fireflies might offer a correction for that assumption. 

What do we do with the dual nature of our natures? How do we become less comfortable with our creaturely comforts? Less reliant on blind complicity as an excuse? How do we become AWARE? And do you dare?

I don’t know how to do it, or if I’ll find a way, but I’ve been thinking about how I might preach a non-human-centered world view as a small way into this problem.  I’ve been wondering what the gospel might mean for my cats or the chipmunks or the eagles who sing from that corner pine tree.  What can animal and soil life, wild life teach us about the voice of God spoken directly to them? Why would we assume that God’s word is only in a human frequency? The creation waits, Paul wrote, groaning in travail until the revelation of humankind. Until humans grow into the image of God that God intended for us. Until we take seriously our limitations and responsibilities and possibilities as part (and only part) of the whole creation. 

I will continue to sing to myself about feeling groovy, dappled and drowsy in the morning sun, or planting gardens inch by inch, row by row – I can’t seem to help it, but I can’t now not see what I have seen of the suffering of the world and her creatures and her children, I can’t not worry about the world our children and grandchildren will grow into, and Earth Day celebrations need to encompass all of it and extend beyond a day of each year, becoming a full-in commitment to life.

Peter, do you love me? Jesus asked. Peter, do you love me? Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep and follow me.