The Wisdom of the Cross and Climate Change

This is my first time in the pulpit in three months. Let me begin by saying thank you, for me, and for Ellis and Silas too. The sabbatical time was restorative and so good for our family. Thank you to the vestry, to the many volunteers who kept us running, to Cheyanne, Mary, our musicians, to Marc, and Chester, and especially to Julie who stepped into the hot seat just a few weeks after starting. I’m sure you did not know what you were in for. Thank you. And it’s good to be back. I am going to try to avoid the temptation to preach three months worth of sermons today. I am. Today I want to talk about the wisdom of the cross and the environmental crisis.

First: the wisdom of the cross,

It sounds like a contradiction in terms. Just ask St. Paul. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul says calling the cross “wisdom” seems like foolishness to the Greeks and blasphemy to his own religious authorities. How can an instrument of torture and death be wisdom? There is a reason that when Jesus speaks of his death today his followers are confused and they are afraid to ask any questions.

At the heart of our tradition is a scandalous wisdom. I wonder how often we avoid the cross, or like the early followers are too caught up in petty competitions or insecurities to pay the kind of deep attention this wisdom requires. The cross isn’t an easy wisdom to bear, but my friends, I would argue we need the cross as much today as ever, perhaps more.

Sometimes we treat faith as a museum piece. We can be precious, nostalgic, or even anthropological about faith. We think of our beliefs as ancient, maybe irrelevant, or we think of religion as what we do for an hour on Sunday morning (or these days whenever we get around to streaming the service). But could we dare to see the cross as more than a decoration, or a historic event? Could the cross transform how we see the difficulties we face each day? Could we dare to read the signs of our times through the lens of the cross?

The cross tells us God takes the worst of what humans can do and redeems it. Even when we do our worst, even when hope seems lost, God is not done. No situation is irredeemable, but unlike the disciples we have to be willing to face difficult truth. We have to ask the questions we find hard to ask. To illustrate the point, I want to turn this Sunday, the first we are celebrating the season of creation, and talk about the state of our planet.

This summer climate change got real, for many of us.

As beautiful as this sabbatical summer has been, it has also been frustrating. We spent much of our time out in Colorado, and many of the days the air was orange, hazy with acrid smoke from fires further out west. One day, after about a week of having to limit our time outdoors (I am pretty sure it was also the day that the news broke about the devastating UN report on climate change) Ellis and I both were walking the heavy shoulders of existential dread, “I feel like the world is on fire” Ellis told me, and it felt a little too literal. For many of us, this summer climate change became more real, hit closer to home.

I said in my email this week, riffing on a prayer of the church this summer the earth felt more fragile than I’ve felt it before. Some of you know a fire tore through the valley I spent summers in as a kid, the same valley we took Silas to visit this summer. Whole mountainsides I had always known to be covered in dense stands of lodgepole pine, now look mangy, indecent bald spots with just a few charred trees sticking up into the sky, like a sick animal. I found myself wishing my son could have known the Rockies the way I had as a child. It feels like something has been stolen from him.

Next week, I promise, I am going to talk more about what I think our faith compels us to do. We have a corporate responsibility, and for many of us this summer came as a wake up call. But today, I want to ask, what wisdom does our faith bring for those of us feeling this deep existential dread about the planet? Can the cross bring perspective?

I hope so. As I said, there were days it was hard to hope. The writer Anne Lammott has said we live in a Good Friday world. Our job is to be Easter people. It is all too easy to get stuck in the dread, stuck scrolling through so much bad news, stuck in the sense of doom. For me, this summer, it was the flowers that broke through.

Breaking through the doom-scrolling

The thing about dense pine forests is not much else can grow. The sunlight doesn’t penetrate, and the needles dropped by the trees make the forest floor acidic, wildflowers are few and far between in an overgrown forest. But 10 months after the fire, we spent a day driving through the center of the burn. The smoke had cleared, the sky was a deep blue that day, and as we came around another bend in the burned forest suddenly we saw a whole hillside of bright purple flowers. Standing out bright at the base of the blackened trees. It’s hard to get more literal in your symbolism of the cross and resurrection than to see new life springing from where death has occurred. The flowers didn’t erase the pain. They didn’t cover over the scars, but for me they spoke of something that is also true.

That is part of the wisdom of faith, part of the wisdom of the cross We are asked to hold seemingly opposite truths together. The wisdom of the cross asks us to see the painful truths, to see the suffering, not to avert our gaze, and the wisdom of the cross asks us to also see the beauty that can happen even in the ugliest of situations.

Often Christianity is caricatured as being anti-science. You either believe in God or you believe in evolution. You believe in the Bible or you believe in climate science. But what if the stakes are different. What if what our faith has to offer is a reason to keep going when all seems hopeless. What if the wisdom of our tradition can help us direct the questions we ask of the science.

In the midst of the argument Jesus puts a child in the circle of disciples. He says, “whoever wants to be first must be last. Be like little children.” Jesus points his followers away from arguing over who is the greatest. Keep your eyes on those who suffer, he implores, it is the only way to make a Godly difference.

A Different Christian perspective on climate change

The first of this month the something historic happened. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch wrote a joint statement about climate change. It was the first time the heads of the world’s three largest Christian bodies have ever spoken with one voice. The central section of their letter encourages world leaders and scientists to not forget the questions of human injustice raised by global warming. They write: “The people bearing the most catastrophic consequences of these abuses are the poorest on the planet [who] have been the least responsible for causing them.” A Christian perspective on climate change highlights the effect our collective carbon footprint is having on the planet’s most vulnerable people.

If this summer taught us anything about climate change, it’s this: ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. There are all sorts of parallels, of course, with the pandemic. Wishing it weren’t a problem, denying science, trying to minimize, all these patterns of denial can cause harm. When you hear news of Christians denying science, remember it is also true that Christians are a people who line up behind a cross. Our faith asks us to stare at the tortuous reality, at the pain and destruction we can cause. Our faith asks us not to look away, and to ask especially how the most vulnerable people are affected. But, paradoxically, the cross isn’t a sign of death, not for Christians.

Our faith is built on turning the sign of death into the possibility for new life. Yes it is true that our planet is in crisis, but it is also true that creation is surprisingly resilient. New life can spring out of ashes. We find ourselves at a tipping point. The climate has changed. It is also still changing. The cross asks us to stand up in midst of harsh human realities in ways that are hopeful, in ways that are revolutionary.

When the disciples are trying to ignore Jesus’ discussion of his death, they miss the punch line. They miss when Jesus says, “and I will rise again.” The wisdom of the cross is that dread does not have the last word. There is always a reason to hope. There is always a reason to call our fellow human beings to stop living out of fear, to stop living in denial, to work with hope for new life. Faith isn’t just some pretty idea to put on a shelf. I hope your faith points you daily, in the direction of justice, in the direction of hope. That direction, I believe, is where the wisdom of the cross points us.           

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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