Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9)
At the end of this Palm Sunday morning, I joined a Zoom conversation with some members of First Congregational UCC in Hastings, Nebraska, at the end of their Lenten series about creation care. Their service included a sermon I had recorded earlier in the week. I’ve adapted the manuscript for that sermon here in order to share some of my current thinking about the wider church’s potential to respond in significant ways to the climate crisis.
It’s heartening to see more and more churches considering how this relatively new challenge of climate change fits into the work churches have traditionally done, work like serving people in need, providing Christian formation for our children, and, most of all, the essential work of discipleship, the work of worship, prayer, and study. In recent years, creation care has become an integral part of the social justice work in many churches.
While churches in the United States have a history of connecting an appreciation of nature with respect for God the Creator, especially through summer camps and occasional outdoor worship in the summer, our history of advocacy around policies regulating clean air and water is very limited. This is relatively new work for the church, and we have had to find our way forward while being pulled backward by a fairly recent narrative claiming that environmental efforts are a political hot potato best avoided, that a desire to keep our levels of pollution and our levels of climate change within the range that allows life as we know it to be sustained is, rather than an urgent concern for everyone on the planet, some sort of side issue that is either supported or opposed according to political affiliations.
Unlike the sorts of social issues with which the church has historically engaged, climate change comes with an urgency dictated not by the limits of our energy and compassion, which too often have served to slow our efforts, but rather by the limits set by the laws of physics and chemistry, which should serve to accelerate our efforts. And so at the same time the narrative about care for the environment being a trivial political issue was pulling us back, the reality of how rapidly climate change is unfolding and what its effects actually look like has demanded we move ahead more quickly than many leaders in faith communities or in other sorts of institutions found comfortable or even doable.
We are used to the church engaging in social issues very deliberately. We like to take small steps, doing just enough to stay engaged with an issue while not offending those who aren’t ready for change, and not putting too much time and effort into something many churchgoers see as an unnecessary extra. But because of those pesky natural laws, the luxury of making this work more palatable by advocating for small, incremental changes over many years is not available to us. As this congregation’s Lenten focus on creation care drew to an end, it was wonderful to learn about the efforts of this particular congregation.
We began Holy Week today with Palm Sunday. The Romans in Jesus’s time would process into the cities in their Empire with great pomp, especially after a military victory, the arriving dignitary accompanied by soldiers. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem armed with a heart of compassion and unconditional love, armed with the truth, grounded in prayer, and with deep discernment of God’s will in the week ahead. He is riding not on a warhorse but on a colt, a pile of cloaks for a saddle. More cloaks and leafy tree branches cover the road in front of him, serving both to keep the dust down and to show respect for this humble-looking man who arrives on a colt. And the people who walk ahead of Jesus and behind him are shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one the crowd knows is from God. Christians — at our best — come in the name of the Lord, and groups of Christians who go to serve somewhere, perhaps on a mission trip to another country or somewhere in their own community to serve people in need do so in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus entering Jerusalem, however, was the perfection of what it means to come in the name of the Lord: perfectly loving, perfectly faithful.
When we show up in the name of the Lord, we present ourselves to the world as followers of Jesus, as people trying to follow his perfect example as best as our imperfect selves can.
This congregation learned a lot in recent weeks about creation care and climate change and ways we can best respond to it, and many of us in the church have learned enough in recent years to be able to give some meaningful thought to the direction in which we wish to proceed. What’s next? The images and story of Palm Sunday, of Jesus coming into Jerusalem in the name of the Lord, might point us in a direction for the church’s response to climate change. What does it mean for us to come in the name of the Lord at this point in human history?
Palm Sunday show us Jesus entering Jerusalem in a way that is both significant and humble, a way that makes us aware of his authority and power while also reminding us that it’s a mistake to confuse his authority and power with that of the secular officials. Jesus’s authority comes not from military and political structures but from God. It’s both easily ignored and discounted by the secular authorities and also more powerful than the secular authorities can imagine.
Some reading this may still be wondering about whether the church should direct time and resources toward responding to climate change, while others may be wondering about how the church might best continue that work.
Why should Christians care about climate change? Jesus’s power is love. The reason the church has always cared for people in need is because Jesus taught us to follow his way of love. Climate change is destroying people’s homes and well-being, from Pacific islands made uninhabitable by rising sea levels to Arctic villages built on permafrost whose foundations — and traditional ways of hunting and fishing — cannot hold as the ice melts; from the bitter cold that caused suffering and death in Texas just last month to the floods in Sydney, Australia, this week, as homes were washed away, thousands of people were evacuated from flooded areas, and spiders and snakes swarmed into homes to escape the floodwaters. As I write this post on Sunday evening, I’m seeing news of heavy rains and very destructive flooding in Nashville, Tennessee.
Here in Nebraska, we may feel secure for the moment, far from seacoasts and experienced in dealing with all sorts of weather, but even if we live somewhere where we feel secure for at least the short-term, we cannot follow Jesus and ignore the suffering of our sisters and brothers.
We should care about the integrity of God’s creation because God created all that is out of love. If we love God, we should love the gift of life and all that sustains it that God gave us.
What, then, can we do? There are so many wonderful ways we can practice better stewardship of our resources in our churches and our homes, and most of us are familiar with at least enough of these to begin putting some into practice if we haven’t already done so. Good and useful as it is to put some of these suggestions into practice, we need much more than solid individual stewardship to get us to a point of feeling more certain of a sustainable future. Advocacy — being in touch with our elected officials at all levels of government to encourage them to support legislation and policies to help improve the environment and mitigate climate change — is another area where we might put some time and energy.
However, this Palm Sunday and Holy Week, I hope we can do something more, something bigger that only the church can do. Anyone can adopt better stewardship practices and advocate for better energy and environmental policies — and we need a lot of anyones to do just those things — but there is something more that only we as followers of Jesus can do.
We are truly in a time of environmental crisis, of climate crisis, that’s happening along with and that intersects with other crises that also need attention. In this time of crisis, I believe that the church, the body of the followers of Jesus, is called to do something more than (and perhaps different from) what environmental organizations ask of us when they come to the church hoping we can help promote their efforts:
We are called to deep prayer, acknowledging and offering to God our most terrifying truths about climate change and everything connected with it, and listening for God’s response.
We are called to proclaim God’s sovereignty over all of creation, to grow in our love for God’s creation and our ability to find God through the wonders around us, and to teach our children and others to love and respect and find joy in what God has made.
We are called to give voice to grief and lament, to help ourselves and our neighbors acknowledge the losses of human lives, of plant and animal species, and of places. The church knows how to help people process grief. We may not often acknowledge it, but there is grief not only about the incomprehensible losses of lives, income, and family celebrations from this pandemic we are still enduring, but also about the even bigger losses unfolding from climate change. But once we have given voice to our grief and lament, we are called to our most unique task.
We are called to proclaim hope through our faith in the resurrection. We are Easter people; we preach hope and believe in hope even when everything looks hopeless. The hope we are called to proclaim isn’t a false hope. It’s not thinking that everything will magically turn out all right in the end. Hoping for everything to stay as it is, as we’ve known it, is false hope at this point.
But we can hope for something good that we can’t even imagine. As Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, “hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen?” It’s what the philosopher Jonathan Lear terms “radical hope” — a sort of hope beyond hope. As Easter people, we live in radical hope. As followers of Jesus, we share that with the world.
Discarding the word ‘radical’ for the moment in favor of the perhaps less loaded word ‘deep’, I see the church’s call at this time as a call to deep prayer, deep discipleship, deep grief, deep faith, and deep hope, It’s a time for us to look beyond the institutional church and return to our ancient roots in the life and teaching of Jesus.
What we in the church can offer during this time of environmental crisis is exactly what the followers of Jesus, from those who threw their cloaks down on that dusty road to all of us, have always had to offer: our prayers, our compassion, our hope, and ourselves, all sustained by our faith in the Easter promise of resurrection.