And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:12)
Matthew’s story of the wise men following the star, finding Jesus, and honoring him as a king reminds us that we can learn a lot just by looking around — and up and down — and being aware of the world around us. The wise men read the natural signs. They followed a star that would have been visible to everyone who looked up at the sky, and yet they were the ones who saw it, had enough of a sense of wonder to realize that this star was something different and to reflect on its meaning, and got on the road to follow it.
We are not surprised, then, to find that at the end of the Gospel lesson for Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12), the wise men pay attention to a dream warning them not to return to Herod. No doubt these observant people, whoever they were and wherever they called home, had already noticed subtleties of Herod’s behavior and questions about the baby that made them open to receiving the dream and paying attention to it. Matthew tells us that their response to the information from the dream was to leave for their own country by another road.
We call these people wise men, but I wonder how many of their contemporaries considered them wise. When everyone else ignored an unusual star in the sky, the wise men noticed it and set out on what may have been a fairly long journey because they thought the star was a sign of an important event. They brought extravagant and somewhat odd gifts to a carpenter’s infant son, and they said this baby was a king. And on the basis of a dream, they ignored King Herod’s request that they return to him after they had found the child. Instead, they did something unexpected, returning by a different way.
Today we have people who notice the natural signs of climate change — signs such as the melting of the Arctic ice, the calving of glaciers, the changes in planting and harvest times, changes in rainfall patterns — while most of us either don’t see these things or, if we do see them, don’t wonder at them or reflect on what these things mean for us. Realizing how important it is for us to mitigate global warming and plan the best ways to adapt to the effects of climate change that are already set in motion, they try to persuade leaders to pay attention and act. Sometimes leaders in government, industry, and the church seem to hear them. Sometimes our leaders make good statements about climate change or give speeches or homilies that sound as if things might change. And yet the amount of greenhouse gas emissions continues to rise, and global temperatures rise in parallel. Our wisdom is lagging behind our commitment to expediency, and so the little we do is ineffective.
When I read the Epiphany Gospel this year, I was struck by the wise men returning by another road. Perhaps we need to set down a different road. In particular, it seems to be time for Christians to take a new road, aligning ourselves with the wise ones of our time instead of the ones in power who for whatever reason cannot or will not create the significant changes we need to make in the immediate future. It may be time for us to do things differently in our own churches, too. Greening our parishes, encouraging energy conservation, and writing op-ed pieces are all good things to do, and they continue to be good to the extent that they build awareness, but they are not enough.
Environmental stewardship in the church is much more often than not treated as a side issue, an extra something that we tack on to appease the environmental advocates or to show that we are up on contemporary issues. Even if we know in our heads that climate change threatens everything else we do — all of our financial stability, our programs, many of our buildings, and eventually the welfare of all of our people — we have not allowed that knowledge to penetrate our hearts or our guts, where our intuitions and dreams would show us a different way to go about being the church.
When we can be in a worship service for an hour and never have any inkling from any of the prayers, announcements, or preaching that climate change is an issue, or when we can sit in committee meetings or church councils and never be asked to consider global warming as we plan, then there is a wide gap between what we know at some level in our heads and what has seeped in deeply enough to really change our direction. At the very least this century, the church should be aware that the work of caring for those who are poor, hungry, refugees, or in spiritual anguish will increase as the effects of climate change worsen and become more widespread, and we should be planning to act on that awareness. And to really be serving as Christ’s body in this world in this century, we should be leading by word and example to mitigate the extent of global warming, showing our awareness of what is happening to our world and making major shifts in our priorities that reflect a deeply felt knowledge of what is happening.
What does that different road look like for us? I suspect we may not know until we commit ourselves to taking it. We may need to make a new road by walking, by being intentional about remembering climate change and remembering the reality of today’s world whenever and wherever we do the work of the church. The old roads lead us back to the expediency of the status quo, and that is killing us. Like the wise men, we need to change course and choose a different road.