The Spirit of Life Pulsates Through Death: Passion and Ecology
by Robert Saler
Reading for Series C: 2013
Luke 19:28-40 or John 12:12-16
Luke 22:14 – 23:56 or Luke 23:1-49
One of the biggest dangers that those who preach about ecological matters face is sentimentality. It is tempting to try and evoke love for nature by appealing to serene mountain landscapes, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, or the peacefulness of a hike through the forest. When we appeal to “nature” in sermons, that temptation is particularly palpable.
The temptation to sentimentalize nature, however, should be resisted. The main reason for this has to do with simple credibility. As Annie Dillard, perhaps the greatest American writer of the twentieth century, has chronicled vividly in such classics as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm, nature is the site of activity that immediately shreds any “cute and cuddly” sanitized postcard images of nature. Parasitism, “eat and be eaten,” brutal reproductive habits, and seeming chaos are as much the order of nature as are beautiful sunsets and charming animals–in fact, you cannot have the latter without the former. To sentimentalize nature is to miss this fundamental truth: nature is arranged so that death and beauty go hand and hand.
And perhaps Palm/Passion Sunday, the Sunday in which many churches go from waving verdant green palms to meditating on the barren place of the skull, when the rich wine of the last supper gives way to the gall of the cross—perhaps this is the space in the church year when that message might resonate most strongly. It is of course the case that Christians throughout history have had variegated and conflicting opinions about Jesus’ death: was it necessary? Was it part of God’s plan? Does it atone for sin, and, if so, how? Consensus on the specific nature of the atonement (that is, a specific “atonement theory”) has never been mandated by Christian orthodoxy. But what does run through various theories, images, and meditations on the cross of Christ is this fundamental datum: the life that the God of Jesus Christ chooses to give is a life interwoven with the realities of death. Easter might overcome the passion, but it does not eliminate it.
But the reverse is true. If life is shot through with death, then the liturgical remembrance of Jesus’ passion is the church’s testimony to a hurting world that what appear to be spaces of death (Golgotha, a sealed tomb) are shot through with life. The places of human failure are the sites of the Spirit’s triumph.
Sentimentality is the enemy of truly Christian action. If Christians over-sentimentalize Jesus, and thus trivialize the faith, then Christian action in the world will be too airy and fragile to stand up to the hard realities of a time in which Caesars and Pilates still reign, in which individuals and whole peoples are crucified by violence of all sorts, and even the best-intentioned work on behalf of the poor and marginalized is inextricable from the limitations imposed by unjust systems. Similarly, to sentimentalize nature is to miss the fact that the very environment which Joseph Sittler once called “the placenta of human self-consciousness” is a place shot through with that which might terrify us. Whitewashed fiction is no solid ground on which to take a stand for that which we love.
Any Christian action in the world will have to take the world as it is—which means that that action must be grounded in hope that may seem as impossible in our day as hope must have seemed at the foot of the cross. And as the terrors of our natural environment move from the sort of “natural” dangers such as predators and parasites to the more humanly crafted threats of global climate change, pollution, and loss of species, we will need to act with the hope that, just as it did two thousand years ago, God’s spirit of life with pulse through the reality of death—such that death is not the final word.
For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288