Making Room for Paradise

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There’s a certain mood that comes over me at times. I can be found staring into space, a grim look in my eyes. When dinner comes, I am quiet at the table, distracted and melancholy. Emily, my wife, usually senses the shift and knows the cause. “Are you reading another book on climate change,” she asks?

For the last couple of weeks that book has been Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich. It is a book not about climate change, it is about climate crisis. Here are some sample sentences from the introduction, titled “The Reckoning”: “The Red Cross estimates that already more refugees flee environmental crises than violent conflict. Starvation, drought, the inundation of the coasts, the smothering expansion of deserts will force hundreds of millions of people to run for their lives.” You can see the cause for my mood.

Rich’s book is a history of the failure to act when we could do so in a meaningful way and the reason for the failure is simple. No one wanted to sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the world, so instead we sacrificed the world on the altar of so-called prosperity. To put a point on the absurdity of our choice Paul Kingsnorth expresses it like this: “Much of nature as we know it is dying away in order that we might have access to smartphones, takeaway coffee, private cars, aeroplane flights and Facebook.” These are realities in which we are all complicit and they affect not only nature but also any hope for a just society.  As Rich writes, “Climate change amplifies social inequity. It disadvantages the disadvantaged, oppresses the oppressed, discriminates against the discriminated against.”

If we are hoping for some savior from the world of activism or religion, we will likely be disappointed. “The religion and the environmentalism of the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham,” writes the poet prophet Wendell Berry, “because they make it their business to fight against something that they do not really wish to destroy. We all live by robbing nature, but our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue. We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do.” But few of us, myself included, are clamoring to lower our standard of living out of love for our children and their children, or even the diverse beauty of the creation.  In the face of the climate crisis, I must admit, it all seems a bit hopeless. But as strange as it may seem, I believe we can begin to find some light for a way forward in the Revelation of John.

John was a prophet in a situation that was dire and intractable. He was a messenger in the midst of an Empire that was as brutal as it was prosperous, built on the backs of slaves, extraction from the earth, and the exploitation of subjected states. Rome’s systems of religion reinforced its political and economic power requiring everyone who wanted to get ahead in business or civic life to be a part of its idolatrous worship. It was into this situation that John, living in exile on the Island of Patmos, wrote to the seven churches to which he had been called to bear witness.

John sees chaos and destruction ahead. Rome will reap what they have sown in the world and many innocent people will suffer because of it. But John tells the churches not to mourn alongside the political and business leaders who will lament Rome’s fall. John says that the church should rejoice at its destruction because as painful as its fall will be, Rome has been a constant force of violence against God’s people and God’s world.

It would have been easy, then, for John to move toward hope through a promise of an escape—everyone raptured out of the smoldering earth to some far away heavenly realm.  But despite what you may have learned from some bad novels and even worse movies, the book of Revelation never even mentions a rapture.

Instead, John closes Revelation with an image of paradise coming to Earth, God coming to be with us in a renewed creation that overwhelms the damage done by Rome and all its inheritors throughout the ages.  This is a resurrection reality that began with Christ’s own resurrection but now lives as a possibility in the world, a possibility that will lead us into paradise.

“The whole world is risen in Christ,” Thomas Merton once wrote, and “if God is ‘all in all’ then everything is in fact paradise, because it is filled with the glory and presence of God.” This is John’s message.  God is with us and where God is with us paradise is already breaking forth.  But for this paradise to be possible we must learn to follow Jesus’ own path toward resurrection.  It was a path that required him to humble himself, limiting his own wants and desires for the sake of those he loved.  To live out the command to love that Jesus gave his disciples in our Gospel reading, we must follow the example he set in a life that was both sacrificial, but also filled with the joyful carelessness of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

These truths lead us into two parallel paths, two courses for our lives that will one day meet in the fullness of God’s kingdom.  In following Jesus’ call to love and imitating his path of sacrificial service we must learn to live not for ourselves but for the sake of the world.  This means, I think, that we must learn to live with less and on less.  We must discipline our wants and our needs to make room for the creation to flourish. The working out of the appropriate objects and scale of these limits is among our most crucial tasks and it should be a work born from love. 

The other path is to begin to practice resurrection and cultivate paradise wherever it may be found.  There are grasslands to be restored, industrial sites to be cleaned up, back yards to be cultivated into micro-refuges for a wide and varied abundance of life.  In doing this work we are beginning something that will not end, but instead will have a lasting reality—a reality in the paradise that will one day come in fullness but is already emerging from the cracks in the concrete.

“Paradise--as we learn to imagine and inhabit it--will need to become a site of resistance,” writes the theologian Douglass Christie. This resistance is to all those forces of death and destruction that look to selfish gain and short-term power rather than the fullness and beauty of the earth.  We can participate in this resistance simply by paying attention to paradise wherever it shows up.  We can welcome it by making room for the creation, not at the edge of our lives, but at its center.

There is much work ahead for those who would follow Jesus on his path of sacrificial love and bringing heaven here.  But as overwhelming as the challenges may seem we must remember that God began the work of creation and will finish the reconciliation of all things. Our task is simply to join in the joyful labor of love.

On Friday, as I was finishing this sermon, my family walked to Allsopp park.  We went into the woods and hiked to a creek that we explore each week.  There was a fallen log near the bank that Emily and I sat on as the girls balanced along the water cut stones, swinging from vines, and ducking beneath tunnels of under-story.  I taught them the bird calls that we heard and what they are saying as best as I could tell.  We watched the leaves of a sycamore shimmer in the sun and got still enough for a chipmunk to emerge from its home beneath the log and then chirp with alarm when he noticed us. It was all beautiful, and God was there, and I could imagine no better paradise than what was present in that corner of creation. It was a reminder of what is, and what is to come, and what, in love, we must make room for in the world. Amen.


Ragan Sutterfield