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Jeremiah 4:11-12 & 22-28
Andy and Red are in the prison yard. They are leaning up against the gray wall in gray clothing, with the gray-ness of the everything all around them. “Do you think you’ll ever get out of here?”, Andy asks Red. “Maybe when I’m too old for it to matter,” he answers. Andy reaches for a handful of the soft clay on the ground, sighs deeply, and tells him that when hegets out, he’s going to Zihuatanejo…this fantasy dream place in his mind where all is right with the world. He says that he’ll go there because it’s warm and the Pacific Ocean has no memory. He invites Red into this dream, but Red won’t have it. The Pacific Ocean, something that big? Likely to scare me to death. I’m institutionalized, he says. I can’t make it out there. And then he breaks – he remembers the gray all around him and chastises Andy. I don’t think you should be doing this to yourself. Mexico’s all the way down there and you’re in here and that’s the way it is. “Yeah, you’re right,” Andy says through clenched teeth, throwing that clay back down to the ground. “I guess it comes down to a simple choice – get busy living or get busy dying.” He stands and leaves, Red wondering what he means by those words that fall harsh on his ears.
Jeremiah’swords this morning may once again fall on our ears harshly, words of lament and anguish that sound both familiar and foreign at the same time. These words might feel like clay in our hands that we want to shape in one direction, but which will not go that way. We may want to hear about salvation, but these words are not those kind. We may want to hear peace, but it’s not readily available here. Jeremiah is telling his people that the southern kingdom of Judah will face the same fate as the northern kingdom of Israel, falling to the might of the Babylonian armies, unless they repent, unless they turn around, and demonstrate their faithfulness.
And – spoiler alert – Jeremiah already thinks it’s too late. As he preaches this repentance to them he laments not only the fact that he thinks they won’t turn around from their “evil ways,” but that they don’t even know how. That’s why the tears and the anguish is so heavy in these words he supposedly speaks on behalf of YHWH, words that seem to make absolutely certain the impending collapse, and yet also include this important line – “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” – the smashing down of the clay of creation back into it’s original form, to be shaped again into something new. It’s the method of the prophetic genre, a style which has, for us anyway, been twisted by a fundamentalist interpretive agenda, turning what is really just a literary genre into what we think is historical forecast. Prophetic literature doesn’t predict the future, nor does it announce hopeless destruction, it is about disclosure of the present, an examination of what is happening right then, speaking as if God were speaking, announcing judgment or favor from God as a way of making public commentary on the political realities of the day.
These days we have things like 1984,The Handmaid’s Tale, and countless movies and shows that depict dystopian futures where the decisions humanity has made, or been unable to make, change life forever for those who survive whatever disaster is delivered – nuclear, economic, social or environmental. They foretell an extreme version of events as if they were happeningas a way of commenting on what ishappening, a way to shock us into realization and maybe, in the best scenario, action. Jeremiah’s words carry the same sentiment to a people hiding from the reality around them, living in denial as the forces of Babylon gather around them. Because Jeremiah the book, at least as we know it, was not gathered together until a long time after the historical events it depicts. In writing backwards, as it were, it becomes a commentary basedin history, but really talking about the future. Jeremiah warns Israel, stating her sins directly and demanding repentance, telling Israel that it can happen here. And even as he does so, he knows that there will be no turning around and the impending doom will soon arrive.
In a brilliant piece from a recent edition of The New Yorker, novelist Jonathan Franzen writes about climate change by evoking a Franz Kafka quote – “There is infinite hope, only not for us.” It is a bleak start to what is, ultimately, an essay of hope on the often hopeless feeling subject of climate change. Franzen suggests that we are facing what is now an inevitable meltdown of the planetary climate as we know it. He states boldly and harshly that if you are under 60, you have a good chance of seeing “radical destabilization of life on earth,” and if you’re under thirty, you are virtually guaranteed of it. It is the impending doom that Jeremiah evokes in his judgment on Israel, and there might be more than one parallel, for we have played the biggest part in the disaster to come.
The science, Franzen writes, “verges on irrefutable.” Just a few days ago a study was released that says parts of the globe have alreadypassed the two-degree mark, the number that scientists and policymakers have identified as a red line if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences. It’s hard to see because the world is still basically normal – we just had another big televised debate, the football season is in full swing, still plenty of food at the supermarket and a new set of Netflix shows start really soon. But this crisis can’t be placed on the calendar. It won’t be a single, cataclysmic event, like an invasion of a foreign army or the impact of a meteor. No, climate change will wreak it’s fury as a series of increasingly compounding crises, another wave of storms, the shortage of food, the impact felt – as it almost always is – by the poorest among us first. It will come on slowly at first, easy for some of us to ignore, until the systems we have built thus far begin to fray, challenging our way of life. That will be the biggest impact. It’s the changepart of climate change that will be the most disruptive.
Franzen suggests in his essay that we are already headed towards such chaos. The two-degree rise in temperature is not only already happening, it may indeed be inevitable now without changes so drastic that they seem impossible to achieve without tyranny and force. So, his suggestion is – keep going. If you plant a garden, keep it up. If you ride your bike to work, don’t stop. If you cut down on meat or have gone vegetarian, if you drive a hybrid or seek to curtail your air travel, you must continue even if it won’t curtail the impending approach of severe climate change. Why? Because a garden means you will need to share your tomatoes with someone, and a bike ride means you see more of the neighborhood than you would in a car, and curtailing your air travel means your going to start thinking more locally, and all of those things build community, they strengthen the social fabric that we will need to survive the coming changes. It is very much like the commandments of Torah that Jeremiah reiterates, calling on his fellow Hebrews to listen to the wisdom and the justice and the mercy found in the ancient instructions, which are meant to help mold us, to shape us, to fashion us into community.
Franzen suggests, “in times of increasing chaos…any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action,” because it can shield us from the impact of reactionary fear or the tyranny of tribalism, which we already see at work. The hope found in Jeremiah may be hard to see, it says, turn around and you mightsurvive, repent of the ways that make for chaos and seek the ways that make for peace, make a different decision and get a different result. It’s an implied hope at best, found only alongside the calls of imminent doom. Franzen echoes this sentiment, imagining what might happen if we don’t think of the coming crisis as the final word. What if we think of securing fair elections, instituting humane immigration policies or combatting extreme wealth disparity as climate action, for they help us to develop and maintain the networks that we will need to face the changes that are inevitably coming. We will discover in the crisis to come that we not only need each other in theory but will need each other in very tangible ways, and whatever we can do to build our interconnectedness and strengthen our social fabric will soon become absolutely critical.
In his introduction, Franzen reverses the rather cynical Kafka quote. Instead of saying, “There is infinite hope, only not for us.”, he writes, “There is no hope,except for us.” That might seem like a “get busy living or get busy dying” kind of choice, a “this or that” duality that gives us few options and feels limiting. But maybe, like Jeremiah’s announced “judgment”, it’s the exclamation of the failed bowl that will be pounded back into a blob of clay, only to be reshaped again. And maybe it is the exact kind of hope we need now, a durable, pliable, malleable hope that speaks to possibility even in catastrophe. A hope that is found in a slight variation of Franzen’s variation – there is no hope, except for the “us” we can make, as full as we can make, as wide as we can make. Perhaps we cannot avert cataclysmic change at this point. It might indeed, as Jeremiah says to Israel again and again, be inevitable now. And, then again, maybe Jeremiah is trying to tell us something in the only way that we can hear it…giving us no other option that to turn to God, and God’s ways of justice and mercy, for our hope lies onlyin such practice. Our hope lies in the reshaping of our souls and our lives, the “potter” God ever at work on creation. Our hope lies in our own choice, setting aside our busy-ness with things that make for death and getting busy with the things that make for life.
May God bless our days with peace, and enough struggle to make us wise.