United Church of Christ

Sermon by the Rev. Michael Mulberry

Jeremiah 1 BFC 2018 by the Rev. Michael Mulberry.

Jeremiah 10: 12-13; 5:22; 4:24-28a;

In Jeremiah Chapter 1, the first question God asks the prophet Jeremiah is, “What do you see?”  Look out and tell me what you see, young man.  See. No.  Look harder.  Really see your nation . . . Judah.  What is going on in your nation’s capital, Jerusalem.  See.

As a young person studying earth science, I was taught that earth dependably spun on a hypothetical axis, a sense that, as the world turns, I was safe and secure within that regular due course.  I was therefore alarmed to read this week that NASA recently released their finding that climate change has caused the earth to wobble on its axis.  The major contributor is Greenland’s ice melt.  Over the past century, a total of 7500 gigatons of ice, the weight of 20 million Empire State buildings, has melted into the ocean.[1]  All is not right.  All is not well.  What we see is, the threads with which the earth is woven together are fraying and coming undone. 

Within Jewish myth and theology is an understanding of creation beautiful in its set revolution, order, orbits, boundaries, limits, and rhythms.  That order, those boundaries and rhythms, are seen as Creator’s broad and vast love for humankind, animals, and the whole universe.    Hear that in the beautiful simplicity spoken in this poem written by a Jewish rabbi:

Bless Adonai

who spins day into dusk

With wisdom watch

the dawn gates open;

with understanding let

time and seasons

come and go;

with awe perceive

the stars in lawful orbit

Morning dawns,

evening darkens;

darkness and light yielding

one to the other,

yet each distinguished

and unique.

 

Marvel at life!

Strive to know its ways!

Seek Wisdom and Truth,

the gateways

to Life’s mysteries!

 

Wondrous indeed

is the evening twilight.[2]

I love that poem.  Orbits are kept.  Day and night keep their appointed times.  Distinct limits to times and seasons keep all in order and peace.  In that poem, the world is a safe and secure place.  In chapter five of Jeremiah, that poem is echoed with God saying, “I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, though they roar, they cannot pass over it.”   Necessaries boundaries and limits within creation provide a safe and secure place.

British theologian Michael Northcutt’s book, A Political Theology of Climate Change, details how the separation between science, politics, and faith has not given us a cosmology by which we might reference the “politics of slow catastrophe” which is now stalking us as the ecological threads unravel.  Traditional cosmologies, which included the Bible, saw the climate as intensely political.  The actions of sovereigns and nations influenced the climate.  When lords and states behaved badly, the earth behaved badly back.  Our modern understandings have banished this worldview as unscientific and superstitious.[3]  We are in control.  We just need more science and not more courage! 

Meanwhile, Northcutt believes, we are beginning to see the shortcomings of this “modern” cosmology.  Mother Nature is biting back.  Hard. As eco-philosopher, farmer Masanobu Fukuoka warns, “If we throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.”[4]  Northcutt references this as a climate apocalyptic.[5]

Jewish Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman believes that the prophet Jeremiah may have been responsible for writing much of the text we have in Hebrew Scripture.  Correlating with Friedman’s conclusion, the verses we have from Jeremiah line up with the theology found in Genesis’s first creation story.  Bringing order out of chaos to create the universe is part of that first creation story.  The Hebrew, literally translated, begins with “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth[6], when the earth was wild and waste[7], darkness over the face of the Sea, rushing-spirit of God hovering[8]over the face of the waters . . .”[9]  Wild and waste, darkness over the face of the Sea, indicates that creation begins in chaos.  Throughout Scripture, evidence that the world is in chaos is found in physical, tangible, and real manifestations:  hunger, violence, unemployment, and land loss.[10]  In Scripture when hunger, violence, unemployment, and land loss are rampant, chaos reigns.  Climate crisis is rooted in persistent, historic and systemic inequality, which makes climate crisis a justice as well as a survival issue.[11] 

Returning to the first creation story in Genesis, we do not linger long in chaos.   Immediately, God begins creating order out of chaos.  Day is separated by night.  Waters are separated by waters.  The heavens are separated from earth.  Dry land is separated from water.  Order is created out of chaos.[12]

This first creation story goes on to suggest that by setting limits or boundaries on the origination of creation, all of life is brought to its culmination in Sabbath and shalom—a holy sanctuary of rest, wholeness, and peace.  Remember that this creation story was written by Jewish people who knew their Hebrew ancestors had been slaves.  For slaves all of life is deprivation, chaos and liberation leads to a new creation in order moving to rest, wholeness, and peace.  These boundaries and limits to chaos, particularly chaos created by out-of-control power, these boundaries and limits provided a safe, viable, and fruitful place for human habitation—a place without scarcity.[13]  

I want to make clear that the Bible does not juxtapose “law and order” with “chaos.”  Biblical order is related to the neighborliness referenced in the Mosaic Covenant.  The Jewish people believed and believe that the covenant with Moses was given to them as a gift to keep their communities vital, maintain their freedom, and protect the most vulnerable.  That order set limits and boundaries on the wealthy and the privileged, those who could easily use their power to steal from the common and tip the scales of justice to their side.  Creation maintains its coherence when we recognize our limits and boundaries as creatures who are a part of the creation.  We were meant for boundaries as an integral part of creation.  We were meant for limits.  We are not god.

What the prophet Jeremiah sees is that order is losing its grip to chaos.  The great unraveling is taking place, the climate apocalyptic.  Mother Nature has returned with her pitchfork.  The world is not a secure place for the economically poor, safeguards built in to preserve them are abandoned, and disaster seems imminent for the nation of Judah, the elite in Jerusalem, and its king, Jehoiakim. 

Again, at the core of the prophet Jeremiah’s understanding of God and the universe is the first creation story.  It is by God’s power that the earth was made.  It is by God’s wisdom that the world was established.  It is by God’s understanding the heavens were stretched out.  Jeremiah makes those statements in one of our Scripture verses today as if there is a rival to those claims.  Someone or some thing is not even blinking at the limits and the boundaries God has set, but, instead, either believes God does not see, God does not care, or assumes that their own decisions, actions, and judgments are righteous because God has pre-ordained it to be so.   Out-of-control power is threatening and destroying a safe, viable, and fruitful place for human habitation.

As the ruler and his advisors, the nation, and the religious figures continue to exceed necessary boundaries and limits, creation is undone.  In Jeremiah chapter 4, creation returns to its original chaos.  The land becomes waste and void.   Instability, evidenced by quaking and moving, is unleashed.  The word “all” is used repeatedly (all the hills, all the birds, all the cities) to say that nothing will be spared, nothing will be held back, nothing guaranteed. 

That is characteristic of the prophet’s voice throughout Scripture.  They are apocalyptic.  The prophet always knows that the world cannot remain as it is, as it has become institutionalized, and be faithful.  It all has to come down.  Miriam sings of the entire Egyptian war machine thrown into the Sea, into the chaos.  Mary of Nazareth sings of scattering the proud, bringing them down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, a total upheaval. 

The literal meaning of apocalyptic is to reveal or unmask.   Jeremiah, the boy, is asked to see what is being revealed.  As Biblical theologian Ched Myers has written,

[Apocalyptic] has to do with a kind of vision that is able to see through the dominant stories of empire—the grand fictions of entitlement and sovereignty, militaristic triumphalism, seductive myths of grandeur, and severe orthodoxies of law and order.  Apocalyptic seeks to lift what Morpheus, in the 1999 film The Matrix, describes as “the world that has been pulled over our eyes”: the propaganda of empire that masks the truth, distorts what it means to be human, and hijacks history.  Apocalyptic, in contrast, seeks a “double unmasking,” by:

stripping away the layers of denial and delusion that keep us distracted, in order to expose realities of personal and political suffering and injustice—that is, to see the world as it really is from the perspective of the poor and victims of violence; and then transfusing our dulled and dumbed-down imaginations with visions of the world as it really could and should be from the perspective of divine love and justice.  The possibilities of a different way of being are revealed, or at least glimpsed, in apocalyptic visions.[14]

As prophets of our own age, we are tasked to develop our own apocalyptic, revealing visions from the perspective of divine love and justice.  See.  No.  Look harder. 

Some of you may remember that in January of this year I preached about the 21 youth, ages 7 to 18, who are suing the federal government around issues of climate justice—one of them a son of a UCC pastor.  In August, the United States Supreme “Court denied the Trump administration’s application for stay, preserving the U.S. District Court’s trial start date of October 29, 2018. The Supreme Court also denied the government’s premature request to review the case before the district court hears all of the facts that support the youth’s claims at trial.”[15]    

          These young boys and girls refer to themselves as the Zero Hour movement.  And define themselves in this way: 

The mission of the Zero Hour movement is to center the voices of diverse youth in the conversation around climate and environmental justice. Zero Hour is a youth-led movement creating entry points, training, and resources for new young activists and organizers (and adults who support our vision) wanting to take concrete action around climate change. Together, we are a movement of unstoppable youth organizing to protect our rights and access to the natural resources and a clean, safe, and healthy environment that will ensure a livable future where we not just survive, but flourish.[16]

Mother Nature has arrived with a pitchfork and these young boys and girls “see.”  Like the young boy Jeremiah, they are asking us to invest in a new world that is being revealed, uncovered, and unmasked.   May we have the grit, the courage, and the vision to see with them.  For wondrous indeed is the evening twilight.  Amen. 

 

[1] Pam Wright, “Climate change is causing earth to wobble on its axis, NASA says,” weather.com.  https://weather.com/science/space/news/2018-09-25-climate-change-earth-wobble-more-nasa

[2] Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro, Earth Prayers from Around the World  (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco), p. 371.

[3] Michael Northcutt, A Political Theology of Climate Change (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans, 2013), p. 45ff.

[4] Ched Myers, “Nature against Empire: Exodus Plagues, Climate Crisis and Hardheartedness,” chedmyers.org  https://www.chedmyers.org/blog/2018/07/08/%E2%80%9Cnature-against-empire-exodus-plagues-climate-crisis-and-hardheartedness-ched-myers

[5] Northcutt, “A Political,” p. 26.

[6] “the heavens and the earth” poetic for “everything” or “everywhere”

[7] “wild and waste,” the Hebrew indicating emptiness

[8] Indicative of “flitting.”

[9] The Five Books of Moses, translation, notes (including above footnotes), and commentary by Everett Fox, (New York:  Schocken Books, 1995), p. 13.

[10] Walter Brueggeman, Like Fire in the Bones (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2006), p. 170

[11] Myers, “Bible against empire.”

 7The Joker’s speech in the Batman move, “The Dark Knight” brings forward that ancient struggle between order and chaos.  Unfortunately, Joker juxtaposes “law and order” and “chaos.”  The Bible juxtaposes the order created by the Mosaic Covenant with injunctions to do justice over and against the chaos of the created order which sees itself as limitless or as god rather than creation.  Hear implicit in the Joker’s speech a conversation about justice.  Here are some quotes from the Joker’s incredible speech to Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight”:  You know what I am, Harvey? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught one. I just DO things.  Introduce alittle anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I AM AN AGENT OF CHAOS. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey. It's fair.”

[13] Brueggeman, Like Fire.  Deuteronomy 8:7-11, “For the Living God, your God, is bringing you into a good land, a land of flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.  You shall eat your fill and bless the Living One, your God, for the good land the Source of All Being has given you.”

[14] Myers, “Bible against empire.”

[15] James Conca, “Children Change The Climate In The US Supreme Court -- 1st Climate Lawsuit Goes Forward,” Forbes, August 3, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2018/08/03/children-change-the-climate-in-the-us-supreme-court-1st-climate-lawsuit-goes-forward/#436929aa3547.

[16] http://thisiszerohour.org/


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