This sermon was offered by CCA director, Sarah Ogletree, on Sunday, September 11th, at St. Mary in the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock. The lectionary passage for the day was Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28.
Written during one of the most critical times in the history of Israel–a time ridden with conflict and marked by the downfall of Judah and eventual exile–the book of Jeremiah can be harsh. Jeremiah himself is heartbroken and enraged by his people’s refusal to repent and turn to God. He sees the worst coming, an army knocking at the door, and yet, God’s people will not hear him. They continue to walk toward destruction while Jeremiah watches and warns. In today’s passage, he declares the consequence of their inaction and failure to change their ways.
At this point, he’s had it. He is not kind. But prophets rarely are.
In this passage, Jeremiah speaks truth about what happens when we forget God and our calling to goodness. He says: [God’s] people do not know [God]… They are skilled in doing evil and do not know how to do good.” And it is true that when we forget that we belong to God and each other, that we are made to create God’s kingdom here and now through radical goodness, the consequences are often monumental and catastrophic. And that’s exactly what Jeremiah describes.
In his vision, the earth is a wasteland. The mountains are quaking. The fruit lands become a desert. The birds have vanished. The city is in ruins. The heavens are growing black…
Meant to be cosmic and unfathomable in proportions, Jeremiah’s message of disaster is not unfamiliar. In fact, it’s one we hear on the news nearly every week as we live in this time of climate and ecological crisis… A time of fruit lands becoming literal deserts through rapid desertification and birds vanishing at unprecedented extinction rates… A time when the heavens are turning black with wildfire smoke as super storms darken the skies… A time in which the stakes are so very high, and yet, like those in our scripture, we have often failed to act.
Like in the days of Jeremiah, it is hard to stare the world’s problems in the face. It’s hard to really look at what is happening to our planet, and our neighbors, due to our societal addiction to convenience and the bottom line. And if it’s hard to look at, it’s even harder to feel. More often than we might like to admit, we distract ourselves with platitudes and change the channel when the story about the most recent 1,000-year flooding event, or how ⅓ of Pakistan remains underwater, flashes across our TV or phone screens.
It’s easier that way and I’m guilty of it. But this kind of behavior is exactly what drove Jeremiah mad. The people’s refusal to see the problem, to feel the impending reality of conflict in their bones, was essential to their failure to take action or repent. This is what led to Jeremiah’s prophetic condemnation of his community.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can come back to ourselves and to God. We can respond to the needs of this world, to the groaning of creation, and to our neighbors facing heatwaves, floods, and displacement as a result of climate change. There are ways for us to act with love, generosity, and courage in this time; we need only remember how. Jeremiah’s community was at a tipping point when he addressed them, and so are we. This moment holds within it a multitude of possibilities and listening to the words of Jeremiah, can help us walk the path of righteousness again. That is what I’d like us to consider today.
The first lesson of Jeremiah is the power of lament. In our passage, Jeremiah writes that the “earth will mourn” its destruction. I believe we should read this as an invitation into mourning. Because mourning is important. Mourning means that we aren’t changing the channel. That we aren’t distracting ourselves and that instead, we are encountering the problems of the world honestly–with open hearts and open eyes. We are letting those problems change us. Alchemizing them into the tears in our eyes and the pain in our gut. This is what Jeremiah desired for his people and it is what we have an opportunity to do now. The first step toward action and repentance is seeing clearly and being moved by what we see. I know this first hand.
When I first began environmental work, I was a student of sustainable development just over the mountain at Appalachian State University. After learning that it was the poor and systemically oppressed who bear the brunt of climate change and ecological collapse, I felt called to work in the environmental sector. My upbringing within the Chrisitan church taught me that the greatest commandments were to love God and my neighbor–and my neighbors couldn’t breathe the air in their communities, eat the food grown in their local soil, or drink the water coming from their faucet. To me, this was a clear issue of faith. And so, I threw myself into learning. But I was overwhelmed by my studies, and rather quickly, I found myself racked with anxiety and depression.
My story is not unique. Though I didn’t know it at the time, there are terms for what I was experiencing: eco-anxiety and climate grief. And many people are experiencing these complex and often misunderstood emotions. They are feeling the weight of the world that they love in pain. And they are moved by the pain that they are witnessing. Ultimately, as a college student, I attempted to silence my disquiet by turning to my faith–reminding myself that there is always hope in God. But what I didn’t understand at the time, and I thankfully have come to understand now, is that hope is not the only faithful response to a world in crisis. One of the greatest gifts that faith can offer the movement to care for people and planet are tools for lament.
In recognition of this need, the organization I direct, the Creation Care Alliance, began offering 7-week eco-grief groups in 2020. These offerings have been transformative. I have witnessed people come back from the brink of burnout and utter despair because they have a community that can be present with them. Friends, we need each other.
As a college student, I needed help feeling what I was learning. I couldn’t process the scale of the loss that I was reading about in my classes intellectually in the same way that it is nearly impossible to process the many tragedies that we scroll across on our Facebook feeds in any given day. I needed community for that. I needed the witness of the prophets and their permission to cry out. I needed someone to sit with me in the pain and tell me that God was there in that brokenness. I needed to be told that my tears were faithful and that my worry was a sign of my love… When we see our neighbors suffering, it is right to be heartbroken. This shows us that we still remember what it is to do good; that we have a finger on the pulse on the heartbeat of God.
This brings us to the second lesson of Jeremiah: the actual good-doing. In today’s passage, Jeremiah says that the people “do not know how to do good.” In order to respond to the needs of the world, we must act in response to those needs. In other words, we must remember how to “do good” and then do it. We have already identified that the first step in this process is taking time to feel, mourning the pain of all who have been harmed, and processing the loss of that which cannot be recovered. But from this place of heartbreak comes another offering–that of our time, resources, and gifts.
I cannot tell you exactly what your offering will be because it will be dictated by who you are. But this is an invitation. If you are a writer, use your gifts of writing. If you are someone who loves to be outside, get your hands dirty. If you are a teacher, teach wisdom and discernment. If you are an artist, make art. If you are a caretaker of children, shape your children to be loving. If you have financial resources, give generously, spend sustainably, and divest when necessary. The one thing that is certain is that all of us are called to act from that well of compassion that springs up in us when we encounter the need of our neighbors–human or non-human. And we are called to act as ourselves. With our particular gifts in our particular contexts. All of our gifts, in all their diversity, are needed.
For Jeremiah, doing good and knowing God were inextricably connected. And so, if ever there is a time when we don’t know what we should do, when the heartbreak of fires and flood and species loss is too much and we are unsure how to act, I think his sound advice would be to turn toward God through prayer. Pope Francis has said that “the one who listens attentively to the Word of God, and truly prays, always asks the Lord: what is your will for me?” I believe that this practice is wise and particularly useful in times of uncertainty about how to create change. If we continually take stock of our lives and the needs around us, and openly ask God what God’s will is for us, then we will likely find our path forward. Walking in faith in this time of ecological and social upheaval requires openness to the radical love of God–and all the unexpected places that God might lead us.
It is said that the task of the preacher is to preach good news. So let me say this. Later in the book of Jeremiah, after the people have been driven into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah tells them to: “[b]uild houses and live in them. Settle in the land. Plant gardens and eat the food you grow. Get married and have children.” Even after the world as the people have known it has ended, Jeremiah calls for them to start again. To grow food. To become acquainted with a new place. To be in community with one another. To become family. As the world around us shifts and changes, as we mourn and respond to the needs of the grieving, may we also plant our gardens and eat their fruit. Exile felt like the end of the world to the people of Israel. Wildfires, floods, and other climate impacts can feel the same. But if we have the courage to be community in these times–to show up for each other emotionally and physically–then we can weather the storms together.
And so, beloved, remember that your tears are holy. Try not to turn away. Allow yourselves to be fully awake. Be present with each other. And through your presence, offer the gifts of your heart to a world in need. Remember that what this particular moment needs most is you.