Luke 14:25-33, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Jeremiah 18:1-11
So a few weeks ago, I gave a sermon riffing on two readings; one from Luke with a very angry-sounding Jesus, and the other, a challenging part of Jeremiah, speaking of false prophets. And afterwards I thought to myself.. “thank goodness I won’t have to do anything like that for a while”…. hmm!
So today with an angry judgement-heralding Jeremiah, and an equally angry-sounding Jesus resounding in our ears – it’s tempting to feel gloom. But I want to talk about HOPE.
And even more so, as we begin our Creation Season, and think about the gift and beauty of the earth, and our inevitable sense of unease at environmental destruction… HOPE seems to be a good territory to explore..
But to speak of Hope, I need to speak honestly and realistically… and to do that I need to name the uncertainty I’m sure many of us feel.. Beyond the personal and political uncertainty we are facing of course, we are facing an even deeper existential uncertainty over our actual existence; the planet, children and grandchildren… We have to ask what does Hope actually look like? Or a phrase I use, ‘what are the contours of hope?’
Certainly it feels like we are at a point where there might be no hope… When I speak with young people, ( ) there is a growing sense of hopelessness, of no future… and the effects are devastating; anxiety, depression, suicide. But how can anyone live without hope? We shudder and lament over these stories, (and hear the echo in our own hearts).
And as we are called upon by the folks of Extinction Rebellion and Dark Mountain to face the most uncomfortable truths about our future… It really is quite terrifying… we need to truly shed tears – like Jeremiah – to feel in our own flesh the wounds of the planet. To find words of hope seems to be increasingly difficult.
As Christians we may speak of hope in Christ.. but again, what does that actually mean? What is the shape of such a hope, what are the contours? We know within ourselves that a simple notion that ‘God is in control’, therefore all will somehow be ok is not good enough. In fact, as we witness in American Fundamentalism; (false) hope has become part of the problem, a denial of reality which only hastens environmental disaster.
In the last sermon I spoke of the prophetic tradition present in both Jeremiah and Jesus. And how Jesus is accessing and re-issuing the same kinds of challenges as Jeremiah did almost 600 years earlier. And in the same way, using bold outrageous, almost absurd, language to illustrate the kingdom of God, false priorities and misplaced dreams…
Jesus and Jeremiah convey their message in forms of Art.. Jeremiah in poetry; Jesus in parable – and both in actions.
So let’s begin by looking at some art…
This is ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th C. German romantic landscape painter.
The romantic era emerged from a growing disillusionment with an increasingly materialistic society. A widespread idea was a strong belief and interest in the importance of nature. This is particularly felt in the effect of nature upon the artist when surrounded by it – and preferably alone. Romanticism correlated with a new spirituality – particularly a mystical relationship with nature – revealing the grandeur and awe of the natural world.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1817) shows a solitary figure (not Boris Johnson!) standing on a rocky outcrop gazing out over a vista of hills and mountains veiled in a sea of fog. The fog stretches out beyond the mountains eventually mingling with the cloudy sky. Writer Ron Dembo says that the Wanderer is a metaphor for the unknown ‘future full of risks; indistinct, hazy and obscured by fog. ‘How should we travel in this mysterious landscape?’ We – like the wanderer – yearn for the same vista where we can see a future beyond the waves of cloudy uncertainty and mystery..
That uncertain future seems to be where hope stumbles.
We often think of God like this too; Jeremiah implies that the potter is in control; defining history, shaping events, moulding us, making everything fit in some elusive plan..
But doesn’t such an attitude render us powerless? If God is in control, then is there anything we can do to affect the future? (that question challenges how we understand God to be..)
So dare I make an alternative suggestion…
When a potter works with clay, or a sculptor works with wood or stone, or when an artist picks up a brush, they never simply impress their idea onto the clay, the canvas, the wood or the stone… (I might dare to say something about music!).
Although there is an intention – there is also something of a negotiation; artists tell of how the developing work speaks to them, how they take care to listen and engage with their chosen material..
At St Ives, I read Barbara Hepworth’s words ‘One must be entirely sensitive to the structure of the material that one is handling. One must yield to it in tiny details of execution, perhaps the handling of the surface or grain, and one must master it as a whole.’ (A bit like this preacher daring to speak of God!)
This understanding changes how we see the potter in Jeremiah… and therefore suggests an alternative way of thinking about God.. the potter works with the clay, yielding, feeling, intuiting, tactile feedback evokes form.
Similarly, some (Process) theologians now speak of God as almost ‘ahead of time’ not ‘above time’.. evoking possibilities from us, inviting and discovering with us, working out ways of being… (Let that idea settle for a moment..)
God adapts, responds, and invites possible futures to emerge.. Calls us (from the future) to become more fully ourselves, more human, working with our possibilities and potentials. Is this the living fountain?
We began the service (deliberately) with the reading from Deuteronomy, as YHVH – dressed in cloud and fire – opens such possibilities to the fledgling Israel.. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse – now choose life..”
The potter responds with the clay to discover an unknown potential – It’s open, its invitational, its relational…
Its maybe a radically different perspective – and it might be helpful!
Charles Causley’s (Cornish) poem ‘I am the Song’ points to this inversion; reflects a deeper entwined relationship…
I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.
(Which is nice Gary – but I thought you were going to speak about Hope?!)
And that’s the problem.. though I want to speak of hope – I cannot speak of hope in any concrete way.. when we are thinking about the fragility of the planet and our eco-system – how can we speak with hope which doesn’t sound delusional; or even worse, complacent, when the world is already suffering?
We do need to be truly careful and truthfully realistic… yet somehow we find ourselves held by a holy story which draws us towards hope. An elusive, hard to grasp, possibly weak, yet insistent hope in the future.
Which maybe is what Jesus is echoing under the shock of his inflammatory ‘family-busting’ words; He seems to be suggesting… hold on to nothing that you normally would. Hold on to no thing at all, even the things you hold most dear. Could that include our ideas of ‘hope’ – if such ‘hope’ is merely a denial of reality?
Jesus is once again the shibboleth, the dividing line; his way challenges us to our core.. and inspires us to look again with a new understanding towards God. It’s like he’s saying hold on to nothing you can make or contain – because God is beyond anything you can make or contain. So too Hope is beyond anything we can make and contain…
But hope is something we can still discover, encounter and live with…
We’ve heard a lot from Jeremiah these past weeks; but a few chapters later (Jer.32) comes the odd detail of Jeremiah buying a field from his cousin.. (Babylonian troops were already well across the border…. All hope was lost, but suddenly every things seems to pause as Jeremiah buys this field in occupied land, and honours a Levitical law).
What’s going on? Like our looming environmental catastrophe, the world was already ending for Jeremiah and for Judah… but he enacts an ordinary, straightforward transaction…
Maybe what we fear the most is not the end of the world – but changes to our world. The writer Rebecca Solnit says that, “people have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.”
So … I’m sculpting too; trying to piece themes together in a way that makes sense for us, and maybe – just maybe – reveals some of the contours of hope in the face of devastating uncertainty…let’s conclude;
Jeremiah’s vision of the potter working with the clay offers the suggestion that God working in creative partnership with people and creation; For example, for one moment imagine the idea that regeneration emerges even from fire-scorched forests… nature adapts. God’s life insists with and within nature and even the cycles of destruction and new life (Is.45:1-8).
I’m not saying we don’t fight climate change – on the contrary; But maybe the fight we begin with is to hunger and embody hope… even as we face reality.
Jesus seems to be challenging his listeners that the cost involved in following him is everything.. ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions... (Lk. 14.33) (our security and comfort mechanisms)
Instead Jesus invites us to participate in an evolving and unfolding future.. a future full of uncertainty. We cannot guess what the future might be – and we cannot view a future from some high vantage point …
Instead we find hope by living in hope, living as if hope is already with us.. and hope finds us – maybe in the smallest of acts, (as Richard said last week), even as small as waking up in the morning to face a new day – to choose life.
It makes no sense – and maybe that’s the point. Jeremiah buying a field makes no sense.. it’s utterly absurd. But he chooses to; he chooses life – not death; and so affirms hope in the future, in humanity, in God.
I cannot tell you what hope looks like for you, (or me!).. we cannot name or point to hope. The contours only make sense when we walk them and feel them under our feet.
But we must come off the mountaintop vantage point.. (we cannot see the future). Instead we descend into the misty valleys; we must face our world, (not rise above it). We are invited to roll up our sleeves with the potter, to enter the uncertainty and to co-create a new emerging reality; one of compassion, humanity and … (hope).
GS Collins. 8th Sept 2019