The Earth Mourns, The Sky Grieves – Sky Sunday
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation, Sky Sunday, September 20, 2015
Psalm 19:1-6 Jeremiah 4:23-29
The oracle recorded by the prophet Jeremiah in today’s second scripture reading is one of the darkest passages in the entire Bible. In four parallel lines God systematically de-creates the world. God, who created the heavens and the earth, who saw them and called the good, now demolishes what God has created and returns it to nothing. The references to the creation story in Genesis (which we have been reading these past two weeks) are unmistakable, except that here there is a step-by-step subtraction from the “very good” creation upon which all life depends.
The lines proceed from the most general (heavens and earth) to the landscape of the earth (mountains and hills), to the inhabitants (humans and birds), and finally to the specific land of well-being God had guaranteed – Judah and Jerusalem itself.
These elements of creation are matched and trumped by terms of negation, ‘waste and void’ at the outset, ‘quaking and moving’ as signs of elemental instability, every line except the first summarizes with “all” – all hills, all birds, all cities – nothing spared, nothing held back, nothing protected, nothing guaranteed.
Listen for the Word of God.
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
There is a very startling line in our English translation near the end. Did you hear it? “The whole land shall be at desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” Is this a line of unexpected hope? It seems out of place. Or is the word not a later addition, as some scholars believe, so that the original read “And then I will make a full end!” Complete. Finished. Total. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested that John Calvin may have gotten it right when he understood this to mean added harshness, that God has not yet made an end to the devastation, that there is even more destruction to come. In other words, the unmaking of creation will be, to borrow language from climate scientists, a “slow catastrophe.”
And as the very earth systems that were designed to provide a garden of abundance for all cease to function as they were designed to, the earth mourns, and the sky grieves.
This is devastating stuff. I am devastated.
How could God abandon creation? Abandon us? What could’ve led Jeremiah to believe that things of gotten so bad that God would abandon the entire project of life?
Our children are upstairs right now studying the story of Noah’s Ark. They have a small LED generator and a prism that is casting rainbows upon the ceiling of the classroom – the very sign in the sky that declares that God has hung up God’s War Bow, and will never destroy us again.
Ah, but the biblical prophets have always known that we presume upon such promises to our peril. Do we not also know the words of the African-American spiritual; God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time? There is no escaping judgment. A world out of sync with its creator is not sustainable.
Of course, God DOES NOT abandon creation. God continues to see us, embrace us, and not forsake us – that is why we yet live. But that does not mean that we are unable – or prevented – from laying waste our earth home and visiting all kinds of evil upon one another. And that evil must be answered for. Psalm 19 declares that “The heavens are telling the glory of God” – that the sky bears witness to God’s goodness in creation. But for Jeremiah, the earth mourns and the sky grieves, having seen too much of what humans can do to the earth, its creatures, and one another. The earth and sky bear witness against us, they grieve how we have failed to care for one another and our world, clinging to idols of political and economic security rather than clinging to the sovereignty of God and God’s intentions in creation. And this is something we just don’t want to know!
Yet I must be pointed out that this passage
… is not a blueprint for the future. It is not a prediction. It is not an act of theology that seeks to scare into repentance. It is, rather, a rhetorical attempt to engage this dumb, unaware community in an imaginative embrace of what is happening. The world is becoming unglued. The [prophet Jeremiah] has the awesome burden of helping his people sense that their presumed world is in jeopardy, because God’s holy patience is fully ended.
Jeremiah tried to wake his people out of their active denial, to get them to see what was actually happening in their world and to take responsibility for it before it was too late. In Jeremiah’s time it was the threat of foreign invasion and the domestic failure to care for the widow, orphan and immigrant. But the ruling elite’s combined trust in military power and the dependability of creation led them to deny the future that was coming (for them). And so, in denial to the end, they watched their world disappear: their temple destroyed, their leaders killed, their elites sent into exile, and their poor burdened with the payment of tribute.
As I witness the migrant crisis which is unfolding in Europe, I cannot help but think that we are seeing our future. And I wonder whether we will wake up and take responsibility for what is happening. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing violent conflict and poverty in a “slow catastrophe” that began with what one person has called the “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent.” From 2006 to 2010 the years of the world food crisis and the Syrian drought, 75% of the crops failed, 85% of the livestock died, affecting 1.3 million people. 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihood and many moved, en masse, to the cities, which were already dealing with refugees from the U.S. led Iraq war. Unable to deal with the resulting food and water crisis in the cities, the Assad government, once thought immune from popular unrest, was overthrown as this drought driven catastrophe catalyzed the Arab Spring. The failure of the Syrian state then opened the door for civil war, ISIS, and the mass migration now taking place.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the biblical prophets frequently use the metaphor of the earth mourning and the sky grieving to refer to prolonged drought. Drought is the failure of all that sustains life. Because of anthropogenic(human caused) climate change droughts are now two to three times more likely, and each one is expected to be hotter and longer. When we look at the drought in California, in Texas, in the Sahel regions of Africa, in Sao Paulo, what we are seeing is the earth in mourning, and the heavens grieving. Just this week the Malawi Mission Network, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Presbyterian World Mission issued a call for prayer, fasting and action for the 2 million people of Malawi affected by serious food shortages brought on by torrential flooding followed by severe drought.
But here is what terrifies me. How we treat one another now, during these times of crisis, is indicative of how we will treat one another in the future, and the way we are treating one another now isn’t promising. If our own nation is willing to jail children fleeing violence and terror in their Latin American countries and allow them to languish in horrific limbo, if we think barbed wire border fences and 30 foot walls will keep that crisis at bay; if we are willing to take only 10,000 Syrian migrants while Europe is only willing to take a fraction of the hundreds of thousands that attempt to cross their borders, leaving them stranded behind barbed wires in Budapest and behind hastily erected walls at the Croatian border, I can’t imagine how we will treat one another when the climate catastrophe really hits.
My friends, Jeremiah calls us to repentance and responsibility, for what we are doing to this world and for what we are doing to one another. God loves this world so much God sent Jesus to call us home to it. We should be encouraged that God’s prophets use whatever language or action it takes, even imagining the unimaginable unmaking of creation, in order to shake us out of complacency. There are no promises, of course, that it will all turn out all aright, no matter what we do. The world CAN be unmade. Is being unmade at this moment. But God does promise to meet us if but return. God needs partners in the healing and re-creating of the world. As Pope Francis says in his recent encyclical Laudato Si, “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home…. Men and women are still capable of intervening positively…. All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” All we need to do is say, “Here I am, Lord.” Roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
 Walter Brueggemann, “Theology in Jeremiah: Creatio in Extremis” in Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah (Fortress Press, 2006) p. 41-55.
 Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah 1-25: To Pluck Up, To Tear Down. (Eerdmann’s, 1998) p. 57.
 Brueggemann, Jeremiah, 57-58.