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Making Room for the Unimaginable

Lexi Boudreaux
Sun, Sep 15

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Luke 15:1-10


Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, oh God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.

The other day I was organizing my dresser drawers, attempting to prepare for the new church and school year ahead and I found something of mine that I hadn’t seen in a while. It’s a shirt with a drawing of a tree on it that someone gave me from the 9/11 memorial in New York City. When I had made the trip to visit the memorial myself I had forgotten there even was a museum or a place where one would buy a shirt. It felt strange that there would be merchandise at such a place as that. When I arrived at the site I couldn’t get past the two large sunken squares made of black stone, the fountains of water cascading over the sides into the two reservoirs. I stood there, silent, watching the water flow out of dark corners of the craters in front of me. I placed a flower in a name engraved on the stone at the edge of the fountain, adding to what looked like the strangest garden I’d ever seen and I left. I don’t particularly like that shirt, but I can’t seem to get rid of it. I pulled it out to put it in its proper place in the back of the drawer.

As I folded the shirt its white color reminded me of this memory I had as a child. An image of our small white TV that we used to have in the kitchen to watch the news in the morning came to mind, and with it appeared my mother. My mother is a flight attendant for American Airlines, and on September 11th, 18 years ago she stayed home from work due to some sort of schedule conflict. Instead of her, 11 of her close friends were working on flight 11, the American Airlines plane that flew into the twin towers that day at 8:46am. It was her regular crew, the people she knew best, people that she loved. I was picked up early from school that day and when I got home I wandered into our kitchen. I noticed our small white kitchen TV was on the news channel, the light flickering onto my mother’s face in the shadow of the afternoon, her torso leaning over the kitchen counter as she watched in shock and in horror. I heard from a distance her friends’ voices calling out through the black box tape from the airplane, their last words echoing into the recesses of our home. My mother’s friend Amy Sweeny’s voice came out of the speakers saying, “I see water, I see buildings. We are in rapid descent. We are too low. We are far too low. Oh my god. We are way too low.” My mouth was dry. I stood there, silent, watching drops of water drip out of the kitchen faucet unable to make sense of what had just happened. I asked, “Where are you, God?” I certainly couldn’t imagine at the time how the tight knit Boston airline community would heal from this loss. This unfortunately was not the end of the violence connected to 9/11. The pain continued in the form of war, islamophobia, fear, and trauma for so many. 18 years later the Earth is still mourning.

The tone and content of our scripture for today from the Book of Jeremiah matches the intensity of loss and destruction that the events of 9/11 introduced into our nations’ history and into so many lives. The prophet Jeremiah also lived at a time of great political and religious turmoil with the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylonia. Much of the book is focused on his laments at the state of the world, all the while feeling helpless and at a loss of what to do. On top of everything else people didn’t like to listen to Jeremiah because his message was too unpopular, too inconvenient, and too disruptive to the daily life of the people living in Judah. He is often called the weeping prophet because his own people refuse to believe his message about what he knows to be true, causing him to lament often. To be honest what he has been told to do sounds like the world’s worst job. The other day I saw a poster in Homegoods that read, “I’m pretty cool but I cry a lot” and of course like a really normal millennial, I thought of our dear friend Jeremiah.

In our 9 selected verses from chapter 4 for today Jeremiah details a harrowing scene of creation unraveling at the seams on account of the idolatrous behavior of God’s people. The imagery is nothing short of apocalyptic in nature, one commentator calling this passage “a dangerous poem.”  The scene seems as if it is straight out of that science fiction disaster film from the early 2000’s The Day After Tomorrow. Jeremiah says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void.” This language is an echo of Genesis chapter 1:2, one of my favorite lines of the Bible, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The only other time the words “waste and void” appear in scripture other than in Jeremiah is in this line of Genesis. The image here is of Earth in a state of de-creation, devolving into the first elements that would make life possible. It is as if everything has been stripped away and creation is thrust into darkness and chaos.

This depiction of punishment for the people of Judah’s actions was difficult to think about. As we read through the prediction of desolation the images of the towers, the senseless acts of violence against Muslim Americans, and our rising sea levels come to mind. In this passage God seems to be the source of the violence and harm. Personally, I can’t reconcile that kind of God with the kind of God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ in our gospel reading from this morning. The kind of God who prefers to eat with as the text puts it “sinners,” the kind of God who assumes the Pharisees would agree that it would be worth it to run after just one sheep out of 100 or go searching for one coin when you already have 9 others. It is clear that God’s heart longs for the lost and for the weary. God longs for justice and peace for all of creation. Through the telling of this parable Jesus makes it clear that there is no one who he considers to be beyond help, or hopeless. While it is hard to conceive of this violence in the land of Judah originating from God, the destruction exists in this passage due to the senseless behavior of human beings and I do think that our actions in our lives have real, tangible consequences. However you conceive of it God’s people are responsible for the damage that will be done, but our story does not end here.

Despite the consequences of humanity’s foolish behavior manifesting in the world God makes the same commitment of instilling hope that not all is lost in the passage from Jeremiah as well. God says, “the whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” When everything is leveled to the ground God leaves a little room for possibility, for life and hope, in other words, for grace.

A physical reminder of this hope was found in the rubble during the clean up efforts at ground zero. The Callery pear tree that is now known as the “Survivor Tree” was discovered in the debris after 9/11. The severely damaged tree was nursed back to health and new, smooth limbs grew from its gnarled stumps. The tree now stands at the 9/11 Memorial as a living reminder of our shared strength in the face of violence. It seemed like everything was tragedy and grief and death. And then there was this pear tree that made its way out of the rubble, the sapling finding just enough water and nutrients to grow. The people who were mourning recognized life again despite being surrounded by ruins. God’s presence seeps through the messiness and grief that is present in living a human life and shows us another way to live, another way to find comfort in the knowledge that God’s image is in all of creation, to rejoice when we find it in unexpected places, and to let it contribute to our healing and wholeness. 

If we think back to the image of the beginnings of the Earth in Genesis, God’s Spirit and presence still hovers over the waters in the darkness. Even in the midst of chaos, when the world seems as if it has become undone, God is still present, hovering above the very substance that flows through that pear tree that grew up out of so much death and flows through the veins of you and me. When the hot winds threaten to desiccate the land there is potential for new life to spring forth if we only pay attention.

Paying attention is exactly what the prophet Jeremiah is asking God’s people to do. In verses 23-26, the prophet describes the chaos through a four-fold repetition of the phrase, "I looked...and lo...", with the word lo indicating a demand for his people to see and behold what is around them. The prophet leads by example saying, “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was waste and void and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no one at all and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins.” This same repeated phrase is employed in Genesis, but instead of God beholding creation and naming that it is good, Jeremiah is demanding that his people behold what their home will become, something that is not good at all.

Many of us are all too aware that the condition of our environment is on a path that is not good at all. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, is leading the world’s young people in answering the call to pay attention to the rapidly approaching decline of creation in our own time. This coming Friday starts a worldwide climate strike inspired by her leadership. On one of the posters advocating for the strike a quote attributed to her reads, “I want you to act as if the house is on fire because it is.” In an address to the European parliament Greta urged lawmakers to devote as much attention to the climate crisis as they did when much of Notre Dame’s Cathedral burned. She said to them, “deforestation of our great forests, toxic air pollution, loss of insects and wildlife, the acidification of our oceans, these are all disastrous trends, being accelerated by a way of life that we, here in our financially fortunate part of the world, see as our right to simply carry on.”

750 strikes are already planned throughout the United States for this week and one of them is happening in Boston. We are on the brink of a climate crisis. This passage from Jeremiah prompts us to look and behold both the real danger of continued damage to our Earthly home and also to claim the grace in the glimpse of hope for healing, justice, and restoration for all living things. 

Whether we are talking about navigating how to piece back together life after tremendous loss or we are speaking of being paralyzed at the enormity of work that it will take to lessen the impacts of climate change what is required is the same. What is required is to be able to “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable” as Mary Oliver wrote in her poem entitled Evidence. The Pharisees couldn’t imagine that God’s love and grace could be found in a community of people who were seen as unacceptable by their society. The people in the land of Judah could not believe that what Jeremiah was saying about the consequences of their conduct might be true and that God would leave room for hope anyways. And, what about us? Will we believe in the unimaginable grace that God’s presence offers to us when it seems as if life as we know it is being turned upside down? Perhaps this grace is offered in the knowledge that other people are walking around knowing what grief is like too, that we aren’t alone, or maybe we can breathe a sigh of relief from the simple pleasure of the cold taste of water on a hot summer’s day, or maybe, just maybe this grace is found in our remembering and in our re-telling of our story of eternal life and hope that not even death can extinguish.

Even when the Earth has been stripped down to wild beginnings, even when we ourselves feel as if we are living in a time of desolation and nothing feels the same we are left with the Spirit of God hovering over us, hovering over the very thing that sustains our life, gifting us with a gentle touch of grace that allows us to imagine together a way forward and a way through.

May we look and behold that this is good.






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