If you’re planning on buying a winter place in Miami Beach, I wouldn’t advise it. It’s an island and the only thing on the rise there is the sea level. As Elizabeth Kolbert chronicled last fall in the New Yorker, when a super tide comes crashing in it floods the the lawns of million dollar homes and soaks sports cars in corrosive salt water. This is happening more and more. It will keep happening more and more.
The city of Miami Beach is, of course, working to correct the problem. They are looking to levees and pumps and all sorts of feats of modern engineering to keep business going and insurers from declaring the place uninsurable.
With enough pumps running, enough machines working, enough ingenuity and the sheer verve of the human spirit they will be able to beat this thing and keep going as they’ve been going. Unless, the water keeps rising. Unless, they’ve been basing their plans on a lie all along.
Those who want to save Miami Beach through more building and more pumps are like the people of Judah when Isaiah came to warn them of their ways. The fundamentals of their society had been corrupted and was unraveling as a result, but they kept on sacrificing in the temple, pretending that everything was just fine, God would keep them just as God always had. They had ceased to be in relationship with a living God, responsive and adaptive, and had become instead engineers of the sacred. As such, they had become idolaters, more interested in controlling the holy than in living in reverence of it.
The poet Wendell Berry has written:
“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”
In Judah the failure to honor the sacred in the world–caring for the oppressed, doing good, seeking justice–meant that the sacred places were no longer sacred, they had been desecrated by violence aimed at maintaining the economies of anxiety and oppression. So it was that the offerings of the people were no longer meaningful but had become instead attempts at manipulation.
Miami Beach, a place known for big mansions and expensive cars, is coming into direct conflict with the debits the economy of excess created. Climate change is melting the polar ice caps and now the city is being swallowed by the rising sea. This crisis is a moment of truth but it is also a chance to change their way of life. Like the call of Isaiah it is a time that could result in a radical shift in how Miami Beach, and all of us, carry out our lives and economies. So far it seems that manipulation is the strategy of choice, but we can hope for another way.
It is just such another way that is at the heart of the Transition movement–a gathering of towns, cities, and other communities that are seeking to organize their lives in order to be resilient in the face of the climate crisis and mitigate its effects. It is a movement of people who are seeking to live at nature’s pace rather than trying to maintain the pace of the fossil fuel economy.
I think that we can find a helpful framework in the Transition movement with which we can better hear today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus is, in effect, calling his church to be is a transition community. Jesus is calling for his “little flock” to learn to live into the Kingdom of God and according to its needs, its goods, its values, rather than trying to fit their encounter with God into the categories at hand. So it is that he calls on them to “sell your possessions, and give alms” and to “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” A major, world shifting change is coming and Jesus wants his people to be prepared.
Transition people learn to see the world differently. A 401(k) is meaningless in a world whose economy is in crisis, so selling what would have been one’s security in the old world is not a fools errand when one is oriented toward the new world. Jesus is telling us that the way we become secure now is to not try to secure ourselves through possessions (bigger barns as last week’s lesson had it), but rather to live toward what God has been calling us to as far back as Isaiah–justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow. By giving alms we are putting our resources into what really matters. We are investing in a resource that will survive any market fluctuation–we are becoming rich toward God.
But being Transition people is not easy. There are plenty of people who would mock those who are building houses without the convenience of the electric, sewage, and water grids just because they think that soon that grid won’t be sustainable. In the same way it might seem foolish to cash out one’s retirement to help a poor neighbor go to college, or to go without insurance in order to follow God’s call (two ways some have chosen to sell their possessions and give alms). But Transition people follow the way of faith, a path that though righteous can often mean death and torture. As our passage from Hebrews indicates, to live as Transition people is not to live in comfort: “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented–of whom the world was not worthy.” But where comfort is lacking, there is truth and the promise that lasting good will come to us. So it is that Jesus begins his call by saying “do not be afraid” because to take the risk now, to begin transitioning into God’s kingdom, is far better than living in the violent lie that will mean lasting destruction. Better to have the pain of an inoculation than to eventually suffer the devastation of disease.
The call to God’s people is to transition now into the Kingdom that is coming. It is an orientation that will set us toward following a deeper rhythm than the clamor of our age, but the harmonies that await us are great. So let us be fools in the present age and wise to what is breaking into the world.