Eighteenth Sunday After Pentacost
Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.
– Ian Hamilton Finlay
The novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen seems to have a talent for roiling the opiners of contemporary culture. Whether it is his disdain for social media or his dismissal of shallow environmentalism, Franzen can write what seems like a subdued and reasoned essay and invite a flurry of blog posts in response, such as a recent piece on the webpage of Scientific American that was intelligently titled: “Shut up, Franzen.” It’s a prophet’s fate to invite such reaction and I think Franzen has the prophet’s gift of speaking uncomfortable words. His most recent essay to such effect was a piece in the New Yorker titled “What if We Stopped Pretending?”
The pretending in question is the idea that we can stop the climate crisis. Franzen is of a growing school that believes we had our chance in the 90s but we were too addicted to consumer capitalism and the fossil fuels that drive it to make the changes necessary to avert disaster. For all the feel good, technocentric “solutions” being paraded about such as solar panels and electric cars, the reality is that we’re already committed to disaster by our past choices and a frank look at our politics and economy offer little hope that we are going to put the breaks on anything. So, Franzen asks, what if we stopped pretending?
“What if we stopped pretending?” is the question the prophet Jeremiah is asking in our reading for this Sunday. “We’re in Babylon now,” he seems to say, “while we have hope it doesn’t look like we’ll be returning home anytime soon, our mourning time is over and now we need to ask what can we do as we face the reality of our situation.”
The word that Jeremiah delivers from God is one that the Jewish people took to heart then and have taken to heart many times over the centuries they’ve experienced life in the diaspora. What Jeremiah offers is a path that is neither a hands-thrown-up fatalism or a subversive rebellion against the way things are. Instead it is a path toward carving out a space where life can happen, good life, faithful life that is present to the sustaining forces around us and yet hopeful for something more beyond it.
There are three basic calls in this passage, each important in any age for people of faith who live in the Babylons of this world, but of particular help to those of us who live now on the cusp of the climate crisis that will dominate the years to come. The first is the call to put down roots, to live with stability in a world wrought with instability. This was the call of Benedict who saw the importance of rootedness in a time of upheaval. If we have no deep belonging to a place and people then we have little hope for finding the ground for renewal. And for Jeremiah’s community, this goes for a people who had a deep belonging to a place from which they had been removed. The call now, it seems, is to stay, deeply, where you are. This call has shown up in many ways in our contemporary context. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has written the wonderful The Wisdom of Stability which helps us see the importance of rooting for our time. The call to become disciples of our watersheds issued by Ched and Elaine Myers among others is another important call to root ourselves in our ecological contexts, even in Babylon. In fact both of these moves help us to see Babylon itself as a passing context in a place that is, in its depths, God’s good creation. Babylon, after all, is a passing reality existing in the vagaries of political time while the land exists in God’s creational time.
The second call in this passage is to live toward a vibrant and good future. Those who think the world will end tomorrow (such as the Shakers did) are not inclined to marry and have children, but those who believe that there is a future to be had are ready to welcome another generation. I know of many who are concerned about having children in this time of climate crisis. If ever there was a time to consider forgoing the creation of another generation, this is it. Yet such thinking, the prophet says, is not the answer because children and the welcome of children discipline us in important ways. Gracy Olmstead gave wise articulation to this in her recent piece for the New York Times where she wrote that when it comes to healing the damage we have done “Children who are raised to love the world around them, to use their talents and imaginations for its good, could be an essential part of that work.” For Jeremiah, and I think for us, welcoming a continuation of life is important for our hope as well as our survival.
Finally, Jeremiah calls for us to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This is a powerful call because it acknowledges both common ground and difference. It is not calling for assimilation or to deny their “resident alien” status, but rather it calls for us to seek the good of the places where we are, even if those are the places where we are captive. When it comes to the climate crisis Franzen strikes a similar tone, saying that “To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.” It is in situations like these that a community that seeks the common good without also being fully identified with the community can be profoundly helpful. This is a critical role for the church to play–the city of God in the midst of the human city.
When Franzen closes his article with an example of hope he doesn’t offer a fleet of Teslas or even a major conservation project. Instead he talks about a garden where homeless people grow good food. As Franzen says, “It can’t ‘solve’ the problem of homelessness, but it’s been changing lives, one at a time, for nearly thirty years.” It is in this garden that Franzen finds something helpful and hopeful that is real, that admits the truth, and isn’t pretending anymore. He closes the essay by writing:
There may come a time, sooner than any of us likes to think, when the systems of industrial agriculture and global trade break down and homeless people outnumber people with homes. At that point, traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land—nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators—will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it. A project like the Homeless Garden offers me the hope that the future, while undoubtedly worse than the present, might also, in some ways, be better. Most of all, though, it gives me hope for today.
A hope through gardens, and children, and the common good–not rooted there, but expressed there–is what our reading in Jeremiah calls us toward. Writing now from a drought ridden place where September’s temperatures felt like July’s, I am thankful for these comforting words. We need to stop pretending everything will just go back to normal. We need to find another way to live into our future as we answer God’s call in our common exile.