This is an edited version of a sermon Robinson delivered at First Unitarian Universalist Church, Austin, on Sunday, July 22nd. In the sermon, she enters into conversation with a sermon Dr. Robert Jensen delivered at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Austin, two weeks earlier. Jensen's sermon was entitled, "Hope Is for the Lazy: The Challenge of Our Dead World."
Yaira's sermon begins with a story.
Today's story is based on the teachings of the 16th century Jewish mystic, Isaac Luria. Every people, every culture, every religion all around the world has at least one story about the creation of the world—this is one of those stories.
In the beginning, all that was, was the Divine Mystery that some people call God. We can imagine this God Mystery as being like a giant sphere that extends in all directions as far as we can imagine.
When God starts to create the earth and the stars, the galaxy and the universe and everything that is, God constricts a little bit to make room for the Universe. God squeezes in and a hole opens up right in the middle of God—and that’s where we are now, on planet Earth, in the Milky Way galaxy, part of the Universe, part of Creation, and all of it right in the middle of, surrounded by Divine Mystery that stretches out in all directions.
Now that there’s room for creation, God fills some vessels, some containers, with Divine Light. This Divine Light is Divine Essence, it’s God Stuff. And God sends the vessels to creation, and everything is going to be perfect—but then something goes wrong. The vessels cannot contain the Divine Light. They shatter, sending sparks of Divine Essence everywhere, all around the world—they are in rocks and streams; in plants and trees; in every kind of animal, from bees to elephants—little, lost shards of Divine Light. This is not at all what God had wanted.
So God creates people to help lift up the Divine sparks that are still scattered everywhere, to piece the broken shards back together, to be partners with God in a continuing process of creation.
As part of the interfaith environmental work I am blessed to be able to do, I visit with folks in congregations around the state about caring for the environment. In my conversations about these issues, I am almost always asked some variation of this question: “Where do we find hope?”
This question emerges in a context of looking honestly at some of the environmental—and related human—challenges facing us today. It comes from religious people of different faith traditions who care deeply about the world we share and the life in it, and who know enough of the facts to feel some amount of despair.
Anyone working on environmental issues today—or any other social justice issues, as far as I can tell—must wrestle with this question of hope and purpose. And if people are unable to find a meaningful answer, they won’t be able to stay engaged for very long.
People burn out, give up, shut off some piece of their hearts… It is so much easier to go shopping, turn on the TV, drink a beer—that’s what all the ads tell us to do, anyway. There are those, too, who carry around a dark cynicism and a story about how, once upon a time, they cared and tried to make a difference—and then they figured out the hard way that none of it really matters, and so now they don’t even try anymore. I’ve met some of these people. Maybe you have, too. Without some kind of deep wellspring, the struggle of facing the world’s troubles is too frequently, too much.
I want you to know that the sermon I had planned to give this morning is not quite the sermon you’re getting. Within the last few days, I’ve read two recent essays about global warming that directly get at this question of hope—and I feel like we need to address them today, so that’s what we’re going to do.
The first article that’s on my mind is Bill McKibben’s latest in Rolling Stone magazine, titled, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." In his piece, he talks frankly about the numbers of global warming—about “acceptable” temperature increases, and the fact that the world’s economic and business systems are moving forward with operations that will put us way over and above those so-called, “acceptable” limits. He also notes that, so far, governmental systems have been unable or unwilling to make agreements or change policies in order to seriously address the very real threat of an ever-more-quickly, warming world. The article paints a pretty bleak picture—and whether you agree with McKibben or not, it’s worth reading.
The second article I’m thinking about also paints a pretty bleak picture of the road ahead, based on the science of global warming. And this is the article I’m going to most directly work with today. It’s actually a sermon that University of Texas professor, Robert Jensen, delivered a couple of Sundays ago at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church—another neighbor of yours to the north—and that was published later on AlterNet. The title of the sermon is, "Hope Is for the Lazy: The Challenge of a Dead World.” Even if you haven’t read it, I think you get some idea of the content just from the title.
In the piece, Jensen argues that the systems of our world—“patriarchy, capitalism, nationalism, white supremacy, and the industrial model”—are dead, and cannot be reformed or revived. He says, “The death-worship at the heart of those ideologies is exhausting us and the world, and the systems are running down.” Noting that the task of creating new systems to replace the old is a monumental one in which “the odds are against us,” he writes, “What we need is not naïve hope but whatever it is that lies beyond naiveté, beyond hope.”
What this “hope beyond hope” is, he doesn’t exactly say. He does say that we won’t win by “praying for deliverance by the hand of God,” or by putting all our hope in science and technology. And he’s right about that—we can’t just sit around waiting for God to intervene and stop global warming, and we can’t rest easy thinking that technological advances will make it possible for us to maintain our environmentally-unsustainable lifestyles. No. It’s not that easy. The way we’re living right now is not sustainable—we will have to make very real changes in order to address the environmental problems we’ve created.
Jensen says that the world defined by those capitalist, industrial, consumer systems cannot be saved. What we need is something different. He says, “There is always hope, but it is hope that lies beyond these systems, beyond the world as it is structured today. To be truly hopeful is to speak about a different world structured by different systems.”
Okay, Dr. Jensen. Let’s talk about that.
The story that we heard this morning about broken vessels and scattered shards is one way that the Jewish tradition approaches the contrast that we humans feel between things as they are and things as we think they should be. We’ll come back to this story again in a bit. Another way that the Jewish tradition approaches this contrast is by talking about the olam ha’ze and the olam ha’ba—this world and the world to come. There is some question as to whether these worlds should be understood literally or figuratively, tangibly or mystically—and probably there is no one “right” answer. Some people hold onto the promise of a real, idealized, transformed physical world to come—while others say that the world to come is really just every next moment—a moment of infinite possibility.
In considering these contrasts in our world—the contrast between where we’re at right now and where we’d like to be—the question becomes: How can we bridge the gap? How can we move the world closer to these visions of how we’d like it to be? And: is that even possible, or is working for peace, justice, and an environmentally-sustainable world really just a big, Pollyanna fantasy of “lazy hope” and a waste of everyone’s time?
Dr. Jensen, in his sermon, said, “We shouldn’t distract ourselves by looking to someplace up there, somewhere above or beyond, something that we pray is just around the corner.” In one sense, I get what he’s saying—again, that we can’t expect some kind of Divine Intervention to save us from our troubles. But we shouldn't too casually dismiss the power of prayer and prophetic religious vision—because actually, I think we need those things to help transform this world.
Let’s talk about prayer for a bit. Prayer can take many forms, but the basic idea is that through prayer a channel is opened between you and God. One time a reporter asked Mother Theresa about prayer. “What do you say when you pray?” he asked. “I listen,” she said. The reporter paused a moment, then asked, “Then what does God say?” and she replied, “He listens.”
In addition to regular prayer, Jewish tradition has a rich practice of saying blessings. Ideally, we say one hundred blessings each day. The basic idea is that for most of our regular, daily actions—including eating and drinking—and also, seeing beautiful trees or animals, smelling fragrant herbs, or studying Torah—we should give thanks to God. These prayers and blessings are a frequent acknowledgement and reminder that life is a gift for which we are grateful. But they do something else, too—often, our prayers and sometimes, our blessings, make radical claims about God’s action in the world.
Let’s consider maybe the most common blessing—the blessing over food. It says, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” But the bread that graces our tables doesn’t come that easily, just springing forth, fully-formed, from the ground. We’re not eating manna that just falls from the sky, after all. So what’s going on here?
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman explains that this blessing is “a statement of faith in a time to come when all will have enough to eat,” free of hard labor. In this way, the blessing connects our present reality to one that is promised and hoped for. The blessings bring a heightened awareness and gratitude for the present moment into our everyday lives a hundred times a day, which I love! At the same time, they keep that visioned world fresh before us as an imagined possibility.
Let’s think for a moment about what effect this continual invoking of God’s majesty and of the world to come might have. I wonder if, by praying and saying blessings, we are participating in calling that reality—the reality of the world to come, the world as God wants things to be—into this one.
“Inbreaking” is a word used by some theologians to describe the effect that this focusing on, calling forth, and visioning the world to come has on our world, and it’s a good word, inbreaking—I like this word. Our prayers and blessings are a way that we can invite God and the world to come to break in to our lives and our world, to break in and begin to transform us here and now, in the world as it is.
Jürgen Moltmann is a Christian theologian who writes about this transformative potential; he says, "Those who hope in Christ,"—and we can substitute other words here: God, the Divine, etc.—“Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God,” he says, “means conflict with the world, for the… promised future stabs… into the flesh of every unfulfilled present." That last bit about the future stabbing into the present is inbreaking. And what Moltmann suggests here is that when we hold fast to God and to visions of the world as it could or should be, then we more keenly see that our experienced reality is out of alignment with God’s intent and hope—and we become change agents. As Rabbi Arthur Green says, “There is nothing mere about poetic vision.”
In the story that we heard this morning, God had one idea of how the world would be—but something went wrong. The vessels broke, and divine essency-stuff scattered everywhere. We could consider that and say, “Oh well, this is a broken world—and nothing I could do is going to fix it.” But according to the story, God created humans to participate in the work of mending. That mending, I’d like to suggest, is not about repairing the world and its systems as it is now—rather, this is a deep, transformative, creative (in the sense of creating things) kind of mending. We are to bring into the world a little holiness, to lift up divine sparks, to bring our lives and the world closer to God’s vision of how things are supposed to be.
Whether we achieve all the things we’re working for in the world is not the point. I can tell you from personal experience that freeing yourself from a goal-orientation can be very helpful in sustaining environmental and justice work. What matters isn’t whether we “win.” What matters is whether we are faithful in thought, word, and deed to our highest visions—or, if you’re comfortable with such language, whether we are faithful to God. I completely agree with Dr. Jensen when he said, “We don’t become fully human through winning. We embrace our humanity by acting out of our deepest moral principles to care for each other and care for the larger living world, even if failure is likely, even if failure is inevitable.” See, what really matters is that we’re faithful. And being faithful, in this time—as we face very real climate crisis—means taking action, and not giving into immobilizing despair.
And here, I think, Jensen has another interesting point. In his sermon, he said, “The balancing of [grief and joy] is the beginning of a hope beyond hope, the willingness not only to embrace that danger but to find joy in it.” Those of us who deeply care about the world experience grief, yes, in seeing things as they really are. But where do we find the joy? The joy that, Jensen says, in balance with grief, can move us toward a “hope beyond hope”? Let’s hold that question for a minute. We’re almost there.
Karl Barth, a Reformed theologian of the 20th century, wrote, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Let me say that again: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
When we pray and say blessings; when we invoke God’s presence into our daily, imperfect lives and this broken, hurting world; when we hold before us a vision of how things could and should be—this is the first step in making real change possible. Even though the climate science is grim, and the way forward unclear and perhaps bleak… Even though it looks like the world might just be going to hell—we must hold onto the real and transformative power of prayer and story, and the deep—I don’t want to say “hope”… the deep faith that comes with aligning ourselves with another vision of how the world should be. If all we do is focus on the trauma and despair of this world, then we will be consumed by it, I promise you.
Let us, instead, call future, imagined, visioned possibilities of another world—a world to come, or maybe, a “world structured by different systems,” as Jensen put it—let us call that world into this one—and let us do so as we act to care for people and the planet. When we bring our actions into alignment with God’s intent and hope for us and for the world, then—pow!—that is transformation; that is revolution; that is an uprising against the disorder of the world.
Also—that is faithfulness, that is wholeness, that is joy. Living and acting in accord with our highest visions is the joy that leads to a hope beyond hope—a joy that will sustain us as we continue the work of mending, even in the midst of brokenness. As poet Wendell Berry said, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”
May it be so for us and for this world, amen.