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Somewhere Between Despair and Hope - Jeremiah 12:10-13; Romans 8:18-27 (19th Sunday After Pentecost)






It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,

it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,

it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,

it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.


Those are the opening lines to... A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

I first encountered those opening lines in 8th or 9th Grade English class. And I was perplexed. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Those are polar opposites. So, too, are wisdom and foolishness; light and darkness; hope and despair. They are opposites. They can’t both be true at the same time. You’ve got to pick one. Best of times/worst of times. Hope/despair. Which is it?

Those opening lines invited me into my first conscious experience of paradox – an experience where two seemingly opposite things appear to be true at the very same time – an experience that opened my eyes to the reality that life is not always – if ever – strictly either/or. Maybe even more often, life is bewilderingly both/and – filled with seemingly contradictory things, true at the same time.

As we consider this morning “the Earth as our Home” – and look for our place here – we enter into what we might call an existential paradox. We know what we have done to our planet – the damage done through carbon emissions from the start of the Industrial Revolution until now. We know the trajectory. And, as we think of the Earth as our Home – we can be filled – perhaps overwhelmed – with grief – for things lost – for things we have yet to lose.


And, at the same time: Even as we are filled with this existential grief – real and true – we also rise each morning to the beauty of a brand new day – to a sunrise – to the quiet song of birds – to a bright blue sky. To the next new breath. This week, during one of my morning waks, I had a small deer walk alongside me – well, at a distance – but for a couple of blocks. We experience the Earth as our home, and we are filled with... awe, or gratitude, or dare I say, joy.


As we think of Earth as our home – in 2023 – we are regularly filled with both profound grief and the promise of each new day. Most days we live somewhere between despair and hope – days where the two sometimes converge and come upon us at the very same time. Despair and hope – seemingly contradictory experiences of life – both true at the same time.


This morning’s Old Testament text goes with us into the experience of despair – into the worst of times.[1] Jeremiah is doing what prophets do – one of the central things that prophets do: They announce the things in the world that are coming to an end – the oppressive systems, the injustice, every wasting way that harms and kills.[2] We know how the prophets indict – their major themes – the vital things: “You trample on the poor and the vulnerable; you use dishonest scales; you abuse the stranger in your midst.” And they say, all this is coming to an end. God stands for justice and for life. Prophets say, “This is what is inevitable if current trends continue.”


I hadn’t appreciated until this week how much the prophets’ indictments also have to do with the wasting of the land – the destruction of creation. That’s Jeremiah’s focus in this morning’s text – and a repeating theme throughout the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is living in and around the destruction of Jerusalem as the Babylonian army marches in. Jeremiah is there before it happens – saying that it’s on the way. He’s there as the city falls. And, he speaks into and out of captivity – his own and that of the people. He says to the people and the powers – they have created systems and structures so corrupted and rotted from within that they are sure to collapse.


As that happens, Jeremiah looks around, and he says true things. The whole land is in ruins. God says: “Many shepherds have trampled my vineyards. You’ve turned my pleasant fields into a desolate wasteland. Look even to the barren heights. Destroyers swarm. Is there any place you have not defiled?” You’ve made a desolation of the land, and “desolate, it mourns to me.” The land mourns, and the prophet’s words flow into lament.


Hearing just this snippet of Jeremiah’s lament, it’s not a stretch to name our own desolation – to feel our own despair – to hear, in our day, the land lament. We are a community that looks with open-eyes and open-hearts at the science of our climate crisis and the trajectory of collapse. We seek to find our place there – and to find ways of living lives of meaning there. After worship this morning, Royce will lead a Sunday Seminar that will go into more detail, but we have acknowledged the arc of things here before.


Drawing from the latest UN report and commentary from two of its lead authors, we know the enormity of the climate crisis.[3] We know that some of the changes unleashed by our carbon emissions – particularly in our oceans and frozen places – are irreversible.[4] We have passed 1.2 degrees warming – that is, the world is 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution. At 1.2 degrees warmer, we are already experiencing climate disruptions – super storms, a summer with record high temperatures, an increase in climate refugees.[5] The science indicates that we are on track to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius in the early 2030s, and 2 degrees as early as the 2040s.[6] At 1.5 degrees, we can expect a number of ecosystems to reach their adaptive limits – more than they can bear. And somewhere between 2 and 3 degrees, we can expect the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets to disappear, accompanied by 2-10 meters rise in sea level.[7] A quarter of a billion people live on land less than 2 meters above sea level. These statistics are conservative, and what Royce will share will be even more up to date.


Joëlle Gergis, a scientist who was one of the lead authors of the UN’s latest report, says that it’s important to name and grasp the enormity of the crisis, not to throw our hands up and give up – but to be clear-eyed. There are some changes we have unleashed that are irreversible. Our collective effort to date has not been sufficient to stop major components of collapse. But, Gergis writes, “how bad we let it get is still in our hands.”


Edward Carr, another lead author of the report, says it’s important to understand that it is too late for incremental change. He says that, so that we might grasp that what is needed is nothing less than transformational change – the complete transforming of the economic and political systems that have got us here.


Prophets stand in the reality of the world and say true things. And they call out the things that are coming to an end – the things that must come to an end.


But that’s not all that prophets do. Remember – they announce what must come to an end – but the Biblical prophets also announce the new thing that is coming to life – the new thing that God is bringing to life – even in our desolation – even in our despair.[8] Something is coming to an end – something is coming to life – both true at the same time. Living in the tension of that paradox opens up the opportunity of turning away from the systems that are ending and toward the new thing. The prophet makes clear the necessity of that turning. That turning opens up the possibility – even in our despair – the possibility for hope.


Now, something else I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that hope is getting a bad rap. Even within the climate action community – Rebecca Solnit has launched a project – and edited a book with Thelma Lutunatabua called “Not Too Late” – with essays from climate scientists and activists.[9] They argue for hope, and take on what they call “climate doomers,” whom they characterize (unfairly, I think) as unhelpfully defeatist.


Those who take seriously climate collapse have taken umbrage – understandably. They insist we must speak honestly about the science and the trajectory of collapse. They respond, essentially, “Hope will not help us here.” I’ve even heard and read folks say – “I’ve given up on hope.” And I get it.


I like how Jem Bendell – whom a number of us read and follow – sifts through this. He speaks in terms of “forms of hope.”[10] Bendell takes on – head on – empty, facile hope – hope that ignores they realities of science.[11] But he also notices that different people mean different things when they say “hope.”[12] There are ways of evoking hope that are not helpful. If hope means – “oh, just hope for the best, there’s no need to do anything” – well, that’s not helpful.


But across the writers I’ve read this week and for the past few years – each articulates – each in their own way – a form of hope that can ground us even in our grieving – even in our despair. Bendell calls this Hope Beyond Hope; Solnit calls it Hope in the Dark; Joanna Macy calls it Active Hope. For our conversation this morning, let’s call it Real Hope. And remember, when we are talking about Hope here, we are always, ultimately talking about our hope in God – the Hope we find in Christ.


So let’s say what Hope is not.


Hope is not the same thing as optimism.[13] Optimism is the perspective that things will turn out OK. It envisions that certain rosy results are inevitable and moves forward as if they will happen. Optimism is about as useful as pessimism, which is to say not very.[14]Pessimism says everything will turn out bad, so why bother working for good. Optimism says everything will turn out OK, why bother worrying about the hard realities. Real Hope is not the same thing as optimism – it doesn’t assume rosy results.


In fact, hope – Real Hope – doesn’t depend on results at all. A number of these writers point to the way Vaclav Havel articulated it: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”[15]Real Hope lets go of needing to control the way the world works out – it acknowledges the things that are beyond our control – the consequences we have already set in motion. Standing in the world as it is, Real Hope faces all that, and also sees a greater good at work – no matter what the circumstance – whether we call that good God, or Christ – as we do – or the Human Community.


Jem Bendell puts it this way:


There is something else entirely that some people are alluding to when they speak of hope, which is a kind of faith about the ultimate rightness of all things, no matter what occurs. Personally [he says], I have that kind of faith. It is a faith that is also encouraged by multiple religions, that encourages us towards living lovingly without attachment to outcome. That kind of religious hope is not involving a wish, expectation, or [even a] realistic possibility, but a deeper knowing in us of the nature of reality and thus an instinct for living lovingly.[16]


Of course, we speak of that form of hope here in terms of Christ.

Hope is not wishful thinking. It’s not wishing the world were other than it is. It’s not Tinkerbell dancing through the world sprinkling fairy dust so that the world is magically made right.

Hope – Real Hope – begins in a groan. We hear that in this morning’s Roman’s text. Hope begins in groans too deep for words. Hope enters into the world – into the midst of the deep suffering of the world – and doesn’t look away. It enters into the pain of the world – and groans. And it’s not just any groan. It’s the groan of all creation. “We know that the whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up until now.”

In Romans, the Apostle Paul is speaking of the grand sweep of things: The God who created all creation, in Jesus Christ, has entered into creation and set it free.[17] What God was doing all along – creating and re-creating and loving – God is doing in Jesus Christ. And in the power of Resurrection, God is doing that now in the Body of Christ – in us.

The place for us here is always, always our place in the Body of Christ – and here, the Body of Christ is our place in creation – an integrated, interconnected part of all creation – the new creation – groaning as we birth together something new.[18]

And look carefully in the text: What is creation groaning for? For the children of God to be revealed. Creation is groaning for the children of God to show up – to be who we were created to be – a new creation – groaning, loving, healing in and with a hurting world.

When we have these conversations here, the question always comes up – as it should – “But what can we do?” – it’s a question that I’ve come to hear almost like a lament. Ours is an ongoing conversation – so I’ll share a bit of what I see today:


· I think these climate scientists and activists are suggesting that one of the things we need to do first is to name what we can’t do and lament. They insist we acknowledge the severity of climate crisis and collapse, and realize there are some impacts that are irreversible. They invite us to grieve that – to groan – and live in the world that is before us – doing the good we can do – the good we must.


· The climate scientists I’ve mentioned point us to the big work. What did Edward Carr say? The time for incremental change is past. We must collectively engage transformational change. Transforming systems, using the activist muscle we have developed in other struggles.


· And, some of the climate activists I’ve mentioned – they invite us to stand in the reality of climate collapse and tend to the hurt that is unfolding even now, asking, “How can I help, how can I assist in lessening the suffering as the collapse process intensifies, how can I be here to comfort others and remain calm in my acceptance, steadfast [even when things are grim][19] – help in the wake of fires and storms, and as there are more and more climate refugees.


But I want to suggest that even before we reach that question, “What can we do?” that we sit with the question my friend and colleague Lauren van Ham asks, and that is: Who will we be? Who will I be? Who will we be as the climate changes? Next Sunday afternoon, we’ll have the opportunity to experience that question together with folks who will gather here from the Marin Interfaith Community, congregation Rodef Sholom, Westminster Presbyterian in Tiburon and other faith communities. We’ll gather in reverence, in our love for and interconnectedness in creation – and we’ll go on pilgrimage together – with opportunities for meditation, experiencing nature, witnessing Peter’s photography from Standing Rock.


Somewhere between despair and hope – somewhere in the midst of despair and hope – there is a place for you – a place for us – here, in all this. It is grounded in the groaning of all creation – and in the conviction that the God who created all that is accompanies their creation in love. And in all that groaning, hope. Hope is not about controlling the results. Hope trusts that God is at work; that we are a part of that work; and that work is worth doing regardless of the result. Hope is groaning and grieving and loving and living and engaging the work that is ours to do.


We live in the paradox of our times.


As creation groans for the children of God to appear,

hope is when we show up in the midst of hard realities,

part of God’s new creation,

and come to life.



© 2023 Scott Clark


[1] For general background on Jeremiah and this text, see Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. vi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp.555-66, 678-80. [2] See Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 13-14. [3] See Joëlle Gergis, “A Climate Scientist’s Take on Hope, “ in Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2023), pp. 38-44; and Edward R Carr, “We Are Not Doomed to Climate Chaos,” pp. 28-31. The articles by Gergis and Carr referenced here draw their data from the 2022 IPCC report https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/chapter/summary-for-policymakers/ There is a very recent, new 2023 report. See https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/syr/ [4] See Gergis, p.39. [5] See id. 39-41. [6] Id. [7] See id., p.42. [8] See Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 13-14. [9] Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2023). [10] See Jem Bendell, Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse (Bristol, UK: Good Works, 2023), pp.176-78; see also Jem Bendell, “Hope in a time of climate chaos – a speech to psychotherapists,” at https://jembendell.com/2019/11/03/hope-in-a-time-of-climate-chaos-a-speech-to-psychotherapists/ [11] See id. pp. 20-23. [12] See id. pp. 176-78. [13] See Solnit, p.4. [14] See id. pp.4-10. [15] Quoted in Solnit, p. 7. See also Sarah Jaquette Ray, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2020), pp.120-21 – Ray speaks of “critical hope.” [16] Bendell, Jem, Breaking Together: A freedom-loving response to collapse, p.177. Bendell goes on to talk about you’ve heard me call value-based ethics – living life and making choices based not on the goal you want to achieve or the rules society has put in place, but on the value of doing good – doing good in the world letting go of any need to control the result. [17] For general background on Romans and this text, see N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), pp.594-604; Herman C. Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Deconstruction of the Law (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), pp.213-23. [18] See Waetjen, pp.219-220. [19] Renaee Church, “Responding to Rebecca Solnit’s article in The Guardian on Doomers ,” at https://medium.com/@renaeech/responding-to-rebecca-solnits-article-in-the-guardian-on-doomers-a12b0f8106e9



Photo credit: Scott Clark







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