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When Worlds Collapse -- Isaiah 5:1-7 (10th Sunday After Pentecost)



This morning’s scripture from Isaiah is a love song – often called “The Song of the Vineyard.” It doesn’t take too many verses, though, to realize that this is a love song gone wrong.

The poet sings out, “Let me sing for my beloved. My beloved had a vineyard...” And oh, this vineyard-owner loved the beloved vineyard. He planted it on a fertile hill. But first he tended the land. He dug it up, turning and churning the fertile soil. He cleared away all the stone and rubble. And then, in the morning mist one day, he began to plant. He dug his hands into the rich loam of the earth – planted choice vines. The vineyard owner didn’t just leave the beloved vineyard on its own – he built a watchtower in the midst of it, stayed with it, cared for it – year after year. (Vineyards take several years to bring forth a usable harvest.) The vineyard owner built a wine press – and abided there, waited, hoped – expected a harvest of grapes that could become wine that would nourish and bring delight. The poet sings, “Oh how my beloved loved his vineyard!”

But then things go horribly wrong. The vines bring forth wild and rotten grapes – grapes that neither nourish nor sustain. And the landowner laments, “What more could I have done?” And the vineyard becomes a wasteland. It’s no longer pruned or hoed, so it becomes overgrown with briers and thorns. The walls around it crumble, and the vines are trampled. There is no rain. This song of the vineyard is a love song gone wrong.

And then at the very end, the prophet-poet brings it all into focus: “You see,” he writes, “my beloved’s beloved vineyard – the beloved vineyard of God is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting.” God expected justice, but the vineyard brought forth bloodshed; God expected right relationship, but heard only the cry of the vulnerable.

This love song is sung by a people who have seen their world collapse around them. The Book of Isaiah is this monumental work – 66 chapters – likely written and re-written over the span of centuries, centered around the words of a prophet, as the people came to understand those words in the history they lived out and then remembered.[1] In their story, God plants them to be a people living in intimacy with God, in lives that respect the dignity of all people – living in just and right relationship – caring for the vulnerable – the poor, the widow, the stranger in their midst.


But they pretty much wreck that world. They become two kingdoms – the Northern Kingdom, Israel – and the Southern Kingdom, Judah. And over time, they both collapse. The Northern Kingdom goes first. The Assyrian Empire sweeps in and not only conquers them, but then takes the people living there and sends them to the far corners of the known world – the people disappear from the land, sent into diaspora. The people of Judah watch this – and begin to understand Isaiah’s words in terms of what has happened to the Northern Kingdom, and then it’s their turn. The Babylonian Empire sweeps in, burns Jerusalem to the ground, and takes the people into captivity.

And along the way there were prophets like Isaiah. Remember that “prophetic imagination” that we’ve talked about:[2] Prophets look at the world and announce two things – (1) the things that must come to an end, and (2) the new things – the new creation that God is bringing forth even now.


Along the way, and then looking back, the people hear the echoes of the prophet’s words, as they stand in the rubble of their world – and they remember: God planted us for good – and we bore wild and rotten grapes – the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, and the consumption and waste of God’s good gift. This love song gone wrong is written by a people who have seen their world collapse.


We are talking these days, more and more, about collapse – particularly in our conversations about climate crisis and our collective refusal to stop our systems and behaviors that are destroying the planet. We’ve shifted how we speak of such things. For the longest time, we spoke of “global warming.” As the complexity and magnitude of what we were doing to the planet became clearer, we began to talk of “climate change,” or what a friend of Jeff’s calls “climate chaos” And then more recently, the emphasis ratcheted up to “climate emergency” or “climate crisis,” reflecting a growing, dire urgency. We made that shift – to “climate emergency” – in the language we use in worship and in our justice conversations – about two years ago, with the urging specifically of Barbara Rothkrug, Royce Truex, and Peter Anderson.


And now, now, scientists and those thinking carefully about these issues are talking seriously about “climate collapse.” For some time now, scientists have been warning us of the extreme dangers that will come if we reach 2 degrees Celsius in global warming – that is, if the Earth becomes 2 degrees hotter than it was when the Industrial Revolution began.[3]


Scientists have been warning us of what they call “climate tipping points.”[4] We know the general trajectory of climate change: Our net generation of carbon is heating the planet. As we near 2 degrees Celsius of warming, scientific consensus warns that serious environmental “tipping points” could start occurring – things like an “ice collapse.” We know that ice sheets are receding, but certain levels of warming could cause system collapse – not only of ice – but of other biospheres. We are seeing the collapse of coral reefs. Also at risk are vulnerable forest systems – threatened by changing temperatures and fires and other climate effects. What’s even worse is that the collapse of one system hastens the collapse of others – a cascading effect.[5]

Just two years ago, scientists were warning that 1 to 2 degrees Celsius of warming would put us in that danger zone. We are at 1.1 degrees of warming. Those updated reports now project what will happen at 1.5 to 2.0 degrees.[6] Moderate projections have us reaching 1.5 by 2030.


The latest UN report – from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – sounds the alarm at those impacts – articulating how those environmental impacts jeopardize societal systems.[7] We are already starting to see extreme weather events – storms, drought, floods, fires – those will likely increase. The change in climate will threaten food and water security, with likely increases in food- and water-borne disease. Cities that lack the infrastructure for life at higher temperatures will be threatened. And as all these impacts converge, we can expect to see a growing number of displaced peoples, both globally and at home.


A number of scientists have looked at these disruptions and this trajectory and have publicly urged policymakers to begin focusing global efforts on the “threat of societal collapse.”[8] That has come into particular focus in the work of Jem Bendell – a professor of sustainability management and public policy at the University of Cumbria in the UK. In his paper “Deep Adaptation,” Bendell speaks of “societal collapse” as “the uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity, and meaning.”[9] As environmental systems collapse, so too will the human systems that rely on them. His work takes as its premise that this “societal collapse is likely, inevitable, or already unfolding” – Bendell contends it is inevitable – and says we must shake off our denial of that, do our grieving for that, and then retool our policy and efforts to live life meaningfully in that reality.


And though he doesn’t call it this, there’s a spiritual aspect to Bendell’s “deep adaptation.” He urges the need to prepare for this “deep adaptation” where life will be very different – (1) by continued, bold risk reduction, doing all that we can to slow and mitigate these harms (like this week’s climate bill); (2) by building resilience – the capacity “to adapt to changing circumstance so as to survive with our valued norms and behaviors”; and (3) reconciling ourselves across our difference so that we might survive together.[10] It is a framework for grieving and living together in a collapsing world.

This reality is hard to speak. It’s hard to hear. It’s hard to face. We’ve been talking about “Living our Imperfect Lives Well.” The way we have lived in relation to this planet may be as imperfect as we can get. And as reality sinks in, along with the grieving that it evokes, the question arises: How do we live in a world like this? This world God made good. This world we have unmade. How do we live when worlds collapse?


Perhaps most of all, it’s important to start by remembering we are not alone – not any one of us, and not all of us together. God is near; we are near to each other in community. Living this question in community, we can turn together – to our sacred texts, and to the wisdom not only of our elders, but also of our youth.


There is one way of looking at Scripture – a lens we could use – that notices that most of Scripture is written by people trying to find meaning and a way to go on when their world has collapsed around them. Across what we call the Old Testament, we hear from those who have been scattered and dispersed; those whose homeland has been scorched and razed to the ground; those who have been taken into captivity, and then returned to rubble; those who have been held in slavery, and then wandered in the wilderness, making, with God, a way when there was no way. And in the New Testament – When we speak of Resurrection, we look to those days after Jesus has been crucified, when Jesus’ followers have experienced their world collapse, and, in Resurrection, they find new life and New Creation. Across Scripture, again and again, a community looks back on their world collapsing, telling us – “This is what it felt like, and this is how we experienced God – even then – creating something new.”


Notice where God stands in this morning’s Scripture – in this “Song of the Vineyard.” God – whom the poet calls Beloved – is standing there in the midst of the beloved vineyard, standing there in love, creating, planting, nourishing, accompanying, desiring good for all she has created. The vineyard bears rotten fruit, and there’s a very Old Testament sense that God lays it waste, but really, what we discover is that it is the people who have trampled on the poor and the vulnerable – the people who have trashed their world. And a lament rises up. But look who laments. God. “What more could I have done than what I did?” God longs for justice to flourish in this vineyard – but only hears a cry – the cry of the vulnerable and the oppressed. In the last notes of this vineyard song, what we are left with is this loving God, creating, lamenting – and even in the wreckage of our world – always, always responding to the cry of those who suffer and hurt.


There are wise folks who are thinking about how we live in a collapsing world – and they suggest first – that we have to engage this lament – lament for what is being harmed and lost. I’ve mentioned before the work of Joanna Macy – a Buddhist teacher and wisdom-elder in the climate-action community. Macy speaks in terms of what she calls “active hope” and locates that hope in our experience of uncertainty and suffering – the pain we feel along with the rest of creation – the ache.[11] For Joanna Macy, hope is a practice. And so she recommends what she calls “the work that reconnects.” She describes it as a continuous spiral of practice:


1. We express gratitude – We continue to give thanks for and delight in creation. We walk outside today and are amazed at the ocean and the hills. And give thanks.


2. We honor our pain, and lament for the damage and harm we see.


3. We re-envision and experience deeper sense of connection – new ways of seeing ourselves as connected to each other and all creation, new understandings of power – as power-with, not power-over.


4. And we go forth and act. Reimagining a future together, and living as if it is already true.


Gratitude. Lament. Deeper connection. Action.


It’s not just wisdom elders who are thinking of these things; we also can listen to the wisdom of our youth. In her book, Deep Waters: Spiritual Care for Young People in a Climate Crisis, my friend Talitha Amadea Aho wades into all this based on years of work with and listening to young people.[12] She notes that, unlike most of us in this room, high-schoolers and middle-schoolers have lived their whole lives with an awareness of climate crisis – with a sense of the real possibility that we are heading off a cliff. As she writes, “Young people of today don’t know what the world was like before it was ending.” From conversations with those young people, who don’t shy away from or deny this reality, Talitha has gleaned a spiritual framework that she likens to swimming in Lake Tahoe:


1. There is Jumping In – to the harsh cold reality – to a love for all creation – and to a deep grieving for what we have done.


2. Then, Learning to Float – finding a deeper sense of belonging and connection. She writes: “We can do hard things if we do not do them alone.


3. Then, Steadying Our Strokes – finding meaning and direction – doing what we can individually, and “realizing that our most important work is collective.”


4. And then Riding the Swells – living an imperfect life in our fragile world, in a spirit of deep reconciliation.


I hear resonance among Bendell’s Deep Adaptation, and the elder-wisdom in Macy’s “Work that Reconnects,” and what Talitha gleans from the wisdom of young people. Pulsing in each of these, we find gratitude for creation and a grieving that draws us into deeper connection with each other and with all creation, and – as Talitha and I would say – with God. I hear deep resonance with the song sung of that vineyard: God grieves the destruction we wreak on this Earth, but even in collapse, God draws us into deeper connection and the creative work that is ours to do, together.


We have this morning just seven verses of Isaiah – seven verses of 66 chapters – Isaiah is a monumental work. Over the expanse of that work, we hear lament for the pain we have caused in the world – the prophet’s insistence that that which destroys will come to an end – and, and by the closing chapters – the poetry of Isaiah soars with hope:


Come, all who are thirsty,

Come, to the waters,

and you who are poor,

come, here is food. (Isaiah 55)

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,