A Prophet’s Cry and Creation’s Lament
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
St. Philip Lutheran Church
2 October 2022 + Lect. 27c (Pentecost 17)
Rev. Josh Evans
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
It’s perhaps one of American transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s best-known quotes, excerpted from his 1854 book Walden, detailing his experiences of living for two years, two months, and two days in a simple cabin among the natural world near Walden Pond, on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts.
Walden Pond still exists today, and for many, myself included, it is noted as a “pilgrimage” site with visitors trekking through the woods to the place where Thoreau’s cabin once stood. Today, the cabin is marked only by nine short stone pillars arranged around its one-time perimeter and a simple engraving: “Site of Thoreau’s Cabin.”
For me, visiting Walden Pond for the first time in 2010, after having only read about it a few semesters prior in college, was a spiritual – even transcendental – experience.
But what I also vividly remember the day I visited twelve years ago were washed out and flooded sections of the trail around the pond itself, and posted signs warning of erosion and guiding visitors to alternate paths.
In an essay in Popular Science from 2018, writer Sara Chodosh pulls no punches even in her provocative title: “We’re ruining Walden Pond just like we ruin everything beautiful in this world.”
“We compact dirt with our shoes,” she goes on, “and break branches as we pass and pick flowers for our own amusement. We damage fragile algal ecosystems because we want to swim in the water. We pollute the air with our cars. We spread sand to form a strange, unnatural beach.”
Walden Pond is hardly unique to our harsh human footprint. All around us are signs that we do not “touch the earth lightly.” As the hymn writer puts it:
“We who endanger, who create hunger,
agents of death for all creatures that live.”
Rooted in the lament tradition of other biblical writings like the Psalms, the prophet in Habakkuk, unlike other prophetic writings, contains no direct address to the listener, but is exclusively a conversation between the prophet and God.
In the midst of great desolation, corruption, and violence, the prophet cries out to God for an explanation: “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”
Do something, God! Anything…
The prophet pulls no punches and is letting God have it. From their perspective, things have gotten so bad, in fact, that “the law becomes slack.” The “torah,” God’s teaching, God’s Word, has failed. Or as one commentator puts it: “You, God, have failed.” (Rachel Wrenn, Working Preacher)
Prophets like Habakkuk give us permission to lament. Lament is often sorrowful. It is desperate. And it is sometimes angry. Lament looks at the state of affairs around us and is poignantly honest. Lament names the presence of evil and brokenness, and in that lament, like the prophet, we feel powerless to do anything about it, and so we cry out.
All around us, creation laments.
As Hurricane Ian ravages Florida and the Carolinas, and Fiona leaves an already weakened infrastructure in Puerto Rico in an even more perilous and vulnerable state: Creation is crying out.
And if it seems like these storms and severe weather patterns have been intensifying in recent years, it’s because they are. We know that climate change and rising global temperatures caused by human activity only exacerbate the conditions for these more powerful storms to develop.
The prophet’s cry becomes creation’s cry, as the earth itself pleads with us, with every “natural” disaster: “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”
Can you feel the seasons turning? (another hymn text asks) Can you feel creation groaning, fearful of the coming change?
“The coming change” is already happening … and I’ll be honest, using my reusable shopping bags at the grocery store and carefully rinsing and sorting my recycling – while all good things – feels like too little, too late. In the face of creation’s accusing lament, it seems like we have failed as stewards of God’s earth entrusted to our care. And I feel powerless to do anything about it.
In the midst of the prophet’s lament, God responds: “Write the vision; make it plain… For there is still a vision for the appointed time…”
And like any good biblical lament, Habakkuk doesn’t end with despair or anger, but a vow to praise and a stunningly beautiful confession of faith, even in the midst of despair and anger, in its final few verses:
“Though the fig tree does not blossom
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength.”
It’s hard to imagine creation putting such faith in us, and yet, in Habakkuk’s message, we who feel powerless to change course are given another chance.
As the late preacher and teacher Howard Thurman puts it, “To say ‘Yes’ to evil, as if it were ultimate, is to be overcome by evil.”
But evil is not ultimate, as Thurman speaks of Habakkuk’s watchful faith: “It is the recognition of this fact [that evil is not ultimate] that underwrites the integrity of the prophet’s challenge.”
Evil is not ultimate. Isn’t that the core of our faith? Every time we recite the creed or celebrate the eucharist, we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, and Christ is risen.
Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Resurrection is not only possible: It is certain.
It is true that evil and brokenness continue to pervade our world, and some effects of our changing climate may not be reversible.
Can you hear creation groaning? (“How long…?”)
But: Goodness and new life can still flourish.
Any gardener knows: There will always be weeds. Weeds will even grow and multiply without our care and attention. Sometimes, with my very-much-not-green thumb, it feels like the only thing I’m capable of growing. Flowers, on the other hand, require our careful cultivation.
Can we learn in time to listen?
Can we turn (repent) and change our lives?