My public school career began a handful of years before the video cassette became commonplace. And so my early experience with watching films in a classroom featured a member of the AV Club rolling a cart with a projector on it into the room. Those projectors had a particular smell: cellulose and frayed vinyl and burnt dust. And they made a particular sound they made as they fired up.
A second or two after that sound began images would flash onto the screen, the first few featuring numbers, some of which counted you down into the film and others of which served a purpose that I have never learned. The numbers were accompanied by holes burnt into the film by misadventures gone by.
And then the film began.
Some of the films were educational: here’s what it’s like to work at a factory where they manufacture a certain kind of product; here’s what it’s like to be an Olympic-level swimmer or diver; here’s what it might have been like to live in a cabin in the 18th Century. As many or more were whimsical or goofy. I remember a film that featured a bear chasing a bunch of people (I don’t know any more why the bear wanted to catch them; it wasn’t especially angry). It included a scene in which the bear strapped on a pair of skis and followed its chasees down a ski slope.
It was after the film ended, however, that the part that my classmates and I really looked forward to began. We would beg our teacher to play the film that we had just watched backwards. I don’t know if you can play a videotape backwards; I imagine that there is a button or an app that would let you play a YouTube video backwards. But with classroom projectors it was easy. The teacher would turn a switch and:
Boom – reversal!
Back at the factory, the product would get unmanufactured, so that the finished items were unsealed from boxes, workers undrilled holes in metal, and a saw took two pieces of wood and cut them into one. At the pool the water started to boil and then a diver went ballistic, shooting feet first up, up, up thirty feet into the air until they came to rest on the diving board. And the bear – wonder of wonders – skied backwards up the ski slope.
My classmates and I laughed hard.
I’m not exactly sure why we found these backwards movies so wonderful. I guess that we loved them because they broke all the rules of the world in a delightful and mischievous and freeing way. I guess that we loved them for the same reason that folks love Lewis Carol and Gilbert and Sullivan. Here was a world of topsy turvy. And, like a lot of things that make us laugh, we sensed something holy in it.
When I first started reading the Bible one of the many things that drew me to it was that this too was a place where I found holy reversal. Jesus is constantly telling stories and creating miracles in which the first are last and the last first, in which those who mourn are blessed, in which there is a divine undoing of what was done before.
A particularly profound example of this reversal is to be found in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Jesus’ passion, Peter denies Jesus three times, even though he has promised to follow Jesus to no matter what. It is one of the most painful moments in scripture. So what happens in the resurrection when Jesus and Peter meet on the beach? Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to say I love you.
In the resurrection, the film gets played backwards.
Jesus is rooted in what we call the Old Testament. For Jesus and his friends, the Old Testament as we more or less know it is the Bible in its entirety. The Old Testament is the well that waters Jesus’ theological imagination.
And so I guess it ought to be no surprise that holy reversal is found there too.
Today we hear from the Book of Jeremiah. It’s a book that we don’t read from too often in church. Jeremiah these days gets less time in the pulpit than his fellow prophet, Isaiah. And maybe that is because Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books to read in all of scripture. Scholars reckon that it was written over as long as a 200-year period. It contains this jumble of ideas – at times you have the sense that the pages that make up this book were accidentally knocked off of a table and hastily reassembled in random order by a guilty student. And many of Jeremiah’s ideas concern loss, self-doubt, and grief.
Jeremiah centers around Israel’s defeat by the Babylonian Empire, by this time in which Jerusalem was sieged and destroyed and an enormous number of its citizens were sent into exile in Babylon. It is a time of massive society-wide trauma.
And in the passage we hear today, God promises reversal. In words that perhaps inspired the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ promise that those who mourn are blessed for they shall be comforted, God says:
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back
The weeping is reversed.
To those who are exiled, God says:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth
The exile is reversed.
And one more:
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord
The fear that, maybe, the people have been abandoned by God is reversed.
Here’s the thing about reversal, about the film being played backwards. It’s something different than the things in the film never happening. There is still the work in the factory, still the pool and the diving board, still the bear on the skis. There is still the exile, the suffering, the grief. God doesn’t make these things go away.
What God does it to transform them.
Remember the story of the bereft disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The two friends are gutted by what they have just witnessed in Jerusalem. And Jesus doesn’t make anything that they have seen or endured vanish. What he does is something harder and more complicated and more beautiful. He explains what they have endured – he takes them back through it, here’s that reversal – in a way that makes it new, that invites them into resurrection.
If you’ve ever heard me speak at a funeral, you have probably heard me say that the more I live the less time that I have for the notion of closure – closure being this strange modern idea that we can just seal grief away in a box or in a closet. It doesn’t work. It never works. And so we listen to talk of closure and feel confused and maybe even guilty that our own grief has not been sealed up, that it is still with us day after day and year after year.
We feel this way because closure is a lie. It was never possible. Our griefs don’t go away like that. And God has never promised that our griefs will go away like that. What God has promised is that God will be with us in our grief and that God will, in the fullness of time, transform our grief into resurrection. The grief, the presence of absence, remains. And something new and holy abides there with it.
How much grief and loss and loneliness and disappointment have we endured this past year? If 2020 were a movie it would be a kind of awful one, one that get one star out of five, one that would get destroyed on Rotten Tomatoes.
And so as it ends, we say, Please.
Please, we all say to Jesus, please play this film backwards! After this year we need your holy reversal.
Thankfully, this is the sort of request to which the Son of God always says yes. The old projector is sparking into life once more. And something new is beginning.