Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A New Hope

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15:

Three weeks after September 11 occurred the passage we just heard from Jeremiah came up as one of the readings.  There are times in which I think that God cannot be found in the lectionary, which are the recommended readings selected for each week, and are compiled by a committee made up of the major protestant denominations along with the Roman Catholics.  And then there are times like that Sunday where it seems as if God is right there the whole time.  This reading from Jeremiah was perfect for that week because we were still trying to deal with the aftermath of that terrible event.  We were still looking for bodies in the rubble.  We thought we knew who did it, but were still pondering the whys.  There was talk of war, but against whom?  The markets were still depressed, as was the population.  There was a sense of coming together as a country in the midst of tragedy, but there was not a lot of sense of hope or optimism, and then we heard from Jeremiah who is writing in the midst of another national tragedy.

Jeremiah is one of those people who is not talked about a lot in church, and in fact I bet if I was to ask you the only thing that some of you could tell me about Jeremiah was that he was a bullfrog.  Jeremiah is one the Major Prophets, major in this sense not referring to importance, but instead length of the book, and the book of Jeremiah is indeed long.  In page numbers it is second in length only to the Book of Psalms, and it should be as Jeremiah had a more than 40 year prophetic career.  The Book of Lamentations is also commonly attributed to Jeremiah, and if Jeremiah did indeed write Lamentations than we have more of his writings in the Bible than from any other source.  And then there is the tradition that Jeremiah might have also written, or compiled together, 1st and 2nd Kings, a less likely scenario, and yet we don’t really deal with Jeremiah all that much.  Just as a quick survey, by a show of hands, who here remembers ever hearing a sermon preached on Jeremiah or Lamentations.

We don’t hear a lot from Jeremiah for several reasons.  The first is that there are not a lot of readings chosen from Jeremiah in the lectionary.  The lectionary covers three years, and in that Jeremiah is found 11 times, out of 156 Sundays, and then that doesn’t count other special days which have reading throughout the year like during Holy Week.  Lamentations is even worse.  Taking out Holy Saturday, which is the day before Easter, in the entire three year cycle there is only one reading from Lamentations, and it appears next week.  So we don’t hear from them because they are not read, and they are not read because they are difficult to read. Jeremiah is known as the crying or weeping prophet, and we don’t deal well with lamenting in the church.  We might do it in sometimes in our personal lives, and in set apart times like funerals, but even in funerals the idea of lamenting is going away.

I’ve always wanted work through the Book of Lamentations during Lent and have each service accompanied by a blues band, because the blues are, at their heart, lamentations, it’s something that the African-American church has done well with because of their history, but white, mainline protestant churches don’t lament.    We also don’t like to deal with Jeremiah because he is sometimes brutal in his prophecy, in haranguing the people about the sins and what God has called them to do.  We get the term Jeremiad, which means a sort of bitter complaint, from these works as well.  And then in the midst of that, we get this rather strange story of a real estate transaction told in great detail as today’s passage which serves as a voice of hope for the people of Israel, but let me provide some background for what is actually taking place so we can see what God and Jeremiah are doing here, and how this can give us a sense of hope.

What are the three most important factors in real estate?  Location, location, location.  Palestine might be God’s chosen Promised Land, but it is in a terrible location.  It is smack between two major areas in the world that have generated competing empires for millennia.  You have Egypt to the South, and everyone else to the north, and so as these empires have battled each other they have had to get to each other by using this strip of land that the Jewish people have occupied.  Not really a good place to be. After the death of Solomon, Israel had broken up into two different kingdoms.  The Northern Kingdom, which was technically Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, which was known as Judah, but also contained Jerusalem.  As the Assyrian empire rose to ascendancy and started conquering lands, one of their conquests was on the Northern Kingdom in 720 BCE, when they removed many of the people from the area and resettled them, and moved another group into their place.  So when you hear of the ten lost tribes of Israel, this is what is being referred to, and the new group who came in to replace them became the Samaritans, so when we read of the conflicts in the New Testament between Samaritan and Jews this is the reason why

Through the paying of tribute and some good political games, the Southern Kingdom was able to remain.  But as the Assyrian empire declined they were replaced by the Babylonians, and when Judah refused to pay them tribute, in 597 they laid siege to Jerusalem conquering the city and pillaging the Temple, including taking the ark of the covenant, and thus our need for Indiana Jones, and removing some 10,000 people into Exile in Babylon, including the prophet Ezekiel.  Jeremiah had been prophesying before this destruction that God was going to allow this to happen, and would actually be working through Nebuchadnezzar to bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple because of the sins of the people.  As you might imagine this did not make him a very popular figure.  After the first exile, the king of Judah again refused to pay tribute to the Babylonians, and so they again laid siege to the city, and when they take it in 586 they destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, leaving the city abandoned for much of the 6th century, and take most of the remaining religious, political and economic elite into exile in Babylon

In the midst of this second siege, Jeremiah again said that to fight the Babylonians was to be fighting God, that the Jews needed to lay down their arms and become vassals of the Babylonians because God was on the side of the Babylonians, and God would cause the Jerusalem to  be defeated and the people exiled.  Can you imagine what Fox News would do with someone like Jeremiah?  The king accused Jeremiah of sedition and treason and had him arrested, and he is sitting in jail awaiting trial, and possibly execution, when today’s passage takes place.  He is approached by his cousin Hanamel who asks him to purchase his property.  Under Jewish law there are specific measures outlined to allow for people to sell their land to next of kin, if necessary, so that the land would not disappear as an inheritance to the family, and that is what Hanamel is seeking.

The Book of Jeremiah is filled with symbolic prophecy.  It’s not just that Jeremiah is told to proclaim something, but that he is to do something as a demonstration of what is to come.  Jeremiah is told to buy a loin cloth, and then to bury it, and when he came back to dig it back up, it was ruined, just as God would ruin Judah.  Then he is told to buy an earthenware jug and in the witness of the elders of the people who was to break it and tell them that God would break them and the city the same way.  And so when Jeremiah is ordered to buy a plot of land, he has to figure that something similar must be going to happen, but then the pronouncement is not one of doom and destruction, but instead one of hope, one of a new sense of a future, of a new promise from God that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  Jeremiah has been the prophet of doom, the weeping prophet, the one telling them everything that is wrong with them and how God is going to be punishing them, and then once that destruction is there, all of the sudden it appears that he has changed his tune.  He has changed from a prophet of doom to a prophet of hope.

It’s really impossible to underestimate what the destruction of Jerusalem, and in particular the Temple, meant to the Jewish people.  The Temple was the literal throne of God, the place where God was found, and yet it is destroyed, and the people are exiled from the promised land.  The 137th Psalm, which will be part of next week’s readings, is a psalm of exile in which the psalmist writes “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” How do we sing the songs of old in a new land?  How do we be joyful in the midst of destruction?  How do we find hope in the future in the midst of darkness?

I know that many of you have been there in your lives.  Maybe it was the loss of a job with no hope for a new one.  May it was the end of something you had always dreamed of.  Or the end of a marriage.  Or it was the death of a spouse or partner, or the death of a child, or it was the dark night of the soul, which is not a scriptural phrase, but it should be.  Where can the light be found when all around us what we experience and feel and see is darkness, despair, desolation and hopelessness?  That is the reality that not just the people were experiencing, but also Jeremiah, and yet he also knows he is called not just “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,” but he is also told by God that he is being called “to build and to plant.”  And so part of the Book of Jeremiah, which includes today’s passage, is known as the Book of Consolation, a section written not to those who are feeling joy, but instead to those who “are fully cognizant of their condition, their suffering and their pain.”

Jeremiah says that God is present there in the midst of it, that God’s plans are not ended, that God’s promises are not ended.  He tells the people that God is present even in the midst of our catastrophes, that meaninglessness is not the final answer, that God can bring meaning and purpose even out of the chaos, and that God’s promises will be fulfilled.  And so Jeremiah instructs those who have been taken into exile that they are to settle down and buy property and have children, and he informs them all that the future of Judah is not ended that land will be bought, and he makes plans for his own future by buying a plot of land, which redeems the land for his family.  Jeremiah in this sense literally puts his money where his mouth is.

Now this might seem like a strange sort of hope because it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.  People are still suffering, people are still seeing their homes and lives destroyed, but this is when we have to accept that sometimes in order to proclaim a new sense of hope we have to make the best of where we are and not where we want to be, or what we want to have happen. A study was done of people who had colon cancer and had to have colostomy bags.  One group was told that there was nothing that could be done to reverse the procedure, that their colon was too badly damaged and they would have to have the bag for the rest of their lives.  A second group was told that while their colon was damaged, there was a possibility that sometime in the future they may be able to reverse the procedure and remove the bag.  Which group do you think reported a more hopeful future and a better quality of life?  It was the one who were told that there was no hope of reversal.  Now that might seem counterintuitive since they are the ones who have, in some ways, been given no hope.  But what the researchers found was that the hope in this case was in being able to adjust to the new reality and be able to move forward with not how they want things to be, but with how they actually are and to prepare for a future based on that new reality.

Seth Godin, who is sort of a marketing guru, and the only one with his own action figure, said that often our problem is not in being attached to the status quo, but instead to the status future.  That is we have a dream and vision of what the future is going to look and be like that we not only get stuck in the present but we get stuck on a future.  In order to have hope in the future, sometimes we have to let go not only of the status quo but of the status future that we are trying so desperately to hold onto and instead accept where things truly are and to make new plans based on them.  Jeremiah could not control what was going on with the destruction of Jerusalem, but he bought the land.  He created a new realm, a new sense of possibility, a new hope , a new vision and a new promise from God.

New College, Oxford, is one of the oldest Oxford schools, having been established in 1379.  The roof of the dining hall is supported by enormous Oak beams, some 2 feet wide by 45 feet long, but one day they discovered that the beams were full of beetles and would have to be replaced, but no one knew where they were going to be able to find trees that big. (Christ Church, Oxford, great hall, Hogwarts, Harry Potter) After much discussion it was decided to call in the college’s forester to see if there were any trees big enough on the college’s property to replace the beams, and the forester said, “I always wondered if you were going to ask about those.”  There was a grove of trees on the property that had been planted specifically for that purpose, and each generation of foresters had been told not to cut them down because they were for the college hall.  That is establishing a new sense of hope. It is creating a reality for a situation that we might never even see.

Jeremiah told the people to hold on and make do for what might be, and was, generations in exile, and he bought a plot of land, and instilled the title in a jar in the ground for a future that he never saw, and New College, Oxford, planted trees to make sure they were available 500 years in the future.  I don’t think I can envision things 500 years from now, I mean we’re not even 250 years separated from the Declaration of Independence, and are still 4 years short of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but what is the hope that we are generating for just a few years from now, say 40?

In 40 years many of you will have gone off to your eternal reward, and talking about death does not make it happen anymore than not talking about it makes it go away.  If I’m still around in 40 years I will be 80, and God willing long since retired.  But where will this congregation be in 40 years?  Are we planting the trees they will need to redo the roof?  What sense of hope are we not only passing on to them, but what sense of hope are we going to make a reality for them?  Is what we are doing here today sustainable for the next 40 years, or is what we are doing destroying the hope for the future?  What are we doing to proclaim that hope not only to them, but to ourselves?

Christian hope is always tied to God’s promises.  For Jeremiah, “redeeming the land is not an act of foolish hope or the ability to ignore the obvious.  Rather it is the enactment of faith in the future,” and to God’s promises, even with those promises seem absurd or impossible. When Mary is told that she will give birth to Jesus, she asks how this can be, and the angel tells her “nothing is impossible with God.”  Or as Paul says in Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.  Notice that it does not say, I can do some things, or a couple of things, or even many things, but instead I can do all things through Christ Jesus.  But that also requires action on our part.

God tells Jeremiah to purchase the land, but Jeremiah must actually buy the land to bring the promise to reality.  If you’ve experienced a setback, how are you working with God to prepare for your comeback?  It’s not enough to wish for it, it takes action.  It’s not enough to merely cut down the trees to build the building, seeds must be planted to make sure that new trees will be available, and for hope to be available we must proclaim that hope, that promise in Christ, the reality that God is with us through all things and that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” even when that seems foolish and impossible, for nothing is impossible with God.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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