United Church of Christ

Surprising Investment/New Directions

Sunday, September 29, 2019
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

Focus Theme:
Surprising Investment/New Directions

Focus Prayer:
God Eternal, you inspired Jeremiah to buy a piece of land when no one could see a future in it. Grant us such commitment to the future of your people, that you will always have workers for your vineyard and harvesters for your fields. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 with Psalm 91:1-6,14-16 or
Amos 6:1a, 4-7 with Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19 and
Luke 16:19-31

Focus Questions:

1. Is this text a message for individuals, or does it address the wider community? Why?

2. When have you felt "the armies of the empire" camped outside your "city walls"?

3. What ought to be the response of individuals and churches to a prophetic text?

4. When have you seen hope in the midst of despair?

5. When has God "vetoed" your anxiety?

Reflection
by Kate Matthews

If they had had such things back in those days, the people of Israel might have said that their hopes were on a roller-coaster ride, up and down, up and down. When things were good, no one wanted to hear from the prophet Jeremiah, who warned even in "secure" times that God's judgment was coming in the form of the armies of the Babylonian empire.

For almost thirty chapters, Jeremiah does go on. And on. No wonder the people preferred to listen to the prophets who were cheery and reassuring, denying the threat of destruction from the East, denial, it seems, thriving in every age.

An oblivious king

Meanwhile, the king seemed to have his head in the clouds, counting on help to come from the south, from mighty Egypt, who hated Babylon as much as everyone else did. Little Israel was caught between, and at the mercy of, the grand empires who decided world affairs in those days, including the things that eventually rained down on the "little ones," ordinary people who starved, suffered, and died in the midst of the dramas of "greater" men. Perhaps some things do never change.

But that's not really what our passage this week is about. Jeremiah has now changed his tune (and certainly the key in which he sings it), and his prophecies in these chapters are commonly called "The Book of Comfort." It's 588 B.C. E., and the Babylonian Empire is pounding on the door of Jerusalem--again.

Trouble is brewing

Ten years earlier, Babylon had "disciplined" a rebellious Israel with a measure of destruction and had carried off some of its people. Now, Israel was getting overly confident again, probably because they thought they had Egypt backing them up (sometimes it works to get one bully to fight the other), and the Babylonians were going to make it very clear that there would be no more trouble from this upstart kingdom.

We know that the destruction and exile that followed left a profound mark on the spirit and history of the people of Israel, when the land that had been promised to their ancestors long ago, the land to which their freed-slave forebears had been led through forty long years (and much longer in captivity), the land of David and Solomon's glory, the land that was theirs--or better, God's, and they were its stewards: this land was in every sense taken from them.

A prophet's warning

Jeremiah the prophet had tried to warn the people that they needed to get right with God instead of taking God's favor for granted, and, ironically, he saw Babylon as the instrument of God's punishment for Israel's unfaithfulness.

With the armies of the evil empire camped around them like a scene from a medieval novel, or better, one of "The Lord of the Rings" movies, the people are starving, and sick, and desperate. They are trapped, too, and can't get out of the city walls to tend their land.

A ruler in desperation

Their king, Zedekiah, knows he's in trouble, but he's perhaps the best of all at denial. He even responded to Jeremiah's warnings that he, the king, would suffer the approaching doom by holding the prophet captive in his palace, where he couldn't stir up the people.

While Jeremiah has used many words in the past thirty chapters or so, here he uses a deed (literally a deed) to deliver a message. In his action as much as his speech, he still digs down deep and finds hope to sustain the people. Even though he has predicted this calamity, his spirit must be depressed by the reality of it on his doorstep. Undoubtedly he wishes he could be wrong.

A surprising word from God

Right at that moment he receives a message from God that both surprises and perplexes him. When he hears that his relative, Hanamel, is going to come to him with the offer to sell him his land in Anathoth, and then Hanamel appears and does exactly that, Jeremiah knows that this is indeed a message from God.

And so he obeys the command he has received, and purchases what is, at least at this moment, worthless land.

This is not our land, but God's

In our own time, we have different ways of determining the value of property, including land. While we still have farms and depend on the earth for our sustenance, most of us are disconnected from the processes of agriculture, and land may only represent an investment that will grow because of its strategic location (for example, if a housing development might be put on it, or a big box store goes up next to it, and its commercial value soars).

Except for long-time owners of land, farmers who live on it and its yield, most folks have very little attachment to such real estate. But that's not how things were in Jeremiah's day. The people still remembered that the land was not only a gift from God, but in a very real way, still belonged to God.

Foundational theology for stewardship

This is the foundation of a stewardship theology that says that all creation, while a blessing from God, still belongs to God, including all of our possessions and money. In any case, the land was precious to the people, and it was "kept in the family," passed down from generation to generation.

In Leviticus 25:25-55, the law even provided protection for this practice, and we hear about this "law of redemption" in action in our reading this week. It was Jeremiah's right and duty, then, to re-claim the land in Anathoth for a relative who was destitute.

Location, timing and deciding

Talk about location, location, location: what good was that land going to be to Jeremiah, when the Babylonians were camped on it? It certainly couldn't be farmed, or provide sustenance or income for its owner.

If he tried to sell it, he'd have to find another family member as "foolish" as he was, willing to pay good money for what appeared to be worthless.

In the midst of a depression

Imagine the mess Israel was in! Elizabeth Achtemeier vividly describes the major economic depression visited upon Israel by the Babylonians, with land, silver and gold all now worthless, business at a standstill and everyone just wanting to get out of harm's way.

This was the exactly the worst moment for such a strange transaction by Jeremiah, in fact, we might call it counter-intuitive, and completely against the tide of developments around him. If location is important in real estate, so are timing and the decision to buy or sell at just the right moment.

A dramatic move by the prophet

It's in this atmosphere of doom that Jeremiah doesn't just speak but acts, and acts with great care, even great drama, however quiet that drama may appear. He buys his relative's land, and he makes something of a show of it, just to make a statement, we would say today. When it appears that there is no hope for tomorrow, Jeremiah makes a hope-filled, trust-filled proclamation about God's intentions for Israel and its story, which will, against all appearances, go on.

The prophet's "statement" doesn't spring from optimism or even a misplaced confidence in governments, his own king, or Egypt's armies, to pull things out of the fire at the last moment. And it is most certainly not just more denial.

Jeremiah's purchase is his way of announcing his hope in the God of Israel here, in the worst of times just as much as in the good ones. Israel's God, no matter what the appearances are, no matter what "the market" says, is the One in charge. (Again: God's God, and we're not.)

Daring to see hope

When the word of God comes to Jeremiah and tells him to buy the land, it also helps him to dare to see that there would be more than this impending desolation, more than the realization of his worst warnings, and that there would be life again, with God's people back on their own land, and the most ordinary of human transactions, including those of real estate, resuming once again.

That's why Jeremiah orders his secretary, Baruch, whom we meet for the first time here but whose role bears further reflection, to copy and preserve these documents of sale not only for verification but for future generations who will read them and be inspired to hope in their own day.

A message for us as well

Even though Jeremiah himself wouldn't live to see this happen, he wants to make sure that his descendants would see in the good times the hand of God fulfilling ancient promises, and would, in the bad times, hold fast to those same promises of abiding, faithful love and compassion by a generous but demanding God. As Gary Peluso-Verdend puts it, the hope will live on, even if Jeremiah didn't.

According to Walter C. Bouzard, Jeremiah "acted in faith and, one can suppose, lived in hope that God's purposes would be worked out in the course of time." And this message, and witness, are for us today, as well, Lisa Davison writes: "Looking forward instead of backward is a testament to our faith and trust in God's ultimate control and desire for a world filled with peace and justice."

The prophet struggles

It must be noted here that even Jeremiah himself struggled with all of this, and that may be, in a way, encouraging to congregations today. In the passage that follows the lectionary text, Jeremiah has one of those weary-sounding and anxious prayer-times with God.

He reviews a long list of God's good deeds toward Israel, God's mighty deeds and faithfulness, in spite of the people's sins, "but"--there's that important word--but, for heaven's sake, aren't you paying attention, he asks God, to what's happening out there, on the wall, where the enemy has put ramps up to the walls as it lays siege to Jerusalem, fully intending to destroy it, and to end at last the story of the people of God? Are you sure, Jeremiah asks God, that you really want me to be buying land at this point?

God's reminders

And of course, God responds with a long message of judgment against the people, beginning with the wonderful question, "I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?" Many verses into the speech, God says, "Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them. Fields shall be bought in this land….for money, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed…for I will restore their fortunes, says the Lord" (32:42-44).

As James Newsome writes, we are reassured that "judgment is not the final word. Beyond judgment, beyond destruction, beyond the justice of God there is restoration, mercy, salvation!" After the bitterness of exile, there will be homecoming, and joy, once again.

A tension in the narrative

Perhaps we struggle with the idea that God would allow, or even will, the destruction, of Jerusalem and its people. It's only a short step, after all, from there to saying that any group or nation that suffers somehow deserves it.

This is a tension within the Old Testament narrative, and indeed in the life of faith for us as well, for our actions are not without consequence or consequences, and it's only natural to view our circumstances, whether ancient invasion or modern-day foreclosure, illness, and heartbreak, through the lens of God's will for our lives.

How does someone else "hear" this story?

I have often found that to be the most helpful way to read many narratives, as if I'm looking through the lens of someone who is doing theological reflection on a situation, and struggling to find meaning in, to understand, what is happening to them. Isn't that what Jeremiah does himself, in his anguished prayer, full of questions for God?

And doesn't it require a kind of faith, of trust, in God even to pose such questions? Shouldn't we respect the questions that people struggle with?

Thinking of themselves in a new way

There's also a subtext here of how to define or at least describe the community of faith. According to Sharon Peebles Burch, Israel was undergoing a transformation in its identity, one that we might apply to ourselves as well.

When Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant with God in chapter 31, he was calling the people to think of themselves in a new way, remembering that God was willing to make a new beginning with Israel, with torah planted in their hearts rather than engraved on a stone. That's how closely they would be identified with torah, Burch writes, how closely their lives would embrace God's law as their identity rather than geographic, cultic or tribal connections.

A people dedicated to God

How might that image--a new covenant planted in their hearts--describe a local congregation as well? Are we dedicated to God, and the things of God? What really connects us within our congregations and gives us common ground on which to worship?

Do we care more, perhaps too much, about "the way we've always" worshipped, our "cultic" traditions (this chair has always been placed right here in the chancel, and the minister always leads this part of the service), or which people and groups hold rights and place within the life of the church?

A figure in the shadows

We could also focus our attention on Baruch the secretary, for we might not be called to be "foolish" people of faith as much as the ones who watch them, and learn from them, and help them in their work.

Michael E. Williams imagines what Baruch may have been thinking as he performed this "no ordinary task...in no ordinary time." Maybe Jeremiah was crazy, but his Baruch claims that "[w]ithout those God-crazed Jeremiahs among us we would fall more often….Perhaps in times like these our only hope is found in such outrageous faith….Others of us can only stand aside and marvel at such faith or foolishness. And we can record for future generations the lives and words of God's outrageous faithful. We are the Baruchs."

A tradition of hope

Walter Brueggemann observes that the earthenware vessel is not the only receptacle of this witness, because "the biblical text itself" ensures that it will be passed down to future generations rather than lost. We don't have the written deed but we have the evidence that supports the hope of Israel, and our hope as well.

Brueggemann also points out the way this story is one more that illustrates how "the Bible holds together faith claims and the realities of public life. Unless both factors are present, the significance of this episode collapses," for this is a story about the plans and intentions of a faithful and loving God who has plans for Israel, despite all appearances right now: "God intends a good life for this people after exile."

Emerging from desolation

I remember that awful time after 9/11, when we were still reeling from the effects of the terrorist attacks, and many of us thought that life would never be the same. Of course, it isn't the same, but life has persisted, sprung up, and flourished in many ways, even as we grieve our loss and struggle to rebuild on the dust of the destruction.

When we in the church today root our identity in texts like this one from Jeremiah, we have to discern how God is calling us to live on, to thrive, in a new day, no matter what empires--materialism, hatred and prejudice, militarism, sexism, racism or more--may threaten us.

When we read texts like this one from the prophets, we can find inspiration and promise, and ultimately, firm hope and trust in God, no matter how bad things appear at any given moment, in the life of the community, or in our own private, all-encompassing griefs. No matter what happens, Brueggemann writes, "The world does not culminate on Babylonian terms, because God has post-Babylonian intentions for Judah," and for them, and for us, "Life begins again, out of chaos!"

A focus on love

Gary E. Peluso-Verdend draws on this text in order to direct our attention to the importance of stewardship in the life of Jesus' followers, and to the church's responsibility to be able to speak about human desire in its theology of stewardship. Living our lives as "stewards rather than owners," he writes, "can raise speed-bumps for us when we have taken a questionable road in pursuit of 'more'" instead of focusing on God and one another.

In the life of faith, loving God and our neighbor is the deepest desire of our heart. When we read in the text that Israel's sins involved idolatry, Peluso-Verdend makes the connection between ancient offenses and those of our own time and place, for we know that we too are guilty of idolatry, of worshipping the false gods of our own culture and time.

A word of hope

And yet he does find hope in the stories today of wealthy people who have the vision to use their wealth for the greater good, both short-term and long-term, with their own version of "earthen jars" bringing life to people they will never meet or know.

When we read in the text that Israel's sins involved idolatry, Peluso-Verdend makes the connection between ancient offenses and those of our own time and place, for we know that we too are guilty of idolatry, of worshipping the false gods of our own culture and time.

Anxiety and hope

In his book of prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, Walter Brueggemann evokes the sense of anxiety in this story from long ago, as he prays about our situation today, with threats and dangers always on our hearts and minds, from natural disasters, terrorism, and calamities of every sort.

God's word, however, "cuts the threat…siphons off the danger…tames the powers," and tells us, "do not fear." And so, we learn to live in hope and trust in God's presence with us, always, rather than living "in our feeble anxiety," for "you veto our anxiety…." Come by us here, he prays, and "give us faith commensurate with your true, abiding self. Amen." Amen!

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Francis Bacon, 16th century
"A sudden bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open."

Danny Kaye, 20th century
"I wasn't born a fool. It took work to get this way."

Oscar Wilde, 19th century
"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"People only see what they are prepared to see."

Henri Matisse, 20th century
"There are always flowers for those who want to see them."

Audre Lorde, 20th century
"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."

Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 19th century
"Nothing is more imminent than the impossible...what we must always foresee is the unforeseen."

Barack Obama, 21st century
"The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope."

Maxine Hong Kingston, 20th century
"In a time of destruction, create something."
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