Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ordinary 26C, September 29, 2013

Risky Business

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. 2At 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, 3where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

6Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7Hanamel 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.” 8Then 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. 9And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12and 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. 13In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14Thus 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. 15For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

We return to the book of Jeremiah this morning not because things are looking any better for Judah than they did last week.  Last week, we heard Jeremiah weeping a fountain of tears over a people who had pretty much messed up in every way it is possible to mess up.  Today, Judah’s future is looking even more bleak.

For more than 20 years, Jeremiah preached to the careless and forgetful people.  He preached judgment because the people kept turning to the many false idols that they had created for themselves.  Jeremiah called the people to turn back to YHWH for their security.  Jeremiah warned them over and over again of doom and gloom, telling the leaders and the people of Judah that if they kept going in the direction they were going, they would most certainly lose everything dear to them --  their land, their independence, their very identity as a nation of God’s chosen people. And despite Jeremiah’s prophetic tenacity and fervor, nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. 

And in today’s text, it’s all coming to a head.  It is the end for Judah, just as Jeremiah had warned them.  The army of Babylon is beginning its siege of Jerusalem. Very soon, most of the people who either hadn’t heard or completely tuned out Jeremiah’s warnings will be exiled from the land and dragged into captivity.  The nation of Judah has no foreseeable future.  The land they had cultivated for generations will be worthless.  The temple will fall.  Everything Jeremiah foretold has come to pass. 

And in this moment of national crisis, where is Jeremiah?  The great prophet is in jail.  Jeremiah told King Zedekiah something that no ruler ever wants to hear – that his power is worthless and his enemies will prevail.  Such talk tagged the prophet as a traitor.  Zedekiah had quite enough of Jeremiah’s nay-saying and threw Jeremiah into prison.  Unfortunately, for the king and everyone else in Judah, Jeremiah’s predictions are unfolding before their eyes. 

And then the strangest thing happens.

Out of the gathering storm clouds, Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel emerges.  Hanamel comes to see Jeremiah in prison to ask him if he would be willing to buy a piece of family property in Anathoth.  Jeremiah seems to have foreseen this offer from his cousin coming – in fact, Jeremiah prophesizes that his cousin is going to come to him and offer to sell him this property.  But Jeremiah’s response to his cousin’s offer is really very strange.  

Because this is Jeremiah, after all.  This is the guy who has been preaching doom and gloom for years, a prophet who sees nothing but ruin in Judah’s foreseeable future.  And yet, Jeremiah does something very strange.  Jeremiah not only agrees to buy the property, but also agrees to pay full price for land that is most certainly going to be worthless within a matter of hours, days or weeks.  Hanamel looks like a total genius in dumping the property and Jeremiah’s decision to buy it seems utterly foolish.

After all, it’s not like God directly told Jeremiah to agree to the deal.  God did give Jeremiah advance notice that his cousin would be coming with the offer to sell the land to Jeremiah.  But notice, the word of the Lord doesn’t include instructions on what Jeremiah is to do.  The word of the Lord only tells Jeremiah that the opportunity will present itself.

And this raises a very interesting question for all of us.  How do we discern what God would have us do when it seems as though the smartest, safest, most intelligent option would be to say, “no?”   What would God have us do when we are presented with something that seems, on its surface, totally reckless and foolish?

Jeremiah’s decision to purchase the property from his cousin is like someone paying full price for a piece of uninsured beachfront property on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina when a category 5 hurricane is roaring toward shore.  It is like saying yes to buying a house next to a vacant field that is slated to become a toxic waste dump.  In other words, Jeremiah saying “yes” to his cousin is probably the most spectacularly stupid thing that Jeremiah could possibly do at that moment.  Given what he knew was going to happen momentarily, the smartest, sanest thing for Jeremiah to do would be to keep the shekels he had and get ready for the coming invasion. Who could blame Jeremiah if he had said “no way” to his shrewd cousin’s blatantly self-serving plan to dump a soon-to-be-worthless real estate holding into Jeremiah’s lap for seventeen shekels of cold, hard, silver cash money?  Buying a piece of land in a war zone was about the dumbest thing Jeremiah could do. 

And it is exactly the kind of stupid thing that the people of God are called to do ALL THE TIME.  God is always calling God’s people to do things that look like utter and complete foolishness.  

Think about Abraham and Sarah leaving a pretty sweet and stable gig in Ur to follow the voice of YHWH.  Think about Moses taking on the most powerful man in Egypt just because a burning bush told him to do it.  Think about a young, unmarried girl named Mary being asked to take part in this incredibly bizarre plan presented to her out of nowhere by an angel.  I could go on and on with these examples of ordinary people agreeing to do blatantly foolish and sometimes even dangerous things in response to God’s call.  But God has a history of calling out ordinary people who just sitting around, minding their own business.  And God trusts that at least some of them will say “Yes” to God’s crazy plans which frequently require them to do something that most people would consider very, very ill-considered.  

If fact, it is rather astonishing that God ever gets anything done with any of us at all.  We’d all rather look wise than faithfully foolish.  We’d much rather hedge our bets than go all-in the way Jeremiah goes all-in on God’s vision for the future. 

Given what was going on all around Jeremiah, he had more than enough reason to say no to his cousin’s offer.  He had ample evidence to just take what was left of his shekels and go on to Babylon and spend the rest of his days telling those faithless people of Judah that he told them so.  That’s what I would do.  Maybe that’s what you would do.  That’s what a lot of people do.  At one time or another, we are so stressed out about what looks like an absolutely hopeless future that we are ready to just give in, give up, put our money in the mattress, stock up on guns and bottled water, and hunker down to protect what we have.

But not Jeremiah.  After all those years of preaching nothing but doom and gloom, God gives Jeremiah a brand new sermon to take to the people of Judah.  After years of despair, Jeremiah is given a tiny glimpse of something that looks an awful lot like – dare I say it -- hope.  In the midst of Judah’s past and present crumbling all around him, Jeremiah decides to engage in the risky business of investing in God’s future.  Jeremiah catches a glimpse of God’s deep desire to begin again.  Even with feckless, faithless Judah.  Somehow Jeremiah spies a future lying beneath the nation’s dismal present.  A future with houses, flourishing fields and verdant vineyards.

What I find most poignant about this story is that Jeremiah is investing in a future he will never see.  And I think Jeremiah knows this, which is why he instructs Baruch to take the paperwork involving the transfer of the property and put them in an earthenware jar so they can last for a long time.  Jeremiah makes this foolish investment in a future he will never see, but there is one thing he knows for sure.  The future for him, for the people of Judah, for the people of God in every time and place is always in God’s sure and loving hands.  Jeremiah’s strength is not in his power of positive thinking or Pollyanna optimism.  Jeremiah’s resilience is rooted in his willingness to be so honest about the darkness that he can also perceive the light that is beginning to creep back in. 

One of my favorite things to do when I am alone in the church is to walk around and look at the old pictures hanging on the walls.  I especially love the pictures of the old Sunday school classes and the pictures of the church building when it was newly constructed.  I realized this week that we are only two years away from the 150th anniversary of the founding of this church as well as the 120th anniversary of the building. 

I sometimes look at those pictures of people who invested their time and money and energy into that new church in the 19th century and I wonder – what did they envision for the future?  What would they think if they saw us now?  Would they be dismayed that the church is no longer filled to bursting or would they be amazed that we’re even still here?  Did that investment of 150 years ago pay off in the way they imagined it would?

At the presbytery meeting this week, we learned that Dormont Presbyterian Church will soon sell their building to Northway Christian Community.  You probably know something about Northway – it is a huge mega-church with satellite campuses all over the Pittsburgh area. Dormont Presbyterian Church was once one of the largest churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery with a membership in the thousands.  Nearly every person I’ve run into has a Dormont story.  Nearly everybody in the presbytery knows somebody who was a member, baptized, married or confirmed in the Dormont Presbyterian Church.  It has been a sad, hard time for that congregation.  Selling the building was a painful, but necessary step in their life as a community.

Yet, there will still be ministry happening on that corner in Dormont, but not a Presbyterian ministry.  There will not be the sort of traditional worship services that have been there for the past 100 years.  What will be in that space is nothing at all what the original founders of that church could have possibly imagined.  A coffee bar?  Computer screens? 

The Dormont Presbyterian congregation has a future, although it is a future still unfolding.  Without the idol of a giant, expensive building weighing them down, the people of Dormont Presbyterian have been set free to turn toward God’s future for them, wherever that may lead them.

From that perspective, I do not see what is happening in any of the churches in this presbytery or in this denomination as a cautionary tale to hunker down and stop making investments in the future.  If anything, I think the prophet Jeremiah calls us to go all-in on the investment our ancestors made on our behalf long ago.  I think Jeremiah tells us that we should be confident and crazy enough to invest our souls, our spirit, our energies, our creativity and, yes, our money into something that even I will admit doesn’t look entirely promising – the PCUSA.  But we can take chances and dream big knowing that God has a future in mind for us, as Jeremiah says in chapter 29: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope (Jer. 29:11).

Jeremiah’s risky and seemingly ridiculous real estate transaction is a radical act of hope for the people of Israel.

The war and destruction they see around them will not have the final say.
The failure of the political system and religious structures will not have the final say.
The death of a denomination or even death on a cross is not God’s final judgment on God’s people.

God’s final judgment is forgiveness.  God’s final judgment is grace.  God’s final judgment is not the church visible with all our flaws and foibles and fiascos, but the church triumphant when we will finally see exactly what God has had in mind for us all along.

We can say no.  We can say yes.  We can say no to God’s future and stick with the idols that will drag us down.  Or we can say yes and make a deep commitment to a future that we can hardly imagine and may not live to see, but can trust as God’s good plan for God’s people.  Deep commitment brings deep healing, and deep healing brings deep generosity. Commitment allows us to take the lids off the earthenware jars that are our lives, and helps us to embrace change.[1]

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]  September 28, 2013. “Living into Change.”

Prayer Garden Kickoff at Avon Club Fall Festival

Many, many thanks to everyone helped out at the Avon Fall Festival on September 28th!  The community's response to our plans for a neighborhood prayer garden including an outdoor labyrinth was amazing and encouraging.  We gave out more than 200 balloons with our labyrinth logo, dozens of dog treats, lollipops, and talked with so many members of the community that we were hoarse by the end of the afternoon!  Kids and adults alike loved walking our "temporary" labyrinth that was skillfully crafted by Jon Stellfox.  Many neighbors offered to donate plants, time and prayers to help our vision for a beautiful contemplative space a reality in our little corner in Emsworth.

Special thanks to Bez Stellfox, Donna Hunter, Erin Williams, Dan Williams, Tom Smart, Marti Smart and everyone who helped make the day such a wonderful success!  Keep watching your bulletin, newsletter and this blog for more information as the prayer garden moves forward.  For more information about what's going on and how you can help, please contact Pastor Susan or leave a comment below!