Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Things didn’t look good in Jerusalem. The Babylonian army was attacking and many of its leaders had already been captured and forced into exile. And God, through Jeremiah, had said, the city’s worst days were yet to come. It would fall and even its people would be carried off into exile. Of course, this prophet of doom and gloom was not well received. As a consequence, he was imprisoned in at King Zedekiah’s palace.
It was during his imprisonment that God spoke to him and told Jeremiah to buy the field that his cousin Hanamel would offer to sell him. Now, we have to understand something about the buying and selling of property in those days, in that culture. Property, land, was a divine gift, understood to be a sign of God’s promise. A family held that land from generation to generation. One lived on through the continuation of the family and of the care of the land. So, if someone wanted to sell property, it didn’t go on an open market. The proper approach was to offer it to someone else in the family – because it was the family inheritance.
Perhaps his cousin’s decision to sell the land is a sign of his despair. He could see no future. Yet, by law, he had to offer that parcel to Jeremiah first. “For the right of redemption by purchase is yours.”
You might think that Jeremiah, this prophet of doom, would pass on the opportunity. After all, it wasn’t much of an opportunity. First, Babylon was threatening and Jeremiah knew that there was no future in the city. Furthermore, from all accounts, he was single. So, even if he bought the property, he had no children who would then inherit it.
All of this would have been known to those around him. So, his willingness to buy the land, and his desire to have that purchase recorded in a way that would last, was a powerful testament to hope. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” He must have known that he would not live to see that day. He would not experience the benefits of this purchase. Yet, he bore witness to hope.
It’s quite a story in our world that demands and expects instant solutions to the problems that besiege us. We want to see and know and benefit from our work, even our good works. I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in church discussions – at many levels of the church – about how best to invest our mission monies. “Is this a successful program?” “Are we accomplishing anything here?” The institutional church, oftentimes constrained by financial realities, wants to make sure its investments bear fruit. So we evaluate and evaluate and evaluate. “It the situation changing? Is there progress? Can we feel good about what we’re doing here?”
One of the modern critiques of the church is that its vision is too small. We are pragmatic in our approach to faith. So we speak of what we can afford to do, of what impact we might make with our limited resources. If we looked at the world, at the magnitude of its injustice and pain and suffering, we are overwhelmed. So, we close our eyes and retreat into our small circles – and count our pennies.
A pastor told a colleague, years ago, that if you listened to a church’s story and God had gone out of its story, then the church had entered survival mode. I hear it in churches that say, “We can’t afford to do any kind of mission. We’re just trying to keep the doors open.” But, there are also churches with resources, with wealth, even, that don’t see a need to look beyond themselves. Their mission is to care for each other – and for those who might make it through their doors. “We only take care of our own.” I wonder if that was the rich man’s approach to life. He lived in a comfortable circle. So, he never even noticed Lazarus. It’s a wonderful irony in this parable that the rich man is unnamed, and the poor man named. It’s actually hard to learn this story because in our world we know the rich and the poor are nameless and faceless! We could easily name some of the richest in our own society. Do we know the names of those being evicted from the Mosley Motel? Do we want to know their names or their stories?
Again, this week, our nation has seen violence in the police shootings of two black men. In one, an officer has been arrested. In the other, the story is still unfolding. Pain and fear and injustice have been revealed once again – for those of us who are willing and able to see.
Erin Hensley Schultz, a white Southern woman, wrote a powerful blog about racism in our country that I found on Facebook this week. She wrote: “I have literally never been discriminated against in any significant way. I’ve been the target of unwelcome male attention because of my gender, but that’s a rant for another day.
The point is that I don’t have any right to complain about racism.
What I do have, however, is a duty to complain about racism.
It exists. It’s real. It happens every single day, in every single city in America, whether we see it or not, and as long as we avert our gaze, it’s pretty easy to feel indignant that anyone should imply that there are racists among us. ‘There’s a black man in the White House,” I hear them huff. “What more do they want?’”
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be profiled because of one’s skin color – and so to live in fear that a simple traffic stop will end one’s life – or having the car break down – or sitting in a parking lot waiting for children. I can’t imagine it. But, I need to hear those who say they’ve lived it. I need to hear the fear that is a constant presence in the lives of many merely because of their skin color. We need to see the disparity in our own area where certain schools are always numbered among the failing – where African American students are more severely disciplined than white students.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable said, “Send [Lazarus] to my father’s house – for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He [Abraham] said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
The rich man could have seen Lazarus. He was not hidden. In fact, as the parable unfolds, we learn that he knew Lazarus’ name. He wanted Lazarus to serve him. Yet, Lazarus was his concern—that was the message of Moses and the prophets, not a new word from Jesus.
I watched a little of the dedication service for the New African American Museum at the Smithsonian. President Obama said that we need to look at our history, even if it makes us uncomfortable, because then we can make the future better and stronger.
We need to see where we have fallen short of God’s good intent. That’s actually one of the reasons that the prayer of confession is part of Reformed Worship. We acknowledge that, both individually and corporately, we fall short of who God calls us, invites us, creates us to be. We confess not to wipe the slate clean, but to look and see our shortcomings so that we might move forward as people more deeply committed to living as faithful disciples.
One of the powerful parts of the story about Jeremiah is that he bought that field knowing he would never benefit from the purchase. He would never see the fruits of his investments – nor did he have children who would benefit. Yet, he bought it to tell the community that God was faithful, that a better day would come. Perhaps, our vision is too short sided. When we want instant results, when we demand that we see the fruits of the work that we do, our investment is more in us than in God’s purpose. I spoke to a pastor a few years ago. He talked about his years in a parish, years that seemed wasted. He saw no fruit from his ministry. “Years later,” he said, “I got a call from someone –someone who complained frequently.” To his surprise, the man said, “I remember when you said….”(Something!) The pastor was astounded. He had sowed a seed that had taken root and finally borne fruit. His “wasted” years were, instead, an investment in God’s people and in God’s good news.
What can we do as a sign of hope in our own communities? What can we offer that speaks to our faith that God is at work, that we have not been abandoned to the powers that belittle, divide and destroy? How can we lift up hope for a more just, more inclusive, more accepting future that emerges out of the chaos of the present?
We are, like Jeremiah, to be people of hope, people who proclaim hope, people who work for and invest in hope—not as a way of denying the realities of the present, but seeing the Lazaruses, the faceless, and nameless, the downtrodden and despairing, the fearing and fearful. We do so looking toward God’s realm. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.”