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Buy the Land

Lesson: Jeremiah 32:1-15


Not surprisingly, 401K’s, 403B’s and IRA’s are taking up more of my brain space now that I’m staring down retirement. Are you the stock market type? The “diversify your portfolio” type? The “stuff the cash in a mattress” type? I’m relieved that the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church makes most of my investment decisions, because I really hate this stuff. I tend to agree with Mark Twain, who said, “October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February.” And I agree with Milton Berle, who said that the problem with the stock market is that every time one guy sells, another one buys, and they both think they’re smart.


In this morning’s passage, the prophet Jeremiah takes a break from his weeping and lament to make an investment. It’s about 587 BCE, and Nebuchadrezzer II, king of Babylon, is besieging the city of Jerusalem. For thirty-some chapters, Jeremiah has been predicting doom for God’s people. The king of Judah, King Zedekiah, finally takes this personally when Jeremiah says the king himself will be dragged off to Babylon as a captive. Zedekiah jails Jeremiah for treason. As one commentator put it, “Real prophets often find themselves in some sort of confinement; false prophets on the other hand often drive Jaguars.”[1]


So Jeremiah is imprisoned in the palace when the word of God comes to him, with instructions to redeem a piece of family property near his hometown of Anahoth. God says that Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, is going to show up to offer him this investment opportunity. When Hanamel does indeed appear with the sales proposal, the prophet decides he’s heard an authentic word from the Lord.


Jeremiah goes to great lengths to make sure the sale is duly and legally executed. He gets witnesses to watch the whole transaction. Then he gives strict instructions to his scribe Baruch to put two copies of the deed – one sealed and one unsealed – in a clay jar to be preserved – sort of the ancient equivalent of a safety deposit box. All of this must have mystified Hanamel and the crowd of guards.[2] No real estate agent of any century would come within a ten-foot pole of this land transaction.[3] The fair market value of a piece of property that’s about to be invaded by Nebuchadrezzer is precisely zero, at least to a Judean. That’s probably why Hanamel is unloading it. He wants his assets to be liquid, and he’s probably giggling all the way to the bank, or more likely, all the way out of town, out of harm’s way.


But the last verse of this passage, verse 15, tells us Jeremiah’s motive: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” On the other side of doom, says God, there is hope. It’s the ultimate in insider trading, isn’t it? Investment advice from God? Except that, unlike normal insider-trading situations, there are no facts on the ground proving that this is a good deal. Jeremiah acts on faith and lives in hope that God’s purposes will be worked out in the course of time, even if there is nothing pointing to that right now.


In January of 1943, three months before he was arrested and later killed by the Nazis, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words about Christian hope and faith during dark times: “...There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future. It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative.”


“…Living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future.” What a wonderful description of the life of faith! It’s significant that while Bonhoeffer speaks of hope, he doesn’t offer anything warm and fuzzy or especially reassuring about the immediate future. And as it turned out, he was talking about trusting a great future that he, personally, did not reach. It reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Like Bonhoeffer, King knew that he would not see his dream of equality realized in his lifetime. He knew that the struggle of black Americans had been going on for centuries. In April of 1968, King preached his famous sermon about having been to the mountaintop where he could see the Promised Land. He said he might not get there with the folks who were listening to him that night.[4] He was killed the next day. Forty years later, we elected a black man as President of the United States. That was inconceivable in 1968. Most of the people who struggled and sacrificed for the much greater equality we have today did not live to see the dream.[5]


And yet these people continued to move toward that dream. They continued to live into hope. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison, he wrote a letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. He wrote: “When Jeremiah said, in his people’s hour of direst need, that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,’ it was a token of confidence in the future. Our marriage must be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth.”[6]


Bonhoeffer’s words are as true today as they ever were.[7] Bonhoeffer was telling his fiancée they must live as though there is hope, because our faith is that, ultimately, there is hope. We don’t live in Nazi Germany but we are surrounded by bad news that could drive us to despair: climate disruption, government corruption, mass shootings, the immigrant crisis, white supremacy, now an impeachment inquiry – we might be tempted to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the news because we feel so helpless. Or we might be tempted to live a kind of hurricane party existence. If you’ve never lived in the Gulf Coast, the object of a hurricane party is to consume large quantities of alcohol while a hurricane is coming on shore. It’s sort of the ultimate expression of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”


There are many ways to numb our selves from reality. But that is not who we are. That is not what God calls us to do. “… [T]he people who have Jeremiah as their prophet, the people who have Jesus as their Savior, the people who have Dietrich Bonhoeffer [and Martin Luther King, Jr.] as their martyr[s], the people who know that the God of the Bible is the source of their lives, these people do not despair. These people live lives of radical hope. A hope, which is not simply some sentimental feeling, but a hope and an orientation which is a commitment to action; an orientation which allows us to see the world differently and to bring that hope-filled vision to life.”[8]


We are those people! We are the ones who have been called by our baptism to bring hope to the world. We are the ones challenged to invest in an uncertain future. Charles Schwab used to say, “Own your tomorrow.” We are the ones who insist that God owns tomorrow and it is good. We are the ones called to live into hope. To live into hope for our planet. To live into hope for our children, whether they’re struggling with school, or struggling with addiction. To live into hope for relationships worth repairing. To live into hope for our American democracy.


And, my friends, to live into hope for the Church. The world around us seems to be saying, “Organized religion is irrelevant – or worse;” “The church is dying.” Jeremiah reminds us that we have an inheritance of commitment and trust and sometimes sacrifice from saints of previous generations. Who we are today has been passed from Jeremiah, to Jesus of Nazereth, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to Martin Luther King, Jr., to a church here in San Anselmo built by seminary professors with a vision, to us today. We are the current generation entrusted with the great treasure once sealed in a jar in Jerusalem.


Although we have to be careful with that “sealed in a jar” metaphor. I read an article that compares “passing on the faith” to young people to passing on your grandmother’s doilies. They just don’t look right on all that West Elm mid-century modern furniture or in those Restoration Hardware everything-has-to-be-gray decors. But you can’t bear to part with them, so you stick those doilies in a drawer somewhere. Faith is not a family heirloom, to be preserved exactly as it was when we received it. It’s more like a toy, the kind you give to a child to use, to play with, rubbing the hair off of until it’s real, as the Velveteen Rabbit puts it.[9] Our faith is alive, and lively, just as the church ought to be, and we don’t know what either will look like in twenty years, or fifty, or a hundred.


Jeremiah invites us to invest in it, anyway. To trust that the dark times in which we live will not be the final word in God’s story, because God loves God’s world and the Spirit is pulling us toward something better. To trust that even if the church evolves over time into something that we can’t predict, it will remain the living community of the saints, seeking to love God and have compassion for our neighbors, and it is our responsibility to keep hope as a living reality, not merely a past legacy.[10]


Next month, as we do each fall, you will begin what we call our annual giving campaign. We used to call it “stewardship.” See? Something changed, and we’re just fine. The annual giving campaign is the time when we remind people of the responsibility to keep hope, and invite them to invest in this congregation’s future. The theme this fall is, “We Are Called,” from the refrain of Hymn #749 in your hymnals, and paraphrasing Micah 6:8:


We are called to act with justice;

we are called to love tenderly;

we are called to serve on another,

to walk humbly with God.


We are called – you are called; this congregation is called. God calls First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo today, and God calls you into a bright future. I will not be here to see you put flesh on that future. Nevertheless, I stand with all your pastors, past and future, and with you, the saints of San Anselmo for over 120 years and counting, trusting that God is at work in and through the church and in and through you. As Thomas Warren puts it on the cover of your bulletins: “Jeremiah says to us today, buy the land, build up the church, build up God’s kingdom, build up God’s reign of justice and righteousness and peace. Invest in and prepare the ground for the future. Show the world that God’s spirit is alive and well here on earth. Indeed the future of our lives, the future of our churches, the future of our world is not pre-determined; the future hangs in the balance. And God calls the church to make an investment in that future.”


There’s an old Greek proverb that says that a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. I believe we can say the same thing about a great church.


Trusting that God owns our tomorrow, may we, the church of Jesus Christ, have the courage and strength and faith to make that investment. Amen.


© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[1] John Holbert, “The Worst Land Deal in History: Reflections on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, September 22, 2013, https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/2013/09/worst-land-deal-john-holbert-09-23-2013.


[2] Jeremiah 32:12, “…all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.”


[3] Peace, ibid.


[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm.


[5] Todd Weir, http://bloomingcactus.typepad.com/bloomingcactus/2010/09/jeremiah-321-15-are-you-ready-to-buy-the-farm.html.


[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer and M. von Wedemeyer, Love Letters from Cell 92, 1943-45, Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and U. Kabitz, eds. (London: Harper Collins, 1994), pp. 48-49.


[7] Thomas Warren, “When Battered and Besieged … Buy,” September 26, 2010, http://day1.org/2197-when_battered_and_besiegedbuy.


[8] Warrren, ibid.


[9] David M. Csinos, September 18, 2013, “Passing on the Faith,” http://www.patheos.com/Topics/Passing-on-the-Faith/Passing-Faith-David-Csinos-09-19-2013.html, quoting Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (Or How Toys Become Real), 1922.


[10] Weir, ibid.

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