Scripture passage: Jeremiah 32
Once every few decades, someone throws a rock through one of our windows. It happened week before last, and I doubt most of you even noticed because our attentive and hard working trustees had a cleaned up and covered last Sunday, and a new window (made from tempered glass) is in place this Sunday.
Many years ago (before my time) the windows broken were along the Ingraham Street side of the sanctuary, and more than one window was shattered, leaving shards of glass of several different colors. Then, as now, the windows were replaced, and one member of the congregation gathered up some of the broken glass and took it home. Later, she brought back a circular work of art containing a stained-glass butterfly and a flower. This symbol of how God can bring beauty out of destruction, and life out of death, hangs in our entry area even now.
God specializes in signs of hope. The Bible contains a multitude of stories of how God encourages people not to give up, and fulfills promises of restoration and renewal. Again and again, when all seems lost, God gives reassurance, and sends help from unlikely places. Again and again, when people remain faithful, God is able to accomplish amazing things.
Jeremiah is a good example of someone who was called upon to demonstrate faith in God’s future, and to invest in God’s future, at a time when it looked like the end must be near. Jeremiah’s situation, actually, was far worse than have nothing to work with but a scraggly, pathetic tree, or being surprised with the insult and nuisance of a pile of broken glass. Jeremiah was in jail, because the government did not like the way he talked, and his country was about to be overrun and destroyed by its enemies.
The king was at his wit’s end, and could not understand why Jeremiah continued to announce to one at all that God was going to allow the Babylonians to conquer Judah, and that Zedekiah himself was going to be taken captive. Jeremiah himself knew only that it was the truth, and that it was a heartbreaking message. Enough other people could see what was happening that they had started to jettison their property, liquidate their assets. flee the city, or try desperately to prepare for the disaster that was to come.
Then Jeremiah received a new word from God. “You’re going to have a chance to buy some property, Jeremiah,” said God. Here’s how it happened… Jeremiah 32:6-9.
Let me offer the clarification that this was not advice about what neighborhood was up and coming and about to dramatically increase in property value. It was not like a hot stock market tip. It was a suggestion to do something ridiculous in the midst of an apparently hopeless situation. Everybody was selling because the Babylonians were breathing down their necks. What use was owning property if you were about to become a war refugee anyway? Far better to have something of value that you could carry with you, that might buy your family some food and security in the uncertain reality that was to come. Yet, Jeremiah decided to buy. People must have laughed in his face.
Jeremiah, a prisoner in the current regime, could certainly not expect favors from the bullies that were coming. He knew the immediate future was going to be very bleak. Yet he went through the process of legalizing and registering the sale, and he stored the documents in the closest thing to a safe deposit box of his time.
Jeremiah did all this because, even though his people had forgotten God’s ways, he knew that God was not going to give up on God’s people. Yes, they were facing defeat and exile, but God’s future extended beyond that. Jeremiah bought his relative’s property and sealed the deed in a jar because, as it says in verse 15, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Yes, God was going to allow the people to experience the painful consequences of the way they had chosen to live, and it was going to be awful. But when that was all over, this was God’s plan… Jeremiah 32:37b-41
Jeremiah knew that God not only desired to do these things, God was quite capable of doing them, because God had liberated a group of ragtag slaves from Egypt and given them a home of their own. So he chose to begin immediately to prepare for God’s long-term future and thus offered a sign of hope for those who would open their eyes to see. Jeremiah believed in God’s promises. His actions demonstrated his faith that God would not abandon his people.
Our history too contains a multitude of stories in which God has called us to take action for God’s future, even when God’s future looked remote or unlikely. I can’t imagine that it seemed a certain thing when Rev McPheeters established “The Wee Kirk by the Sea,” that a Methodist Church would one day be authorized and chartered. I doubt that when army barracks were re-located from Camp Callan to this property that anyone clearly envisioned how long they would last or what a multitude of ministry-related purposes they would serve. Yet God’s people willingly took the immediate hopeful step, the one that was available to them, trusting that God would cause their hope to blossom and bear fruit.
Raising money for purchasing property, and building a sanctuary, early members of this church provided resources for the future that were far greater than they even knew. Those resources sustained the church and its ministry through 30 years of declining participation from the early 1960’s to the early 1990’s, and provided the essential foundation for eventual renewal. It felt risky, in 1992 and 1993 to re-model the sanctuary for people who weren’t even here yet. It was an act of faith to invest in the subsequent exterior renovation, although by then we had begun to have more confidence in the hope that God really was (and is) at work in our midst.
Even now, we are investing in God’s future by expanding our ministry staff, even though in the immediate sense we are not entirely certain how we are affording it.
The history of God’s people, from Biblical times until today, is the story of people taking action in the present for a future that offers them hope. In a world full of woe, there is plenty of evidence to justify giving up. God’s people, however, look for the seed of faith, and water it. They gather the broken pieces, and make something whole and new. They look and listen for what God might yet do, and put money on it. They do not allow themselves to become paralyzed with despair; they find some small thing that can be done, and they do it.
Jeremiah invested in the promised land at a time when everyone else was divesting. Today, people of faith join the church, even though they know that neither the institution or the people in it are perfect. People of faith come to worship, even even though they live in a society that tries to convince them that they don’t have time. People of faith extend some kindness to others, even when their own lives feel precarious or filled with troubles.
People of faith dare to become parents, or educators, or nursing assistants or civic leaders or writers or musicians or architects or engineers, or chefs, or accountants or business managers even though the world at times looks like a pretty scary place. People of faith speak up for what they think is right, even though they may never be offered recognition or reward. People of faith hold fast, even when others are running away.
People of faith do all these things because they believe that the future is in God’s hands.
Today in Balboa Park, hundreds (or perhaps thousands) are participating in San Diego’s AIDS walk. The global outlook on AIDS is not good. Worldwide, 8,000 people die of AIDS every day. In some parts of Africa, more than 30% of the youth and young-to-middle age adult population is infected. The scenario is prediced to soon be even worse in Asia. The potential availability preventative education and of medication is mired down in the politics of fear, greed, denial and desire to control. A representative of the United Nations has said that the lack of adequate response by resourceful nations amounts to “mass murder by complacency.”
And yet, there they are, all those people, walking to raise awareness and funds for research and compassionate response. I say, give them the “spirit of Jeremiah” award for daring to imagine, and act on, a future more promising than the present reality.
Today, and every day, in the Holy Land, a few dozen Christians from New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Africa, and the United States station themselves at military checkpoints and health clinics, on farms and in homes. They are there to observe and provide companionship for Palestinians and Israelis living in a terribly hostile and explosive environment. The international observers accompany children to schools and mothers to hospitals. They help harvest crops and tend to sheep. The speak gently to soldiers and civilians alike. They have only their eyes, ears, voices, and faith as tools to help them stand for peace in a place of violence.
We might be tempted to think that their presence is a futile gesture, or that they are putting themselves at pointless risk — except that a very similar network of Christians trained in non-violence, called the Ecumenical Monitoring Program, helped the people of South Africa to make the transition out of apartheid and into participatory government for all, during the years 1990 to 1994. These witnesses, too, deserve a “spirit of Jeremiah” award, for giving of their lives so deeply to demonstrate their belief in the power of God’s love.
When people are wise enough and brave enough to begin to live God’s future now, even before it is fully realized, it gives hope to the rest of us. I give thanks for Jeremiah, for Jesus (who trusted so fully in God’s future that he allowed himself to die on a cross), for the ordinary saints who built this church, and for all of you who are here today. I see that you know where your home is, in the arms and in the will of God. May we be as attentive to God’s voice as those who have gone before us, and as active in advancing God’s future as God will allow us to be.