Sunday, September 29, 2019

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 32
6 Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Hanamel son of Shallum your uncle is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth, because as nearest relative it is your right and duty to buy it.’
8 “Then, just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard and said, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. Since it is your right to redeem it and possess it, buy it for yourself.’
“I knew that this was the word of the Lord; 9 so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels[b] of silver. 10 I signed and sealed the deed, had it witnessed, and weighed out the silver on the scales. 11 I took the deed of purchase—the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions, as well as the unsealed copy— 12 and I gave this deed to Baruch son of Neriah, the son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and of all the Jews sitting in the courtyard of the guard.

What Taye read wasn’t really a transcript.

And it certainly wasn’t a verbatim, and it barely approached the level of summary. It was more of a redacted memo, clearly edited to hide the more incriminating parts of the exchange. Luckily, with a little imagination—this happened before the subpoena was invented—we can reconstruct the conversation.

“Hey, earth to Jeremiah: you having a daydream?”
“Yeah, it was the strangest thing—I think the Most High wants me to get into real estate.”
“Real estate, huh? Isn’t the Most High more of a ‘follow me to the land I will show you’ kind of deity? Or ‘gather some creatures two-by-two’? And what kind of real estate? Just saying ‘real estate’ seems pretty vague.”
“A field, in fact. Remember my cousin Hanamel? Not that Hanamel, the other Hanamel, son of Shallum.”
“From Anathoth?
“Yeah, Anathoth. Anyway, in my dream the Most High says I have first-right-of-refusal. Seventeen shekels and the field is mine.”
“Well, I don’t want to rain on your parade here, but shouldn’t you ask Hanamel first?”
Just then there was a knock on the door.
“Hey, Jeremiah, you in there? It’s me, your cousin Hanamel. Remember that field you always wanted? We guess what, it’s for sale.”
“Okay, hold on. Jeremiah. I don’t want to interrupt the family reunion here, but you know the city is under siege?
“I know, I wanna buy a field.”
“And you know that Nebuchadnezzar, great general of the King’s Own Babylonians is leading the siege?”
“I know, I wanna buy a field.”
And you’re remembering that just now we’re rotting in prison. Okay, maybe not rotting, but we are in prison.”
“I know, I wanna buy a field.”
“And you know that the old Babylonian trick is to carry off people like you and me, forcing us to live lives of relative comfort in Babylon?
“I know, I wanna buy a field.”
“Well, if you’re going to do it, you better do it right.”
“Great, I’m gonna buy a field.”

What follows is one of those remarkable—if not completely engaging—passages: a step-by-step guide to buying some land, circa 587 BC. It’s another element to an unbelievable story: imprisoned man buys a field in the middle to a siege, and follows each legal step as if it was just another day in Jerusalem. Clearly buying fire-sale items in the middle of a siege wasn’t unheard of. Why not make a few pennies on the shekel during a disaster? But there is no indication that this was a drastically reduced price. I think Jeremiah really wanted that field.

But why? What was his goal? Land speculation is risky at the best of times, but in wartime, you’re likely throwing your money away. So maybe it wasn’t Jeremiah’s goal at all, maybe the goal belonged to the Most High. Remember this starts with a vision, or a daydream, and God’s desire for Jeremiah to buy a field.

But that’s just the end of the beginning, Jeremiah buying a field. The real beginning of this story, the starting point for this story, is the call of Jeremiah. And it all begins in Anathoth, a detail that we’ll come back to in a few minutes. Meantime, God appoints Jeremiah:

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
11 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.
12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.”
13 The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you see?”
“I see a pot that is boiling,” I answered. “It is tilting toward us from the north.”
14 The Lord said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land.

The branch of the almond tree is a play on words, since the Hebrew for branch and ‘watching over’ sound alike. And the boiling pot tilting toward us from the north, that’s an all-too-accurate description of the disaster of conquest and exile. But that’s in the future. Jeremiah’s task to “speak truth to power” and eventually share a word of hope.

Enter the false prophets. The false prophets were obviously unconcerned that the people had turned to foreign gods—gods like Baal and Molech—unconcerned that disaster at the hands of the Babylons was coming, unconcerned that the Lord had turned away. Jeremiah was abused, and threatened, and soon imprisoned. But the voice of the prophet cannot be silenced.

I want to pause for a moment before we return to Anathoth and the boiling pot that is tilting to Jerusalem and tell you about another looming disaster that we’re all too familiar with, even as we struggle to name it. The symptoms are obvious enough: the rise of populism, distrust of governments and so-called elites, and the chaotic circumstances unfolding in the nations closest to us.

And now, with some time for reflection, patterns are beginning to emerge. Close study of attitudes and activities across several Western countries has highlighted the real divide of our time. It’s less the division between left and right, even though those old lines remain clear—and more between those who would maintain the existing order and those who would tear it all down.

And these researchers have made the alarming discovery that nearly 40 percent of the population across these countries fall into the ‘tear it all down’ category. These people have lost faith in the existing order, including governments and the leading voices in society, and are seeking alternatives. They come from both the left and right, they tend to be disadvantaged in some way, or have simply lost faith in the idea that the future will be better than the past. They are particularly open to voices that cast blame or propose simple solutions to complex problems. And they are easy to reach—social media amplifies alternate voices and allows people to find each other—for good or for ill.

And on one level they have a point. Wealth inequality, a changing economy, the environmental crisis—none of these problems have been adequately addressed by the people who lead us. But the alternative—‘tear it all down’—is too frightening to contemplate when we remember how thin the veneer is between order and chaos, Syria being just one example.

So what is the answer? How do we respond to the growing number of people who want to tear it all down? The same scholars who describe the problem say that the answer is found in overcoming the original divide between left and right. If centerists or moderates (from the left and the right) can stop fighting and work together to solve larger problems, then ‘tearing it all down’ will be less attractive, and seem less necessary to the discontented.

I promised to tell you more about little Anathoth, and the reason it is so important to the story of Jeremiah. It’s Walter Brueggemann that insists that the real story of Anathoth starts 400 years earlier, around the time of King Solomon. His father, the King David, ends his reign worrying about dynastics matters, settling old scores, and smoothing the way for Solomon. And Solomon follows suit, exiling a certain Abiathar, an important priest and leader, to out-of-the-way Anathoth. For 400 years, Brueggemann says, this family watches as the arc of imperial power goes from good to bad, faithfulness to corruption, with Baal and Molech to prove the point.

Enter the prophet. From little Anathoth comes Jeremiah, witness to the long descent from promise to peril, 400 years on the outside looking in. God calls Jeremiah to take on the false prophets who promise to make Judah great again, who promise limitless growth and easy victories over powerful foes. Jeremiah can’t right the boiling pot that’s set to pour over the land, but he can offer a word of hope, because God told him to buy a field.

And Jeremiah bought that field, the end of the beginning of the story of redemption, but just before he did he spoke to the people and shared the promise that God can never turn away for long. The prophet speaks:

“Hear the word of the Lord, you nations;
proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,
the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well-watered garden,
and they will sorrow no more.
13 Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.
and my people will be filled with my bounty,”
declares the Lord.



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