Saturday, September 6, 2008

Eighteenth after Pentecost, 2007

September 30, 2007 18 Pentecost ( RCL Proper 21C) Jeremiah 32: 1-3, 6-15

A few years ago, just about the time that the storms that are around us in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion were first beginning to appear with some concern out on the horizon . . . Susy and I after long discussion together and with the Wardens and Vestry made the decision to begin the process of moving from the old Rectory and to purchase our own home here in the neighborhood. Obviously as for any couple, that was a big decision for us, with all kinds of implications, financial and otherwise, for our family life both in the present and in the future—and of course that was a significant decision also on the part of the Vestry at the time, as it began to involve reassessment at a number of levels, having also to do with finances, how to calculate clergy compensation, and also with the way we think about the facility and campus of the parish, these beautiful buildings and grounds, how we use them, care for them, watch over them.

So it wasn’t a simple or sudden or spontaneous decision—with lots of conversation, weighing plusses and minuses, pros and cons, looking at the thing from several different angles, and so on. In the years that have gone by, though, one element of that decision then has emerged for me, something that I didn’t think about too much at the time, but which has led me over the years to think of this story from the life and work of the Prophet Jeremiah as we have heard it read this morning. Maybe it was a year or two ago, I don’t remember exactly, but one of the people who was on the Vestry and involved in many of the conversations at the time that we bought our home said to me, “Bruce, when some of this stuff started happening in the church, I wasn’t really sure what might happen, and I was nervous about how it might affect us, here at St. Andrew’s, and part of what I was nervous about was that I was wondering if with all this going on whether the parish would be able survive this, and whether with your kids grown up and out of school you might not think that pastures would be greener and life a little easier somewhere else. So it made me feel good when you and Susy told me you wanted to talk about buying a house, because I knew if you did that it was because you thought you and we were going to be around a while.”

And I think it’s been true, at least in terms of my life and my approach to the situation of the wider world, the wider church. As would be reflected in the Benedictine idea and value of “stability.” The idea that a monk makes a commitment to live out his vocation in one monastery, where he takes his vows, and will not move on from place to place in an effort to avoid problems or find a better place. A little bit like that for us, maybe. As many of you would know who have made that kind of commitment, you do, at least we certainly did, begin to think about a place differently, with a mortgage to pay and a lawn to mow and all the rest of it. At that time Susy and I had lived all the years of our marriage in rentals or for over twenty years in church-owned housing, and it did make a difference. Not huge and dramatic, but at a subtle level I think a pretty important one. And if others in the parish also felt something of that, too, then that would fit into the same pattern. A sense of stability, permanence. Which of course might be good news for some, and obviously of course might send something of a different message to others. Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Now he’ll never leave. In any case, the Presbyterian pastor and author Eugene Peterson wrote a book maybe 25 years ago now, on the spirituality of the Psalms and the character of ministry, with a title that becomes more meaningful to me all the time. It was called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. All about not giving up, not bailing out, when the going gets tough.

All this just in a rough approximation a way to illustrate this little story about Jeremiah. There in the midst of a besieged city, the armies of the enemies surrounding, firing flaming arrows over the walls to cause terror and destruction, with chaos and confusion, hunger and thirst, death and disease growing more intense day by day, with a delusional king and court and a decimated army, the city surrounded as well by the unburied corpses of its finest young men, who had ventured out in battle and fallen before they were even able to put up much of a fight, a valley of bones, the hope and future of the nation snuffed out. In the midst of all this, Jeremiah, the one prophet who has seen this coming and who has dared to counter the corruption and denial all around him, who has been thrown in prison so that he would be silenced, that same Jeremiah learns I think that his uncle has died, and that his cousin Hanamel is the executor of the estate , from which he is offered the opportunity to purchase a small plot of land that his uncle had owned, out in the country, away from the city, in territory that has been occupied by the foreigners and perhaps already presented to some enemy soldier or other as a prize of war.

In one sense it’s meaningless. Like buying a quarter-acre of land on the moon. But in another sense, there was this message, how even from the depths of his prison chamber the prophet will still be the prophet. He buys the land, and he takes the deed, and then in the presence of witnesses, all of whom must have thought he had lost his mind, he signs the deed, and seals it up in a jar, and has it put away for safe keeping. And gradually, the meaning of this strange and expensive gesture begins to emerge. The city is about to be overrun and destroyed, pillaged and burned and left in ruins. The people, king and priest, merchant and housewife, the people will be beaten, tortured, killed, thrown into slavery, carried off into exile. And they could all see it coming. “But look at this,” says the prophet. “See what I’m doing here, and know this: it may be a long time, but we’re coming back. We may be facing God’s judgment now, in so many ways accountable for our own sins and for the sins of our fathers and our grandfathers for too many generations, but God is a God both of judgment and mercy. We may feel that we are experiencing the hard edge of his anger now, but he will not forsake us, he will not abandon his promise. So seal this title, this deed, into a solid jar, and put it in a safe place, because we will be coming back again. This isn’t the end. God isn’t finished with us. The sun may be setting right now, and the winds of the storm may be blowing fiercely," but “thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

So what it’s all about is hope. About the confidence when things get challenging in any part of our lives—in any part of our lives—that there is a reason for hanging in there, for rolling up sleeves and working hard, for enduring whatever forms of suffering and defeat may come upon us. About not giving up, but instead about trusting. About an assurance that the God who brought us to this place will not abandon us, but will see it through, and bring us to the other side. Not finished with us yet. No matter how distant that reconciliation and restoration might seem in the present moment.

It’s all about hope, which is certainly the virtue, the condition, the aspect of character more than any other, that is the foundation of Christian life, the news we are anointed with in our baptism, that we are called in our walk of faith to announce not only with our lips, but in our lives. The news of the cross, and of the empty tomb, and Easter morning. That when the storms pass, there shall be again houses and fields and vineyards, the fullness of the good life God had in mind for us from the first moment of creation.

Sometimes that expressed in language, the proclamation of scripture, in the conversation we have together as we go ever deeper and deeper into our reflection together about the steps of our faith journey. Sometimes it’s even more, even better, just how we would live. Certainly I’ve known that from you in so many ways, in those gestures of hospitality and generosity and compassion, true and deep kindness, in so many ways offered not just as we would to one another in some kind of closed clubhouse, but with the doors open, and with an abundance offered out again just so generously in the wide world, in so many ways. Five Talents, Off the Floor, CROP Walk, Meals on Wheels, the County Jail, the sharing of creative gifts, singer, writer, actor, the offering of care for the life of our children, as the grow. So much generosity.

The meaning of Jeremiah’s new field: to make present for us this reminder that God is with us, in all goodness, and that even now he is doing better things for us than we could possibly know or even imagine, which is good news. The seed sown in the field for a future harvest. Not that we don’t take our challenges seriously, but that we can even with that seriousness know and experience the deeper joy and confidence and hope always of knowing his presence and his great love for us, which will endure to the end of time.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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