When I was a young kid, my brother and I would recite scraps of movie dialogue to each other, over and over. We didn’t know what anything meant, but we liked the sound of the words all in a row. One of our favorite shows we memorized was Charlie Brown’s Christmas.
At age 4, I didn’t get any of the jokes, and I didn’t understand the touching ending. But I knew that I liked when Lucy lists off that long string of psychological fears, and finally Charlie Brown yells THAT’S IT!!!! to pantaphobia (the fear of everything.) My tastes were simple.
Aside from a fondness for assigning labels to mental disorders, Lucy also taught me that real estate is always preferable to other gifts. And most of all, that telling the truth is preferable to polite lies, but generally less appreciated.
She and Jeremiah would have gotten along pretty well, I’d bet.
So here’s what I said this week.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
September 25, 2016
Ordinary Time, Proper 18
One of the predominant theories of preaching when I was in seminary was that each sermon should contain good news. Each sermon should be uplifting in some way, should leave the hearer feeling better about God, Jesus, and life than they felt previously. Since, surely, we were to proclaim the gospel, which was, by definition, good news, then each time we preached, we also needed to impart literal good news.
It will probably not surprise you that I ran afoul of this theory pretty early on. Because there are times when good news does not feel particularly good. There are times when good news just feels somewhat far away.
And frankly, I don’t believe in conflating faith with denial.
So I don’t know about you, but this is one of those weeks, (one of those months, one of those election cycles) when good news seems particularly difficult to find. By Wednesday, two more unarmed Black men had been killed by police: one in Charlotte, one in Tulsa. One reading a book, one trying to restart his car. Again. The agonizing drip of death that we’ve seen since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson hasn’t let up, and here we are again. It doesn’t seem to get better. It doesn’t seem to change.
On the one hand, the quiet, peaceful protest of Colin Kaepernick and others, who sit or kneel during the national anthem is decried as being un-American and met with death threats, while on the other hand, the angrier, noisier protests in the streets of Charlotte and Cleveland are denounced as too angry, too loud. And neither seem to move the scales.
Meanwhile, in our political process, the worst impulses of the America of fifty years ago seem to be raging forth again, with no one to check them.
Basically, the world is not laden with good news right now.
So what are we called to do, when the world is awash with brokenness, and hope isn’t easy to grab hold of? What is the faithful response?
See, this is where we need to start talking about real estate. Because–in the first reading today, we have one of my favorite stories from Jeremiah, where in he buys some real estate. Now, this is an odd move for Jeremiah. Usually, we see him yelling at something or someone. Jeremiah made a name for himself in the early days of his career denouncing the Temple cult. At that time in Judah, popular religious lore thought that since the Lord’s Temple was in Jerusalem, the people could do whatever they wanted, and God would still be happy with them, so long as they showed up to worship regularly.
Jeremiah disagreed–and holds forth with something called the Temple Sermon, where he stood outside the Temple itself and told the people streaming in that the Temple wasn’t enough to save them–they actually had to love their neighbors and uphold justice, and do what God asked of them. This did not make him popular.
He appears again, when his prophecy is coming true. He goes to the King of Judah and warns that the rampant injustice and unfaithfulness in the kingdom is going to cause its collapse, and the invasion from Babylon. This bit of bad news he delivers has the king toss him in a big empty cistern for a few weeks.
So, basically, Jeremiah’s career has been built on yelling angrily at important people about important things. And quite frankly, it doesn’t go well for him. The people don’t listen. The king doesn’t listen–he gets hauled off to Babylon. The people don’t repent–they die under siege conditions or go into exile themselves. The religious authorities don’t listen–they denounce Jeremiah as a fool and a lunatic. His country ends up in ruins, his people scattered. Really, he fails all over the place.
And yet, before the end of his life, Jeremiah does this weird real estate transaction we hear about today. He’s in jail, but he goes to his servant and asks him to purchase a plot of land in Judah, and then to bury the deed to keep it safe. Then he heads out into the Babylonian Exile, to die in captivity.
This seems pointless. He’s never going to use that land. Never going to live on it, never build a house, never grow a vegetable garden. He is going to grow old and die away from his homeland and never see it again. It’s a waste.
But Jeremiah is buying the land, not as a solid investment, but as a statement of hope. And hope always seems foolish in the moment. Jeremiah buys that land because one day, his people will again live in the land in peace. He won’t, and maybe his kids won’t, maybe their kids won’t either, but one day, someone will. And he believes in that day. One day, God will keep the promise.
See, that is what faith is. Faith is acting on the promise God makes to us, regardless of whether we see results. Faith is continuing to do what God calls us to, regardless of whether we see things changing. Faith is buying that land, regardless of whether we will be the ones to benefit.
The measure of our faith is not what we achieve. We aren’t responsible for results–God handles those. Our job is whether we do what God asks of us. It’s whether we follow where Christ leads us. Our job right now isn’t to worry about whether it works.
Right now, our job is to be faithful. That’s it. That’s all we can do. We can do what God asks of us. We can pray for those struggling against injustice. We can listen to those speaking out about their own experiences. We can learn more about how systemic and institutional racism works, and how we White people have benefited. We can do justice, and love mercy, and take up the cause of the orphan and widow in the gates of the city.
But whether it works? Whether people listen? Whether it’s enough? That’s not up to us. That’s up to God.
God takes care of the results. Not us. God takes care of bringing fruit out of our efforts; not us. We may not live to see our work pay off, we may never see police brutality erased, or gun violence done away with. We may never see a day when all races and ethnicities can trust each other again in our lifetimes.
But if we remain faithful to the call God has given us, if we remain faithful to acting as Jesus would have us act in the world, then someday this will happen. Someday, God will reach through our tiny efforts, and bring about the justice and peace we all long for, for the generations behind us.
Today, we don’t remember Jeremiah as a failure. We remember him as a great prophet who spoke the truth when it was difficult and scary. We remember him as someone who gave his life in service to God’s call, and who ultimately helped save the soul of the people of Israel.
Jeremiah wasn’t a failure–his success just outlived him. May we keep the faith in these times, and may people someday say the same of us.