I was very excited when I wrote this sermon. I had a week off preaching last week (aside from the funeral) and was so pumped to get back in the pulpit. I had the privilege of hearing the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak, and so my brain was all aflutter with new ideas and thoughts (how we know things is constrained by white supremacy! British Anglicanism’s weird mythos is kinda racist! Deconstruct and decolonize the formative narratives!) And so I was excited to put that into a sermon.
Then I stood up to preach at 8am, and discovered that I HATED this sermon. Had I been asleep when I wrote it? Where were the transitions? Did the computer rebel again? What on EARTH possessed me to write this?
I spent a good 15 minutes between the services amending and amplifying the text, and decided, in the words of my preaching prof, to walk the dog proudly, even if I doubted its beauty.
It never fails, but that whenever I think “Wow, this sermon is HORRID”, that’s the one that parishioners volunteer that they adore. Either this means that my judgment is lacking (very possible) or it means that the Holy Spirit is going to do her thing regardless of my ability or lack thereof (also pretty evident.). And sure enough, several people told me they LOVED this sermon.
Me, I love the following: listening to wildly-smart theologians, imagining which teen archetypes the prophets would inhabit, and that the Holy Spirit always takes over when I’m doubtful.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
September 29, 2019
Ordinary Time, Proper 20, Year C
Were a person to cast a high school drama with the biblical prophets, then Jeremiah would be the emo theater kid. (Isaiah would be the student body president, Ezekiel would be the weird kid in the corner no one ever talked to but everyone sort of worried about, and Amos would be head of the AV club.) But Jeremiah would definitely be the theater kid. He’s not bad, and he’s really a great guy. He just HAS AN AWFUL LOT OF FEELINGS SOMETIMES< YOU GUYS.
In some circles, he’s known as the Weeping Prophet. Jeremiah gives us both Lamentations—an extended poem about the destruction of Jerusalem in an acrostic (one section for each successive letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. (See? This guy would EAT UP the sadder parts of Rent.) And he gives us the very emotive book of Jeremiah—where he is either very Angry ( see chapter 7, where Jeremiah is standing outside the Temple in Jerusalem, telling everyone they’re Doing Things Wrong) or Very Sad (see last week! Where the Babylonians are about to invade) or Very Both (where he accuses God of making him a prophet when he doesn’t want to be and “being to me as a deceitful brook whose waters dry up.” Jeremiah just really has A LOT OF FEELINGS. And considering the fact that he’s tasked with shepherding the Israelites through the fall of the kingdom, the Babylonian Exile, and the destruction of everything they thought they understood—he’s entitled.
But today, Jeremiah takes a bit of a detour, and I confess that as much as I adore Jeremiah (and I really do) that this is my favorite part of this book. Jeremiah BUYS SOME LAND. That’s it! That’s what he does! It’s so great!
Now, that probably doesn’t seem so exciting, or important, or even enough to write a sermon on, but a few things to bear in mind. This is the end of Jeremiah’s story. This is the last we know of him.
Everyone by now has been carried off into exile, along with the whole rest of Israel. He is sitting in jail, along with his deposed king. The government is gone, the Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem has fallen, the Babylonian armies have surrounded the city and are laying siege. Everything is ruined. And Jeremiah, sitting in jail, takes this moment, to buy a plot of land in Jerusalem. He seals the deed in a jar and buries it. He tells his friend back home about it. Does everything properly and by the book. And that’s basically the last thing we hear from Jeremiah, before he’s either carried off into exile, or killed.
Here’s the thing about the land purchase–it’s not an act of denial. Jeremiah knows exactly what’s happening because he’s spent the last 35 chapters warning anyone who would listen that the Babylonians are coming and they’re going to destroy the city. Jeremiah knows he’s never going home. His kids probably aren’t going home either. They’re stuck in a foreign land, in exile. But Jeremiah also knows that someday, this disaster will be over, the Exile will end, and the people will be able to go back to Jerusalem to resume worship and so he buys the land as a promise for that day. He won’t live to see it, but he knows it will come, because he knows God has promised that it will. Jeremiah has faith.
I heard the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak about where we are in terms of American history a few days ago, and she mentioned that one of the chief calls to institutions like the church is that of moral imagination. We have to remind people that what currently is, is not how the world is meant to be. And she used the image of the slaves who never gained their freedom, lived and died in bondage—and yet built a cultural world of dignity and resistance anyway. Because they could envision what freedom would mean even in the midst of what their reality was. They had a Jeremiah-type faith.
Faith means holding on to the vision of the world to come, even as we grapple with the fact that our own world is manifestly not that. It means living as if we are already in God’s kingdom, even as we are surrounded by things that are so broken. So every day, we try to live with justice, mercy, and love, because we know that in God’s reign those things will be supreme, even if right now they don’t. Each day, we treat one another, and especially the marginalized and the oppressed as beloved images of God with infinite worth, because that’s how we know the reign of God works—even if we know we live in a world that does not see everyone as worthwhile and precious. But the more we enact the reign of God in our lives, the more it becomes real—both to us, as we grow used to living this way, and in the world.
When we live with this sort of faith, efficacy doesn’t really matter. Or, it matters less. Faith in the reign of God doesn’t require us to obsess over what action we can take that will have the greatest impact, or whether what we do will yield measurable results. When we focus on living with this moral imagination, with this daily sort of way of life, then we can safely leave it to God to bring about results. We don’t have to worry about that part—we just worry about treating one another with dignity, working for justice, and buying our plot of land, as it were. We live out our faith. We buy the land for the day we know God is bringing. We live out that reality now. God takes care of the results.
We aren’t told what the rich man’s deal was, in the parable. But I wonder if what kept the rich man from helping his impoverished neighbor was this anxiety about results? We aren’t told what his issue is—but we do know from context that he knows the Lazarus (he must!) and that the rich man has many regrets by the end of his life’s journey. “Look,” says Abraham, “You had Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” In other words, you knew the whole time what you had to do. You knew what love and justice looked like–you knew what the reign of God was. You just had to do it. And what’s interesting is even after death, the rich man never does it–he never speaks directly to Lazarus. He orders him around—he tries to get Lazarus to wait on him (!!!) but even as he’s reaping the consequences of his actions, the rich man can’t figure it out. I picture Abraham as being rather put out by the end of this. Look, Lazarus is RIGHT HERE. You can start treating him with dignity right now! You can SEE HIM. Don’t worry about whether learning his name will create a culture of dependency, or whether giving him some food will teach him to beg instead of work. Don’t worry about anything else—just do the thing because it’s the right thing to do.
Just buy the land. God will bring forth the kingdom’s reign of justice and equity in its fullness, when all creation will be healed, and the whole earth will be redeemed and renewed—and whether we live to see it or not, we can participate in that by doing our part. Living like that is right now.
And though we may not see that day in its fullness, who knows but that our small actions of mercy, justice and love will plant the seeds for that time to come?