Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Buying into the Future" - September 29, 2013

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

            I’ve heard about land being available pretty cheaply these days.  You just have to know where to buy it and to be willing to hold onto it for a little while.  One spot would be the northeastern corner of Japan, near the town of Fukushima.  In 2011, the Japanese government announced that the area would be off-limits for the next several decades.[1]  You might want to give it a little more time than that, to be safe, but if you buy now your great-great-great-great-grandchildren may be able to make a few yen on the deal.  Along those same lines, there are some bargains to be had in the Ukraine.  Advance planning is required, because

“Those who want to [go] to the exclusion zone of Chernobyl have to file documents for a permit two weeks before their visit.  Then they are instructed at the checkpoint: visitors are not allowed to smoke, eat in the open air, take any plants or items away from the zone, drink water from the wells, rivers, or any other ground sources.  Bodies should be covered with clothes leaving as few exposed areas as possible.” [2]

Again, you may need to keep the deed to the land carefully and make arrangements to have it translated and reconfirmed every so often because the land is not expected to be safe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years.[3]

            All that makes Jeremiah’s decision to exercise his option on the family farm, buying it from his cousin while it was in occupied territory, [Jeremiah 32:6] seem like a sure thing.  Jeremiah did feel certain that the time would come when the Babylonians would no longer control the land, and he spoke in the Lord’s name when he said,

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” [Jeremiah 32:15]

On the other hand, he also made sure that there were multiple witnesses to the sale, and multiple copies of the deed, and ordered his assistant to

“Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.” [Jeremiah 32:14] 

He trusted that there would be a bright future, even while recognizing that the restoration would take place beyond his own lifetime.

            We’re at one of those weird junctures of history where enormous changes are taking place, and the Church, kind of like Jeremiah, gets caught in the middle of it.  Phyllis Tickle, who is both a journalist and a scholar of religion, has compared Christianity to a lobster.  She writes,

“…about every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace, or hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
In her book The Great Emergence, she points out that it is a difficult and even painful time for the people who live through it, however that the ultimate future depends on the Jeremiahs of those days and their willingness to invest in a future that they may only glimpse. 

            It occurs to me that it isn’t always the great, visionary leaders who see things through.  It may be the stubborn people like Jeremiah who simply refuse to give up, who insist that God is at work and that the rest of us may have to get over ourselves and our demands to know everything he plans to do and when he plans to do it. 

            There’s this myth we deal with that renewal has always come easily or quickly.  The martyrs go to the lions and – presto! – the Roman Empire is converted or Martin Luther nails his challenges to medieval superstition and – bam! – the Reformation restores the faith of millions.  In fact, if you look at the Reformation at the level of parish life, it often meant trouble for the church building and the church budget.  A BBC documentary on that subject said that

“Only 19 churches were built or restored in Elizabeth's reign and 'damp green walls, rotting earth floors, and gaping windows' were sometimes reported. Allowing for inflation, religious benefactions dropped from a total of over £80,000 in 1501-10 to under £2,000 in 1591-1600.”[4]
It may be that the solid and eternal core of faith is carried through the years mostly by people who don’t get to wrestle with major theological issues because they’re busy with stewardship campaigns, but who trust that God cares as much about their grandchildren as God cared about their grandparents. 

It takes someone like Jeremiah to give an example of that kind of trust, buying a field that he would never plant, but adamant that it would one day be farmed in peace.  It takes someone with the optimism and the long view of a Phyllis Tickle to remind us in times when the Church is living with the same turbulent change as the world around us, that in the end it will be for the best.

“When that mighty upheaval happens, history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events.
First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge. Second, the organized expression of Christianity that up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self. …[and]
The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance. Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread—and been spread—dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress. Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis. As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.”[5]
I believe she’s onto something in all of this.  When I look at the way we do church I have to admit that it isn’t conveying the gospel to the world the way that it used to do.  If it were, the pews would be full. 

On the other hand, I believe wholeheartedly that the Spirit of the Lord will find a way, that Jesus’ news of God’s kingdom is just too good not to get through.  I believe that the message of what Jesus has done to transform human life is just too wonderful not to change the world.

            So here are you and I, being asked to live like our mothers and fathers in the faith, to live by faith, to buy into a future that may be a generation or two away,

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

[3] Time: Disasters that Shook the World (New York City: Time Home Entertainment, 2012) cited at
[4] Bruce Robinson, The Human Reformation, Feb. 17, 2011
[5] The quotations here are from the author’s summary of her own book in Sojourner’s Magazine found at

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