Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 (NRSV)
1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. 6 Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. 9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: 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. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
This sermon is about hope. When you think of Hope in scripture, perhaps you first think of Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or maybe the first reading that comes to mind is not actually from Scripture at all, but from Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –
And yes, that’s true. But this passage we read in Jeremiah, also offers us a different depiction of hope. One that isn’t made of feathers, perching on our souls, but one that instead involves grit, extreme forward thinking, and betting against the odds. It’s about a terrible real estate investment – one that was essentially flushing money down the toilet.
Here’s the deal. Jeremiah was a prophet to Israel. Israel was a small parcel of land, compared to its neighbors. It was small, but it had a water source, important for agriculture, and it connected to the sea, important for trade and national security.
But Israel was in trouble this time, and Jeremiah knew it, because Babylon was a much larger nation, and had been attacking and taking over its smaller neighbors on all sides. The last ruling King of Israel, King Zedekiah, might have known deep in his gut that Israel was about to be overtaken, but he would not admit that to anyone, nor would he allow Jeremiah or any other prophet to infest his people with weak thinking; He needed his people in Jerusalem to stay strong and fight the Babylonians; not surrender.
So, King Zedekiah had Jeremiah thrown into jail. And from jail, Jeremiah had this vision from God - this premonition - that his cousin, Hanamel, would offer to sell him his land at Anathoth. So, when Hanamel did indeed come visit him in jail and offer to sell him his land at Anathoth, Jeremiah knew he had to say yes. There was a reason behind this.
It was a crazy real estate deal. Israel is about to be taken over by Babylon. Jeremiah knows it. Israelites are about to be marched out of their homes with whatever they can carry on their backs; many of them will never see their homeland again. Their homes, businesses, synagogues, they’re all going to be a distant memory as these people make a new life for themselves in Babylon. Why buy land you know you won’t inhabit?
Why spend your precious silver shekels – a commodity that will trade in Israel or Babylon or anywhere you can go – to purchase land whose value is about to plummet?
It would be as crazy as a Syrian family whose home was bombed out in Aleppo purchasing the bombed out homes next to it with all the remaining cash they had. Meanwhile, there’s very little clean water and food in the city. Prices go up every week. Bombings continue. Help is nowhere in sight. Most everyone who could get out has already left. This situation will not “go back to normal” in their lifetimes.
There’s no real way to make sense of this land purchase from Jeremiah’s perspective, except that he felt compelled by God and he had a whole lot of hope. So yes, he got a good deal on the land. He paid around four months’ wages for the land, so he essentially bought it at less than foreclosure rates. He got a good deal because people with half a brain knew it would be essentially worthless for their lifetimes, because of Babylonian occupation.
But Jeremiah was compelled and he had a whole lot of hope. Because his understanding of time was not just his own understanding. Jeremiah was looking at the opportunity through the lens of God’s time. Jeremiah had hope – not in King Zedekiah’s ability to stave off the Babylonians – but that God would redeem Israel in God’s own time, and when that time came, his people would hold the title to the land. You see, the field that Jeremiah bought was inside the gates of Jerusalem. Jerusalem – God’s holy city that God would indeed reclaim.
Jeremiah, the prophet, was a realist. He knew Israel couldn’t stand up to Babylon. But he also had a deep hope that God would redeem it in the long run. And what could send a stronger message of hope to the townsfolk than to hear Jeremiah was buying real estate in the city? The very man who told everyone to start packing was also the man purchasing real estate, preparing for a distant future when God would bring them home.
Today you are worshipping in a church that is one hundred eighty-eight years old. This sanctuary and the pews you are sitting on are one hundred thirty-two years old. This home for God and sanctuary for the people was built by people who did not know you. They did not know what a gasoline-powered car was, or air conditioning or cell phones or computers. They might have a hard time recognizing their church on the corner of Poplar and Third in the 21st century, but I’d like to think they would be proud of what we’ve done with the place.
Like Jeremiah, those who came before us built this community of faith to stand the test of time because they had hope that God would be at work in the future, just as they sensed God was at work in their community in the present.
That means they had a deep hope. Not the kind with feathers that gently lights upon our shoulders. Not the kind of hopeful wishing or hopeful thinking that we sometimes engage in to get us through a tense football game. We can hope for a win, but we have very little control over the outcome.
We often have that shallow kind of hope. We hope for the Presidential candidate of our choice to win. Or we can hope when our school principle comes up with a new policy, it will make a difference in the lives of the children. We can hope First Pres will have a vital role in nourishing faith and calling for justice in the next one hundred years.
But what is hope without investment? To me, there’s a difference between the kind of hope with feathers that gently lights upon our shoulders, and the kind of hope that causes you to invest your time and hard-earned money in the future God envisions. If we truly have hope that God will work all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes (Romans 8:28), then we will put our resources behind our hope.
If Jeremiah were in our midst this morning, I think Jeremiah would challenge us all to invest in the future we want to see. If you care who becomes president, vote. If you care about our city’s poor children, become a tutor so one more child can learn to read. If you care about Memphis and the “least of these” we serve weekly through our outreach ministries, invest in the future you want to see. If Jeremiah were in our midst, he would challenge us to invest in this church property, even though organized religion is on the downtrend.
He would invite us to give our resources to the RAISE THE ROOF campaign, which is actively fundraising to pay for a new roof for the sanctuary, and to replace our non-functioning gutters, fix the portico and seal and paint the windows and doors on the North side of the church building – And he would challenge us to give not because we ought to do it to keep the building from falling down, but because we have a DEEP HOPE in the future that God is working out even now and for the people who will come after us.
Give because you care about the city of Memphis and about those on the margins. Give because you believe God cares deeply for those without homes. Give because you believe God fosters hope and action in young people – like those who will stay here in our church this summer with our new mission partner, Memphis Youth Mission. Give because you believe God cares for us and uses Sabbath time to refresh our spirits and reshape us into the Disciples we were created to be – to foster a DEEP HOPE in our homes and workplaces too.
We don’t know who will worship here in 30 years when the lifespan of this new roof will expire. We cannot know how God will use this church in the future, just like those who came before us could not have known that this church would sustain the faith of thousands, birth multiple non-profits, and would become widely known for its outreach to neighbors who are homeless.
We cannot know what God will do in the future from 166 Poplar, but if we have a deep hope, we know God will use our investment to produce fruit for the kingdom. Because we serve the God of Hope. The God of restoration and re-creation and reformation. God is always doing a new thing out of old things.
I am not necessarily optimistic about all churches or organized religion in the US in the next century, but hope and optimism are different.
Cornell West helps us make the distinction between hope and optimism. He says, “Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there's enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better. It’s much more rational and deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, "It doesn't look good at all. Doesn't look good at all. So we’re gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions. Visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever. That's hope.”
I have deep hope in God. And I plan to invest in God’s future plans in this church, and I invite you into that deep and abiding hope too.
We are a part of something much bigger than ourselves here. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the One who was and is and will be to come,