16 Pentecost: Hope

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Sermons

This is about hope.

It is about hope in hard times
when hope is hard work
even for people who are by nature optimistic.

It begins with a man
and a story
we might imagine
has absolutely nothing to do with us.
It was, after all,
nearly two-thousand seven-hundred year ago.

It is a story we have the chance to touch on
only every three years
when it comes around in the Sunday Lectionary.
But because many preachers do not focus
on the readings in the Hebrew text,
it is a story that may never get told
in some congregations.

It is the story of Jeremiah,
a prophet in Jerusalem.
He was not a wild-eyed fringe character
like Jesus.
He was not a poor marginalized migrant
like Amos.
Jeremiah was an insider.
He was from one of the ‘good’ families.
He was, as some might say today, “old money.”

According to the story,
God used Jeremiah
to speak to the power-elite of Jerusalem.
It was a time of dangerous international intrigue,
when it was not clear who the king’s real allies were,
or with whom the king’s loyalties were invested.
The Egyptian Pharaoh
was sweet-talking the king of Judah
and coaxing him and Jerusalem
into an alliance with the once powerful,
now faded Egypt.

Pharaoh told the king they had to stick together;
that Egypt and all the surrounding
small nations like Judah had to hold strong
in order to defend against
the big newcomer on the block: Babylon.
Support Egypt,
Pharaoh promised the Judean king,
and together they would defeat Babylon.
That appealed to Zedekiah, the king of Judah,
because he figured
he had a better chance
of holding onto his power
with Pharaoh ruling the region
than if the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar
took over his part of the world.

So, thinking of himself more than his country,
Zedekiah risked the lives
of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
and the surrounding area of Judea,
in order to keep his throne
for himself and his sons.

Jeremiah watched and listened
to all that was going on in the upper echelons
of his society,
and then told King Zedekiah
it was a bad idea to dance with Pharaoh
against Nebuchadnezzar.
But Jeremiah didn’t just say it was a bad idea,
he said that “God” said it was a bad idea.
And he didn’t just say
that God said it was a bad idea,
he went around told everyone
that God said it was a bad idea.
Jeremiah had a big mouth and knew everyone
who was anyone in Judah.

Well, like all the kings of Judah,
Zedekiah had a stable of yes-men
clergy & prophets who argued against Jeremiah
and promised the king
that God would rescue Jerusalem,
and that God would use Pharaoh to do it.
But against all those voices,
Jeremiah kept telling anyone who would listen
that Zedekiah was making a big mistake
and his foolish clergy and prophets
were just telling the idiot-king
what he wanted to hear.
Then, when the Babylonian army arrived
and support from Pharaoh did not arrive,
people started listening to Jeremiah.
But it became even harder to listen to Jeremiah
because he was now predicting
the demise of Jerusalem
and the death of Zedekiah.
Even though no one really wanted to hear that,
the citizens of Jerusalem began to disappearing
like deserters from the Alamo.
People were sneaking out at night
to surrender to the Babylonian army
that was now surrounding the city.
The siege of Jerusalem
would last for 18 months and 27 days.
That is a long time to sweat.

So with the Babylonian army surrounding them
and Pharaoh’s army nowhere to be seen,
King Zedekiah could nor stand to listen any more to Jeremiah’s rants.
The king blamed the steady stream of
escaping citizens on Jeremiah.
So, someone conveniently accused Jeremiah
of trying to escape, which allowed the king
to arrest the prophet.

Still, it was complicated for King Zedekiah.
He couldn’t just imprison Jeremiah
because he was from one of the ‘good’ families,
and he was recognized as prophet after all.
So instead of prison,
Jeremiah was removed
to the courtyard of the guard,
and shackled – one step up
from a prison cell.

But Jeremiah, if not pleasant
was persistent.
He just kept declaring his message
even while shackled:
“Don’t believe government’s lies;
don’t listen to self-serving fantasies
from religious preachers;
don’t be fooled by the guise of patriotism;
trust what you see and hear;
get out now because the Babylonians will win
and everything and everyone left behind
will be destroyed.”

An unknown, low class prophet
from out of town,
someone like Amos for example,
could be managed by removal or execution.
But an annoying prophet
from one of the old-line families
who won’t shut up?
That is a headache Advil won’t fix.

and it is not clear whether by order of the king
or an exasperated captain of the guard
who couldn’t stand to listen anymore,
Jeremiah was thrown into an empty well.
He was left in a deep hole in the ground
from which no one could hear him,
and where he would eventually be forgotten
and starve to death.
They couldn’t execute Jeremiah
but they could allow him to die.

But alas, I have gotten well ahead of myself.

In Chapter 32 of Jeremiah,
the point in the story that we heard this morning,
Jeremiah is still shackled in the courtyard
ranting and raving about the doom of Jerusalem.
That is where his cousin finds him,
and the piece of the story we heard today.

Under ancient Israelite law,
spelled out in the Book of Leviticus,
there is a statute called, “the right of go-el.”
My Hebrew is even worse than my English,
so I don’t know if I am pronouncing it correctly.

Go-el, as a legal statute,
stipulates that if someone is forced to sell
a piece of property
that has been in the family,
then the first right of refusal must go
to the next of kin.
As it turned out, Jeremiah’s cousin
wanted to sell some property.
Of course he did.

Think about the housing bubble in Jerusalem:
With the Babylonian Empire camped at your door
waiting for you to weaken from a lack
of food and water,
there would be a glut in the real estate market.

So Jeremiah’s cousin can’t sell his property
until he offers it first to Jeremiah –
who, remember, is shackled in the courtyard.
To the cousin’s utter amazement,
Jeremiah agrees to buy it.
“Sure,” Jeremiah says,
“not only do I want to purchase the land
but I knew before you even asked,
that you would offer it to me.

So as the story unfolds,
Jeremiah’s cousin gathers a host of witnesses,
Jeremiah signs the deed,
and gives it to his chief disciple, Baruch.
In front of everyone,
Jeremiah charges Baruch
with protecting the deed
by hiding it in an earthen jar
to be uncovered in the future.
Talk about a bullish act of hope –
it was pugnacious, even aggressive hope.
Surrounded by certain doom,
the very prophet of doom
declares the future is worth investing in.

Jeremiah was investing in the future
with a dramatic, physical,
concrete and highly personal
act of trust.
It was trust in God,
trust in the future,
and trust in the inevitability
of justice and mercy.

Everything around them spoke of destruction.
Everything seemed futile.
It not only looked bad, it was bad.
In the face of sure and certain doom
Jeremiah embodied hope
by investing in the future.

And now, the rest of the story.
For about eighteen months
the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem,
weakening the will of the walled city
before a devastating onslaught.
Eventually the Babylonians
broke down the walls and invaded.
They sacked the city,
stole everything they could carry away –
including the giant bronze pillars of temple.
The temple itself they reduced to rubble.
They killed every officer and leader of the guard.
They mercilessly killed
all three of King Zedekiah’s sons
right in front of the king’s eyes.
And then, they cut out the king’s eyes out
so that the deaths of his sons
would be the last thing he saw.

Jeremiah survived the devastation
because the Babylonians mistakenly thought
his prophecies meant he was on their side.
But Jeremiah was not in favor
of the Babylonians;
he was in favor of trusting God
to have the last word.

Legend has it, that Jeremiah died in Egypt.
But we do not know for certain.

We do know, and this is an important part
of the story,
that an Ethiopian slave,
likely one of the eunuchs that guarded
the royal harem,
saved Jeremiah’s life.
He got Jeremiah released from the well
before the city fell to the invaders.
The slave somehow convinced King Zedekiah
to allow Jeremiah’s freedom.

So there is the great irony
we should be used to by now,
and always looking for, in a Biblical story:
The foreigner in their midst,
and their slave,
could recognize God spoke through Jeremiah
even when those who knew him best could not.

This strange and ancient story
is pregnant with great insights about us,
and about our moment in history,
and about what you and I could be doing
in the midst of our families and friends
who do not yet recognize what time it is.

Jeremiah, the prophet of doom,
committed a devastatingly bold act of hope
by investing in land
at the very moment he knew
it would be ravaged and occupied
in the short run.
He trusted God for the long run
and embodied hope in the short run.

That is the punch line.
Our days, yours and mine, are numbered.
We know that.
But what happens to us,
is the not the final word
or the last act of the story.

So if we are capable of seeing
beyond the little universe in our own head,
then we can see that our own heartbeat
is only the short-term.
If we can see that,
it opens us to seeing that the long-term
may be influenced by us
even if it is not about us.
“The long-term can be influenced by us
even if it is not about us.”

So if the future is not about us,
we can start looking past our own particular
fears and anxieties to see the unexpected.
In this present moment, the one you and I live in,
hope is hard to come by – even for those of us who are optimistic.

I have had so many conversations with folks
about our fears and anger, and the
the seemingly overwhelming nature
of our problems.
I hear from people,
and from within my own heart,
about how difficult it is
to muster hope for the future
because we are surrounded by
deep and pervasive crisis
in the environment,
among nations,
and within our own nation.
There seems to be a pervasive crisis
in every institution of society
whether education, medicine,
law, the economy, or religion.

We are like Judah and Jerusalem
under the reign of Zedekiah,
when tomorrow seems to end in shadows.
We cannot see beyond the darkness
and what we imagine beyond
what we can see
is too disconcerting to entertain.

As in Jeremiah’s day, false prophets surround us.
They smile and promise a gospel of prosperity
for anyone who believes
their theological propaganda.
They promise that faith
and the love of God
will solve all the problems of the world
and act as a talisman
against danger.

Our royalty –
the political, corporate, and religious elite –
would have us be quiet,
and stop naming the grotesque imbalances
within our economy.
They want to hush us
and claim that we only know counterfeit truths –
they castigate the eloquent voices of our youth
who are now irrepressible
and out of their control.

Our royalty and their prophets,
who are broadcast loudly
by their media corporations,
eat away at the foundations of our future
like termites beneath the floor.

To the efforts of our royalty to shut us up
we can be silenced
or we can engage in acts of hope.
We may not have loud voices,
but our lives speak loudly.

For us, the question we must ask
is what are the acts of hope
available to us in our particular moment?
As individuals,
as households,
as a spiritual community –
what acts of hope
can we engage in now,
today, tomorrow
and the next day?
What would it mean
for us to act like Jeremiah
who bought property
even at the darkest moment in his city?

Not surprisingly,
I don’t have an immediate answer for us
and I can’t answer for you anyway.
But given the choice,
why wouldn’t we engage in acts of hope
and refuse to be silenced?