Jeremiah IV

September 25, 2016
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

This week, Michelle lent me her graphic novel version of Jeremiah. It is fascinating – and helpful – to see the book of Jeremiah in “comic strip” format. Though it is an ancient story, the invasions and threats of invasions, unjust imprisonment, and leaders that abuse their power make it a timeless tale, perfect for comic books.

This week, and it is our last week with Jeremiah for a while, we get some very particular details about Jeremiah and his situation. Jeremiah is imprisoned by King Zedekiah, the Jewish king, because Jeremiah has the nerve to tell the king that he is not going to make it when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies come storming the castle. Though the king wants Jeremiah locked up, he keeps him close by, right there in the courtyard.

Just because Jeremiah is in the king’s custody, doesn’t mean he is cut off from God. God still speaks and what Jeremiah hears this time is so strange that it is included in the text, twice as if to verify its truth. 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.”

We don’t know if Hanamel has a parallel word from God but Jeremiah clearly receives this ridiculous real estate recommendation. He knows that Jerusalem is under siege. The whole reason he is imprisoned is because he told the king he will be deposed and the people taken as prisoners and slaves to Babylon. And yet, God tells Jeremiah, he should buy his cousin’s land in Anathoth, land already occupied by the Babylonian armies.

And don’t you know, just like that, even though he is a prisoner, Jeremiah gets a visit from cousin Hanamel, son of uncle Shallum, offering to sell his land to Jeremiah. Tradition has it that as a relative, Jeremiah has an option to buy the land. Maybe shrewd Hanamel is trying to get out while he can, before the land is nothing but scorched earth. Maybe Hanamel has already tried to sell the land to other relatives and none was foolish enough to buy it. Is Jeremiah being taken for a ride? How does Jeremiah have this much silver, in prison, to buy land?

We are left in the dark about the motivations and money. All we know is that Jeremiah heard God say “buy the land from your cousin Hanamel, son of uncle Shallum,” so when his cousin shows up, confirming that this strange instruction is from God, Jeremiah is prepared to buy the land. Jeremiah is used to hearing from God but this time it is not just a metaphor, this is a real action Jeremiah carries out.

To emphasize that this really happened, we are given historical details as well as specifics about weighing the silver, signing the deed, getting the locals as witnesses and finally putting the deed in a jar, like an ancient firesafe, to preserve it for years and years to come. It is one more of Jeremiah’s object lessons, yes, but it is real, it is not just symbolic. He really does buy the land, in a war zone, occupied by the enemy and put the deed in a jar to preserve it for hundreds and thousands of years. This is a bewildering action, one that any sane person would not undertake but then sanity is not something Jeremiah the prophet is known for; he is used to being called crazy.

Even more absurd is that Jeremiah hears God say that buying the land is a sign of hope. It is hard to imagine but one day, maybe even in Jeremiah’s lifetime, the land will again be a place of “houses and fields and vineyards.” It will be a place of joy and growth and celebration. Does Jeremiah believe it? Does his friend and assistant Baruch, who facilitates this deal, does he believe it? Is Cousin Hanamel laughing all the way to the bank?

There is always some risk when making decisions for the future but sometimes hope for that future is in short supply. I remember one sermon from my youth and it was from Jeremiah. My father preached on a similar text from Jeremiah 29, where the people are told to settle down, build homes and plant gardens, even though they are in exile. These were the days of the cold war. The threat of nuclear annihilation was so real to me that I did not have ideas of what I would be when I grew up; I didn’t believe I would graduate from college. As a teenager without goals, I was taken by the instruction to plant gardens and believe there would be a future, even in a time of exile. This message stayed with me. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why I am still way too optimistic in the face of improbable odds.

So does God still speak today? How? Jeremiah seems to have a direct line to God, a personal connection to something beyond himself. It’s not that easy for most of us. But say we do feel a nudge, we have an inkling that we are to take some action, then what? Do we look for Cousin Hanamel, some verification from another person?

One of the things I have been “hearing” for some years is the need to find ways to better understand racism in this country. And not just understand it but be part of the movement to dismantle it. What does that mean practically? Anti-racism training? Expanding my friendships? Donating to the new African American museum? Changing my priorities here at church? Moving to a different neighborhood? Examining my own family history? It is an ongoing process, trying to listen and pay attention for the voice of God and for the verification of Cousin Hanamel.

Despite various concrete steps I have taken over the years to respond to this inner call and outer injustice, it is easy to feel like I have failed. But then who am I in the scheme of 500 years of structural racism in the United States? Isn’t it arrogant white privilege to even think that I could do anything that would have any impact at all?

Something different has been happening lately, something so different that I want to check it out with you, my “cousins.” In July I was invited by a Hyattsville city council member to pray at a community vigil in response to violence nationally. It was not a protest like I am used to but a time for police, politicians and community members to hear from each other. Then the other week, I attended a clergy lunch that the city of Hyattsville hosted. Pastors from nine congregations ate lunch with the mayor, some folks from city hall, and two police officers. The police officers made it clear that they would be glad to receive help from the clergy. Could clergy support the police by accompanying them when they have to do death notifications for families in the city? Would clergy be available to sit with officers when they experience trauma on the job?

My mind began to whirl…

A week later, one of the pastors emailed saying he was going to City Hall to pray. Did anyone else want to join him? I told him I would be there and I imagined three pious pastors standing in front of City Hall, sweetly praying for the mayor, city council, employees, police and city residents. There were three pastors – as well as some city employees, the mayor, the police chief and a number of officers. We all gathered in a room to pray.

My inner questions started all over again…

I did pray that day, I prayed that we all might remember the words of the angels, “do not be afraid.” I prayed that we all would become people of courage and peace.

And I wondered about Jeremiah.

Is praying with and for the police a way to live out Christ’s love? Or is it siding with Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldeans? Is supporting the police so that maybe their fear is slightly alleviated a small step toward peace? Or is it reinforcing their sense of power with the option to use violence? Could extending care to police officers, getting to know them and their pain, could this be a small step toward hope in the midst of a nation at war with itself? Or is the chance that this could have any impact at all so slight that I shouldn’t get involved? Is it better to seek transformation in the system that exists or work to create a new system all together?

And what is a middle aged Mennonite pastor doing in the midst of such questions?  And admitting them to you?

You see why I am hoping you all can be Cousin Hanamel for me. It is not only biblical, it is very Anabaptist to listen to each other, to listen together for the voice of the Holy, when there are big questions. As your pastor, shall I continue taking steps to relate to Hyattsville clergy, city leaders and police? Am I following the leading of God here toward some land that may one day again have “houses and fields and vineyards” or am I just chasing dreams? Like with Jeremiah, this is not a symbolic metaphor, this is a real question. I am serious when I say I am open to your questions and counsel in this situation.

Jeremiah bought that land from his cousin though it looked like a total waste of money. He took a risk and we don’t know if he ever lived on the land or if it ever had houses, fields and vineyards for his relatives. We do know that, rightly or wrongly, Jeremiah’s strange act of spending money on something that everyone else deemed worthless, has somehow given hope to countless people. That strange land purchase has been an inspiration to others to take risks and plan for a future they are not sure they will ever have.

Surely, here in this city, as we look to the future, God still speaks of hope – to us, to you, to me. May God lead us toward that mysterious hope, listening together.