Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost C
Invited to preach at Lebanon Lutheran Church, Chicago, IL, my home congregation.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
1 Timothy 6:6-19
There is an interesting, and almost certainly false, legend about Martin Luther. It is said that, while looking out of his window one day, he quipped, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.”
Given that the first time these words appear is in a book about Luther written in 1944, it’s pretty certain that he never said that. And a good thing, too, as only a fool would do something as silly as planting an apple tree knowing that it and the world would go crazy the following day. Having once attempted to plant an apple tree in my front yard as a kid, I know that they don’t grow overnight. If the old saying is true, that things always get worse before they get better, then only a fool would plant a tree the day before the world goes nuts.
Given this talk of fools, what are we to make, then, of Jeremiah? Let’s get some context.
The year is 588 BCE.
It’s been 400 years since the glory days of King Saul and King David and the united kingdom.
It’s been 350 years since that kingdom split into two, Israel and Judah.
It’s been 150 years since the Assyrian Empire invaded and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered it’s people.
And it’s been 10 years since the Babylonian Empire last invaded and ransacked Jerusalem, removing the king of Judah and replacing him with one of their own.
The year is 588 BCE, and the king of Judah has decided to rebel. The Babylonian army has surrounded the capital city of Jerusalem and laid siege to it, seeking to destroy it and to put down the rebellion. The people are literally locked up in the city walls–they cannot leave, they cannot go and get food or water. They cannot escape from the prison of their own city. They live in fear that every day will be their last, when Babylon finally breaks down the walls and finishes the job they started 10 years earlier.
Jeremiah is doubly a prisoner. Suspected of treason and desertion, he is confined to the palace courtyard. He lives in a prison within a prison. In this time of terror, we have Jeremiah doing the strangest thing–he purchases land that is outside the city, land that is currently occupied by an invading force, land that he may very well never get to see or use. What good is land that you probably won’t live to use? It may as well have been ocean-front property in Arizona.
It is difficult to see any wisdom in Jeremiah’s actions. By all appearances, Jerusalem and Judah are doomed. There is no help coming for the city–it is on its own. On its own, it can’t beat Babylon’s army. Just like planting an apple tree the day before the world loses its mind, Jeremiah has acted the fool.
The reality that faced Jeremiah, that of siege and imprisonment, are just as real and powerful today as it was then. For some, the siege is very literal and very real. One can hardly watch or read the news without hearing about the war in Syria, a war in which the use and threat of chemical weapons lingers in the air. Militaries all over the world are mobilizing or preparing to mobilize to engage in another war. Christians attack mosques, Muslims attack churches, and both attack synagogues. This is the south side of Chicago: violence and attacks for some in this very city are a daily reality. Need I give more exmples?
And for too many, the imprisonment is very literal and very real. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world–higher than Russia, higher than China, higher than any other country. Our prisons are no only full, they are overfull. We are imprisoned by our ideologies across the spectrum, which want us to believe that unless radical change happens right now, everything we love and cherish will be destroyed.
But what we are imprisoned and attacked by most of all is our own fear. We are a world, a country, a state, a city, a community, and a church filled with fear. We are afraid that maybe there is someone out there who wants us dead because we are Americans. We are afraid that, in a still sluggish economy, we will lose our homes, our jobs, and our cars. We are afraid that rising gang violence in our neighborhood will put our children at risk. We are afraid that changes to church policy mean that the church has abandoned God, who will in turn abandon us.
None of these fears are to be taken lightly–we are right to be afraid, for they are very real and very present. I wish this was a day that I could play the part of God’s messengers who so often greeted frightened people like us with the words, “Do not be afraid.” But I can’t. Jeremiah couldn’t, either. If Jeremiah had told the people of Jerusalem to not be afraid, would anyone have listened? I doubt it, given the very real danger that the Babylonian army posed. They were right to be afraid. Instead, Jeremiah used a simple, yet powerful symbolic act–buying property in the face of annihilation–to tell his people that, though they are afraid and the present looks grim, eventually, things will get better.
Oh, they won’t get better right away. Things seem to get worse before they get better. Before Jeremiah’s words come true, Jerusalem will be destroyed completely, including the temple. King Zedekiah will be humiliated, his sons will be killed in front of his eyes, and then those very eyes will be plucked out as he is sent into exile with the rest of his people. But, Jeremiah has faith that, some day, things will get better.
Reading about Jeremiah’s purchase, I was reminded that about a year or so ago, probably through Facebook, I stumbled upon the It Get’s Better Project. The project started as a response to a wave of young people committing suicide because they were being bullied. It encourages people who lived through bullying, especially if they were bullied for being gay, to record video messages for bullied teens. They tell their stories, of how they, too, were bullied; they describe what happened to them and share the pain they went through. But, as the project’s name suggests, the primary message of the videos is this: It Gets Better.
I was drawn to the project because I, too, lived through bullying. I spent nine years in grade school trying to avoid ridicule, getting locked in my locker, and even having basketballs thrown at my head, because I wasn’t one of the popular kids. I remember people telling me that “it gets better.”
Now, if that was all it took, being told that “it gets better,” school might have been easier to get through. One of the valid criticisms of the It Gets Better Project is that simply telling someone it gets better doesn’t do much to get them out of their situation, and by itself may not prevent someone from committing suicide. I know the feeling: telling me that it gets better doesn’t change the fact that I struggle right now to pay my bills. It doesn’t change the fact that I have to choose which roads to use at night to increase my chances of making it home safely. It doesn’t change the fact that I still don’t know where in the world God is calling me to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments.
What it does do, though, is speak a message of hope. For me, hearing that it gets better gives me hope that, one day, the fear will end. For kids who are so depressed by their experiences that death is considered freedom, it might just give them hope that there is another way, even if they still suffer now. For the church, it gives us a starting point for God’s mission in the world.
If God could not promise that the world as it is now is not the way it is supposed to be, is there really any good news in the Gospel? What good is feeding the hungry if there is no hope that things will get better, and that they won’t be hungry forever? What good is providing shelter for the homeless if there is no hope that things will get better, and that they won’t be homeless forever? What good is advocating for and providing services for the poor and the needy if there is no hope that things will get better, and that they won’t need those services forever? What good is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ if there is no hope that things will get better?
We each come to this house, to this table, full of our own worries and fears. We need to be reminded that things will get better. And we need to be reminded that things won’t just get better for us few. Because of God’s promise of hope, we are free–we are called–to act as if we truly believe that promise, that we truly believe that the world in which we live and the people who live in it are not lost, but CAN and WILL be rescued.
One of the best hymns in the ELW says it perfectly:
“Come, open your heart!
Show your mercy to all those in fear!
We are called to be hope for the hopeless
so hatred and kindness will be no more.
We are called to act with justice.
We are called to love tenderly.
We are called to serve one another,
to walk humbly with God.”
This call prompts the work of a church that is still afraid, but trusts God enough to act. It prompts the work of a church that doesn’t give up God’s mission when the future looks bleak. It prompts the work of a church that looks outside its window, sees a world that could implode any day, and decides to plant an apple tree.
The church gets to choose how to respond to God’s promise. It can either look at the world around it, with all of its fear, with all of its suffering, with all of its pain, with all of its uncertainty, and decide that God is wrong, and that this is all that there will ever be.
Or, it can decide that God is right, that things will change. It can have the audacity to believe that it even has a place in that change, a role and a responsibility to see that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.
When others say it would be wise to cut its losses, the church can be the fool that works all that much harder. When others say it would be wise to put itself first, the church can be the fool that puts God first and lets God take care of it so it can take care of others. When others say it would be wise to function just like any other club or business, the church can be the fool that no only functions like a community, but actually dares to be one.
It will probably get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. It is up to you to decide how to respond to God’s promise. But the land, or don’t. Plant the apple tree, or don’t. I will say only this: how truly wonderful and liberating it is to be God’s fools!