Pentecost 16 Year C Proper 21 . Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-
A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
On Rosh Hashanah 1944 a shofar was blown, as it always has been, and as it will be tonight, as part of the observance of the Jewish New Year. What made the cry of this particular ram’s horn so significant was that it took place at Auschwitz. The story goes that Chaskel Tydor, a prisoner in charge of assigning work details at the concentration camp, contrived to have a group of prisoners sent on an assignment far enough away that they could pray without being caught by the guards. And apparently, miraculously, someone had smuggled a shofar—a ram’s horn– into the camp and was able to take it with him and blow it for their clandestine High Holy Days celebration.
At Auschwitz. Amidst the terror, the death, the grief and the desolation—the utter insanity of those days in that place; the shofar was heard; the persistent cry of hope.
This is a story that resonates with anyone who has forgotten, or fears forgetting, what hope looks like. When the view of the future appears chaotic virtually into perpetuity, as it does lately, the knots in the stomach seem constant. We each have our own litany of monsters under the bed that keep us awake at night, or distracted during the day. Whether personal, political, ecological, or just generally existential, there doesn’t seem to be enough anesthetic to combat the overall anxiety that many people are confronting in these days. And when you go to the doctor for a physical, as I did last week, and are handed a depression-screening questionnaire as a matter of routine form-filling, you know, at the least (the very VERY least) that you’re not alone.
Someone said to me over coffee one day: “I don’t know if I have hope anymore.” A few days later, another person said, “Please, talk about hope!” Okay. So let’s talk about Jeremiah.
Biblical scholar John Collins writes that Jeremiah confounded everyone because when they were trying to be hopeful he was all doom and gloom, and when they were in despair he had words of hope. Sounds like a prophet to me.
He is one of the Major Prophets, along with Isaiah and Ezekiel, with 51 chapters of compiled sermons, signs and oracles, poems, essays, biographical narrative, condemnation, complaint, and, ultimately, eventually, words of comfort.
As I mentioned the other week, Jeremiah lived and prophesied at a pivotal time, as Judah was being besieged and ultimately destroyed by the Babylonians, with many of her people taken into exile for the next generation. Jeremiah warned, over and over again, that Judah’s worship of idols and disregard for the poor and marginalized would have serious consequences—which, by the way, is what our Gospel lesson emphasizes today. So as Babylon came knocking at the gates, Jeremiah said that God’s justice was being meted out to Jerusalem and Judah.
The thing is, he said this directly to King Zedekiah, and told him that under the circumstances the best thing to do was just surrender. Which would explain why, as our story opens, Jeremiah was euphemistically ‘under the care of the palace guard.’ Less euphemistically, he was in jail for treason.
Jeremiah’s entire prophetic vocation, begun reluctantly as a young man and pursued through years of hardship, ridicule, persecution and depression— had come to a head as Babylon tightened the noose around Judah and he himself was imprisoned.
It looked like a pretty hopeless situation, for both Judah and Jeremiah. But God would not be silent. God’s call is persistent.
God tells Jeremiah that his cousin Hanamel was on the way with a proposition. He would be asking Jeremiah to buy his land in the town of Anathoth. Jeremiah would have understood the nature of this deal because it involved his responsibility according to the right of redemption—when a relative was at risk of losing property the next of kin was obligated to buy it—redeem it—to keep the land in the family. But just because Jeremiah understood his obligation wouldn’t necessarily mean that he would be excited at the prospect.
This is because the saying that a prophet is not welcome in his hometown might actually have originated with Jeremiah. The last time he’d been in Anathoth the people there—these were his neighbors and the folks he had grown up with– had tried to kill him because of his prophecies.
So. He’s in jail. In a city about to be destroyed. Being asked to redeem a parcel of land in a town that despises him. Just another day in the life of a prophet.
“For thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Does Jeremiah blink? Does he flinch? Hardly. He buys the land, as he has been told to do. He does it publically, according to custom and proper procedure; documented (in duplicate), signed, witnessed, sealed, placed in the equivalent of a safe deposit box, money weighed and exchanged. Signed, sealed, and delivered. Words of hope in spite of all appearances. Punching despair in the nose.
Whenever I read this passage I am both amused and bemused by the ability of a real estate deal to move and inspire. It’s just a land transaction, for goodness sake! But it’s a land transaction with resurrection implications. It is God’s promise to God’s people that life will emerge from the ashes of despair and destruction. Life will win, because God is faithful.That’s Hope.
What makes Jeremiah’s hope more sustaining than wishful thinking, which is what hope is sometimes confused with?
Hope is public. The community around Jeremiah witnessed his act of faith, with their eyes and their signatures. This was not a solitary act; it was communal. It involved accountability. An act of hope will not let you off the hook.
Hope is courageous. Jeremiah’s transaction was undertaken against the odds—a statement that, in spite of evidence to the contrary he was staking his claim on the future rather than conserving his resources for the short term. An act of hope calls you to dig deep and find inner resources you didn’t know you had. But you do.
Hope is risky. God called Jeremiah to invest his faith in a place that had rejected him and betrayed a lifelong relationship. Not only that, it was effectively in a war zone. Who buys a house that’s on fire? Someone who has faith in rebuilding it from the ashes. An act of hope can look just a little bit crazy.
Hope is incarnational. God asked Jeremiah to do something and to ask others to join him. Writing, witnessing, signing, sealing, enclosing, weighing. Parchment, ink, wax, pottery, silver, land. Physical actions involving tangible things. An act of hope demands skin in the game.
And most importantly and foundationally, Hope is rooted in identity. Jeremiah acted as one who knew who and whose he was. He was the child of a God whose call into renewed relationship comes again and again in spite of humanity’s tendency for brokenness and infidelity. He was one of a people loved into being, liberated and called into covenant relationship with a God who had promised never to fail them. An act of hope is rooted in our identity as beloved of a God who never gives up on his Creation.
It doesn’t have to be a land deal in a war zone. It doesn’t have to be the blowing of a shofar in a concentration camp.
It can be holding a cardboard sign that says, “There is no Plan(et) B” in New York, or Sidney, or Providence while marching with millions of young people worldwide. That’s public.
It can be in the passion and indignation of a sixteen-year-old with her cry of, “How dare you!” calling out the climate change complacency of the powerful in the halls of the powerful, in spite of efforts to sideline, demean and discredit her. That’s courageous.
It can be feeding the hungry homeless in the streets or giving sanctuary to migrants even as the authorities warn of legal consequences. That’s risky.
It is wherever music and art stir the soul, wherever the sound of laughter lifts the heart, wherever an act of kindness heals the broken-hearted. That’s incarnational.
It is whenever two or three are gathered together in God’s name to be fed by word and sacrament. That’s who we are. The Body of Christ; sent into the world to heal and to make whole.
Hope isn’t as easy or as platitudinous as wishing. It requires us to stake our claim against despair and sound the proverbial ram’s horn of renewal. Hope lays claim on our energy, our patience, and our faith.