By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — It’s been difficult to digest the news this week: from knifings in nearby St. Cloud, shootings and community outrage in Tulsa and Charlotte, to department store killings near Seattle. It’s hard to tear my attention away from this progression to even contemplate the increased bombing of the city of Aleppo in Syria. Where is God in all this? Where am I, where are we as a congregation in yet another string of distressing world events? Is life some kind of ongoing battle that we will win or lose, as we worry about and brace ourselves against adversaries, enemies, all around us? Is the seeming precariousness of life a matter of luck or chance? How much control do we imagine we have over the fragility, the vulnerability of life, in the midst of a week like this?
Part of why I keep reading the Bible is that it challenges my ingrained way of thinking about the world. It shakes me off of my surface perceptions, pushing me to question and move deeper into life’s meaning and purpose. Yes, the Bible can be a confusing, sometimes violent, often obscure and even annoying book. In our tradition, we endeavor to read it in its historical context, using the best tools of modern scholarship to figure out what the various authors had in mind in their context, and how this might speak to us today. We say the various writings are “inspired” but are not the literal word of God. N.T. Wright, the Anglican Biblical scholar, suggests it is a mistake to assume the Bible is full of rules and regulations to be obeyed and creeds to be believed. Not so, says Wright. Nor is it a compendium of abstract and timeless truth, or a collection of witnesses to events. So, what’s left? Narrative, Wright answers. Stories of interactons between God and people. Narrative about God holding people accountable through compassionate judgment, then showing mercy to and remaking the world. Narrative where the first two acts are written, says Wright: the unfolding emergence of the Jewish tradition and the ministry of Jesus and the early church which grows out and expands that tradition. We, as the present-day followers of Jesus, are the actors in this unfolding story: now told to imagine, create and play out the third act of this drama ourselves.
The ancient narratives provides hints about where God is and what our next steps are, in the middle of all our current muddles and mess as humanity. Where might this passage from the prophet Jeremiah, from the 6th century BCE, take us? For context, the northern kingdom of Israel has already fallen to the invading brutality of the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah, home of Jerusalem and location of the Jeremiah story, is still intact but now besieged. The puppet king Zedikiah has ignored the impending invasion and frantically tries to align with Egypt. Jewish people, rich and poor, have crowded in desperation to the fortified city walls of Jerusalem; food is running out and the enemy is at the gates. If you have skills, a craft, or money, you will be lucky to be dragged off to Babylon; otherwise a citywide slaughter awaits you. The prophet’s role is to continually challenge the ruling king to follow God’s teachings of mercy, justice and compassion to all under his rule. But Zedekiah has finally jailed Jeremiah in exasperation, unwilling to tolerate the prophet’s incessant railing against Zedekiah’s corrupt governmental practices. Zedekiah is sick of hearing that there are logical consequences to disobeying God’s insistence on just and merciful governing.
Now imprisoned under palace guard, Jeremiah receives a word from God. In the chaos, a desperate relative of his needs to unload some property. Perhaps the relative is hoping to get his family out of Jerusalem and head south to Egypt before the impending doom. Lo and behold, his cousin Hanamel arrives, pleading, “buy my field at Anathoth; you’re my relative and have first right of refusal here.” But everyone is trying to leave, the Babylonians of Assyria are at the city gates; this land is basically worthless! God appears to be directing an unexpected, symbolic act to communicate with the people in crisis.
Jeremiah carefully proceeds with the seemingly unwise purchase, signs the deed, obtains the witnesses, weighs the money on the scale. With high drama, he has his personal scribe, Baruch, witness everything, and place the sealed deeds of purchase “in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.” In the midst of the chaos, God directs Jeremiah to look forward. Jeremiah’s act reminds the people that God promises, in the middle of the uncertainty and pending dislocation, that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Houses, fields, vineyards…the stuff of fruitful existence. When everything is disintegrating around them, God plants seeds of future hope that makes life possible, stable and fruitful in their culture. Against all odds, there is the promise that they will once again dwell in the land of their ancestors.
I’ve been noticing the shortening of days this last week. Although few trees have started to turn and drop, the early morning and evening darkness casts a gloom. Autumn often brings me such ambivalence: it can be visually dramatic and beautiful, but I find myself bracing against the loss of greenness, the imbending bareness and cold of winter. As I thought about this paradox, I came upon some writings of the educator and author Parker Palmer. He described how we often focus on the surface appearance of autumn. We tend to think it is all about letting go, about loss, even about the demise of warmth and fruitfulness. “Summer’s abundance decays towards winter’s death.” But he also described how plants are also quietly doing something that we don’t often notice: the spreading of seeds. As plants die off, they drop a wild abundance of seeds that will become the new life in spring. Palmer cautions that we can often get fixed on the surface appearance of loss and decline among us, and miss the seeds of new life that are being planted.
Where do we see seeds of hope that might give us confidence in the future? Some expressions of Christianity focus a lot on one’s imagined future in heaven. It is a common misperception that today’s text from the Gospel of Luke is a cautionary tale about our future in the afterlife. Some have assumed these passages spell out that if we are rich and greedy and ignore the poor, we will go to some place of punishment. And if we are poor, we will go to some kind of heaven, into the bosom of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. I don’t think this was Jesus’ point in telling this story. For Jesus, our confidence, our hope, in God’s good future lies in strengthening our resolve to participate in the good in this life. How might we bring hope to someone in need, someone who crosses our paths while we are living? Jesus asks his listeners and he proceeds to tell today’s parable.
Every day the rich man had a chance to be that hope to the poor man reduced to begging at his gate. But the man with the resources lived in a culture that conditioned him to ignore Lazarus sitting at his front door, because Lazarus would be considered ritually “unclean” with his open skin lesions and his constant contact with ritually “unclean” dogs. So often we talk sadly about “the poor” or the “disadvantaged.” We generalize about these people, making hopeless-sounding assumptions about their motivation or morals. We generalize about a lot of people, actually: “those teenagers,” “the elderly,” “those Muslims,” “that bad neighborhood,” “the druggies,” “those management people at work.” The rich man in the teaching parable never sees Lazarus for who he is. Focusing on the surface, we often express a futility of helping various groups. We lose track of the individuals, each with a separate personhood and unique need. And we lose track of our call to carry the hope of God’s good future to others.
I celebrate of the ways our church continues to bring our collective confidence and hope to the table. The confirmation class discusses the roots of homelessness in our Twin Cities, then encounters individual faces, specific families with kids, as we prepared and served a meal at House of Charity in Minneapolis yesterday. Jesus taught that we don’t develop a sense of compassion for those in need without actually “seeing” them. The generality of “homelessness” takes on human specifics; seeds of possibilities are planted in the minds of our youth. Another group in the church explores the implications of white priviledge as we read Jennifer Harvey’s “Dear White Christians” together. Parents share experiences of talking with their kids about racial inequity. Small seeds of deepened understanding scattered through our congregation. We welcome a panel discussion on community policing this Thursday, imagining a Falcon Heights slowly transforming into a safer, more just and respectful environment for all. We scatter these seeds of hope in the midst of frustration and grief over the national news. We become a seeds of hope for people who feel valueless and hopeless. This is us writing and acting in the next “act” of God healing the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.