Most of us have heard of the Doomsday Clock, started in 1947 by a group of scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, which had developed the atomic bomb at the end of WW II. The clock reflects an estimate of the catastrophic dangers to humanity posed by our own technological developments. The closer the clock is set to midnight, the more urgent is the perceived threat.
The original threat of nuclear destruction has been joined by the ultimate threat of climate change. The emergence of the global COVID pandemic in 2020 is the last time the clock’s hands were changed. Currently the time remaining is the shortest in its 75 year history. It’s set at 100 seconds before midnight.
Jeremiah, the weeping, wailing prophet was the equivalent of the doomsday clock in his era. He predicts the invasion, destruction and occupation of his nation. He warns the King of the dangers posed by the Babylonian empire. He alerts the population to the impending end of their comfort and independence and preaches judgement on their actions as cause of the impending doom.
Jeremiah doesn’t make for very encouraging, uplifting or inspirational reading. In fact, the scholars who have composed the series of readings that many of the mainline churches follow in the Revised Common Lectionary, have also given an option for a different reading each week so that the preacher can avoid having to deal with Jeremiah.
After all, who wants to preach on texts like “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins.” And there are at least 35 unrelenting chapters of this. You can imagine that Jeremiah was unpopular and frequently criticized.
And yet, I chose these readings from Jeremiah because his words have resonated with me more and more in the past few years. In the wee hours of the morning, I have anguished over the decline of our planet, the extinction of species, the threat of wildfire, flood and hurricanes. Many of us are concerned for the future of our political system amongst lies, corruption, insurrection, division and violence. And our hearts are breaking for the victims of war and brutality in Ukraine and other places of conflict, civil war and invasion. Jeremiah gives us words for the anguish of our souls, our fears for the future and the anger we feel for the actions that have brought us to this state.
Because of his harsh words and his bitter lament, we don’t think of Jeremiah as expressing hope. But there is this odd and wonderful incident from his life that surprised me when I read it this week.
Jeremiah is in grave difficulty. The King of Babylon has finally invaded as far as Jerusalem and is besieging the city. Meanwhile, the King of Judah, Jeremiah’s king, has put him under palace arrest in order to silence his criticism and prophetic words. Things have gotten very bad for the common people, including Jeremiah’s family and, in particular, his cousin Hanamel. It’s clear that he can no longer afford to hold onto his property. He is forced to sell his field, the land of his ancestors, the only resource for his future.
By custom, he will first offer it to another family member so that the land can remain with his people and not go to a stranger. It seems as though the only one with any means to afford the purchase is Jeremiah and he’s not in a very strong position to be buying land. After all he’s under guard. He’s predicted the downfall of the nation and he believes that they will be occupied and their lands confiscated. Under these circumstances entering into a real estate transaction seems inadvisable.
But Jeremiah believes that this is God’s word for him. He agrees to purchase the land for a fairly large amount. But he has some very detailed requirements. First of all the purchase must be witnessed by a very large group of people, not just the necessary family members and witnesses, but also the guard who answer to the king and the many Judeans who are present at court. On top of this he asks that the deed of purchase with its signatures and details be preserved and recorded for future proof.
This is more than the purchase of a field, it is a prophetic act, something done to prove a point and to get as much attention as possible. This is not just about money, family, land and inheritance. It affirms the word of the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” In other words, we are in a desperate and difficult time but there will be a time in the future where once again there will be enough safety and security to establish normal life. Jeremiah is building for a future he may never see, one that is promised by God so that the people may live with hope.
It’s difficult to live with hope when the doomsday clock has barely 100 seconds on it. It’s tempting to respond by investing everything in our personal survival. Or maybe we choose willful ignorance by partying, denying and escaping in the face of such challenges. In Jesus’s day he observed those who were only concerned with their own physical, spiritual or economic welfare. He saw how they turned away from difficult situations and the suffering of others in order to eat, drink and be merry. We’ve heard parable after parable from Jesus about the perils of loving money and using people. Like Jeremiah, in his day, Jesus warns those who are comfortable, religiously pious and wealthy that they will need to account for themselves when the ultimate occurs.
Jesus also looked around and saw, really saw, those who were suffering: lepers who were considered unclean; women bent over double under the weight of their shame; sinners who were excluded from polite company; beggars who longed for a scrap of food; and the wounded in body, mind and spirit whose only comfort came from the dogs who licked their sores.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the final one in a series from Luke’s gospel. It is graphic in its imagination of a time after death when the fortunes of the negligent rich and the suffering poor are reversed. It is a warning, not a prediction. Like all prophetic speech and action, it startles the listeners to greater awareness and challenges us to repentant action.
God provided a lived parable for St. Luke’s last week. At the end of worship, followed by a meeting on our plans for the property, a man who was clearly incapacitated in both body and mind came looking for help. He was clearly unwell, with open sores, covered in excrement. While I was busy organizing the meeting and greeting the people who came, some of our folks talked with him trying to understand what he needed. They set him up with something to drink and eat. A number of folks brought him to my attention. They didn’t turn away. They listened to him and treated him with compassion and dignity. They learned his name.
Afterwards we were able to find help for him. The very patient medical response team I ultimately called were able to take him to the hospital where he would receive treatment for his wounds and infection and be cleaned up. He used our phone to call his mother.
This happened because we are here. Because we hold this space open for rich and poor, churched and unchurched, housed and unhoused, we are able to respond to the call of God by caring for our neighbors. I like to think that all the effort it took to finalize the contracts to lease our ground for both affordable housing and a new church (75 pages not counting the appendices!), is a prophetic act. We are using the resources we have to make a statement of hope for a future we will not see.
We know the risks. Our church is pretty small and many churches are shrinking. The planet is warming and the seas are rising. The political situation is uncertain. And yet we are called to follow Jesus in the way of love and care for our neighbors, to meet their immediate needs with food, water and clothing and to provide for long-term needs of safety, security and sanctuary.
The generosity, compassion and faithfulness of this congregation inspires me. As we consider how God calls us to respond with the resources we already have, those who have everything needed provided for are reminded to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” Amen.