During a recent election, a politician was discovered to have ejected a household staff member due to the staff member’s immigration status, with words along the lines of “leave and pretend as though we have never met.” In the wake of this news, a friend turned to me and said, “Can you imagine us saying that to a staff member?” I looked at him and said, “No, in fact your wife just said to me recently that it would be more environmentally friendly to downsize and not have household staff, but she couldn’t imagine turning away the people who have become family members.”
We all have choices in how we care for others, whether with great or little financial wealth. Today’s gospel lesson is rich in imagery and some interesting theology that has played out in drama and literature in a variety of formats over the centuries. It is more complex than we might expect at first glimpse. One commentator noted that this lesson is bookended by Luke 16:13 – “you cannot serve God and wealth” and 17:1 – “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” The rich man was not on a path of torture in the afterlife due to his wealth. His pain and discomfort were a mirrored reflection of how he journeyed on the earth, putting his values into his wealth, lavish clothing, and food so plentiful it overflowed from his table. He was surrounded by family who did the same and not one turned to the other and said, “Let’s look beyond ourselves. How can we consider others? How can we care for our community?” Lazarus, who was ignored by his fellow human beings, was seen fully by God. He is called by his name. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
Oftentimes we miss God right before our eyes, in others, in difficult situations. The reading from the book of Jeremiah speaks to this in what seems to be an odd lesson—maybe just another strange lesson we get in the mix of ordinary time—but there is such richness going on in this story of a land acquisition. Anyone who has bought or sold property, or thought about or listened in on conversations about real estate, knows that location, use, and value are of utmost importance. Up to this point, Jeremiah has been a bit of a downer, warning the people of Israel to change their ways. He has warned of impending invasion.
As the reading opens we are given the larger picture: Jeremiah is held captive in King Zedekiah’s palace. This Judean king has not appreciated Jeremiah’s warnings. He has held onto the hope that if Babylon invades, Egypt will step in and save Israel. The king has kept Jeremiah captive; meanwhile, Babylon is “besieging Jerusalem.” They are in full invasion by this large nation. It is a time of turmoil and uncertainty.
This seemingly innocuous reading of land acquisition particularities jumps to Jeremiah’s insight into true stewardship: everything we have comes from God. The people of Israel knew the true blessing of the gift of a land flowing with milk and honey after many years in the wilderness. Land is kept within the family, as they are the trusted stewards of God’s blessings. Truly what they had belonged to God and was to be cared for as God’s gift. What if we treat every resource and gift, time, money, belonging, beloveds, as they truly come from God and truly belong to God? Everything we have is a gift from God.
Jeremiah shares an insight into God’s ways in this odd real estate story. He receives word that he is to buy the land of his cousin, Hanamel, son of his uncle Shallum. To be clear: location, use, value. This land is besieged by a Babylonian army. It’s unusable. It’s in an inaccessible location. Nothing can be grown or nurtured on this land. Jeremiah shows us the foolishness of the truly faithful. He follows the beckoning of God’s call, shells out the 17 shekels of silver, and signs the deed in front of witnesses. And then the zinger: “for thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” This foolish deal God has encouraged Jeremiah to make is a sign! It is a symbol of what Jeremiah and God later discuss: nothing is to difficult for God.
When we dig into this strange real estate story and explore its context, we discover a wealth of rich lessons. God is always present. God’s promises of hope and renewal are especially true in times of turmoil. And God’s presence is known in community. As we journey, as individuals and as communities, we don’t always know sunshine and light, but God’s presence and promise abides. Sometimes we are invited to be faithfully foolish in the midst of these times, to take risks, to walk out on the edge of all we have, dive into hope, and fly! This is true for us as individuals—it can be risky to accept and live into the blessings that push us beyond our comfort zones. It can mean tough choices. It is also true for us as communities abiding, journeying together. The life of faith is about community, the vulnerability and joy of journeying together, of walking the path with our full selves in the ways Jesus has taught us. God is in the gray areas. The best parts of being church community are also these vulnerable parts: risking our hearts to work together and builder deeper, stronger relationships, journeying with folks who some days drive us nuts, welcoming people into the world, committing to support each other in our life in Christ, and having to say good-bye when one’s journey shifts to the next realm.
St. Bede’s is a community coming through a time of turmoil, transition, and change. This is a community of abundant blessing AND there have been difficult days, times of great uncertainty. And we hear the promise in the lessons from today: God is very present in these times. I have been blessed to share a time with you all, to see the beauty in how you care for each other, how you serve here at the altar each week, how you jumped up to collect 1375 diapers for Bayview Mission in a matter of weeks, how you can have fun together, learn together, and open your doors wide, even when it may be uncomfortable.
Take a moment to look around. (No, really, I know we’re Episcopalians.) Really look at each other. These are the seeds and fruits on God’s promised land. God’s blessings and the promise of God’s presence isn’t about your new rector—God is present with her. You all ARE the community, these your companions. You are symbols of God’s abiding presence and abundance. “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?”
And I have been abundantly blessed to share a time in your story. Thank you. Amen.
19 Pentecost, Year C
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
1 Timothy 6:6-19