Pentecost 16 C
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
It was the worst of times. No, really the worst – it was 586 BC, and the trauma ripples through to this very day. Ask any Jew. Ask any Palestinian. The kingdom of Judah was being swallowed up by the Babylonian Empire. Armies surrounded Jerusalem. The ruling elites were split; some favored submitting to the Babylonians, others wanted to hold out, hoping for Egyptian intervention. People could come and go to a degree, but no equipment, food nor water could enter the city. Would God deliver them? Was this punishment for their sins? Who knew where God was in this? Hope was drying up faster than the last supplies of three year old grain. Hunger was spreading, desperate cannibalism was soon to come. Has your world ever totally fallen apart? Yeah, it was like that.
Jeremiah the prophet had been predicting this day for years. He saw how the royalty – the house of David, who claimed an eternal covenant of God’s favor and were supposed to be God’s good earthly ruler – how they squeezed the common people for every shekel, every bushel of grain, every acre of land. He saw the way the whole country turned from God to idols. Sure, the priests kept the Temple sacrifices running, but the temple had become a symbol of nationalistic political power rather than service to God. So it was easy to work other values into the program. They hadn’t yet heard Jesus’ teaching, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jeremiah loudly pointed out that their path would doom them. His message is not unlike Greta Thunberg’s: staying on the present course will certainly mean disaster.
But people don’t want to hear that, they didn’t want to change. The king put Jeremiah under arrest in the barracks of his bodyguards. This is where this story takes place. Jeremiah hears the crazy, weird, unexpected word of God. Amid the shouts of, “Incoming!” as rocks and arrows came flying over the city walls, amid the scorn of the king and his court, amid his own depression and uncertainty, he thinks he hears God. “Your cousin Hanamel’s field is going into foreclosure. Buy it and bail him out.” Jeremiah was from a suburb of Jerusalem, Anathoth. He was the closest kinsman to Hanamel, and the law of redemption in Deuteronomy gave him the right and obligation to buy the field if Hanamel was in danger of losing it to creditors and it passing out of the family forever. Those of you from farming families might have that sense of ancestral connection to the land; it was built into the system in ancient Israel.
This is not a good deal. Jerusalem and the legal structure of the kingdom are doomed. The Babylonians already occupy Anathoth. Tragically, the modern Palestinian village is practically encircled by the Israeli separation wall. Hanamel’s offer is like buying beachfront property in the Bahamas just as hurricane Dorian was making landfall. Has God ever led you to do something that seemed to make zero sense? What then happened?
Hanamel shows up at Jeremiah’s prison, deed in hand. “And then I knew it was the word of the Lord,” Jeremiah says. That’s sometimes how God’s leading works – we have an intuitive, instinctual sense of something, and then the right person shows up and says the right thing, not knowing what has been going on in our minds and heart. So Jeremiah buys the field. At closing, everyone sees Jeremiah weighing out the silver, signing the deed, witnesses notarizing it, Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch filing one copy publicly and something unusual with another copy: putting another in a clay jar, a jar that can be hidden and preserved --- like the Dead Sea Scrolls were – until after the present disaster has passed.
What does this all mean? As a real estate investment, it’s the worst. The battering rams of the enemy army are at the gates. Really, what is Jeremiah doing? Crazy prophetic action. What is God doing?
Jeremiah lifts up his voice: “The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” “I will bring Israel back to this place to live securely. They will be my people and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one mind so that they may worship me all the days of their lives, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them. I will put in their hearts a sense of awe for me so they won’t turn away from me. Fields will be bought, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessed. For I will bring them back from their captivity.” (Jer. 32:34-44, summarized).
Hope. Not a cocky-eyed optimism that things will get better. Not a surprising shift in the political scene. Not replacing a bad king with a good king. Hope isn’t denying reality. The Babylonians did destroy the city, temple, monarchy. As the psalmist says, do not hope in princes, in political events, in the invisible hand of the economy, but in God. Hope is rooted in God’s promise, God’s action, God’s love. As the apostle Paul said, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
What does hope look like? That’s a great question, a question that invites us to look closely at the world, to become attentive to and aware of the often small sprouts of green breaking through the concrete. What is a situation you know that seems hopeless, yet you have seen people hope in God even in the midst of it?
Among the souvenirs of my trips to Israel and Palestine have been different websites to follow. One is called “The Good Shepherd Collective.” It is a tough page to follow, for practically every day, there is some new encroachment documented. In just the last couple of weeks, an access road from Palestinian villages to their fields has been trenched and destroyed, a shepherd’s goat herd shagged and scattered, homes searched in the middle of the night, water tanks punctured, and I don’t know how many houses demolished. The reasons given are variations on the theme that the Palestinians lack deeds, travel documents or building permits, and that Israeli colonists need land, roads and water. While many places in the world experience oppressive situations, Palestine is one I’ve seen first hand, and weighs on my heart. So I was surprised to read from them:
“In the aftermath of a day like today, when the Israeli military utterly dismantled large sections of the South Hebron Hills, homes were razed, people were beaten and arrested, children traumatized - we are challenged to maintain hope in the face of darkness. People ask us: How do you keep the faith that a better tomorrow is waiting upon the horizon?
“We have enough humility to maintain hope. This is crucial. Far too often, people confuse being hopeful for being naive. We fully understand the matrix of control Israel has methodically constructed around us; after all, it is the corrosive thread shot through the fabric of our lives. But we also understand the movement rising up around us. We see diverse movements of justice joining in solidarity in ways that weren't happening decades ago. Black and brown voices are pushing the plight of Palestinians onto the main stage. Our Jewish friends are taking real risks and making real sacrifices to usher in a new future of liberation. We see all of this because we choose to have hope. We don't let cynicism creep in and masquerade as wisdom. We don't minimize the efforts of those around us. We are courageous enough to have hope. We don't worry that people will think that we are silly or misguided for knowing that a better tomorrow awaits us. Good Shepherd Collective September 11 at 2:29 PM · “
What is your hopeless situation? Political cynicism, overload or despair? Whatever the doctor told you at that visit you had? The negative balance in your checkbook? The cold cup of coffee from the friend who walked away, not crying? Bulldozers flattening your home? Babylonians battering down your gates and burning your temple?
Take courage, God sees you. Grasp your neighbor’s hands, for God will use them to buttress your heart. Don’t curl up in fear, but open yourself to all the tiny signs of God’s faithfulness to you: food on your table, an apology tendered, a gorgeous sunset, a demonstration supporting asylum seekers, a friendly face greeting you in the fellowship hall, a wrong made right, a satisfying grade on an exam, another day of sobriety or a courageous vote. File these signs away, build up a stock in your heart. Share them with others, and file away the ones they share with you. Use them as the building blocks for a future world where peace is normal, caring is public policy, and love binds neighbors and strangers together through God.
Call to worship (from Ps. 91)
Leader: Living in the Most High’s shelter, camping in the Almighty’s shade, I say to the Lord:
People: “You are my refuge, my stronghold! You are my God – the One I trust!”
Leader: God will save you from the hunter’s trap, snares for your soul and body,
People: God’s faithfulness is a protective shield, guarding us like a hen guards her chicks. God will protect us with his feathers, we’ll find refuge under God’s wings.
Leader: Don’t be afraid of terrors at night, or arrows that fly in daylight; monsters that prowl in the dark, or destruction that ravages at noontime.
People: God tells us, “Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you. I’ll protect you, because you honor my name. Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer.”
Leader: Hear, O people, the help of our God:
People: “I’ll be with you in troubling times. I’ll save and glorify you, even through your old age. I will forever show you my salvation!”
You have gathered us, gathered us to you, O God, in the midst of a world that seems to have gone crazy. So often, the news of oppression against your children, of destruction of our environment, of corruption in high places, of wars and rumors of war, weighs hard on us. We come to this place seeking quiet from the din; we come to one another seeking a warm heart of comfort; we come to you seeking meaning and hope for the future. Though your grace, grant us peace for today and hope for tomorrow. Amen.
Prayer of thanksgiving and dedication
Thank you, God, for giving us hope when all seems hopeless! Thank you for being faithful even when everyone around falls away! Thank you for being with us in our darkest nights, our deepest pits, our loneliest deserts! Thank you for drawing us together as your people in this time and place. In gratefulness, we offer our selves and our work, trusting you to do amazing things through all of us. Amen.
Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City. Read more.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
You and I are not the first people to live in difficult political times. We are not the first people to feel as though our world might be at an end. We are not the first people who need the cycle of lament, comfort, and hope. We are not the first people to turn to God in a vexing, unstable time.
About 540 BC, when this middle section of Isaiah was written, some of the best and brightest in Jerusalem had been taken into captivity in Babylon, an abduction that lasted for nearly 60 years. Can you imagine what kind of fear and hopelessness you would feel if your favorite political and religious leaders were banished from your nation for two generations – so for us that is going back to the Kennedy Administration. What if all of the best and brightest minds in America had been taken away, and their children and grandchildren were only now returning?
You and I are not the first people to live in difficult political times. And the treasure of Isaiah is that we get to hear the fresh words of God’s comfort…words that may be 2,500 years old, but that speak to us in a nation where leaders no longer value truth, where gun violence is accepted as inevitable, where income disparity grows wider, where immigrant children are separated from their parents and detained, where many deny their own racism, and where morality and justice are absent from the national dialogue. This dismal situation is not God’s final word. There is a reason that Martin Luther King, Jr., used this passage in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King knew that the evils of segregation and racism were not God’s final word.
Singing is a way that God’s people have worked through tragedy across the millennia. The songs of the Civil Rights struggle are familiar to many of us, and the words of the prophet and captured in this one, short refrain: “Comfort, comfort, O my people! Tell of peace, thus says our God!” Will you sing it with me? “Comfort, comfort, O my people! Tell of peace, thus says our God!”
These words of comfort are driven into our souls when we sing them. They become part of us, part of who we are and what we believe in the marrow of our being. That short refrain can be part of your spiritual toolkit that you bring with you everywhere.
So, when you are watching the evening news and you hear about another school shooting, go ahead and sing: “Comfort, comfort, O my people! Tell of peace, thus says our God!” And when you are listening to NPR in your car and you hear of another strings of untruths that have been released over Twitter, “Comfort, comfort, O my people! Tell of peace, thus says our God!” And when you hear of the devastation of a hurricane, “Comfort, comfort, O my people! Tell of peace, thus says our God!”
Now, that refrain is yours to bring with you wherever you go. Not that it is going to fix everything – it won’t – but it may provide enough of God’s energy – spiritual juice – for you to keep you going when things seem grim.
It is a hard time that we live in, my friends. And if you and I don’t keep our spiritual batteries charged, we are not going to be able to engage the challenge and rise up to be co-creators of the realm of God here and now. It takes spiritual energy to go to the border with Mexico and bear witness. It takes spiritual energy to meet with Cory Gardner’s staff and witness that sane gun controls are essential for our nation. It takes spiritual energy to work toward the end of homelessness in our community. If we don’t lean into our faith, we will lose hope and wither. The good news is that we have a very deep well to draw from: the words of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus, and the presence of God in this very hour.
Hope is a muscle that needs a workout to grow and develop. And like our forebears in the faith, we are being given an opportunity to do some spiritual weightlifting, to build hope, and to flex the muscles of our faith. I know that we are an accomplished, self-reliant bunch of folks, but as I told you a few weeks back, you are not alone, and you don’t have to do this on your own. We need hope and we need to rely on our God. And things will change if we work together. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low.”
It takes courage to have hope in the face of evil. People of faith have been doing it for millennia, and now the hour has come for us to know that God has our backs…that we must have hope and rely on the God who is with us, and on Jesus who proclaimed God’s realm of justice and peace that we pray for every Sunday.
“Comfort, comfort, O my people! Tell of peace, thus says our God!” Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 So he told them this parable:
4 "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,
does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness
and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors,
saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'
7 Just so, I tell you,
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 "Or what woman having ten silver coins,
if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp,
sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors,
saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.'
10 Just so, I tell you,
there is joy in the presence of the angels of God
over one sinner who repents."
What was the last thing that you lost? Mine was my keys! This week. Replaced but the originals not yet found. I am still searching. Losing something. Getting lost .... really vulnerable feeling. We all hate to be lost! It's very uncomfortable. We don’t like to lose things. We really don’t like to lose our way, literally or metaphorically. Even with Google maps it still happens. How many of you really don’t like to ask for directions when you are lost? Come on, be honest! Its hard to be lost!
Lost .... a bad, gut wrenching, sometimes guilt producing, feeling. For human beings since time immemorial. Jesus knew that people hate to be, to feel lost. It’s a primal fear. Our text today gives us two of Jesus’ most familiar stories and you might know that they are the first two in a trilogy. The third being the story of the prodigal, or lost, son who returns home to a joyous father and a resentful elder brother.
As our passage opens, Jesus is gaining notoriety for his stories, his teachings, his healing. And not with the popular people in town, but with the sinners and tax collectors. The tax collectors were those who made their living collecting taxes for the Roman empire and adding a bit (or more) of interest to the top for themselves. They made their living by raising taxes on the middle class and poor. And it was condoned by the government. And sinners? They could be any number of folks. Technically “a sinner” in the theological parlance of New Testament theology is one who is separated from God, one who “misses the mark” of relationship with God in someway. In view of the purity laws of the Pharisees, sinners were most likely those on the margins of society....from prostitutes to thieves to beggars or those who simply did not or more likely could not keep all the purity laws because of income or illness. They could be the poor, the lame, the lepers, the mentally and physically ill. Outcasts for whatever reason. Something made them ritually impure and so separated from God in the eyes of the religious establishment. Jesus was welcoming “sinners” and eating with them. They were seeking him out. Instead of scolding them for impure living he welcomed them!
So the religious elite, the keepers of the purity laws grumbled. Complained. Pointed fingers. Folded arms and pursed lips. They were scandalized and they were jealous. Crowds did not come to hear them teach in the local synagogue the way they flocked to hear this rebellious rabbi, Jesus. They were mad because Jesus welcomed all the people, not just the people who kept the religious laws. I suspect Jesus even made an effort to welcome the scribes and Pharisees but they didn’t want to hear it. And when he heard his religious brethren grumbling and saw their sour faces, he tells them stories about being lost.
Because Jesus knows that everyone knows what it is to be lost or to have lost something or someone dear to them. He knows that the desperation of being lost is universal. In his two parables the shepherd and the peasant woman lose something of great economic and maybe sentimental value. Something that affected their livelihood. A sheep and a coin that was probably a drachma, worth the price of a sheep or a fifth the price of an ox. And in each story the shepherd and the woman goes to great lengths to find what is lost. There is story hyperbole going on here that makes a point we could almost miss.
Think about this....the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and find the one. Doesn’t leave them in their nice safe fold all tucked in at home, but in the wilderness. This says to me that as soon as he notices the one is gone he goes in search. That’s how precious each sheep is. Not waiting to secure they others....boom...where is my lost sheep? Gotta find my sheep! And when the sheep is found he calls together his friends and neighbors to celebrate. You might think he would just want to crawl in bed exhausted but no he has a party! And the woman cleans her house in a way she never has to find where that coin has gone, to discover what crack it has fallen into. She lights the lamp with precious, expensive oil to find this precious coin. And when she finds it she, too, throws a party! Which may have cost a lot more than the coin was worth. Both of these people have extravagant celebrations to celebrate that the lost is found. And Jesus says “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance... there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." That would be one sinner, one person, who is no longer separated from the love of God....one person who now knows that God seeks and welcomes and loves them.
And isn’t that what we all want to know ... that we are sought after, welcomed and loved. All the good works that we want to do as followers of Jesus, do not make us the seekers. God is the seeker. God is the shepherd in the wilderness seeking, the woman cleaning house with a lighted lamp and seeking. God pursues us for we are the precious things, like the sheep and the coin. And we do not have to do a long enough list of good things or live in certain ways so that God will find us. God seeks and finds us! And then we join God’s party!
I speak with people all the time who are seeking faith, who worry they have lost their faith, who don’t know if they ever had a faith. And I confess that I have those times myself. I count myself humbly as one of the sinners who wonders away from God, is separated, loses the lifeline, feels completely lost and desperately in despair. Seeking love in materialism or the escape of entertainment. My friends, “what is it to “lose faith,” but to lose the conviction that one has been found, to begin to wonder if one is sought at all?” And to be completely in the dark about what to do....to not know how to seek. Yet with God our seeking is simply the willingness to be found. The openness of heart and mind. The willingness to throw up our hands and say, “I can’t find myself! Please find me!” The willingness to sit waiting in the dark.
That’s the difference between two groups of folks listening to Jesus, the sinners and the Pharisees. Pharisees are not willing to be found. And they do not join the party where all are welcomed into relationship with God! So I wonder who are really the lost ones in Jesus’ parables.
I’d rather be a sinner. I’d rather be willing to be found. I’d rather go to the party!
So I found this crazy video on Facebook of all places and it spoke to me about the extremes God will go to just to find us.
God will go this far, my friends. We are not really lost because we are sought.
By the continually seeking God of love. The shepherd, the house cleaning woman. Let’s have a party!
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. May be reprinted outside Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, by permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.