Jeremiah bought a field and sealed up the deeds in clay jars and my great-grandmother boarded a ship bound for New York carrying a hand-cranked sewing machine. These prophetic acts were declarations of hope at a time of uncertainty. Both Jeremiah and my great-grandmother trusted that God was not done with them yet; they had a future.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. (Jeremiah 32:14-15)
Sermon on Jeremiah:1-3a, 6-15 / Proper 21C / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / preached to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA / September 29, 2019
I love today’s story from the prophet Jeremiah. His city is about to be invaded and destroyed by a foreign enemy, and Jeremiah busies himself with a real estate deal. The text reads more like a legal document than a prophetic word. However, this is no ordinary land deal. The purchase reflects a prophetic, symbolic action. To fully appreciate the symbolic meaning of Jeremiah’s field, we need to understand the historic context.
Jeremiah’s field is in Anathoth, only three miles outside the city of Jerusalem. This story takes place in 587 B.C.E. during the last years of Judah’s existence as an independent political entity. Ten years earlier, the Babylonian Army swept in from the East, and the first group of Jews was forced to leave their homeland. Now, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon is besieging the city of Jerusalem again.
The people of Judah and Jerusalem have angered God. God tells Jeremiah: “I have hidden my face from this city, because of all their wickedness.” Jeremiah has been warning his people of the impending doom if they did not mend their ways, if they did not follow their covenant with God. No one listened.
There is a palpable sense grief in the first part of Jeremiah’s writings. He offers no assurance or announcement of hope. God grieves and Jeremiah grieves because they know that the end is coming.
In this passage, Jeremiah is jailed at the royal palace, a prisoner in the court of the guard, because he has angered King Zedekiah, the last Davidic king of Judah. He has told his king: “This city will fall to the Babylonians. The king of Babylon will take it. You will not win. Lay down your arms.”
A land deal in a war zone
Here, from the confines of imprisonment, and as the Babylonians surround the city walls, Jeremiah makes his land deal. The details are intriguingly specific. His cousin Hanamel shows up, as predicted, and offers the field. A price is agreed upon. Baruch, his personal secretary, draws up the paperwork. The money is weighed on the scales. Jeremiah signs the deeds before witnesses and places them inside a clay jar. It was all done very publicly.
It must have seemed like a fool’s purchase. The Babylonians are about to take it all. Who among us would buy property in a war zone?
But Jeremiah’s land deal was about so much more than that little field. This is a prophetic and symbolic act. At a very dark moment in the Israelites’ history, when they faced an uncertain future in exile, when all seemed lost:
Jeremiah boldly asserts that Judah’s history was not over. God was not done with them yet.
A voyage to America
One hundred and fifteen years ago, my great-grandmother boarded a ship bound for New York. Rose was the youngest child in the family. She was born in Russia, and she lived in St. Petersburg. She had only a sixth-grade education, but she was fluent in four languages. At the age of 12 she was employed by a wealthy family. She worked as a cook and helped care for the children. She even travelled with her employers on vacation to the Baltic Sea.
But change was coming to Imperialist Russia. The first half of the 20th century was a traumatic time for Russia. The political system was violently changed. Mass political and social unrest led to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which in turn set the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
I can only imagine that Rose sensed her future in Russia was precarious. And despite the uncertainty of what life in America might bring, she summoned the courage to invest in her own future. Her brothers and sisters were married and stayed behind. When it came time to leave, Rose’s mother decided that she was too old to leave Russia. So in 1904, Rose Dundunas, all alone, stepped on a ship that would sail 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. She was 17 years old.
One of the few possessions Rose brought with her was a small hand-cranked sewing machine. I don’t know if the sewing machine was intended to be a source of income. But she must have believed the sewing machine connected her to her future, much like Jeremiah’s clay jar full of deeds connected the people of Israel to their future.
They had a future
The destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its people did indeed bring the end of a nation. But God was not done with them yet; they had a future. God made promises:
“ I will bring my people … back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors…” (Jer. 30:3)
“I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” (Jer 31:13)
“Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” the land of Judah.” (Jer 31:15)
Jeremiah’s trust in all of God’s intentions and promises is symbolized by that simple clay jar holding two paper deeds. Jeremiah’s land deal is a bold declaration of hope: “We have a future.”
Jeremiah’s decision to buy his field was not a foolish hope. It was what Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann calls the acted word, a symbolic act of prophetic imagination. “The prophet has only the means of word, spoken word and acted word, to contradict the presumed reality of his or her community.” (Brueggeman, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1985. p. 63.)Prophetic action often does not seem logical. It can seem defiant and maybe a little bit foolish. But don’t we also engage in our own little public and prophetic acts that assert, “No, the end has not yet come”? We might feel besieged by something deeply personal – the loss of good fortune, or health, or security.
Somewhere in the gap between foolishness and certainty, lies hope and trust.
To book a vacation, even as a family member battles cancer, is to declare “we have a future.”
To build a home, when a marriage is on rocky ground, is to assert “we have a future.”
Sending an adult child to an addiction treatment center; starting a new business, even as recession looms; signing up for a clinical trial; pooling a family’s resources to send a child off to college, the first in that generation;
…lugging a sewing machine onto a ship to cross an ocean to a distant and uncertain future…
All of these things are a declaration of hope. All of these things are acts of incredible courage and trust, investments in the future.
Perhaps, for us to show up here every Sunday is an act of hope. When we gather here around the table and declare during our Eucharist prayer that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”
… are we not boldly declaring that God is not done with humanity yet, that we have a future?
Everything changed for my grandmother when she sailed away from Russia. She left everyone she had ever known behind. She would never see them again. Her future here was uncertain. However, there was one unchanging thing in my great-grandmother’s life. That one unchanging thing was God. She believed and trusted that God who was with her in St. Petersburg, Russia would be with her in East Arlington, Vermont.
I’ve told you a story of a young woman and a sewing machine. I’ve told you a story of a prophet, a field, and a clay jar. These are stories of belief that there is hope for us in this world, and trust that God remains present to humanity, and that new life does indeed comes out of adversity.
At a time, when our world seems bitterly and hopelessly divided, when it seems that our hopes of justice and peace for all of humanity is slipping away, then we can imagine Jeremiah signing the paperwork of his preposterous land deal and remember that God has is not through with us either, that we, too, have a future.