All Saints, Worcester today, the largest congregation in our diocese. All Saints is entering into a time of transition as both the rector and associate rector have recently accepted calls to serve in other places. Part of my job as canon to the ordinary is to help congregations walk through times of transition, so I'll be spending time with the people of of All Saints as they begin this process of looking for their next rector. The sermon is on one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite prophets, the 32nd chapter of the prophet, Jeremiah. Below is the manuscript for this nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
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It has been said that the prophetic task of ministry is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. I don’t imagine this has ever been an easy thing to do. Certainly the first part—trying to speak uncomfortable truths to people who may be living in denial—cannot be fun. As Flannery O’Connor once put it, to the hard of hearing you must sometimes shout and that can get old fast. But I’m not sure the other half of that prophetic task is any easier because, when people are really in pain, if you cheerily tell them “don’t worry, be happy” or even “consider the lilies of the field” they may want to kill you, even if in the long run you are right. So it’s a difficult task.
The prophet Jeremiah had a particularly challenging ministry. He lived and worked in the years leading up to the Babylonian exile and was mostly called to speak a Word of the Lord to people who were on the brink of everything falling apart; but no one wanted to hear it. His words sound harsh out of context, but then again, I suspect they sounded pretty harsh in context as well. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the prophets are not just mouthpieces for God. They feel, and then try to articulate, what God feels. In last week’s reading from Jeremiah we heard it in a nutshell:
For the hurt of my poor people, I am hurt;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is that Jeremiah or God speaking? Yes! Jeremiah discerns that underneath God’s anger and disappointment with God’s people, there is hurt. Isn’t that usually the case with anger? People get angry because they have been hurt. Jeremiah struggles to find the right metaphor: God is like a spouse who has been cheated on. Or like a parent who sees her child making the same bad choices again and again but doesn’t know what “tough love” should look like.
And then today—seemingly out of nowhere—Jeremiah does a 180. As the holy city is being besieged, we get this strange real estate transaction: Jeremiah purchases a plot of land that belonged to his family at Anathoth. Jeremiah is, himself, in prison. And what he said would happen is starting to happen: the world is coming apart at the seams. Yet he buys a piece of property. Why?
The answer is that Jeremiah trusts that beyond exile there will be homecoming. This real estate transaction is an act of hope. Almost a defiant hope that is about more than this little plot of land at Anathoth. For a contract to be binding, you need laws and a stable government. After a military takeover, it is quite possible that the deed to a piece of land may no longer be worth the paper it’s printed on. Think Cuba in the 1950s or El Salvador in the 80s or pick any unstable government in the Middle East today. Anyone here interested in buying property in Egypt or Syria? To spend your money in that way you’d have to be reasonably confident that there will be a stable government to honor the deed. The point is that this real estate deal is beyond risky; it’s almost crazy. The government is about to collapse and Jeremiah is buying land. But in so doing that, he is making a statement. He is putting his money where his mouth is. While he knows the times are tough and are about to get much worse, he has shifted gears. He becomes a prophet of hope inviting others to trust with him that eventually God will bring God’s people home. Eventually they will re-build their homes and live in them and plant fields and vineyards and drink wine from them.
Jeremiah is making a faith claim that God has not abandoned Israel. So this real estate deal is almost a kind of sacramental act: an outward and visible sign that the future belongs to God. That is why, as we heard, in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah (which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar) the Word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. And that is why he buys a piece of land from his cousin, Hanamel, and signs the deed, and seals it, and gets witnesses, and pays the money. (Listen to all that legal language; music in the ears of all the attorneys here today!) And then, finally, these words: for thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. He was right again you know. It would take a long time, but his hope was not misplaced.
My favorite movie of all time is The Shawshank Redemption, a movie that is all about hope. Hope is not the same thing as wishful thinking. Hope is not a denial of reality, or of the challenges that people face every day. It’s not about closing your eyes clicking your heels three times and imagining you are someplace else. Hope in that film and I think in real life is about taking a little rock hammer and bit by bit creating a tunnel that goes through the sewer and toward the waters of new life. It is about dying to the old in order to embrace new and abundant life. “Get busy living, or get busy dying” Andy Dufrasne tells his friend Red. Or as the writer of today’s epistle puts it: “take hold of the life that really is life.” (I Timothy 6:19) When Jeremiah buys that piece of land at Anathoth that is exactly what he is doing.
Well I’m not here today as a film critic, although if there is a person here who has not ever seen that film, then I urge you to do so. Why am I here? First and foremost I am here as a priest of the Church who is called to preach the gospel and to listen with you to these ancient texts for a Word of the Lord. The word from Anathoth that I hear is a word of good news, a word of hope that dares to entrust God with the future. Because the past is past and because the future belongs to God, this frees us to be a people who take hold of the life that really is life.
Hope unleashes missional energy. Hope makes us better stewards of God’s abundant gifts. Hope trusts that God has not abandoned us and in fact has even greater things in store for us. Jeremiah buys a piece of land at Anathoth and he seals up the deed in his version of a fireproof safety-deposit box because even as Jerusalem is being destroyed he is able to imagine that the good old days are not behind them, but ahead of them: people will build houses and live in them and plant vineyards and drink their wine.
So I am here today as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I am also here on behalf of Bishop Fisher, as one of his two canons to the ordinary. It’s a strange title, I admit, although perhaps no stranger than that of rector. All that it means is that I work for the bishop: he is the “ordinary” – a word that comes to us from the Latin for “overseer.” I’m here today on behalf of our bishop to help oversee the transition work that lies ahead for All Saints Church. Ultimately, at least as we Episcopalians understand this, it is work that God has given you to do. But you have our prayers, our support, our guidance, our affection every step of the way. Today I am here to remind you that God isn’t finished with you yet and that even though one chapter of your history has come to an end, the good old days are not behind you but ahead of you. Now is the time to take hold of the life that really is life. Now is the time to get busy living.
There is loss here and that must be acknowledged, and maybe a whole array of emotions that accompany loss and that get “kicked up” when a rector or associate rector leave. Some may feel numb or angry or hurt or confused—probably the same array of emotions that Jeremiah felt way back when. We may as well put all that on the table. But there is also an invitation and an opportunity for all of you saints here to live more fully into your name and to truly be “all saints.” Now as Martin Luther once noted that isn’t about perfection; we are always simultaneously sinners and saints. But you are all saints! Ultimately the name of this parish rightly suggests that the ministers here are all the people, not just the ordained. I see before me a great cloud of witnesses who have been claimed and marked and sealed by the Holy Spirit in love and claimed as Christ’s own, forever. Today we will renew those promises made in Holy Baptism so that as you remember who you are we can all hope together.
It is tempting to get fearful and then to allow our fear to paralyze us. It’s tempting to sit on the sidelines in this time of transition and let Charlie and Bruce and the vestry figure it all out; to sit back and wait and see. I urge you not to do that. Take your cues from Jeremiah and risk that kind of faith by rolling up your sleeves and doing your part. Now is the time to go “all in.” Now is the time to get busy living.
There will be a temptation to “get this done” as quickly as possible, to fill the position, because that’s human nature. I urge you against that, however, not because I don’t like things done (trust me I do!) but because God is present in the midst of all of this and this time of transition is not merely a time to tread water, but an invitation to go deeper. It is a time to imagine God’s preferred future for this place and then to engage one another about that until a new shared vision emerges.
Transitions are a process and they take time. Changes have happened: Lindsay has left and Kevin has left and we’ll get to an interim time and eventually a new rector will be called. But transition is bigger than change and more emotional, and it takes longer. The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai. I promise that we will do this faster than that. But I also want to suggest that that metaphor is a good one for All Saints right now. It will be tempting to want to get to the Promised Land as quickly as possible. But we do well to remember that some really important things happened in the Sinai Desert for God’s people. That forty years was not a waste of time, in spite of that old joke that because Moses was a man and therefore wouldn’t ask for directions. In the wilderness, the Israelites learned (just as we remember each year during the forty days of Lent) that God is God and we are not. It is a place and a time to focus on what really matters, on who we are, and who God is, and why we need each other. You don’t survive in the desert alone. You need each other. And if you go back and re-read the Book of Exodus you’ll discover there are many gifts along the way: in the form of daily manna, water from the flinty rock, and the gift of Torah—sweeter than honey. Most of all was the process of letting go of the old in order to take hold of the life that really was life. You, too, will discover gifts in this wilderness time.
This is not to suggest that it will be easy; it won’t be. It will be difficult, so let’s just put that on the table. But nothing worthwhile in this life comes easy. And we Christians especially know that in baptism even as we are claimed as God’s beloved we are also called to take up our cross and follow. The cross is about focus and dedication and commitment. The work that lies before you, I think, is to dive deeper and listen, listen, listen.