In It for the Long Haul
by Louise Westfall
We’ve been learning about the children of Israel, the third grade Sunday School scholar said proudly. They were slaves but then God freed them; they wandered a long time in the desert, and finally got to the Promised Land. But what I want to know is what the grown-ups of Israel were doing all that time??!
Well. This old saw came to mind this week as the children of the world marched, demonstrated, advocated, and took us grown-ups to task about climate change. What have you been doing all this time? they wondered: your actions and inactions have jeopardized our planet. They’re terrified that they won’t have a future, one parent explained. Greta Thunberg, Amber Peltier, Varshini Prakash, Isra Hirsi, all the young people who walked out of school to claim “Fridays for Future” … have spoken a strong word about the urgency of today’s actions towards tomorrow’s flourishing.
Not unlike the prophet in today’s scripture reading. Jeremiah. Called by God when he was only a kid to speak truth to power. His words didn’t sit well with the rulers as they foretold calamitous consequences of their current path, beset by apathy and marred by self-serving and unjust practices. Jeremiah’s prophecies were so severe and in your face that to this day we refer to any long recitation of complaints or warnings as a “jeremiad.” Today’s text finds Jeremiah confined to the court of the palace guard for what were deemed to be treasonous pronouncements of the nation’s imminent defeat by their enemy Babylon. In the middle of these dire predictions (all of which came to pass, by the way), Jeremiah discerns the word of the Lord calling him to a particular task…a surprising, illogical, costly action to be taken today. A reading from the 32nd chapter of the book of the prophet Jeremiah, at the first verse. I am reading a text revised for clarity, one that omits some place names and historical references. Hear God’s word of hope about the future, to anxious children and jaded grown-ups alike.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah’s reign. At that time Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was under house arrest for even suggesting the nation might be conquered. King Zedekiah asked him, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it…though you fight against your enemies, you shall not succeed?
Jeremiah said, the Word of the Lord came to me: your cousin Hanamel will come and offer a field for you to buy. Buy it. And when my cousin came to me and said Buy my field…Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.
So I bought the field, weighed out the money to my cousin, signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase and I gave it to Baruch [a scribe and fellow Israelite]…in the presence of my cousin and the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take this deed and put it in an earthenware jar, in order that it 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. The Word of the Lord…thanks be to God!
Make no mistake about the absurdity of the thing God asked Jeremiah to do. Invest in land that is soon going to be overtaken and occupied by your enemies. But keep the deed in a safe place because someday…someday…it will prove worthwhile.
Hope began with an honest assessment of reality.
I wonder what Jeremiah thought about that. He didn’t know when that day would come, or even if he would benefit one bit from the land in his life time. And what would happen to it in the meantime? Despite whatever doubts or misgivings he had, Jeremiah obeyed the word of the Lord. The elaborate detail of the text suggests the act itself was important. Jeremiah was prophesying. And yes, it was a word of warning. But this strange land purchase—and the careful way of securely storing the deed–were demonstrations that judgement was not God’s final word. Beyond defeat and exile and the awe-ful clarification of what they most feared, lay redemption and restoration. Their nation did fail; life as they had known it changed. But that was not the end of the story. The one thing that prevailed was the compassion of God, and God’s absolute intention for humanity to fashion a future with hope.
Jeremiah shines a light across the millennia to our time, clouded by distrust, deep division, and dread of what is to come. His words reveal the true content of hope and show us how to be guided by its vision.
Hope for Jeremiah did not come from wishful thinking, tired slogans touting exceptionalism or entitlement, or rosy pictures of rainbows and unicorns. Hope began with an honest assessment of reality. For his people, it meant admitting their infidelity to the covenant God had made with them and returning to its parameters of community, justice, and singular loyalty to God above all else.
Hope that will go the distance and not evaporate at the first sign of trouble still requires such honesty. The truth about who we are and what we’re doing (or not). As expressed in the 12-step philosophy, recovery will begin only through making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s own soul. For those with substance use disorders, that means acknowledging and not denying the destructive power the substance is wielding over their lives.
Friends, the future God intends for us and all people calls us to a similar appraisal. To examine this present moment and identify what is out of alignment, what is broken, what is at odds with a vision of a world at peace, where a child born anywhere has opportunity for a healthy and fulfilling life as part of a community of love and justice. The vision we invoke every Sunday when we pray for God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
To ignore the vast body of scientific research describing the effects of human action and inaction on the health of our planet is to settle for false hope. To deny human responsibility for climate change prolongs the suffering of this good earth and its inhabitants. Ironically, such denial exacerbates fear because it stuffs it down and holds it in rather than getting it out and seeing what’s actually there. Hope is kindled through truth.
It blazes to life when we take action according to that truth. Jeremiah invested in the future through his action in the present. It was not without cost, and carried some risks. It was a long-term investment that might very well come to fruition after his own life had passed. Jeremiah made it–not because he trusted the market but because he trusted God. He held fast to a conviction that God has the final word in history and it is a saving word, a word of love from which we can never be separated.
So where is the field in which you and I might invest? Recycle, drive less, garden, compost, advocate for alternative energy sources and stricter automobile emissions, protect wildlife, enjoy meatless meals more often, consciously put ethics at the center of policy discussions, especially around global disparities. The best of those discussions will weigh sustainability alongside present economic needs, and will avoid demonizing or ignoring either side. Yes, there is urgency–pursue it steadfastly and patiently. Plant trees. Plant lots of trees. Plant them for your children and your children’s children, and all the little children of the world God loves.
Consider it an investment for the long haul. One that will last in perpetuity. Amen.