The summer I was 21, I learned the value of praise that has been received from an unexpected source.
In my first summer of student Ministry at Shaunavon SK, my supervisor enlisted me to help out at the local rodeo. Once my volunteer shift was over, I sidled over to hang out with a bunch of older ranchers who were standing to one side of the rodeo ring.
I’d never seen rodeo up close before, so I was terribly impressed at the action, but as one rider after another did his thing, this group of ranchers just stood there in stoic silence, arms crossed, scowling, saying nothing. Occasionally there would be a gruff comment like, “didn’t spur him high enough” but not once was there applause, or praise, or physical gestures that could be interpreted as enjoyment. Not until something specific broke the silence.
During the bull-riding, a bull rider got thrown awkwardly, and one of the rodeo clowns a.k.a. “bullfighters” jumped in and saved the rider from being stomped or gored. At this moment, the silence was broken and the ranchers, as one, unfolded their arms and applauded, cowboy hats were tipped to the rodeo clown and the admiration was palpable. And because they were usually so stern, the praise from this silent, stoic group meant that much more.
Over the past few weeks, we have become acquainted with the prophet Jeremiah, who would match those Southwest Saskatchewan ranchers on the “happy meter.” When we first met up with him about a month ago he was a young man, hesitant to take up God’s call on his life, but God managed to help him move his “no” to a “yes”. Two weeks ago Jeremiah was at a potter’s house, and we recalled with him the importance of being pliable so that God can re-work us, if necessary and as necessary. Last week we saw why Jeremiah has been called the “weeping prophet” – how heartbreaking it was for him to engage the suffering of his land, and the cost of speaking truth to power.
In all these readings, Jeremiah, amidst all of the heavy lifting that God gave him to do, kept being reminded that the God of the ages is always doing something new, and us humans are the ones tasked with enacting those new things. In today’s reading the prophet did something that showed confident hope in God’s future, and because Jeremiah was usually so negative, the people knew this hope was authentic. Offering praise and encouragement did not come easy to him, so when Jeremiah finally unfolds his arms and tips his cowboy hat in appreciation, it’s hard not to notice.
So what exactly did he do? Under house arrest because he was having such a negative impact on public morale, Jeremiah had a visitor. His cousin, Hanamel, had some land at Anathoth available for purchase. A bit of further investigation to the laws and customs on the land reveal two things: that Hanamel must have been in poverty or in debt to sell land in this way; and, since he was now asking a cousin rather than a sibling, he had most likely been turned down by other relatives before approaching Jeremiah. (Bright, p. 238)
Although I have heard that it’s generally a good idea to “buy low and sell high” when making an investment, this was not a wise purchase. You didn’t need particularly keen powers of observation to see that any day now, Babylonia was going to overwhelm the people of Judah and haul them away to exile – so acquiring title to this land was basically throwing money away. But, fully aware of the bleak future, Jeremiah bought this land and sealed the deal with 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.”
What a startling proclamation of confidence from Jeremiah, a prophet who was rarely given such hopeful words to speak: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Jeremiah knew these words wouldn’t come true in his lifetime, in fact very few would live long enough to head off into exile and then return to Judah, but hundreds of generations later these words still bring hope to people facing seemingly insurmountable odds. Even in the most difficult times – especially in those times – people needed to know that God was neither unaware nor uncaring of their difficult circumstances, and by encouraging Jeremiah to put some money down on local land, God took something as mundane as the transfer of land and transferred it into a beacon for brighter days ahead.
Imagine, with me, people who need such reassurances right now, in the world of today, people whose lives are so compromised that they need some tangible sign that God wants better for them.
- We think of people who have had injuries to their body, mind or spirit, who yearn for consecutive days without pain.
- We think of Indigenous people world-wide, including in this land, who are seeking fulfilment of treaties, or restoration of territory wrongly seized.
- We think of those killed and injured in at the James Smith Cree Nation and the community of Weldon in north-central Saskatchewan, causing all manner of brokenness and trauma and questions.
- We think of people of colour in the US, in Canada, in many lands, who long for a day when they can safely do the simple things in life without being profiled, targeted, followed, and members of the LGBTQ community who are constantly looking over their shoulders as well.
- We think of Jeremiah’s own people, the Jews, as they continue to be blamed for situations not of their making, and as the nation of Israel struggles to find right relations with their neighbours in Gaza and the West Bank
- We think of people in our community who, like Hanamel in today’s Bible reading, are deep in debt and have had their debts sold to a collection agency… and young adults who love it here but must leave, because they are not in a position to buy a home in this town or even find affordable rentals.
- We think of species at risk, whose existence rests on the decisions humans make about consumption and economic growth.
- We think of people who for any reason look at a Church building, this one or any one, and feel only pain, exclusion, apart-ness
- We try to imagine the unimaginable: what it would be like to hear shelling all day and night, how the people of Ukraine and their family members in other lands embrace the notion of hope.
- And we think of five refugees, four in Nepal and one in Malaysia, hoping and praying for the day they can join us in the Bow Valley, and within that and beyond that praying for peace in their homelands, Pakistan and Syria.
In a world where hope so often gets silenced, or delayed so long that people have given in to despair, Jeremiah’s act of defiance stands tall. He knew that things were going to get worse before they got better but he also knew that God is in it for the long haul. Hope is hard to come by when things are bad and getting worse, or when suspicion or anxiety or fear are being heard more loudly than the actual situation at hand, but those are the precise moments that God’s promise of presence is most real.
And so we add our hearts and voices to Jeremiah’s proclamation so long ago. His hope was not derived from any particularly hopeful signs in the situation at hand (Clements, pp. 194-195), and they definitely didn’t come from a generally positive outlook; no, his hope was founded in the power of God’s sturdy, faithful love, a love that does not go away in times of trouble. And so it is for us. By our insistence on following a God who knows human need, and desires the best for all people, we express the same hope that Jeremiah did so long ago. One person at a time, one decision at a time, one changed heart at a time, the promise of God’s Shalom enters human lives as a lived reality, again and again and again, as we give ourselves over to HOPE.
So just as we thanked Jeremiah these past weeks for his willingness to stay in the hard places and offer lament, this morning we give thanks for the hope he has engendered for over 2600 years, by the simple act of buying some land when life was closing in around him. For all words and deeds that inspire us to hope and action, even when our confidence is flagging, we offer the God of the ages our thanks and praise. Amen.
Bright, John. Jeremiah (The Anchor Bible). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.
Clements, R.E. Jeremiah (Interpretation Commentary). Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.
© 2022, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.